An attempt to distance our party from the Tories and Labour is welcome, but more detail is needed on what we have to offer
In his keynote speech at the Royal Commonwealth Society, Nick Clegg announced that he wanted to position the Liberal Democrats as “governing from the centre ground“. In echoing his former adviser Richard Reeves, however, much of Clegg’s attempt to distance the party from Tory and Labour fringe fantasies are grounded in a misconception of the very “substantive freedoms” he says the party stands for. Where was the robust liberal response to a failing economic model adhered to by the other parties? Where was the willingness to set a new, liberal political agenda rather than reacting to that set by the Tories?
Reeves gets at least one thing right: that the Liberal Democrats were right to enter into coalition in 2010. What follows is mostly a restating of the very strategic errors that overshadow the undoubted gains made in government on taxation for low earners and the pupil premium. Showing complete agreement with our coalition partners was indeed crucial for national stability, but only for a period of six weeks, perhaps six months – the prolonged period of rose-garden unity saw the party wave through much that went against the core values of the party and its supporters, and lessened the credibility of any distancing in “act two“.
Liberal Democrats in government have backed far too much outside the coalition agreement (which is what Lib Dems signed up to deliver, nothing more, nothing less), in the name of deficit reduction and of stable government, without asking whether what it was backing was fair, economically sound or in line with the party’s values. Clegg’s speech repeats the argument that in tough times, further spending cuts beyond those already agreed to are inevitable. He asserts that numerical parity between real-terms cuts to benefits and public sector pay equates to fairness and “an absolute moral equivalence between working hard in a job and working hard to find a job”, ignoring that those failed by the dysfunctional labour market require in-work benefits to meet spiralling costs of living – what of their “substantive freedom” to live fulfilling lives? Not to mention that an unreformed, broken economy means those out of work have so few opportunities to find stable employment.
It isn’t enough to say that we made the Tories’ £10bn benefit cuts fairer by making them smaller, we have to question their regressive premise and present a workable narrative instead. If in Clegg’s formulation a “liberal state is an enabling state”, he missed a huge opportunity to promote imaginative party policies on housing, reforming company ownership and tackling inequality, all of which would serve to reduce the welfare bill and grow the economy without harming the “substantive freedoms” of the vulnerable.
In emphasising yet again equality of opportunity matched with personal responsibility, Clegg ignores the role of the state in framing the political economy to ensure that the capabilities people have to exercise that responsibility are enhanced equitably.
Yes, we need a united government, but all too often this coalition is united behind the wrong things – and on the central platform of the coalition’s economic strategy, there remains a damaging reluctance to propose truly liberal reforms in the misguided fear that advocating alternatives to George Osborne’s failing dogma automatically plays into the hands of Ed Balls.
Clegg burns the straw man of retreating to opposition, but fails to show how our party will remain in power and argue for party policy – of course there will be compromises, but the welcome commitment to making our party’s position clear must be accompanied by a commitment from non-ministerial Liberal Democrats to only support that which is within the letter and spirit of the coalition agreement and compatible with the party’s ethos of balancing “the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community”.
At least Clegg recognises that Liberal Democrats have to stand up for what we truly believe in. The recent direction of travel on Leveson, drugs reform and snooping is welcome, and we await more robust promotion of party policy on things that really matter to most people – a fair, sustainable economy where living standards rise for the many not just for the few. Only then will this journey to the centre ground be what it should be – a political movement that renews what it means for citizens to be truly free, instead of a triangulation between two tried, tested and failed ideologies.