by Robin Thorpe
Politics, especially party politics, requires compromise. Political parties are necessarily a broad church, so it is little wonder than history is littered with tales of disagreements, splits and reunions. The latest twist in the tale that began with the Gang of Four leaving the Labour Party may this time help rather than hinder a Labour election campaign.
Recent speeches by David Laws and Tim Farron highlight the wide disparity in ideological approach present within the Liberal Democrats. The internal debates within the Liberal Democrat party may not be of huge concern to the Labour supporters, particularly as they are likely to haemorrhage seats at the next election. But they currently represent a significant caucus of the population, the support of whom Labour will need to ensure a majority next year.
The David Laws speech was given at the Orange Book 10 year conference on the 24th June 2014 and considers the question “where next for the liberal agenda?” He rather predictably revels in his own self-importance but also goes onto present ideas that could have been said by almost all of the coalition front bench. He argues that
“A liberal state must continue to invest in first class education and health services, even as it seeks to contain the share of GDP consumed by the state…the level of tax rates likely peaked over the last 30 years, and liberals will want both to decline further over time…state spending at 40% of GDP should not be necessary or desirable over the medium and longer term as we reform welfare, raise employment rates, reduce crime and are able to shrink the share of GDP committed to defence and – eventually as developing countries develop – overseas development assistance.”
He also gives vent to a whiff of Euroscepticism with the statement that Orange Bookers would be more “content with a Europe which concentrated on areas where international competition could be useful or necessary, while avoiding micro-managing at a national level.”
This tone is in stark contrast to the Beveridge Memorial Lecture given by Tim Farron. A speech that rings the praises for government intervention and for increased freedoms for all, not just in the marketplace;
“inequality goes way beyond education – millions, young and old, live in poverty, many of them in work, all of them with their freedoms curtailed and often crushed by enslavement to crippling debt … People in work on wages so low that they need welfare to bail them out, or a pay day lender”
Farron advocates an active government that can intervene to improve the lives of the people and although he eschews state socialism, he also eschews laissez-faire economics of the kind that Jeremy Browne and the Tory Party favours. He is right when he asserts that passive, neutral governments result in weaker citizens. Where he is wrong is in imagining that he can achieve any of this in collaboration with David Laws and the rest of the Orange Bookers.
Only by breaking the status quo and the hegemony of corporate and aristocratic control can Britons possibly be, to quote Tim Farron, “free to choose to live their lives as they wish, and free from the threats, forces and impediments that would prevent them doing so”.
He is also wrong to claim that the Labour party have no answers to the evils of our age. The policies that Farron proposes on house-building, revisions to the tax structure, releasing land for building, greater devolution to cities and shires and an emphasis on new infrastructure are remarkably similar to the proposed Labour policies. Farron, in fact, has more in common with Miliband than with the Orange Bookers.
I am not suggesting that Farron should switch allegiance to Labour. He clearly has issues with the history of the Labour party and trade unionism and sees the NHS and welfare state purely as Liberal achievements. I am not interested in what Farron does with his time; I am however interested in ensuring that the caucus that supports Tim Farron turns out to vote for Labour.
Labour is clearly not going to persuade the majority of Conservative voters that a vote for Labour is a vote for a fairer society. But there is a significant quantity of people who might still see themselves as Liberal Democrat but who are not represented by Clegg or Laws’ vision of laissez-faire economics. Both Farron and Laws aim to be at the centre of a new liberal agenda where Liberal Democrats control the agenda on the issues that matter. But they cannot both prevail. The ideological division is too deep for them both to influence the future of their party.
It is Miliband and Labour that are making the weather and redefining the areas of debate for the next election. The recent National Policy Forum was conducted with purpose, direction and unity and could result in a pledge card that appeals to Labour supporters, Liberal Democrats and floating voters:
- a million homes
- a new deal on rail ownership
- a higher (living?) minimum wage
- devolution to towns and cities
- tackling energy prices
With an ageing population and potential crises in social care, housing, energy prices, energy generation and youth unemployment now is not the time to reduce the role of the state. The last 30 years has shown that left to itself the private sector will not build sufficient new houses, provide vocational training for young people or provide adequate levels of care for our elderly.
An arbitrary target of public sector spending to be no greater than 40% of GDP will not secure a sustainable future for our children. With long-term economic growth likely to be negligible we cannot assume that all will be rosy in the future, that wages will inevitably rise and employment will naturally fall. There is only one party who can deliver real change and improve both individual and collective freedoms; this is the message that Labour must use to attract the support it requires to deliver in 2015.
Robin Thorpe is a consulting engineer for a small practice on the south coast