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Was there anything Liberal about the Tory-LibDem Coalition?

Cameron CleggAs the most wretched government in living memory shuffles off into the history books, let’s take some time to reflect. For all intents and purposes, at least where this blog is concerned, it was a Conservative government. It was hard to remember that this was actually a coalition between two parties that came together, they claimed, because the national interest demanded it. For their part, the line the Liberal Democrats are peddling is their contribution knocked the sharp corners off the Tories. Were the Conservatives governing alone, their policies would have been extreme and punitive. Instead, what the LibDems did was rein in their excesses, dull their vicious instincts, and corall them to the centre ground of British politics. And that’s the offer they’re standing on now. If Labour form the bulk of the next government, the LibDems will stop them from raising the Hammer and Sickle atop the Tower of London, and resist the collectivisation of Britain’s window cleaners. Or something.

When determining the contribution of the LibDems to the outgoing government, two questions have to be asked. First, what LibDem policies were implemented over the last five years and what positions were rejected? That’s the easy part. The second is whether those policies that made it into legislation were distinctively liberal, or comfortably made room within the envelope of British Conservatism as articulated and practiced by Dave, Osborne, and their ideological hangers-ons elsewhere.

What is liberalism and where do the LibDems sit historically with respect to it? This old post from Andy sets out the basics of liberalism. Their starting point is the sovereignty of the individual, and the only condition of liberty for all can guarantee liberty for one. Freedom then is freedom from tyrants and despots, but also the freedom to dissent from the will of the majority. Our sovereign individual cannot live in liberty if society places expectations on and compels someone to act contrary to their inclinations and wishes. The only justifiable infringement of this sovereignty on society’s part is to protect others from harm. Vaccination programmes, therefore, are fine. The inculcation of liberal tolerance via institutions and the media is also fine. And, of course, preemptive interventions and the forcible incarceration of those who have or would do others harm, whether intentionally or not have similar merit. Liberty is never the infringement of the liberties of others.

This sense of liberty extends to the economy. In his classic statement on the subject, John Stuart Mill argued that trade is a social relationship. It has consequences for the seller and the buyer, but also everyone else drawn into that particular relationship. For example, the employees that manufactured/produced the product/service bought and sold, the financiers that might be funding the buyer and the seller, and so on. Therefore such actions are formally private but they do impinge upon the general interest. As a rule, as relations that take place independently of state direction the economy – operating on the principle of a sellers and buyers choosing among competing buyers and sellers – has proven to be efficient and self-organising. It regulates quality and therefore price, and provides jobs, all without the heavy-handed direction of the government bureaucrat. It follows from this that:

1. Market actors know best.
2. The state retains the right to licence, regulate, and prohibit the buying an selling of certain goods that have been considered harmful.
3. The expansion of government into economic activity dampens entrepreneurialism as market actors look to them as both customer and guarantor, effectively infantilising them, making them less competitive, dynamic, innovative, etc.

Mill’s liberalism only goes so far, however. The socialist critique of liberal economics are well known. While on the one hand recognising the social character of economic transactions, Mill does not pay them any further mind. The structural and insurmountable inequality of the wage relation, for example, hides behind the formal equality of a contract freely entered into by employer and employee. However, extending the logic of individual sovereignty to the sphere of workplace relations the banding together of workers in a trade union undermines the principles underpinning successful market economies. While the actions of the government always threaten to upset the economic equilibrium, so the combination of workers introduce another pressure on market actors – the implied violence of the capacity and willingness to strike – will always condition an employer’s capacity to respond to market signals, and possibly throw the whole intricate set up into crisis. Hence liberalism could be considered as an abstract exposition of employers. What mattered to them was the business of buying and selling: the actions of the state viewed with suspicion, the combinations of their workers with increasing anxiety.

The Liberal Democrats have long officially placed themselves in the tradition of social liberalism. Even the Orange Book clique of leading (neoliberal) LibDem politicians were forced to pay lip service to it to the extent that Nick Clegg published a wee pamphlet about it in 2009. The Liberal Moment was quite an interesting document that clearly positioned the party on the left. Left liberalism to be sure, but left all the same. Much of its critique(!) of capitalism draws directly on Mill, but rather than attacking the reach of the state Clegg took aim at the concentrations of capital in huge multinational megacorporations. Their sheer size was distorting economies and threatening liberty, hence the need for redistributive policies to disperse this economic power. He also called for more employee participation and ownership to harness the creativity and talent of workforces. He then goes on to stake the LibDem claim to be Britain’s most progressive party on the grounds of fairness, social mobility, sustainability, civil rights and internationalism, while attacking Labour under Blair and Brown as an authoritarian party of centralisation. These, as far as Clegg was concerned, amount to fundamental betrayals of the progressive tradition the two parties straddle. By way of contrast, a LibDem government would roll back concentrations of power and redistribute it downwards.

Hence the distinctive outlook they brought to the negotiation table was respect for the individual, a commitment to empowering citizens and redistributing wealth and power, and using government as an enabler of these objectives. Those are the values, but what about the policies? Readers may recall coalition agreement reached between the two parties. What were the distinctly LibDemmy contributions to this now historic document? The Pupil Premium, restoring the earnings link in the state pension, raising the tax threshold, AV referendum, House of Lords reform, a whole series of civil liberties measures, and a green investment bank. On paper these were consistent with the party’s philosophy and values. A good chunk of these policies were implemented – the pupil premium and tax thresholds are well-known and often talked up by LibDem representatives, the AV referendum happened and didn’t go anywhere. In the minus column Lords reform failed after stupid Tory shenanigans typical of them, and the civil liberties pledges were barely worth the paper they were written on.

I’m going to give the LibDems a bit of leeway here. The nature of coalition government means you have to make compromises on your programme, and the vicissitudes of keeping an alliance rolling also calls for some policy sacrifices. Not being able to implement some of the above is an experience typical of continental party systems where coalitions are the norm. However, taking these achievements as inputs into the government, were they enough to give it a distinctly liberal flavouring? Was there consistency between the articulation of their values prior to the 2010 general election and their subsequent behaviour in office? No, absolutely not.

I haven’t got the time to do a rundown of damage this government has done to the economy and social fabric of this country. Britain in 2015 may finally be seeing some GDP growth, but this comes at the price of more part-time and temporary work than ever before, a huge disparity in income as executive pay races ahead of average earnings, the growth in low revenue self-employment as jobs remain relatively scarce, the stripping out of tribunal rights, a raised tax threshold that primarily benefits middle and higher earners while the low paid find their tax credits cut, and the appalling (read punitive) cuts to and demonisation of people subsisting on social security. On all these measures the LibDems have acted as enablers, loyally trouping through the division lobby time after time to pass regressive policy into law. From the perspective of their professed values, their social liberalism, you would be hard pressed to find a starker example of cognitive dissonance, of between what a party says before it gets into power and what it ends up doing.

It’s tempting to go all Trotty and blame the failings of the LibDem leadership – that Clegg was always a Tory anyway, except he quite likes the EU, that Uncle Vince and the rest were happy to trade principle for ministerial briefcases. Of course, the career aspirations of their leading politicians did have a role to play in the unprincipled history that then unfurled.

More significant, however, are those long term trends grinding away at the political parties. The LibDems are a victim of it as much as Labour and the Tories are. As the party of anyone-but-the-above, they have very shallow social roots, which helps explain their erratic behaviour at local levels. Their years of pavement politics reaped benefits in terms of councillors returned, but was only ever going to reproduce its success so long as it remained the establishment’s anti-establishment party. Take that away and you’re left with a skeletal memory capable of polling as low as 1.4% in recent local by-elections.

In effect, as is the case in nearly every established representative democracy, Liberal parties are historically obsolete. Where they have “succeeded” is by becoming the de facto conservative party of big business, as per Australia, or the anti-Conservative progressive party, as per the United States. What underlines LibDem obsolescence in Britain is noting where they do have roots – a tiny number of affluent and/or rural constituencies – do share similar demographic profiles to many Conservative-held constituencies.

If liberalism as a political movement is more or less done, we shouldn’t be surprised by the LibDems’ subsumption within the coalition. Their distinctive policies that did see the light of day presented no challenge to their senior partner at all. The Tories are quite taken with raising the tax threshold, they embraced pension rises to lock down their older vote, and even the pupil premium, of assisting disadvantaged kids in state schools, fits quite nicely into their ‘hand up, not a hand out’ presuppositions. All told, liberalism was assimilated to conservatism. The LibDems therefore did not impart the coalition a distinctly liberal identity. What they managed to do, however, was achieve a certain toxicity that will take years to shake off.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid


  1. gerry says:

    Phil – excellent stuff, ripping apart the guff Liberals spout about how they “moderated” the Nasty Party.

    Their decline is easy to explain – they positioned themselves as Left of Labour in constituencies like Hornsey and Wood Green, Sheffield Hallam, and Bermondsey – but once in power were equally as Thatcherite as Ian Duncan Smith and the rest: indeed, only on the EU are Liberals non-Thatcherite!

    Sadly, though, I don’t think they will face electoral wipeout in 2015, and bet Clegg, Hughes and quite a few others will easily hold on to their seats – they have existed as a party for almost 300 years, and do have deep roots in the West Country and some other non-affluent areas.

  2. Robert says:

    The Liberal’s will pay dearly for the sell out and they deserve to, yet if the liberal’s are still in third place labour will be doing deals with them if it’s needed and I suspect it will be.

    So labour will not do deals with the SNP or the Liberals so whom is left the Tories.

  3. John.P reid says:

    Gay marriage, foreign aid, the referendums, London ,preventing the Tories over transport

    1. gerry says:

      John – what a paltry list! And all the things you list had wide cross party support everywhere.

      Lib Dems hope that merely by being in power they will now be seen as a party of power, their goal since Asquith and Lloyd George! But as I said – never write them off electorally: they have survived much worse than this ( collapse of SDP Alliance, the National/Liberal split etc)

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