Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Liberal Principle

The return of Mandelson to British politics has certainly increased the shrillness factor. Despite pledges of bi-partisanship in "facing this grave crisis", within a few weeks we are back to business as usual. Despite the blatant culpability of Gordon Brown- "no return to boom and bust" now sounds like a slightly off-colour Carry-On joke- the Conservatives have struggled to inflict further damage on the Labour government.

There has been much discussion- not least amongst Conservatives- about why this could be. Some have pointed the finger at George Osborne. Certainly he has been guilty of some serious personal misjudgements- not least over the Corfu affair. It is also true that the timbre of his voice and his rather effete demeanour bring out the worst in even the least sensitive class warrior. Despite the fact that those who know him suggest he has an astute political brain, the fact is that he irritates a lot of people, including on his own side. Yet it it is what he is trying to do politically that is making him vulnerable- not just his "cocky little runt" manner. Osborne is trying to force the political game onto a strategic ground beyond the news media's attention span. By talking about longer term policies he is essentially giving up the tactical battle for immediate action to the Labour spin-meisters.

Perhaps part of the problem is that while it is true to say that tax cuts today have some negative consequences for the future, the fact is that they have immediate positive consequences, and by the time that the negative consequences come round, much may have changed. Being a Jeremiah also negates the positive atmosphere that David Cameron wishes to envelope the Tory brand- and these mixed messages are confusing the Conservative faithful. More to the point, as so often in the past, the Conservatives are not behaving like an opposition- they presume that they will simply inherit power- and the electorate grows weary with such presumption. Unless the Conservatives can do more than talk about the pragmatic course they would follow in the current circumstances they risk losing the fourth election in a row.

What then of the Liberal Democrats? Jeering Tories would point out: "so what, your party has lost twenty three elections in a row". It can not be denied, although it also true that over the past three elections the number of Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons has grown from 20 to 63. Although apparently squeezed a little in the opinion polls at present, there is still the prospect of further progress for the future too.

However such progress is not going to come from following the Conservative or indeed Labour road of pragmatism before principle. The pressure that comes on George Osborne from his own part is the result of his failure to articulate how his positions- both tactical and strategic- advance the Conservative agenda, and the fear of many Conservatives is that the answer is that they don't.

The election of Ros Scott as the President of the Liberal Democrats is a timely reminder of the value of sticking to principles over the longer term. Ros has been a particular supporter of the Liberal vision of international relations: that the power of states should be limited by international law. This principle is why the Liberal Democrats could not support a war that had not been endorsed by the United Nations- an organisation whose rules our country had pledged, by treaty to uphold. At the time, both Labour and Conservatives chose to ignore this principle in favour of a pragmatic support for George Bush. Over time, the power of these principles has been validated and the short term abandonment of them has been punished.

Liberalism is a coherent political agenda, promoting political and economic empowerment of the Citizen. By definition, Liberals are opposed to the Nanny state, and I think we should say so more often. We also support greater economic diversity- and in particular mutually owned businesses as part of a wider free market economy appeal to our ideas of empowerment. We also understand that much of the current regulatory regime is onerous and quite often it fails to recognise and apply true economic costs to specific activities- forcing the general taxation pool to bare the burden. This is why we have advocated polluter pays and cap and trade programmes to deal with the economic cost of environmental degradation. I could continue down a long list, showing the ideological coherence of much of the Liberal Democrat policy platform. However, the problem that Liberal democrats have is not that they have too few policies, but that we do not talk about the core principles that underpin our policies.

In my opinion, what ever subject is under discussion the message should simply be to explain how the key principles of freedom and the empowerment of the citizen are promoted by our position. It is the antidote to the shrill short termism of the Mandelsonian media manipulation and it also avoids the trap that George Osborne is falling into: failing to explain what a policy or even a party is FOR.


fh said...

True. Couldn't agree more. But...

Nick Clegg delivered a speech the other day which embraced many of the principles I agree with, about small shops, rural life, the tax system, and more. Take a look at the media coverage:


That's the problem, isn't it? Lib-Dems have no idea how to steal the spotlight, to grab the headlines.

I have no doubt that Lib-Dems reflect the majority view in the UK, but we remain a hedge bet against two other options.

How do we turn that around?

Newmania said...

'Liberalism is a coherent political agenda'

Don't undersell yourself , its at least three

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