Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Radical Liberals

The slight bounce in the polls for the Liberal Democrats after the Brighton conference, now up to 15% support, may well be part of the froth of the conference season. On the other hand, support at that level has often been the norm for the party at this stage in many previous Parliaments. So those pundits gleefully hoping for the demise of the party seem set to be disappointed. Certainly the atmosphere in Brighton was more of a party on the way back than one on the way down.

In fact I see a renewed commitment to Liberal ideas and a more genuine debate as to what the priorities amongst Liberal values should be. For myself, as this blog makes pretty clear, I am mistrustful of both big government and big business. In that sense I harken back to the classical Liberal tradition which respects entrepreneurship and which believes in the older Liberal virtues that, in short, we exist "to build a Liberal Society in which every citizen shall possess liberty, property and security and none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity", a statement that is so powerful to Liberals that it has become a cliche. In the older Liberal constitution, however, the next sentence is equally striking "[the party's] chief care is for the rights and opportunities of the individual and in all spheres it sets freedom first".

In my view the economic crisis has underlined the natural suspicion towards the cartels that big business intentionally creates- to the detriment of the interests and rights of the individual. My concern is that the Socialist solution of greater government control through regulation, oversight or taxation is a cure that is worse than the disease. There are such statists in the Liberal Democrats too, but the root tradition remains a radical one, and it is that radical tradition that I seek to promote against socialist statism and right-wing business cartels.

I spoke at the Liberal Democrat conference on the subject of regional pay in the public sector. In the private sector, of course pay rates for the same job vary- often substantially- across the country. The conference put forward a motion arguing that regional pay- de facto- would mean that poorer areas would see wage cuts, and that it was nothing more than a cost cutting exercise. I was a bit disappointed by this, and the implication that the state sector should have uniform pay rates across the country as a kind of subsidy for poorer areas. The fact is that in many areas there are staff shortages and the uniform pay rates prevent local councils from paying more in order to attract staff. Of course the motion had some rather weaselly words allowing greater "flexibility", but the reality was that the conference motion was a sop to the TUC campaign against regional pay, since national collective bargaining allows more militant union leaders greater power. For me, the Liberal commitment to local control and indeed more individual control over working conditions is undermined by national collective bargaining, and that is why I spoke against the motion. I am not an instinctive right-winger, despite being a chairman of a chamber of commerce. I am an instinctive Radical.

The obvious failure of the bank cartels which lie at the root of the economic crisis has been matched only by the subsequent failure of the state intervention. The radical, the Liberal, solution is to promote far greater competition and diversity in the financial markets, and indeed throughout society. The "John Lewis" solution of mutual ownership is attractive to Liberals because by making employees into owners it creates more power for the individual over their own circumstances and therefore offers greater freedom and greater incentives. Mutual ownership is not a panacea, but it is one option amongst many that can provide an antidote to the uniformity of joint stock enterprises on the one hand and state provision and control over services on the other. 

I think a Radical agenda- suspicious of big government and willing to use market mechanisms to control big business- is part of the intellectual DNA of Liberalism. I, like many others, will be trying hard to make sure that is the intellectual touchstone for the whole of the Liberal Democrats too. For, in that robust exchange of ideas, we can acquire the energy to overcome the headwinds of the past two years and make a new breakthrough- even as early as the next election.

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