The Dissenter's Voice

The ocassional comments, opinions, rambling and rants of a liberal dissenter in New Labour's Britain

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The left turn is a dead end

The leadership election is getting interesting.

The contest started with the two contestants sitting on Andrew Marr’s TV sofa appearing to be agree with each other on virtually every issue. However as the contest has evolved the differences have started to emerge. Differences not just over policy but also over campaigning style and strategy. How someone campaigns in a leadership election might not seem terribly important at first but actually it tells you a great deal about how that person would lead the party if they were elected, how they would try to define the party and themselves if they won.

We are lucky, both our leadership candidates are real talents and can hold their own against the best Labour & the Tories have. The difference between them though is that Chris Huhne has decided to run to the left, outlining a platform which appears designed to appeal to the small selectorate of LibDem activists, while Nick Clegg looks to be trying to challenge the party and reach out beyond it to the wider electorate.

Why do I say this? Well, Chris has draped his campaign in the mantle of radicalism. However he has chosen to appeal to the comfortable verities of the party’s traditional policies. His latest campaign email for instance has a familiar feel - it calls for greater funding for health and education and the devolution of more power to local councils.n Chris´s programme is in the words of one of his vocal blog supporters ´meaty´ - it is not however particularly radical. Promising to spend more money on services, which will be more local but still run by middle class bureaucrats rather than the people who use them is not a revolution.

His policy on Trident is a calculated attempt to rub up the party´s errogenous zones - however it is not much more than a restatement of the policy of a smaller, cheaper, more independent nuclear deterrent that has been party policy in one form or another since the 1980´s. Chris´s genuinely radical big idea - the green tax switch - has been party policy for the last year, beyond that the new ideas are actually pretty thin on the ground.

What´s being proposed isn´t a liberal revolution it´s social democratic managerialism, but it is comfortable, it appeals to the party´s self image without forcing it to ask any hard questions of itself or its direction. It´s message is an insular one, that the party simply needs to restate its exiting policies more clearly and competently and we will all soon reach the `liberal´ nirvana. Bumping along as we are in the mid teens in the polls, that is a dangerous misconception.

What worries me more even than this though is the accompanying `dog whistling´ the subtle and not so subtle attempts to portray his opponent as some kind of lightweight, crypto-Tory, all spin and no substance. Chris´s own remarks about ´opposing the education vouchers & US style health insurance supported by some of our MPs´, and ´not wanting to be the third Tory party´ are clearly covert and unjustified digs at Nick, while his more outspoken supporters have directly attacked Nick in a way that will delight our opponents, but I suspect appall many of our members. Chris needs to calm it and them down before it gets out of hand.

Perhaps Chris is pursuing a sort of Lib Dem equivalent of Nixon´s famous Southern Strategy, swinging to the left during the leadership election only to swerve back to the centre if elected. Perhaps, though that would hardly be the most open and frank way to win an election. If though the appeal to the left is to be believed then Chris´s campaign is in danger of taking the party of in search of electoral fool´s gold. Positioning ourselves of the party of the statist left would be to abandon our natural liberal territory to parties that speak the language but not understand it. It would all but guarantee that the gains so pàinstakingly won over the last 20 years are wittled away. And it would deny the party the opportunity to reach out and connect with people who share liberal values but have never yet thought of themselves as Lib Dems.


Blogger Julian H said...

Dear Dissenter,

This is a good piece, and as such earns a permanent link to your blog from my "Top Liberal Blogs" section.

Yours truly,

Julian H

11:27 AM  
Blogger mhuntbach said...

The problem here is that Nick's supporters seem to want it both ways. They indignantly protest that they don't want vouchers or other forms of more market oriented services provision, but when Chris says he doesn't want them they accuse Chris of being "a leftist", "inward looking" and "not appealing to the people".

So put up or shut up Cleggies - if you want something radically different, spell it out, give the details of how it will work, and let those of us who are more critical of such things argue about it. Chris has been criticised for some of his policy ideas, fine, Nick hasn't because he hasn't given us any, just vague platitudes.

"Promising to spend more money on services, which will be more local but still run by middle class bureaucrats rather than the people who use them is not a revolution". Yes, fine - so tell us just what you'd do that's different. Otherwise you're doing just what you accuse the Huhneites of doing - being negative just to run down the other side.

We're told "Nick Clegg looks to be trying to challenge the party and reach out beyond it to the wider electorate" but where is the challenge? I haven't seen anything challenging in the shape of radically new policy suggestions from Clegg. If there is something hidden which Clegg won't tell us (and that's the fear behind some of the Huhneite claims), how can we tell it really will "reach out to the wider electorate"? Where is your evidence that the wider electorate want radical rightist policies? And don't revert to that rubbish about you being neutral on the left-right spectrum - you accuse Chris of being a "leftist" and say that's going to lose us votes, so the natural conclusion from that is that Nick and his supporters are rightists and believe that will win us votes.
If you don't want the "right-wing" label applied to you, don't apply the "left-wing" label to the other side.

The Cleggies are taking the usual approach we have seen from party leaders before - when it doubt knock the "activists". Yes, the guys and gals who do the hard work, knocking on doors, writing the Focus leaflets, running as councillors, THEY'RE to blame for our party's standing in the opinion polls. They are fools who don't know what the electorate want, get rid of them and give the people what some armchair bloggers who think they're clever because they're read Hayek and Friedman suppose they want.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Bullseye said...


I don´t believe that the local councils are the same thing as local communities and I want to give people more control over their lives than bureaucrats have. Is that rightwing, I don´t know, personally I´d call it liberal.

As for vouchers Im unconvinced that they work, though don´t regard them as some sort of devil worsjip as you seem to. I would rather allow groups of parents to apply for state funding to set up therir own schools or bid to run new state ones. Again is that rightwing? I´m not sure.

What we need is an open debate about how to make services more people frindly not tedious name calling.

12:49 PM  
Blogger mhuntbach said...

Your original article had plenty of tedious name-calling in it.

As for "run by the council", well, one of the things I discovered when I was a councillor was that I didn't run schools. At the same time, my wife was Chair of the Board of Governors of a local primary school, and she, or at least the Board she chaired along with the Head, did run their school. The Board did consist of parents and other members of the local community, and just a couple of council nominees (it was a Catholic school, so fewer council nominees than other LEA schools).

In many ways my wife and her colleagues had a lot more practical power than I had as a councillor (but I got a hefty allowance paid for it, they didn't). Certainly, when it came to education the LEA had a fairly nominal role, and had almost no say on what went on in the schools. So maybe, to some extent, what you want is already there ...

2:50 PM  
Blogger Bullseye said...

Matthew I´ve been both a school governor for 10 years and the chair of the Council´s eductaion committee. You are right LEA´s do not manage schools but let´s not split hairs, they are hardly powerless by standers either.

They decide where & when a school gets built (not a small issue for many communities), they nominate Governors, they control the local funding formula and admissions policy and a myriad of other things aswell.

My point is that local services like schools should be much more in the hands of local communities. If parents don´t believe that their local school is good enough or is too far away - why shouldn´t they be able to set up a trust to seek the money to establish an alternative one? Why shouldñ´t local public money be available for that?

The Government is spending $200billion renovating or rebuilding every secondary school in the country as part of the Build Schools for the Future programme, why couldn´t an element of that programme be opening up the bidding process for that money to parent led service providers?

Is that a pipe dream? Well, its actually what happened in Lambeth when a determined group of local parents got together to campaign for a new secondary school in Norwood. That though was the exception - it took enormous time & commitment to win that battle and beat a system stacked against the parents. I believe that the system should be stacked in their favour.

On the last point in your first post - I´d just like to point out that I´m an activist, a focus deliverer, former councillor, etc etc as well..just because I recognise that by definition a party activist is an already convinced partisan is not a criticism. Convincing ourselves that we are right isn´t the problem, we have to convince those who disagree, it´s depressing that an argument being used against Nick is that people who aren´t LibDems think that he is rather good. That is the insular logic of a sect not a campaigning political party.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Bullseye said...


I almost forgot to say thanks for the compliment! If only I knew how to put links etc into my margins your blog would be in my top list too!

3:32 PM  
Blogger Tristan said...

Good article.

Matthew: From my view (not declared for either candidate, although getting more and more put off by the negativity from Huhne supporters), the complaint is that Huhne and his supporters are painting Clegg as a Tory and putting words into his mouth and claiming he supports things he has never said he does.

As for bashing activists - I think some deserve it. There's an attitude amongst some that they somehow own the party, and that what people want is democratic. Winning elections through populism is pointless. Pavement politics is populism, we have deviated from community politics to pure populism in many cases. Democracy is all well and good, but we need to shape the debate not respond to it.

I am personally fighting the long game - I want a liberal society, not a populist one. Power is worth nothing if you'll stoop to just giving people what they want to get it.
I don't claim that people want what I think, I am making arguments based upon what will work and what is liberal. That is what democracy is really about, seeking to change people's views.

I'd suggest you go and read some Hayek and Friedman, they might inspire in you a desire for liberty, not just giving people what you think people want to gain power.

Bullseye: Absolutely.
Too many people in the party seem to think that giving councils power will work and is sufficient for freedom. It is not, we must give individuals power.

Vouchers may not be the best mechanism, but we need to investigate them as an option. Dismissing out of hand because its 'free market' (which I thought was liberal) or 'right wing' does not help up.

4:00 PM  
Blogger mhuntbach said...


I'd suggest you go and read some Hayek and Friedman, they might inspire in you a desire for liberty, not just giving people what you think people want to gain power.

I have read Hayek and Friedman. "The Road to Serfdom" is, indeed, a classic in liberalism, everyone who calls themselves a liberal should read it. That doesn't necessarily mean I think it the sole definition of liberalism, it makes a strong argument for one sort of liberalism, and an argument that was necessary at the time.

I have actually been very critical of community politics - it started off with some very good ideas about reinventing politics to make it more relevant and get more people involved, but I quite agree it has tended to deteriorate into election fighting techniques which have forgotten the origin and why we were doing it that way. I'm not particularly interested in power for myself, I've been a councillor and voluntarily gave that up.

Nevertheless, I do credit the people who do the work on the streets with some feeling of what policies will work and will win us support, and what won't. Which is why I think "activist bashing" is just silly. It's a mentality inherited from critics of the Labour Party in the days when Labour activists didn't have to go out and win the votes (they assumed they would always roll in from people who "always vote Labour") and instead engaged in internal debate, often getting obsessed by relatively trivial issues at te expense of the issues that really bother people. But most Liberal Democrat activists know we have to work to get the votes in, and know what works.

A problem I have with Nick is that he's content with people bashing Huhne for being "statist" while not actually committing to anything much different himself, just dropping hints that he might (or letting his supporters drop them). I'd be more impressed with him if he did come up with a well thought-out vouchers scheme

6:30 PM  
Blogger Tristan said...


Sorry, I was getting a little OTT then...

Fair enough. It just seemed like you were taking the stance that activists should have the only say in the party, an attitude which really gets to me because not all of us have the time, or talents, to be activists, yet I think there's a desperate need for more thinking about ideas in the party.

I think the arguments made by Hayek are even more important now, we have a far more insidious process of nationalisation of people. The state and its adjuncts are taking more and more power over people's lives, usually dressed up in "it's for their own good".
We need to emphasize the roots of liberalism again, and the reason for public services.
The long term aim of liberalism should be to get into a minarchist state where government intervention is not needed.
We seem to have lost that radicalism which drove the party forwards in the 19th and early 20th century and replaced it with a more social democratic view of the state as a provider not an enabler.

I do see where that problem with Nick arises, it had put me off, but Chris has made some moves which seem to be designed to put me off, plus the negativity from his campaign.

As I've said elsewhere, its a shame, but I feel like I'm going to have to vote against Huhne, not for Clegg...

8:52 AM  
Blogger Panakea said...

Bullseye: "If only I knew how to put links etc into my margins..."

You can do it by editing your blogs template. It is in HTML, but if you don't know how to write HTML, you can for instance look the source of somebody else's blog, which has the links, and copy the HTML from there to the relevant place in your own blog.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Panakea said...

M Huntbach: "When it doubt knock the "activists". Yes, the guys and gals who do the hard work, knocking on doors, writing the Focus leaflets, running as councillors, THEY'RE to blame for our party's standing in the opinion polls. They are fools who don't know what the electorate want, get rid of them..."

So you are saying, that all the Lib Dem activists share the same collective views and targets (a bit like the Borg), and you are the unanimously authorised mouthpiece of this whole collective? :-O

4:37 PM  

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