Monday, 17 September 2007

Whose progressive agenda?

Escaping some rather dull ALDC training, I managed to attend a fringe event entitled “The Lib Dems and Labour: Whose progressive agenda?”. As the title suggests, it was a debate about where “progressives” see themselves and whether there is more space among them or between them and the Conservatives.

This is all pretty traditional stuff, and has been debated for centuries.

In the specifics of modern politics, Vince Cable explained that there were areas where there was a consensus, mainly around freedom (not that one might know it watching Labour’s attack on civil liberties) and the public service tradition. There were areas where the Liberal Democrats and Labour shared an ideology but disagreed on delivery, such as the well-meant but blundered efforts at wealth re-distribution though taxation and tax credits, and there were areas of fundamental disagreement.

Naturally, Vince dwelt on these. The main area was centralisation. Labour (or more accurately socialists and statists, though that words didn’t feature in Vince’s speech) believes that the state can transform our lives in positive ways. As a result, they introduce top-down (and frankly paternalistic) reforms, managing public services from the centre and set everything to a plan. As a consequence, local government is emasculated. An example of this is the Governments approach to energy policy, which assumes that electricity must be generated at and distributed from a few huge nodes – vast nuclear power stations appealing to the statist mind.

By comparison, liberals believe that power (in both senses) should be distributed as widely as possible and generated as near the citizen as possible. The liberal approach is inherently decentralised, because it recognises that people have a better idea of what is in their best interests than politicians and bureaucrats.

Labour minister Gareth Thomas (my parents’ MP) observed that there were progressives in all parties (bringing to mind Hayek’s dedication of The Road to Serfdom “To the socialists of all parties”) committed to equal opportunities, poverty reduction, internationalism and devolution. He argued that the Labour government had proven its progressive credentials by focussing on poverty at home and abroad, taking a lead on climate change and devolving power in Scotland, Wales and London. He criticised the in-fighting between progressive parties, saying that we “must recognise that the progressive cause was under threat in a greater way than ever before” (which sounded somewhat hyperbolic). However, he accepted that the Iraq War had been a huge divider among progressives. He also noted that in 2005 the progressives had been lucky that the Conservatives had chosen Michael Howard – a hangover from the Thatcherite era – as their enemy. They would not be this lucky again.

Baroness (Shirley) Williams stressed that the central difference was the Liberal Democrats unswerving commitment to civil liberties, manifest in their opposition to imprisonment for 90 days without trail, their defence of trial by jury and their opposition to ASBOs. She noted that Britain currently has a higher prison population than ever before even though crime has been falling (which brought to my mind Michael Howard’s assertion that prison works!). Labour’s micromanagement of public services had undermined and “demoralised those on which public services depend”. She cited (to my mind conservative) statistics that 15 per cent of school leavers are illiterate, innumerate and have no qualifications worth the name. Finally, she stressed the internationalism of the Lib Dems. The Iraq war had damaged the view of the UK as upholding the rule of law internationally. The Liberal Democrats must be vocal in their commitment to the United Nations (which, disturbingly, she believed should be funded by an international tax, a very bad idea that would merely gum up global trade) and the European Union.

Finally, Tim Horton began by speaking about electoral reform, noting that a hung parliament was a bad time to begin reforming the electoral system (though Lib Dems might reasonably counter that it was the only time it was ever likely to happen). He argued that the progressives were linked by their commitment to public services whereas the Tories wanted to shrink the state; their commitment to Europe (where he gave the Lib Dems credit for taking the lead) and, bizarrely, civil liberties. He also gave the Liberal Democrats credit for leading on climate change and taxation, where he felt Labour should be bolder. However, he denied the charge of centralisation, saying that the Liberal Democrats had opposed examples of decentralisation such as foundation hospitals.

For my mind there was an elephant in the room to which only Tim Horton eluded, and from which he drew the wrong lesson. While both liberals and socialists (“Labour”) believe in progress, liberals believe that progress is driven by individuals striving for a better life for themselves, which has positive outcomes for society. Consequently, the state should get out of people’s way as much as possible and allow them to control their own lives. In this it is the Conservatives, rather than Labour and Horton’s Fabians, that are nearer the mark: the state is too big and should be shrunk. The cosy consensus that has emerged around current levels of public spending assumes that we have arrived at a natural economic plateau, whereas in fact it is pure chance that has brought us to a point where the state spends 43 per cent of national output. This is the (temporary) result of a conflict between the state’s greed and its timorousness; it wants to spend but fears the taxpayer.

At some point we need to decide how much the state ought to take. I very much doubt that it is nearly half of everything. There is a need to roll back the state and free people from the grip of politicians. That is an agenda for progress.

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