I've just read through Richard Grayson's apologia for leaving the Lib Dems on the Compass website, and feel sad about it. It hardly needs saying that I don't think he is right, but I've known Richard and enjoyed sharing a committee table with him for so long now that I can't remember when I first met him - but I think it was 1997.
I remember having a cup of tea with him for the first time when he was running the Centre for Reform, as it was then, in the wonderful Tevere cafe, since unfortunately gone the way of all cafes. Richard was always a thinker and the party needs thinkers, and we should not be losing people like him - but there may be reasons why we inevitably will.
I've enjoyed his company during the years of Richard Grayson Mk I (It's all about Freedom) and the years of Richard Grayson Mk II (It's all about equality).
He made some points in his Compass article that made me think, but I've always known that he was a different kind of Liberal to me. I remember running into him at the Friends Meeting House in Euston during one of the debates between Clegg and Huhne during the leadership campaign. I was a convinced Clegg supporter, not through any disagreement with Huhne, but because he seemed to me to be searching for a new political language - which I felt we desperately needed. I asked Richard then what he thought of Clegg and was taken aback by how much we had drifted apart politically.
I don't recognise the party disputes that he writes about from his descriptions of them, but these are just playing with words. If I had him in front of me, I would say three things...
1 Slow progress in government, yes, but...
I recognise with what he says about the tiny progress the party has made in terms of policy implementation in government. It has been far, far tougher than anyone might reasonably have imagined - there may be questions about whether the coalition was, in fact, the right thing to do for the party, though it clearly was for the nation (and some important things have been achieved, like taking the low-paid out of tax).
My small involvement in government since 2010 has convinced me that we are also not alone in that. The frustration of the Conservatives is, if anything, more intense - not because they have been frustrated by the Lib Dems (though they are sometimes), but because of the sheer complexity of the system they are dealing with. Government is intractable and almost nothing seems to be possible.
That is fascinating for me as a policy wonk, but it isn't a reason to leave the party.
2 The terrible failure of New Labour on public services.
I have felt much less sympathy for Richard's point of view because of the failure of some on his wing of the party to recognise the basic problem.
They are so wedded to the system as it was, that they never grasped the scale of the damage done by New Labour in their centralisation, control and emasculation of public services. At huge expense, and with the aid of a battery of targets and standards and an enthusiasm for process, they rendered public services dangerously ineffective, as I described in my book The Human Element.
To say this does not make me an old-fashioned Conservative who wants to demolish services, but I do at least recognise that there is a problem in the status quo. Austerity isn't the solution, and it isn't clear to me that the coalition has grasped the problem either to any great extent. But I don't share the view - which Richard seems to imply - that the problem is all about defending the old settlement, and funding it adequately, because if we did that - all wouldn't be well at all.
3 The terrible failure of Lib Dem policy-making
Richard hints at this in his article, when he describes the failure of Lib Dem economic policy to provide any conviction once the party was in government.
The real problem was that, once in government, the Lib Dems found they had no distinctive economic policy and nothing much to say on public services, and without either of those they were bound to be blown around by events and by convictions stronger than their own.
That is the reason for the failure to construct a Lib Dem alternative to austerity. It is the reason for the muddles and confusion about the various different versions of health legislation. It all had to be made up in the heat of battle and of course it had no depth.
I was on the federal policy committee of the party during the run-up to 2010 and I must take my share of the blame for that failure, but so must Richard.
Policies with depth don't just emerge around a committee table. They need to be based on a flurry of thinking, ideas and debate around a party leadership, and this never happened during the Kennedy leadership years.
There lies the heart of the difficulty: in practice, the Lib Dem economic policy has been an ecstasy of positioning and compromise, not because Liberals have no convictions - but because they are not terribly interested in economics.
So what really separates me from Richard here is not so much my Liberalism, but his conservatism.
He didn't want to find a new political language. I don't want to defend the design of the 1945 welfare state. I want an effective system that genuinely supports people to escape Beveridge's Giants, which I don't think the Spirit of '45 provided, for reasons I've discussed elsewhere.
I don't believe these issues can somehow be assumed. They need to be debated from a radical Liberal point of view so that effective public services can survive the assault, not because we need to defend the past, but because they work for people.
But that debate never happened. Again, I have to take my share of the blame but, then again, so does Richard.
A milestone on Belgrave Gate, Leicester
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