Saturday 19 October 2013

The unexamined trolley wheel is not worth pushing

Some years ago now, I sat down to write a book about public services, partly because I was so angry with the way the Labour government had subverted them - making them more expensive and less effective - and partly because I hoped to provide an agenda for Nick Clegg, in case he ever became leader of the party.

The trouble was, I was too angry.  I had to re-write the book twice before it was finally coherent enough to be read, which it is being now, I'm glad to say (The Human Element).  By then, Nick Clegg had become deputy prime minister.

Ah yes, the travails of an author's life.

I mention it now, having read the interview yesterday with Jeremy Browne in the Times, because I wonder if my rage at the last government for their public service record was a sign that my wonky trolley (as he put it) veered to the left or that it veered to the right?

The wonky trolley metaphor is Jeremy's not mine.  All parties have a few wonky wheels, but then so do we all as individuals.  Some of us veer of left or right at the slightest provocation.  The unexamined trolley wheel is not worth pushing, but - having examined my own wheels pretty closely - I still can't see which way they veer.

Maybe it is obvious to everyone around me, and they daren't tell me, but it isn't obvious to me.

We have to be kind to Jeremy Browne, who hasn't finished his deprogramming after his escape from the clutches of the Home Office.

He is right that the Lib Dems will be making a mistake if they paint themselves too much as outsiders in the coalition - they haven't often got their own way, but there are achievements of recent years they will want to share the credit for.

I know, it won't be the bedroom tax, or subsidising Chinese nuclear companies.  But if there is nothing Lib Dems are proud of, then their tactics would be quite different - and some of what they are proud of is not going to be their achievement alone.

He is also quite right that the Lib Dems have the occasional wonky wheel.  Some undoubtedly veer to the left, whenever the party starts worrying about private ownership instead of scale and flexibility and humanity.

But it worries me far more when it veers in a corporate direction - suspicious of what people and communities can achieve on their own account.  When it puts safeguards ahead of community enthusiasm (free schools).  When it prefers centralised solutions to local ones (nuclear energy).

But they also have another wheel that, rather than veering, just stays completely stuck - so stuck that you might imagine it veers the trolley to the right.  It is the wheel marked economics, and for some reason - even when they put on their glasses - many Lib Dems are unable to see it.

I've wondered often why this is.  I think it is because, when socialists are naive about power and can't see it as a problem, liberals tend to be naive about money in the same way.  They somehow see it as outside their responsibility - isn't Captain Mainwaring dealing with that? (No, he's been replaced by risk software at regional office).

This is not a criticism of Danny Alexander, who has been very effective, but his responsibility is saving money, not shifting the way the economy works.

But the real problem with the trolley metaphor is that assumes the right path for a Lib Dem trolley is rigorously central, turning neither this way nor that, as if Liberalism was about compromise.  Whereas the truth is that the absence of the Liberal tradition in UK government for a century has been a tragedy for this country and the world.

No, the problem with the Lib Dem trolley, as far as I'm concerned, is not that it veers one way or the other (though it does), but whether all its wheels are working - and, above all, whether it is designed to move in a Liberal direction in the first place.


Antiochian said...

very clever wheel-gazing there... or is it self-pleasuring of one's wheel?

In any case I agree with your points... we should have more economic basis to our policies than merely twiddling the tax rate... the party used to get itself into high-dudgeon on free trade once and good thing too.. if you never have a dream you'll never have a dream come true (apologies to Bloody Mary).

We don't have enough people with business or City experience in the front ranks... Jeremy should take a crash course in finance and help fill the gap for his reincarnation at some future date when the trolley veers his way again..

he could make himself unofficial spokesmen on something and carve out some more credible ground... he will do better as a faction leader of the neo-liberal economics strand in the LD than as one of the heaving mass of Tory backbenchers (pardon me while I heave...)

Gordon said...

I too have often wondered about the Lib Dem's blindness about economics.

I used to think that it was probably down to so many of them being in the public and charity sectors that they had little feeling for it.

More recently I have come to suspect that it may be because the messages delivered by 'economics' are so universally dismal from a social liberal's point of view that many find it better simply to ignore them.

If this is right the mistake is to imagine that there is only one economics just as there is only one physics (albeit a bit blurry round the edges where theories remain tentative). In reality what usually passes for 'economics' is a towering pile of nonsense built on deeply flawed foundations such as the (absolutely bonkers) assumption that humans can be considered as perfectly logical and all knowing calculating machines or that price is determined where supply and demand are in balance (it actually determined by relative power which is influenced by S&D but also by many other factors).

The reason this version of economics survives is because its conclusions suit Tories and corporatists. There is another interpretation out there, a different school of economics, which builds on sounder foundations to reach liberal friendly and human friendly conclusions.

Naturally, Conservatives don't want people to think about power imbalances - e.g. in the many oligopolies - it's so much easier if everything can be blamed on impartial, inevitable supply and demand and "you can't buck the market".

Anyone interested should read Steve Keen's 'Debunking Economics'. It's somewhat wonkish but very revealing.

Antiochian said...

Good points.. Economics is not known as the "dismal science" for nothing.. but it has had various upbeat periods. It is not though like some sort of airplane menu with "chicken or pasta" it is actually a whole buffet of different options that we as a party (far more than Labour or the Tories) can graze upon and pick and chose which items we want for our economic feast.

There are areas where policy on a issue like housing, which is not specifically economic, can intersect with a policy on growth. and thus a plan for constructing X number of houses per annum can sometimes prove a greater growth stimulus than boosting pensions or benefits or cutting taxes... meanwhile acting to defuse house price inflation.. This nexus is not being intellectualised in current policies.

other policies such as decentralisation away form London of government functions (something that happened in the decades immediately post-war but then lost impetus) could be revived as an engine of regional policy.

I noticed last year, for instance, that there were concerns that there would not be enough housing in Wilts for returning troops from Afghanistan and Iraq when it struck me we should be building bases and housing in Durham and Teeside rather than putting more housing in already prosperous parts of the country.

Economics and broad policy is a gesamtkunstwerk (there is a term to boggle the rank and file) and even if the members don't get it, we should at least have MPs, ministers and party leaders who do.