Monday 21 September 2015

Three places not to position the Lib Dems

I took one of my children to the opening of the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth on Saturday (we also spent some time on the beach). He is eleven and not keen for me to engage in any conversation beyond about two and a half minutes. But he really followed Baroness Brinton’s opening address.

“Come on,” I kept saying, half way through the party president’s address. “We’ve got to catch a train.”

But no. “Wait; I’m enjoying this,” he said.

I’m not saying I was surprised that Sal Brinton gripped his attention – it was a very good speech – but I was pleasantly surprised that it could have gripped the attention of an eleven-year-old. It wasn’t as if it was studded with jokes or slapstick humour.

It was sunny, a balmy day and I was ready to be inspired. And I’m now back in Bournemouth in the usual heady atmosphere, a peculiarly Liberal combination of hope and mild despair.

But I also found myself mildly exasperated by some of the party’s narrative in the media, and in particular its response to the unexpected elevation of Jeremy Corbyn. There are three big mistakes the Lib Dems appear to be making, and I’m writing this – not to criticise Tim Farron, who is finding a tone of voice – but in the hope that someone thinks a bit more deeply about what a radical centre might mean.

Mistake #1. “Fantasy economics”. That was the phrase which Tim Farron and other Liberals have been using about Corbyn’s economic positions. This is not helpful. Some of Corbyn’s rather vague economic platform is clearly based on fantasy: is it really practical to renationalise the railways? How about we just hold them to their contracts first? 

But if this refers to Corbyn's public money supply, then – within some conditions – the idea is backed by Adair Turner and Martin Wolf and the Icelandic government. I suspect that some version of it represents the future. Corbyn’s fantasy is that it can solve all his budgeting problems. 

So I hope that the Lib Dems won’t approach the new world, where a new kind of economic orthodoxy is struggling to emerge – by describing every new idea as “fantasy”.

Mistake #2. “Heads and hearts”. No, we haven’t had a repeat of the general election rhetoric, but we also haven’t managed to claw out of its basic dualistic structure – on the one hand, on the other hand. 

We need a plausible, moderate economic policy if anyone is going to believe our social policy, or so Tim Farron told Andrew Marr yesterday. That’s true, of course, but it is too close to the old head and heart dualism – we have Osborne’s economics but Corbyn’s ambition. 

It doesn’t stack up. It begs all the wrong questions.

Mistake #3. “Moderate vision”. Behind all this is the basic problem. Tim Farron’s Guardian article gargled with both words without closing the gap between then.

It is possible to have a moderate vision, of course, but it isn’t terribly interesting. In fact, I have a horrible feeling that politicians normally use the word ‘vision’ in inverse proportion to the clarity of theirs. 

Again, this kind of rhetoric begs the question: what are you NOT moderate about? How are you going to get there? Or is it really your vision to change everything, as Adrian Slade once ribbed Roy Jenkins, “just a little bit”?

I have a feeling that the whole idea of a moderate vision falls foul of the dictum from Revelation Chapter 3 that “if you are neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth”.

Luckily, there was an answer – or the very first glimmerings of an answer – in Tim Farron’s rally speech on Saturday night. It is to rethink business, enterprise and entrepreneurialism, as the foundation of a renewed Liberalism.

Not business as stolid bureaucratic privatised providers. Or business as rampaging monopolies or monoliths, but business as an entrepreneurial force to make things happen – “if you have a dream you should be celebrated and supported”, he said.

Quite right. This is an echo of the late, great Anita Roddick, who used to define entrepreneurs as people who could imagine the world differently. It implies the fundamental difference between Farron and Corbyn: between people power and centralised state power.

But for goodness sake, don’t let’s swing the Lib Dems behind a defence of an economic orthodoxy that is now in its final few years.  The Financial Times today carries an article on Europe;s centre left which sums up the problem:

"Ultimate crisis of global capitalism was delivered on a plate and they did not know what to do."

Too right. And until they do know what to do, the centre left is going to remain stuck.  Corbyn almost certainly won't provide that way out. He may actually get in the way, but don't let's condemn him for the attempt - because, when he fails, the Lib Dems will have to do it instead.

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