Friday, 11 January 2013
We need to be able to 'conquer unemployment' again
Mark Pack has written a characteristically intelligent newsletter about the current positioning of the Lib Dems, around the idea of being a moderating influence on both sides. As he says, this has the advantage of being patently true and a good description of an effective junior coalition partner. But there is something about the combination of efficient economy and social concern which doesn't quite cut it as a political message.
Yes, it describes the effective position of the Lib Dems and the Liberals before them, just as it provided the message for the most successful of the SDP political broadcasts in the 1980s. What it fails to do is to explain what the connection between the two objectives is. It looks like compromise.
There are two reasons why, as Liberals, we should not be content with this as a narrative for the party.
First, it is the very opposite of a big idea. It may carry conviction among voters temporarily, but what it will not do is provide the party with the intellectual engine it needs to WIN - or to attract the activists of tomorrow, and the people who are prepared to devote their lives to cajolling the Liberals into power.
The second problem is that the words' efficient economy' covers up the basic problem which is that, not spending too much and being 'sensible' with the economy does not do justice to the traditional Liberal position on the economy.
It doesn't do justice to the emerging industrial policy that Vince Cable is presiding over. Nor does it do justice to the idea of a small-scale economy that can revive local fortunes from the bottom up, as Danny Alexander is beginning to develop.
The truth is that the Lib Dems badly need a central organising economic idea. They have survived for too long now on a bundle of issues around fairness and civil liberties, which - although important - are not winning reasons for government.
David Lloyd George, whose 150th birthday is coming up, used the slogan 'we can conquer unemployment' in the 1929 general election, using the ideas of John Maynard Keynes to provided it with its intellectual underpinning. Until the Lib Dems can say that again, they will just be a glorified pressure group.
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You make a big ask, David. Does any party have a final solution to unemployment?
I think there are some big and important economic ideas to be developed, but perhaps they are not exciting enough to win elections. Land Value Tax is part of that picture - freeing us of the burden of economic rents. Another is tackling head-on some of the ways the big state hammers the poor. But this doesn't win elections when special interests can shout louder than the poor.
Thanks, Joe, but we may be fated not to agree on the economic presciption - I think a combination of:
1. Asset-based local economic revival.
2. New lending infrastructure.
3. Modern industrial policy.
... will be the basis of a winning new approach. I know that isn't everyone's cup of tea. But my main point is that Lib Dems need to engage with the economic debate.
The first job is to acurately define the context of choices, as only then can you identify and order lists of priorities.
Cameron does deserve credit for defining the immediate choices in 2010 by focussing on the deficit, and we must learn the lesson from this to assert our position in the public debate.
So, taking a large step back to get things in perspective, I'd argue the world is dealing with the violent tides unleashed by the 'technological revolution' - in many ways similar to the 'industrial revolution' (and others) of yore, and in many ways presenting similar threats and opportunities now, as then.
Industrialisation introduced new processes of regularisation into society, through machines and mechanisms, like trains and income taxes.
Technologisation is introducing new processes of gathering, understanding and applying information.
The role of government during industrialisation changed in response to policy failures, by opening up access and gradually establishing accepted minimum standards - growing to include social policy.
The role of government now is changing again as the gains in equality are being eroded by public failure.
So the job for politics is to redefine the state in ways which account for its failure by promoting equality.
Don't underestimate 'civil liberty' - it actuall succeeds in explaining the causes and solutions to many current issues, from superinjunctions, secret courts and Leveson, all the way through to immigration and foreign policy, budget choices and electoral strategy.
'Civil Liberty' is not a compromise political position, it is a positive balance of personal and collective freedoms and responsibilities.
'Civil Liberty' is also not a compromise economic position, it is a positive balance of efficient and effective tax and budgeting measures.
LibDems in coalition was a compromising result, but it is still a more positive balance than the country had before.
Perhaps we should be taking more note of the anti-politics mood and therefore making more use of the symbolic imagery of the scales of liberty: 'On balance, vote LibDem'.
proponents of Land Taxes are so far failing to address the criticisms made by opponents, such as George Osborne in his Speaker's Lecture: "those tempted by a modern version of a property tax should note Lloyd George’s land tax was eventually abandoned when it cost more money to collect than it raised."
You will continue to fail until you can provide an effective answer to him.
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