Wednesday 10 July 2013

Why Richard Grayson got it wrong

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.


Unknown said...

A thoughtful and interesting piece as ever, David. Thank you. You might wish to see what people on LDV have said about your piece as apparently supporting their views – such as one person who claims that there is little evidence that I was ever a ‘liberal’.

Yes, we all share some blame for the state we are in (in particular in my case being quite so dismissive of the Orange Book in 2004, and then trusting the leadership in 2010). No doubt about that.

More generally, I don’t recognise your characterisation of myself and my ‘wing’ as wanting to defend the old settlement on public services. I have always advocated significant devolution in public services and you might have read my pieces on the NHS along these lines, drawing from the Danish example. My recollection of things you have said and written is that you are not a great enthusiast for local government, and would prefer to see many more non-government solutions than I would (though I do agree with you on some areas there). That might be why I, like you, have always felt we are different kinds of Liberals. If my memory of where you stand on all of this is correct, then I hope you will see that I have not merely been defending an ‘old’ settlement but have been putting forward a more localist view of services (albeit it one focused on local government rather than other options).

I also disagree with you when you say that I had no interest in finding a new political language. Much of my time as Director of Policy (in addition to focusing on having proper policy consultation in the party, in which I always saw myself as someone who had to manage a process in which all could take part) was focused on such issues. I think we had some success. While I well remember that we often disagreed on what such language should be (actually very much earlier than the Clegg-Huhne election, as I remember it, possibly back to when we first met) that's quite different from suggesting I wasn’t interested in finding a new language. "Freedom in a Liberal Society" (2000 pre-manifesto) (I don’t think you were an enthusiast, though the bulk of the party really liked the way it used ‘Freedom’ as a link to civil liberties, a more equal society and sustainability) and "It's About Freedom", were evolutions in doing exactly that, as was "Trust in People" (in which I was involved as a group member rather than as a member of staff).

You might also remember quite a lot of work from me (sometimes coming out of the mouths of others) on how we need to rethink the state, and then of course there was "Reinventing the State". Many of these efforts were slated by certain types of liberals as being old-fashioned and statist, but those comments were from people who wanted a minimal state, so there was little we could have said to satisfy them. (Incidentally, they are the sorts of people who are now cheering my departure on pages such as LDV, which suggests to me that they want to narrow the party’s base of support and be a ‘right, tight’ little party, but that’s another story).

All these steps were about new language and new ways to promote the democratic decentralisation (if never using that unwieldy phrase) which would help to develop a more liberal society. Again, those types of liberals who believe that markets will almost always be better than local democracy at giving people a local voice (and this has always been my big difference with David Laws) didn't like that. But that amounts to differences of opinion on how to develop a liberal agenda. I'm don’t agree that they are small-c conservatism just because we didn’t end up with something which cut us totally adrift from things the party had said in the past.
All the best to you,

Neil Craig said...

You are quite wrong about the LDs not having or having been able to implement their economic policy.

The LD enthusiasm for Luddism and hatred of economic liberalism has allowed you to set energy policy (albeit without opposition from the Cameronians). By ensuring we have some of the most expensive energy in the world you have completely deliberately kept us in recession and by increasing fuelo poverty, killed many thousands of pensioners.

That is an achievement. I wish UKIP, who actually are a liberal party, had managed half as much, albeit in the opposite direction, and we would not be in recession.

David Boyle said...

Richard, thanks so much for taking the trouble to reply so thoughtfully. You are of course quite right to pick me up about the 'new language' - our difference was about what that new language should be.

But I was careful to talk about 'wings' rather than point the finger too precisely, when it came to defending the public services status quo. You were always more thoughtful than that, and my thinking has developed a great deal since 2010 as well.

And yes, I was and am a supporter of voluntary sector solutions, but you need a local government structure to make that work - the trouble is that local government has been hollowed out over the last 20 years, so that those who tend to be recruited have been those who are effective at following process rather than making things happen.

I want to find ways of revitalising local government so that it can play that co-ordinating role better. It isn't about markets versus local democracy or markets for their own sake, but it is about diversity - or ought to be.

Still, the key point is that we are not going to create that right debate in the Lib Dems as a tight little party - and I hope we don't end up as one. But if we do, we will have to shout loudly in a debate outside it.

Let's keep in touch about it all...

Unknown said...

Thanks David - yes, indeed, let's all keep in touch. The next few years could be a very fluid time in terms of both ideas and how/where people develop those ideas.
Best wishes,

Gordon said...

A thoughtful piece indeed which prompts me to pick up on one point.

You note that: " 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.

Exactly so - but why? And why has this persisted for so long?

Perhaps many Lib Dems aren't comfortable with the concepts because they work in the public sector. Perhaps they are revolted because the answers always seem to come out to support Tory-like policies. Whatever.

The key is that economics isn't a science (despite its pretentions to be one) and has many schools (in contrast to a proper science like physics). In this economics is more like theology, different versions of which can support either Catholic or Baptist (and many others besides)interpretations of the same source material.

So, if Lib Dems have neglected to develop their own economic thinking (and they have) then they inevitably finish up by default accepting that of others leaving only the ecstasy of positioning as you so correctly describe it to differentiate us from the Tories. No wonder the Coalition is proving such a traumatic experience for so many.

That this deeply unsatisfactory situation has persisted so long (20+ years!) has to be an epic failure of leadership. Conversely, if it is belatedly corrected a lot of things will fall into place. After all, the existing economic theory is clearly broken and can offer no solutions to the mess we're in. We're in a world like that after the dinosaurs were wiped out - the old order has failed leaving the stage set for an explosion of new life.

David Boyle said...

GF, I think you're right about economics. The way I see it, the weakness of Liberalism is that it is naive about money and therefore economics. The weakness of socialism is that it is naive about power. But Keynes and Beveridge are proof that it doesn't have to be that way.