I wrote last week about the experience if hearing the former
Liberal Party president Adrian Slade, a former Footlight, imitating Roy Jenkins
during the 1982 party assembly in Bournemouth.
It was the first time I had been to any national Liberal event
and I wasn’t sure what to expect, had no idea that Slade had entertained
successive assemblies with his songs, but I was hooked. It was also the first full year of the Liberal-SDP
Alliance – hence Adrian’s other creation that year ‘Social democracy, what the
hell is it meant to be?”
This included the immortal and suddenly relevant lines: “We
know how to win them,/And we know how to lose them”.
At the height of the performance as Jenkins, the man himself
walked in ,as a gesture of solidarity with his Liberal allies. He wrote later
that it was the nadir of his Alliance years.
Especially perhaps Slade's line about his “great crusade to change everything... just a little
Now I’m all for moderation and compromise, as long as it is a
small part of a greater ambition. At
least, that’s what I thought as I read Stephen Tall’s contribution on this very
subject, which he called ‘Why the Lib Dems should stick to centrism’
shortened this, but you get the gist).
In this blog post, he wrote positively about an economic policy
in which “free enterprise is balanced by workers rights”.
I have huge respect for Stephen Tall, who is a very talented and
inspiring blogger. More than that, he was a fellow candidate with me for Horsham
Borough Council this year in the Lib Dem interest. But I wanted to take this a bit further.
I very much agree that Liberals need to be centrist in the sense
that they must not veer towards either a conventionally right or left wing stance.
But the economic policy he advocates here isn't centrism, it is compromise, and it is so anodyne that it is hardly worth saying.
It goes in one ear and out the other. It is, in short, like saying nothing on economics
at all. Just laying it on one side and talking about something else.
Does that matter? Well,
actually, I think it matters very much.
There is a parallel debate in the Labour Party which gargles
with the irritatingly Blairite phrase ‘aspirational people’, as shorthand for
what Ed Miliband missed out. It carries within
it a quite unnecessary class baggage, as you might expect from a Labour Party
Where it applies equally to Labour and the Lib Dems is
No political party can make a
successful appeal to the electorate without some kind of economic proposition. You
can’t just talk about welfare, important as that is, and feel you have somehow
put forward a plan for prosperity.
This is a problem for the left everywhere. There is no alternative
narrative, no convincing package, explaining how we would create prosperity.
Leftist governments have been elected in the past three decades, but only by
embracing the conventional economic message.
No political party can aspire to government without a
convincing plan to create a prosperous economy.
Not just how to spread the money, or just how to spend it, but how to
In the absence of one, people revert to the lazy assumption
that the Conservatives can create prosperity, thought there is little evidence
that they can. But we allowed them to
get away with it without putting forward a Liberal economic approach. Because there isn’t one.
Or is there?
I realise I'm about to fall into Stephen's trap, arguing that the missing element in the election campaign was exactly what I've been advocating for years.
So let's try and set that aside. Because, there was - until the 1950s - a distinctive Liberal approach to creating prosperity. We just got bored of it. Liberals let it atrophy.
It is an approach to economics based on
the same Liberal principles that we use for everything else: Karl Popper’s
idea of the open society, where the small must be allowed to challenge the big,
and the poor, powerless and local must be able to challenge the rich, powerful
That is the
original meaning of the Liberal concept of free trade, which emerged originally
out of the anti-slavery movement as a critique of monopoly, a guarantee of the
right to challenge from below.
It is the fault
of Liberals everywhere that they have allowed this powerful economic idea to become
an apologia for monopoly, a justification of it, a circular argument that
monopolies must have earned their position and must be defended – though they
narrow choice, raise prices, trap or bypass the poorest, and shrink the
US research shows that regional and local economic growth is highly correlated
with the presence of many small, entrepreneurial employers—a few big ones may
be positively damaging. See my new book
People Powered Prosperity
This would imply a Liberal challenge which was both
pro-enterprise but at the same time confronting the privileging of semi-monopolistic
corporates by both Labour and Conservative, which has sucked some local
economies dry, making them so much more dependent on central government.
It would imply a Liberal approach that was neither
conventionally right or left, but which is emphatically not a compromise:
- It would be based on a major expansion of small business and
enterprise, and of the institutions that entrepreneurs need: local banks,
enterprise support, mutual support, maybe even mutual credit.
- It would mean a genuine rebalancing of the economy away from
finance and property and towards productive capacity (see recent IMF report
that too much finance damages an economy).
- And it would mean a major monopoly-busting measures to give
people better choice and more vibrant, diverse local economies.
See how Joe Zammit-Lucia and I put it in our
That is powerful, distinctive and overwhelmingly Liberal. It also has the benefits of being right. But don't let's pretend we can be a major opposition party without putting forward some approach to creating prosperity. The truth is that we know how to, acted on it in government, but never really articulated it.
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