Archive for the ‘Liberalism’ Category

A Liberal Energy Policy

Friday, May 13th, 2011

A few days ago I said we must define policy in our own liberal terms. One areas where I think we can do this to great effect is energy. It is widely understood that we support “Green” energy proposals, but what I think has been missed is that by defining energy policy in liberal terms makes our energy policy truly distinctive and provides a solid justification for why it must be green.

Underlying many green proposals lie implicit life-style compromises, often expressed as a dislike for air travel and personal transport (cars). Most green advocates want increased use of public transport and want to change peoples’ behaviour, often desiring to restrict their freedoms. For example, by making fuel unaffordable or by restricting access to cities for cars. Take the Green Party as an example. They aim for the economy to “reduce its demand for energy to a sustainable minimum” with “measures to penalise the use of large engines in cars; measures to discourage private and encourage public transport”. Don’t get me wrong, many of their policy proposals are laudable (and we have similar policies) but they start with a fundamental premise that life-style must be compromised.

These compromises go largely unchallenged except by some of the climate change deniers. But one of the great changes that has happened in the last half century is that most people – whether rich or poor – can afford cars and can travel freely and cheaply around the world. This has widened peoples’ horizons, giving not only direct exposure to different cultures but also the ability to live remotely from work, often in nicer surroundings. I would hate it if, as a consequence of green policy, these things once more became luxuries only available to the rich.

So as liberals, our starting point must be that we don’t want to compromise life-style or force illiberal behavioural changes onto people. Instead, we must forge policy that is liberal and without such compromises. Note that I didn’t use the word “green”. However, it is clear that liberal principles dictate a “green” policy: if we continue to pour CO2 into the atmosphere at the current rate, our descendants will be forced to live in a world with diminishing biodiversity, rising sea levels and more extreme weather. This would restrict their freedoms in an illiberal and unacceptable manner. So personal liberalism alone forces an energy policy that addresses the issue of CO2 emissions (actually I think we must go further than just tackling emissions and should introduce bulk sequestration, but that is a post for another time!).

Fundamental to this must be a switch to zero-carbon energy sources (you can find my series of posts outlining that challenge here). This switch must cover not just electricity generation but also domestic heating and transportation and means that over the next fifty years we must more than double our generation capacity, building almost 200GW of GHG-free capacity.

I don’t want to revisit how this 200GW should be generated. Instead, I want to consider the domestic heating and transportation aspects. Here it is clear that merely generating electricity doesn’t solve the problem. We must also address how to turn this electricity into heat for houses and into fuel for cars. So a direct consequence of a liberal energy policy is that it demands significant innovation and research which in turn will lead to jobs and economic growth.

Part of our policy must also look at how we best use the energy we generate. One area that springs to mind here is the energy efficiency of our homes, where 62% of homes fall into the worst bands (E-G). So a liberal energy policy must also improve the efficiency of existing properties (by insulation, double glazing, etc) making them cheaper to heat.

So by thinking about energy policy in liberal terms results in an energy strategy that:

  • Preserves the freedom of people to own cars and have access to cheap air travel
  • Is “Green,” switching electricity generation, domestic heating and personal transportation to zero-GHG technologies
  • Improves our housing stock
  • Drives innovation and research
  • Creates jobs and drives economic growth

The Language of Identity

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

There has been much discussion in recent days about our identity. I think this is actually quite simple: we are Liberal Democrats. Liberal because we believe in the principles of personal, economic, political and social liberalism. Democrats because we believe that in a plural society with multiple viewpoints, these viewpoints should be represented proportionately in parliament.

The difficulty comes in understanding why this identity is not more widely understood. I think much of this is to do with the language we employ when describing policy. Often, we use the language of the left and talk of “social justice” and about how a particular policy is “progressive” or not. This defines us in our opponents terms and makes it hard for us to attract liberal minded people from either Labour or the Conservatives. With Labour, we have to fight a battle over who’s policy is more progressive; with the Conservatives, they are deterred by terms like “progressive” , which they see as code for socialism. Internally also, use of such terminology has led to self-identification with the left and has reinforced false ideas of a “progressive majority” – we should be neutral on what parties we would be willing to govern with.

Instead, I propose we use our own terminology, and talk about how liberal or illiberal a policy might be. Let me take two examples:

First, VAT. There was much argument about whether the increase in VAT to 20% was “progressive” or not. If we frame the question in liberal terms, the arguments are at least different:

  • VAT is a tax on consumption, but many essential purchases are either exempt or are taxed at a lower rate. So the rise in VAT is largely a tax on discretionary spending
  • Hence, it is personally liberal: you can chose not to be affected by not buying goods taxed at the higher rate (this is only partly true; for example, petrol is taxed at 20%)
  • It is also socially liberal: those who spend more, pay more tax and those on lower incomes are taxed proportionately less as a higher percentage of their spending falls into areas that are exempt or taxed at a lower rate
  • It is fair because it applies equally, affecting those who buy the goods regardless of who they are
  • A case can also be made that it is more economically liberal than raising income tax.

Second, those controversial tuition fees. Here I don’t remember much argument either way over the rights and wrongs of the change. Again, let me try to frame the issue in liberal terms:

  • Student loans are available to any that require them, and repayment of any loan is linked to future earnings above a threshold (£25,000 per annum)
  • Graduates expect to gain a significant income advantage over non-graduates, so attendance of university confers benefits on those that attend over those that do not and this should be paid for.
  • So, loans are personally liberal: you can chose whether or not to go to university and increase your earning power at the expense of a loan that may have to be repaid
  • They are also socially liberal: there is equality of opportunity to attend university based solely on academic qualifications not on ability to pay. Because universities must offer support to poorer students to balance increased fees, this further compensates for any residual advantage richer students may have
  • It is fair because: those that gain an income advantage pay for the privilege of having attended university; those who, for whatever reason, do not gain such an advantage do not have to pay. Not only that, but higher paid graduates are likely to pay back more than double the actual fees incurred.

Note: I’m not sure these are the best examples to use, but both provoked much discussion. Also, I’m not sure I’ve made the best liberal case for them. Nor do I think we’d propose them in other circumstances (e.g. without a deficit problem or in majority government).

So will using our own liberal terminology help to embed our identity into the consciousness of the media and the public? First, it removes an implicit association with the left. Second, it allows us to attract liberally minded people from both our main opponents without the need to overcome prejudices arising from terminology. Finally, it defines policy in our own terms and makes our principles explicit to the public.

Identity cannot be established overnight and will take time and seemingly endless repetition. So let’s start now, by talking about NHS reform in liberal terms. This means we must address not only decentralisation but competition as well. The NHS already has multiple providers and as liberals we should not fear competition so long as the principle of free at the point of use is maintained.

No Whining!

Friday, May 6th, 2011

Well, it is all over bar the shouting and inevitable punditry – which will undoubtedly consign us to oblivion. However I am not so down-hearted. I’m not going to cover the AV campaign where the “No” campaign was dirty but effective, whereas the “Yes” campaign was frankly bloody awful. Instead I’d prefer to focus on the local elections. I think there are two main reasons we have lost votes in these.

First, we have been defined more by what we are not than by what we are. What do I mean by this? Consider our share of the vote in the general election: ~23%. In contrast we got (probably; the full numbers aren’t in yet) about 15% in the local elections and the votes that we lost seem largely to have gone to Labour. The reason: I strongly suspect those voters were disaffected with Labour but could never bring themselves to vote Tory (note the term; regular readers will know I usually use the neutral term “Conservatives”); hence they voted for us.

But once we entered government with those same hated Tories, these voters returned to Labour.

Second, there is a perception we have broken promises and failed to fulfil manifesto promises. This I believe is a communications failure: we had a manifesto with promises A, B, C, D, and E. Sadly, as junior partners in the coalition we were unable to deliver all of these (we are delivering 75% of them!). But we never said this was likely to happen or how we would make decisions about which to deliver.

So how do we move forward? The two issues are related. Taking the second (communications) issue first, we need to talk about how we go about making decisions in government: whatever government – whether coalition or not.

In any government, we will face unpalatable decisions and will have to make hard choices. For example, if we had formed a majority government this time, there would still have been less money than expected, and unpalatable decisions on cuts (and fees) would still have had to be made. But we need to communicate that we make these hard decisions based on our liberal principles.

Take the most controversial one: tuition fees. Yes, Nick made a U-turn (I personally think his commitment was unsustainable in the first place and should never have been made, but that is a different story). However, it was a U-turn made on principle: the issue is that there should be equal opportunity to attend university regardless of background. Fees do not affect this: any applicant can get the requisite student loans. And those that attend and graduate improve their earning capacity significantly thanks to an opportunity that those who don’t attend, don’t receive. So the principle that they should pay for that (if their earning exceed a certain threshold) is not illiberal.

It is the principles behind the decisions that we will be forced to take, in any government, that we need to communicate and that trade-offs are inevitable. If we do this, then we not only address the issue of broken promises, but these very principles will form the foundation of a stronger core vote.

Oh, and while I’m ranting, we are not a single issue party. Why on earth did we think voting reform could ever engage your average voter? In many ways, they really don’t care whether they mark an “X” or rank candidates 1, 2, 3. This stuff only matters to party dweebs. And let’s not whine about some proportional House of Lords – nobody cares except us. If we do focus on this as some consolation prize it will reinforce the belief that all we care about is (self-serving) electroal reform.

Rant over. But bottom line, we must not whine: it was not “those nasty Tories” fault; nor was it “Labour lies”. If we whine, we’ll lose further support.

At the heart of this decline are our own failures to communicate sensibly. So let’s all sit back, take a deep breath and think about how to communicate our vision and principles. If we succeed, then we will emerge stronger with a proven track record in government.

Personally, I think this is our low point. The voters have had a chance to punish us for entering a coalition with the Tories. We now have the chance to show we are mature enough to take it on the chin, carry on, and provide good government. If we do, then we gain respect and votes.

Can we emerge as the party of principle?

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

It seems to me that the Conservatives and particularly Labour are mired in the class-warfare of the last century. Labour still think of “entitlements” and the Conservatives still preserve the interests of the rich and powerful. Worse, both parties seek wedge issues and nakedly grub for votes, running lowest common denominator campaigns seeking to bribe the voters.

With the rise of home ownership, consumerism and the increased aspirations of everyone, this class-based politics feels increasingly dated. In particular, voters are sick of the grubby bickering, and want politicians to work together to provide good government. So I think they want to understand what motivates policy and why such-and-such a policy is a good thing.

With our long Liberal tradition based on the fundamental principle that everyone should be as free as possible (so long as you don’t impinge on others freedoms) and the four pillars of individual, economic, political and social liberalism flow that from this, we are in a great position to frame policy in terms of principle. Consider some our current goals within the coalition:

  • Addressing the deficit. To not do so would impinge on the freedom of our successors: if our legacy was a mountain of debt, they would struggle to merely pay the interest leaving little room for spending choice.
  • Promoting localism. Decisions about policy should be made as close to those affected as possible, with those affected having a say.
  • Increasing the tax thresholds and reforming benefits. If you are poor, and worse, trapped in poverty by a benefit system where there is a disincentive to work, it is difficult to improve your lifestyle and enjoy the other freedoms we espouse.
  • The same motivation – enabling people to make the most of their abilities and to enjoy their freedoms – lies behind our policies on education; to make sure everyone has equal opportunity in education – whether vocational or academic – so they can earn to the best of their abilities and better enjoy their freedoms.
  • Climate change. Again, to not tackle this impinges on the freedoms of our descendants. They would live in a world subject to more extreme weather with rising sea-levels and a worse environment.

In summary, I think we can show what motivates all our policies and that they flow from principle rather than being mere grubbing for votes. Such an approach has the potential to change us from a party of protest where we are defined by what we are not into one with a strong identity and growing core support.

Political Liberalism and the “Big Society”

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

When I talked previously about David Cameron’s Big Society, I mentioned that one difference between the two parties is funding.  I think this bears a closer look.

I think there is agreement on devolving more power from Whitehall to councils, but the Conservatives funding proposal seems to contradict that.  They propose freezing council tax.  If you look at how councils are funded, they get roughly 75% of their budget from direct grants and the remaining 25% from council tax.  This means that rather than increasing a council’s control over its own budget, its control would be reduced: to compensate for freezing council tax, a greater percentage of the budget must be supplied centrally.  This is exacerbated by any devolution of power where councils must do more not less.

In contrast, our proposal is to allow councils to raise local taxes.  In one version (by Ed Davey), the direct grant would be reduced, council tax would be scrapped and national tax reduced to allow a significant local income tax to be raised.  This would change the funding ratio to something like 25% direct grant and 75% local funding, allowing much greater local control.  I doubt anything this radical will be possible under the current coalition. But I can see a possible compromise where council tax is frozen (or perhaps reduced slightly) and councils are given the ability to raise small local taxes to make up the direct grant shortfall.

What is Liberalism?

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

The basic philosophical and practical foundations of British Liberalism have been a belief in personal, political, economic and social liberalism, combined with a strongly internationalist approach to extending these self-same freedoms across the world.  Liberalism is, by every instinct, an internationalist creed.

This is David Laws definition and is from The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism.  I’m going to draw heavily on this book in what follows.

Personal liberalism is easy; it is freedom of the individual from all forms of oppression including oppression by the state.  It is also freedom from ignorance, intolerance, prejudice and conformity.  But it is not a code-word for anarchy.  The basic tenet is maximal personal freedom without impinging on the freedom of others, so it is freedom under the law.

Political liberalism is the belief that power should be exercised in a democratic way through transparent and accountable structures, as close to the people affected as possible – that is, decentralisation and devolution of power.  As such it has much affinity with David Cameron’s Big Society discussed previously.

Economic liberalism is the belief in the value of free trade and free markets.  It is the belief that a private sector with open competition and consumers free to chose between products is at the root of a healthy economy.  It is also the belief that monopolies are bad and that we should be wary of state control and interference.  Note the word control: it does not mean unregulated.

Social liberalism came relatively late to the game but it is an acknowledgement that personal, political and economic liberalism are not enough on their own to ensure freedom for everyone.  It is a belief that education, housing, healthcare, and freedom from poverty are also necessary for the freedom of an individual.

So what about internationalism? Liberalism stands against narrow interests – whether they be of class or of nation – in favour of the general interest.  I can do no better and be no more topical than ape David Laws’ use of Gladstone:

Remember the rights of the savage, as we call him.  Remember that the happiness of his humble home, remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own

Personal and political liberalism are what set us apart from Labour who are, by instinct, authoritarian and statist.

The Conservatives also now believe in personal and political liberalism, and these form the basis of our current coalition, but they are not strong believers in internationalism.  I say they “now believe” with reason; for much of the 20th century they have been just as guilty as Labour of centralising all power in Westminster.  It is only with David Cameron that policy seems to have reverted to what I think is the natural instinct of their party.

All three parties believe in economic liberalism to some extent.  The Conservatives policies are the most liberal; Labour’s the least.  Our thinking is divided, and I think because of confusions over social liberalism.

None of the parties believe anyone should be deprived of housing, education or healthcare, or that any should live in poverty.  But the motivations are different.  At heart, I think Labour still believe in a Fabian redistributive model and the Conservatives still cling to trickle-down beliefs.  I think our belief is different because we believe these things are a prerequisite for individuals to fully exercise their freedom and for them to fully participate in power.

So why does this confuse us on economic liberalism?  Because I think many on the left have come from a Labour background and are applying redistributive and statist thinking where it doesn’t really apply.  Let me put it another way: we want to ensure people are provided with essential services and are free from poverty and have opportunity to earn to their maximum ability (without any nasty poverty traps).  We are not trying to redistribute wealth in some egalitarian belief that all people should have equal income.

You may think I’m some kind of closet-Tory (see I used the word; see my entry on terminology).  I am not.  Though we share beliefs with the Conservatives in personal and political liberalism, they do not believe in internationalism or in social liberalism.  Further than that, a belief in the traditional and a distrust of large projects and large changes is at the heart of Conservatism.  We are radicals, prepared to rip-up policies and start again.

Incidentally, some Conservatives do not believe in personal liberalism.  These are best personified by the hate-filled headlines in the Daily Mail.  My belief (and experience) is that this does not represent the views of the majority of Conservatives but it arises from them attracting a particularly mean-spirited set of C1 voters (who sadly swing elections).