That “Democrat” Word

Before I move on the Europe, I realised this morning that I haven’t talked about the word “Democrat” in the name of our party. Is it just a redundant hang-over from the merger of the Liberal party and the SDP in 1988?

In many senses, I think it is, but in one important sense I still think it is vital. Though political liberalism has democracy at its core, it does not really talk about pluralism and representation.

We live in a plural society where there is a broad spectrum of opinions. “Democrat” stresses the point that this range of opinions should be expressed fairly and proportionally at all levels of government. Unless and until we achieve the political (and electoral) reforms required, we still need that word.

Many are upset that we haven’t got any form of proportional representation from The Coalition. Personally, I am happy (and surprised) at the level of reform in the agreement. Though we can point at examples across Europe and the rest of the world where proportional systems work, I think it would be irresponsible of us to impose a proportional system until we demonstrate that coalition government works in this country. Now is our opportunity to do just that!

But what about “fairness” and “social justice”? Don’t they also require that “Democrat” word? I don’t think so; they are embodied in the concepts political and social liberalism. I’m much more comfortable with social liberalism than I am with the Labour concept (which we inherited through the SDP) of “social justice.”

The reason is not the policies they imply: they both need a tax system with variable rates depending on income and they both need a benefit system. Where I think they differ is in motivation. To me, “social justice” is entangled with Fabian concepts of redistribution, a feeling that somehow wealth is bad, and a feeling that education is somehow subsidiary. Social liberalism is about ensuring everyone is free from poverty, has housing and healthcare, and (most importantly) education. It is about ensuring everyone is free (and has the opportunity) to earn to their maximum ability. We should have no issue with the rich or even the super-rich; but we should not allow people to live in poverty and ignorance, unable to enjoy their freedoms.

The Labour approach has left us with a benefit system littered with poverty traps and huge disincentives to work. These poverty traps have also fostered an ignorance trap where young people feel unable to exploit their educational opportunities because of the loss of benefit to their parents.

I would like to see a radical reform of the entire benefits structure. I don’t know what the ideal system should look like. I just know the current system is awful.

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