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.