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How liberal is too liberal? (16 September 2008)

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How liberal is too liberal? (16 September 2008)

Posted on 16 September 2008 by admin

A provocative index ranks Lib Dem MPs by their liberality. But is repealing the smoking ban really a vote-winner?

Liberalism has always been tugged between two conflicting ideological traditions, libertarianism and social reform. The Liberal party almost from its foundation until its nadir in the 1950s suffered splits, breakaways and defections from its economic liberals to the Conservatives and its radicals and reformers to Labour. None of these actually resolved the problem, and even in the 1950s the old conflicts were being played out in Lilliputian form.

A new pressure group, Liberal Vision, is interested in restarting the debate and has done it in the provocative form of an index of how liberal or not the 63 Lib Dem MPs are on various “lifestyle freedoms”, measuring their votes on measures concerning the smoking ban, gambling and licensing, and who signed which Early Day Motion on various subjects. The index was launched at a lively fringe meeting in Bournemouth, at which one of the speakers was Gavin Webb, a rebellious libertarian Lib Dem councillor from Stoke-on-Trent. Webb was introduced as having liberal views on drugs, prostitution, handguns and drink driving (hopefully not all at the same time). There are no out-and-out libertarians like Webb in the parliamentary party, but the liberal index is still quite intriguing and revealing.

The top and bottom scoring MPs for liberality on lifestyle issues illustrate a curious fact of political life. Lembit Öpik is the most “liberal” of the lot, but represents Montgomeryshire in mid Wales. The constituency has been one of the most consistently Liberal in the land, with only one Tory lapse (in 1979) in the last century. Despite a small influx of downsizing professionals and pot-smoking self-sufficient types, Montgomeryshire embodies the chapel-going, rural traditional heritage of the party. Other seats that consistently vote for the most liberal of the three main parties are also among the most conservative in their own social mores, such as Orkney and Shetland, the Highlands and Aberdeenshire, and to some extent Cornwall. The second and third most liberal, David Laws and Paul Keetch, represent Yeovil and Hereford, provincial towns not usually associated with letting it all hang out. Only at fourth place, with David Howarth of Cambridge, do we have a stereotypical liberal constituency.

The lowest score in the liberal index went to John Leech, who represents Manchester Withington. Withington is a classic example of a liberal, academic suburb. I would not be surprised if, despite Leech favouring a higher classification for the substance, Withington has a higher than average cannabis intake, and probably fair trade, organically grown cannabis at that. MPs’ views, perhaps particularly on these lifestyle liberal issues, are quirky, personal and often incongruous with their constituencies. Next lowest come three ex-Labour MPs, Mike Hancock, Vince Cable and Bob Russell, and leftwing Liberals such as Paul Holmes and John Pugh. Perhaps this means that MPs’ personalities are less important in deciding elections than they like to believe. Perhaps, also, voters tend to see these lifestyle liberties as being secondary to the principal questions of politics. Many voters who want these lifestyle choices just do it anyway, whatever the law says, and get away with it. Laws against brothels, pornography and cannabis are enforced in a rather liberal way, with the police usually taking action only in cases which clearly break the harm principle (such as people trafficking, child porn or gangsterism). The articulate and careful middle classes can already opt out, although it is unlikely that enforcing a law in a socially unequal way is a satisfactory way of dealing with lifestyle issues.

However, the view of Liberal Vision’s Mark Littlewood that some votes can be won on lifestyle liberalism is probably correct, even if the market for this sort of politics is smaller than Littlewood would like. There is potential in being the only large party that does not insist on telling people how to live their lives and which pleasures are officially licensed and which are punished. This has the potential to build a bridge between the old liberal left electorate and the new, more rightwing liberal types the party is wooing.

However, as the Liberal Vision meeting showed, what seems at first like a simple clear principle can end up being a matter of balance and compromise. Nearly every liberal accepts John Stuart Mill’s principle that activities that do not harm anyone else should not be restricted, but the question is always what counts as harm to others. The ban on smoking in public places is a particularly clear example of these differing interpretations and standards. Personal freedom will define and divide liberals long into the future.


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Could Ming bounce? (14 September 2007)

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Could Ming bounce? (14 September 2007)

Posted on 14 September 2007 by admin

Lib Dems 07: The Lib Dems need an urgent rethink after a bad year when they’ve been pushed to the political margins.

The Liberal Democrats assemble in Brighton after a bad year. More perhaps than the other parties, their morale is sensitive to performance in mid-term elections and the May 2007 elections were pretty poor. In the Scottish and Welsh elections in May, the Conservatives penetrated some historically Lib Dem territory areas. While both constituencies voted in Lib Dem assembly members, the party list vote in both the historic fiefdom of Montgomeryshire (where the Lib Dems have lost only once in the last century in general elections) and Brecon and Radnorshire went to the Conservatives. The farcical Lib Dem participation in Welsh coalition talks, in which the party managed to get nothing despite its good bargaining position, cannot have improved their standing. There was a similar tale in Scotland, where the Conservatives were ahead in the Borders. The English local elections were a bit more variable; with some good results in seats the Lib Dems need to defend against the Conservatives such as Eastleigh, Taunton and Teignbridge, but defeats in others, like North Devon and Torbay. Losses were worse in areas where the Lib Dems might have hoped to build on local success to win future contests, such as in South Norfolk and Bournemouth where they were virtually wiped out.

ICM polling data this summer suggests more severe problems than in the local elections. The Lib Dems are apparently down a massive nine percentage points in the south and seven points in London (and five points in Scotland and Wales combined). In the north and Midlands, where the party has been historically weaker and has fewer seats at stake, its existing support has held up better. However, the exposure to losses in the south and the London suburbs should terrify the party. On a 9% swing to the Conservatives across the south, few Lib Dem seats east of St Ives would survive the deluge. With southern losses on this scale, and with possible losses in Wales and Scotland, they could be talking about as few as 35 MPs. Nick Clegg, sitting on a secure majority in the intellectual Yorkshire suburbia of Sheffield Hallam, might end up leader more or less by default. Such a collapse is unlikely, as Lib Dem MPs are good at insulating themselves against the tide through personal votes and hard campaigning, but the Lib Dems are currently facing the prospect of serious losses to the Conservatives and a wounding retreat from their 2005 foothold in Labour territory.

While the anti-Labour wave of 2006-07 has subsided, so it seems has the immediate honeymoon of the Brown bounce, leaving a field that is very competitive between Labour and the Conservatives. Both parties are if not revitalised at least putting on a better face than they did in 2005. The Conservatives have tried hard to reassure liberal, professional England that they are not the whingeing, negative party they seemed in the last few elections, and have been thinking afresh. The 2005 election was about electing a third term, fag-end Blair government tainted by Iraq, and people did so unwillingly. Since taking office, Brown has worked hard, and successfully, to draw a line under that period.

With Labour and the Tories renewed and pushing towards the centre, electors may ask what is the point of the Liberal Democrats? And even if they have an answer to the question, it may be difficult to make themselves heard as the media-political environment takes shape around a presidential head-to-head between Brown and Cameron.

There are two strategies available, to slog on and hope the climate improves, or to shake it up. More or less the only way the party has to shake things up is to dispose of another leader. Rumblings against Charles Kennedy were audible at the 2005 conference, and Ming Campbell is no doubt well aware that 2007 in Brighton is a big test for his own leadership. Whether getting rid of him would accomplish anything, or just divide and demoralise the party further, is debatable. The Lib Dems are in an unenviable position, and what makes it all the more horrid is that there may be absolutely nothing they can do about it.


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