Nick Clegg: the wrong sort of Liberal?

It has been an uncomfortable week for Nick Clegg. Opinion polls continue to show him to be (by some distance) the least popular of the party leaders, and his public apology for his Party’s failure to keep its election pledge on tuition fees has seen him inadvertently propelled into the world of pop stardom.

But perhaps things are turning around for the beleaguered Liberal Democrat leader. This week has seen Clegg backed by Boris Johnson, and that news follows the publication of a wholehearted endorsement from his former Director of Strategy, Richard Reeves. The article, published in the latest edition of the New Statesman (and as a pamphlet by Demos), argues that the Liberal Democrats’ political future depends on Clegg remaining leader.

Reeves’ central contention is that the best hope for the Liberal Democrats is to carve out a distinctive identity as a genuinely ‘liberal’ party rather than as a soft-left alternative to Labour. This means pushing through the process of policy reform that began after Clegg became leader in 2007. And for this ‘liberalisation’ of Liberal Democrat policy to be completed, Reeves argues, it is vital that Clegg remain in post.

This, as Reeves acknowledges, will not be an easy agenda to fulfil. Quite apart from the difficult economic environment, and the reality of a coalition with a Conservative Party unsympathetic to many liberal instincts, Clegg will also need to face down many within his own ranks if he to transform the Liberal Democrats into a ‘party promoting real liberalism’. For, according to Reeves, many Liberal Democrats are not liberals at all – they are social democrats.

Of course, the presence within the Liberal Democrats of a substantial group of social democrats should come as a surprise to no one – the party is, after all, the result of the amalgamation of the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party in 1988. Many ex-Social Democrats continue to occupy prominent positions in the Party (the most notable being the Business Secretary, Vince Cable) and while the distinction between Liberals and Social Democrats is not as important as is often supposed, it is nevertheless worth remembering that the Liberal Democrats are an ideological hybrid. The party’s intellectual and ideological roots lie in both the many and varied strands of British liberalism, and also in the revisionist social democracy of the 1960s. Any history of the party must include the names of Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams alongside those of Jo Grimond and David Steel, and it is unwise for any Liberal Democrat leader to neglect this heritage.

Equally problematic is the fact that the precise nature of the Liberal Democrats’ liberalism is profoundly contested, especially on issues connected to the role of the state and the management of the economy. While calls for higher taxation on ‘unearned wealth’ have an air of John Stuart Mill about them, and are likely to win widespread internal support, many Liberal Democrats will be far more sceptical about Reeves’ calls for further reform of the public services. Though the reform of the NHS and the introduction of free schools are portrayed as attempts to redistribute power from centralised bureaucracies to ordinary individuals, those on the ‘social liberal’ left of the party are far more likely to see them as a continuation of the Blairite reforms of the 1990s and 2000s. Rather than representing a genuine redistribution of power, these reforms have been perceived as a further extension of consumerism into the public sector at the expense of equality of access – an argument made by Richard Grayson earlier this year in an essay for the pressure group Liberal Left.

Though these social liberals also want to see reform of the public services, they would prefer to see power passed into the hands of stronger and more dynamic local authorities, rather than seeing local government bypassed altogether. This is an approach that focuses on the political control of public services through local democracy, rather than through the extension of individual choice and the introduction of new service providers. And it is an approach that was criticised by leading Liberal Democrat (and Clegg ally) David Laws earlier this year.

Any attempt to ‘liberalise’ the Liberal Democrats may, therefore, run into considerable internal difficulties from those who do not share the particular vision of liberal democracy articulated by Reeves and (apparently) held by Clegg. Reeves objects that Clegg is ‘wrongly portrayed as more conservative than his party’, when the ‘truth is that he is simply more liberal’. This may well be the case – the problem is that he may turn out to be the wrong sort of liberal.

Matthew Francis – who has recently been awarded a PhD for his thesis on the influence of neo-liberalism on British party politics.

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