The Liberal Democrat conference in Gateshead this coming weekend will be dominated by the Health and Social Care Bill - assuming the party structures give the issue the chance to be debated. If it is, then it will be a close-run thing for a leadership which has constantly been forced onto the back foot by party activists who are concerned at the direction in which the party is being take on NHS reform.
Over the past year, since party conference first challenged the leadership on the subject, the leadership has consistently been shown to be out of touch with the mass of members when it comes to NHS reform. Remember that Nick Clegg happily signed off the original proposals, and was only forced to seek changes when told to be the party. Without that pressure, he was on the same page as David Cameron.
This is a worrying indication of the basic political values of the current leadership, utterly out of step with the members (and crucially those who have voted form the party) on central issues like NHS reform. Yet the party seems all too willing to take every dose of right-wing reforms supported by the leadership on the basis that political necessity dictates it.
Some members believe that it is time that the party realised that these reforms, and the leadership's support for them, come from ideology, not necessity. So a group of us are launching a new group at a fringe meeting on the Saturday evening of conference which will be a rallying point for all those who hold that view. The group is called Liberal Left. We are a group who have always believed that the party is and should be part of a broad left in British politics. That view has a long tradition in the party, dating back to Jo Grimond's leadership of the Liberal Party and his call for "a realignment of the left". This does not mean that we feel that the party has no differences with others on the left of politics. Grimond himself recognised the illiberal dimensions of Labourism, and all Liberal Democrats recognise that some socialist policies have stultified individual initiative and in particular local creativity. There is also a recognition, though in practical terms it often seems akin to splitting hairs, that liberals are inherently more wary of the state than are social democrats. Fundamentally, the liberal political goal is to advance the freedom of the individual, and that cannot be said in the same way of socialists or social democrats, even if both have often blazed trails in liberation campaigns.
However, at the centre of the Liberal Democrat analysis in recent decades has been a belief that if one really wants to advance individual freedom, then a more equal society is essential. That view has deep roots in the New Liberalism of the late 19th century, which articulated the view that greater equality and a more active state were essential to advance individual freedom. It means that we share a political agenda with many others from left traditions who also believe in a more equal society. We also believe that political power - local and national - as a means of people coming together and using the power of democracy to achieve shared goals, is a fundamental tenet of liberalism. That this is at the core of the British liberal tradition should be in no doubt. There is a long tradition of political liberalism - a liberalism that is not ashamed to use the state in a positive way to advance freedom - which stretches back to the 1870s.
There is much that could be said about the past of this type of liberalism, but it is its future that should concern us most. Now is the time for the party to assert a different approach, more in keeping with our values, and the starting place has to be the central public policy question of our time. In a pamphlet published by Liberal Left this week, I've argued that new approaches to economy and sustainability are crucial, but they rest on what should be a fundamental aspect of liberalism, but is treated warily by those on the centre-right within the Liberal Democrats: democratic politics. The starting point here for a new democratic politics is reinventing the state at a more local level, rather than destroying it as the coalition's approach to issues such as academies will do. That means understanding that people have real voice and power not through consumerism, nor through a system which rests primarily on voluntarism (even though that must be part of a liberal society). Instead, people can make this voice heard and exercise real power through democracy.
Such a political approach to liberalism, in which individuals act primarily as citizens rather than as consumers, is what liberal politics has always been about and should be in the future. But the people who subscribe to such liberal political solutions are not all in parties with 'liberal' in the title, though they are concentrated in parties on the broad left rather than in the market-inspired Conservative Party. Where there are people in other parties who agree with us, surely we must engage with them? We not only have the possibility of engaging with them to create a strong and resilient agenda for the future. We also have a duty to do so if we are ever to claim to be pluralists. The alternative is that for Liberal Democrats, 'pluralist politics' comes to mean more than merely working with the 'Conservatives'.
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