(It’s So Funny How) We Don’t Talk Anymore

[Note: This was written before the European Elections and the attempted regicide against Nick Clegg. I think that the lack of enthusiasm for the botched coup strengthens, rather than weakens, my argument about the loyalism of party activists.]

One of the most thought-provoking things about my studies of Late Antiquity has been analysing how debate happens. In my research, it’s normally been doctrinal debate, usually over the relationship between the two natures of Christ. One of the things you realise very quickly is that the terms of any debate are if anything more important than the context – if you can frame them so that, for example, your opponent is somehow not fit to take part in the debate, or take umbrage at your opponent’s lack of civility, you can score easy points or even delegitimize them entirely. The terms of the discourse are also elastic, and contestable. In other words, the metadebate – the debate about the debate – can be more important than the contents of the respective arguments.

In this post, I’ll be analysing how debate occurs between different factions within the Lib Dems, and how it is stale and unproductive because of an overemphasis on policing the terms of debate which distracts from real policy issues. I will declare an interest: I consider myself a social liberal, and I am a member of the SLF. Most, but not all, of the examples of ‘bad practice’ below come from market liberals and are directed at the Social Liberal Forum. This is because, from my observation, this is generally true – both sides do it, but one side does it more.[1] However, even if this is my bias showing, I don’t think that it undermines my overall assessment. My observations come largely from social media, particularly Twitter, but I have also been informed by statements from party figures, sources such as Lib Dem Voice, and of course conversations that I’ve had in person.

 

We are family?

Last September in Glasgow, just before the Leader’s Speech, Tim Farron gave a short speech of the kind Party Presidents are required to give at the end of party conferences – pumping people up a little for the main act, introducing the prizes, and reminding people of the highlights of the previous five days. One thing that he said, however, stuck in my head: that the Liberal Democrats are a family, which celebrates and grieves together. This comment was admittedly made in the context of commemorating party activists who had died since the previous conference, but it rang uneasily true more generally. The small size of the party, with perhaps a few thousand active members, means that activists are more likely to know each other than in a mass-membership party, something which is only exacerbated by the Internet and social media.

Surely nothing can be better than being members of a big, happy family? Well, not quite. Families can row, they can bicker, they can get on one another’s nerves. Moreover, the facade of unity and comity can become oppressive – don’t argue with your racist Uncle Fred when he starts ranting about Romanians and Muslims, he’s family. I would suggest that the idea of the party as family works similarly. We celebrate being a broad church, on the ground that We Are All Liberals Here, however fundamental our disagreements might be. But one of the odd things about the Liberal Democrats is that nobody considers that there might be downsides to the membership being split on the economy and public services, the two most contested issues in 21st century British politics. The attempt to dodge this divide is summed up in Nick Clegg’s fatuous statement that ‘we are neither left nor right, we are liberal’, something which is little more than a rhetorical flourish to distract from the substantial questions of how the modern state should be run. It is this attitude which encourages the development of a mode of internal party debate which privileges appeals to unity, inclusivity, and proper conduct. It is on these rules that debate within the party is policed, and judged by majority in the party which is not engaged in active factional disputes. Those who are judged to have broken them face disapproval – and therefore a potential loss of support for their position.

 

The rules of the game

The first result of this is that, in the Liberal Democrats, organisations espousing particular views on contested issues are controversial and suspect – even the name applied to them, factions, is reminiscent of violent division and crazed Trotskyites. A milder version of this is that factions are acceptable as long as they don’t try to organise within the party – for example by organising slates for internal elections or, God forbid, encourage its members to put themselves forwards to be voting reps (something which led to hyperventilation from some when SLF did it). We can see the outline of the first of the rules informally set for party debate: don’t organise too efficiently, or look like you’re trying too hard to get your views implemented.

The second is an emphasis upon penalising language which appears to exclude or insult participants in internal party debates. It is a common grievance of those on the right of the party that somebody, at some time, has told them they should leave the party or doubted their identity as a liberal. Within party discourse, such discourtesy is a blunder which can be pointed to as a means to criticising the Social Liberal Forum. The obverse is also true – Jeremy Browne’s appeal to ‘authentic liberalism’ was attacked by some on the left of the party who knew that tone policing is an easy way to discredit him.

The third stems from the fact that party activists are not, as Liberator would have us believe, particularly rebellious or defiant towards our leaders, but depressingly loyal. Poll after poll by Lib Dem Voice finds activists giving Nick Clegg positive ratings, despite his presiding over a catastrophic collapse in our vote and implementing illiberal Tory policies which make us blanch. The spirit of this can be summed up by a Glee Club song called ‘He’s Our Nick’ (sample lyrics: Sharks gotta swim and bats gotta fly/We’ve got a leader who’s hung us out to dry/He’s made us break our pledge/And pushed us nearer the edge/But thin or thick/We’ll stick with our Nick/Cos We love him.’) Many people in the party have campaigned alongside and know senior MPs personally, making criticism of them on their merits difficult. For example, dissatisfaction with Danny Alexander is commonly met with a statement that ‘everybody’s so mean to Danny, but he’s such a nice guy! Why do people always pick on Danny?’ The answer, of course, is that he’s been our man at the Treasury during a highly controversial programme of cuts and repeatedly fails to convincingly advocate and defend Liberal Democrat values in encounters with the media. ‘Personal attacks’ – which can sometimes be defined as broadly as ‘consistently having a go at the same person for a period of time’ – are therefore off limits.

So far, I’ve dealt with this all as a purely structural issue, but in reality people use these norms to the advantage of their own preferred faction. I am sceptical of the good will of people who scrutinise SLF e-mails for evidence of unfortunate phrases which might deviate from the established norms of behaviour in order to denigrate the left of the party. Similarly, attacks on party members of <insert opposing faction here> for making statements to the press because they are ‘damaging the party’ are almost always bogus if considered objectively. We are tanking in the polls for a number of reasons, from the inevitable stresses and strains of coalition with the Conservatives to a hostile press to deficient leadership, but the number of voters who will be dissuaded from voting for us by what Jeremy Browne or Naomi Smith has to say to the Guardian can be counted on the fingers of no hands. These are just a few examples of how rules of conduct – all of which flow from the notion of the party as family – are weaponized to attack opponents in internal party debates.

 

Case Study: Jeremy Browne

In April, Jeremy Browne, MP for Taunton Deane, released a book titled Race Plan setting out his views on how Britain can win the ‘global race’. The furore was predictable: Browne is our most ardently free market MP, and after his stint in government he had expressed dissatisfaction with the leftward drift he perceived in the party. A number of promotional interviews – including one in which he was quoted out of context as saying that the party was ‘pointless’ – only served to increase the controversy. And yet, it was an argument about very little. Partly that was because Browne published his work in paper and ink, giving it prestige but also limiting its circulation to those curious enough to shell out £5.00 + P&P – mainly his supporters, in other words. The result is that, after a great deal of chatter and a modest press tour, I still know damn all about the policy proposals he put forward. But even bearing this in mind, the discussion of the policy content of Browne’s work was strikingly absent. All I saw on Twitter was a great deal of policing the terms of debate: against personal attacks on ‘Jeremy’, and about how one’s comments were uninformed if one had not read the book. I was therefore gratified to read Caron Lindsay’s meaty engagement with Browne on Lib Dem Voice, asking the important question: what would this mean for real people in the real world? The response to this was frankly disappointing; Browne’s answer largely amounted to ‘read my book, I have good intentions’, rather than defending the merits of his proposals. How much easier it is to attack how your opponent conducts herself than to make an argument – or a counter-argument – on the merits. At the same time, as I have already mentioned, Browne’s being quoted out of context by The Times was used against him – rather than challenging his views on the economy and the public services. An opportunity for a much-needed dialogue had been lost.[2]

 

Conclusion

Clearly, then, the current mode of internal party discourse fails to bring about substantial dialogue on vital matters of policy. If we believe, as liberals, in the benefit of meaningful debate (and I hope we do), then this is pretty grave. Where do we go from here?

I would suggest, firstly, that we abandon the metaphor of party as family, and instead move towards the idea of the party as part of a wider movement. It’s a less parochial vision, and it’s fitting for a ‘party of government’ since few individual parties alone have ever brought about significant social change. Movements, however, do – consider the labour movement, or Thatcher’s Conservative Party which was surrounded by satellite institutions such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Murdoch press. What this means in practice is welcoming active factions as the signs of a flourishing liberal party. It also means accepting a degree of tolerance for robust debate, including a good dose of satire directed at our elders and betters (personal attacks on one’s peers, or, worse, those with less power than oneself, I regard as abhorrent and quite different from mercilessly lampooning, say, Simon Hughes or Nick Clegg). None of this means that we can’t fight elections alongside one another with conviction, or that we can’t be at least cordial to one another as one might expect in any great campaigning movement.

Secondly, I would shift debate towards empirical policy analysis. Not all questions can be answered simply on the evidence of ‘what works’. It can, however, be useful in many circumstances. For instance, has marketisation of the NHS produced greater efficiencies? At least some of the evidence suggests otherwise. Or we might look at the optimum rate of income tax to gather maximum income from higher earners. Hmmm, looks like more work’s still needed on that. And so, I am going to make a promise. The next time an asinine, content-free party spat occurs, I will not only abstain; I will research and write something, even if it’s just a few sentences, about a substantive area of public policy. I hope other people will join me – if they disagree with me, even better. We have a public services paper coming to Autumn Conference this September, and it will no doubt be controversial whatever it says. Let’s enter the realm of substantive debate, putting into place liberal values, but in a way informed by the facts. If we do that, we really will be able to call ourselves a grown-up party.

 

[1] From my observation, social liberals, particularly of an older generation, prefer instead to simply call their opponents ‘market fundamentalists’ or similar insulting labels, an increasingly ineffective and counterproductive strategy in a party where market liberals now make up a significant minority.

[2] This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy reviews of Browne’s book by Stephen Tall and Mark Pack; I thought both were quite astute. I did, however, think that both of them lacked a little verve – but, of course, the aforementioned courtesy norm (as well as the strictures of the book review genre) demands that the intellectual shivving be fairly subtle.

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