I had spent some of this week vaguely writing a post on liberalism and the post-Covid world, but for once my procrastination has worked to my advantage. Layla Moran and her team have produced a booklet — Build Back Better — which is a collection of policy ideas for the Liberal Democrats in the post-Coronavirus world. It’s not Layla’s leadership manifesto per se, and isn’t attempting to be a comprehensive policy vision, but it is a useful launching point for starting a debate, and gives me a framework for expanding on some of my thoughts.
To start, regardless of the content, it’s good to see people in the Liberal Democrats actually wanting to have discussions about ideas and approaches to politics and acknowledging that we need to have this sort of debate. A culture of internal debate and discussion is healthy to have in any party that wants to be more than a fraction, and far too often Liberal Democrats shy away from having these sort of discussions. It’s worth looking at other parties — in the UK and the rest of the world — to see how much gets produced by groups and organisations within the party to foster debate and challenge consensus, and by comparison how little happens within our party. I’m not going to go off on another rant about the party’s policy process (you can read that here) but we tend to value consensus over challenge and like to pretend that factions are something that happen in other parties. I may not agree with much of The Orange Book, but it was absolutely right to publish it and it should have been part of a long history of publications like that from all sides of the party.
Anyway, to Build Back Better, and once we’re past the slightly tongue-twisting title, what’s it like?
The first thing to be clear on is that this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive or coherent vision — it’s a collection of ideas from a disparate group of people, and not intended to be a collective vision being put forward by them. It’s worth stressing this point so people don’t get caught in a trap of “you propose X on page 62, but Y on page 94, and these can’t both happen” but also to be clear that weak sections don’t invalidate the whole thing. From my perspective, there’s some really interesting stuff in here, along with some good ideas, a chunk of policy wonkery and a few bits of “what were you thinking by letting this out into the world?”
To start at the top of that tree, David Howarth’s chapter has the rather innocuously bland title of “Economic policy and the state” but is to by mind the most radical and fascinating part of the book. Howarth is perhaps the most interesting thinker on liberalism in the party at present, and his chapter sets out a very persuasive case for rethinking the way we see the interaction of liberalism and economics. He draws out the fundamental difference between liberalism and the market fundamentalism of libertarianism. Howarth is setting out a vision for a liberal economics (not “economic liberalism”) that puts the economy at the service of the people, rather than the current vice versa.
This chapter not only looks at how that market fundamentalism has failed in the current crisis but how those approaches that have been more successful in dealing with Coronavirus are going to be the same ones that we need to approach the climate crisis as well. There are points where markets are inadequate, perhaps even antithetical, to maximising human happiness in the face of existential threats and so liberalism has to recognise the power and the role of the state in putting people at the heart of things. There’s a huge amount going on in this chapter and I’d like to read Howarth expanding on these thoughts at greater length in a book, but it’s setting out a radical vision for liberalism and the party to follow. If you read nothing else from Build Back Better, you should read this chapter.
Interestingly, my problem with the book is encapsualted in the first line of the next chapter: “The previous chapter sets out the case for an interventionist economic policy”. It did, but it was part of a much bigger shift than moving the dial a few notches away from laissez-faire. It was about shifting the framework and the assumptions politics and the economy work in, and most of the rest of the book shies away from doing anything like that. There are interesting policies being put forward, but they’re all about shifts within the current framework, they’re not thinking about big changes in the way we do and think about politics.
Of course, some of this is the result of people writing separately and not seeking to work towards a common vision, but it also reveals a wider problem within the Liberal Democrats and perhaps liberalism as a whole. When we’re asked for visions and ideas, we can only respond with a shopping list of policies or, in Jennie Rigg’s phrase, we’re very good at giving process answers to values questions.
The problem with that approach is that it assumes the framework politics is operating within is stable and isn’t going to change, when everything that’s happened recently — and “recent” here can be three weeks, three months or three years — has shown us the rules of the game are up for grabs more than they’ve been at any other point in my lifetime. Things that were completely of the political agenda — from defunding the police and universal basic income on one side to no deal Brexit and leaving the ECHR on the other — are now real and tangible possibilities. The structures and institutions that make up the rules of the political game are being shown to sit on foundations of sand and our reaction is to shrug and dive back into the minutiae of policy.
Coronavirus is a global crisis on the scale of the World Wars, and we need to remember that British liberalism nosedived as an electoral force after both of those. Even when William Beveridge, an actual Liberal MP, assembled the concept of the Welfare State, just as Lloyd George before him had delivered the People’s Budget, liberals weren’t able to put together a strong and coherent vision of the future that people could buy into. Just like in 1945, when the next election comes around people are going to be asking what their reward is for all the struggle and sacrifice and the answer to that needs to be big ideas not expecting them to be enthused by a thousand procedural adjustments.
I do get the sense from her final chapter in this that Layla gets this and understands that the party needs a big picture narrative, not just a barrage of vaguely-connected policies. I think she errs too much on the side of emphasising valence (voters’ perception of competence) over values as what’s needed for a third party’s success — Paddy and Charles succeeded because voters saw them as politicians who had principles and stuck to them, not because people were assessing their ability to be Prime Minister. However, she does stress that we need to have a clear answer to the question of “what is the party for?” before we get into deep explorations of policy.
The big question now, though, is what effect this publication has on the party. We talk about using the leadership election as a forum for debating the future of the party, but we very rarely have that debate openly and honestly. What do we want the party to be in the years to come and what sort of country do we want it to be campaigning and working for? Are we ready to have that debate with the understanding that it might come up with an answer that’s not a fudge trying to keep everyone happy?