Lib-Dem-logoAs part of the Agenda 2020 policy process, the party is holding an essay contest asking for 1000 words on ‘what does it mean to be a Liberal Democrat today?’ This is my entry to it, written in a rush as the deadline came near, and you can see other people’s efforts on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Liberal Democrats want to give more freedom to everyone to enable them to live their own lives. However, we also know that freedom for individuals is not enough, and that it must be combined with breaking down the unaccountable powers of the state, in the economy and in society to enable individuals to fully use their freedom. We live in a world where there is more power to affect the lives of individuals than there ever has been, and by focusing on freeing people from historic controls we are cutting the strings and chains that tie them down, but ignoring the new ropes and cables that bind them even tighter.

To be a Liberal Democrat is to recognise that power has to exist, but that where it does exist it must be accountable. We are not opposed to the existence of power and recognise that it is needed to build, maintain and develop the society we live in, but we recognise that power needs to be controlled. Freedom is not simply removing a power over someone, freedom is giving people the ability to participate in power.

Liberals understand that power comes in many different forms and that the power of the state is just one of them. Indeed, it may be the weakest power of all because the concept of state power being accountable to those it affects is widely accepted, even if not regularly seen in practice. As liberals, we can spend far too much time getting upset about the minutiae of the use and misuse of state power while ignoring unaccountable power in society and the economy.

As Liberal Democrats we often eagerly point to how we believe that ‘no one should be enslaved by conformity’, but without focusing on how we make that happen in reality. We need to recognise that just saying oppression and enforced conformity is bad is not enough. Identifying it should be just the first step and we need to be prepared to discuss how we as Liberal Democrats are actually going to take on the unaccountable power and privilege that causes so much harm in our society, including within our own party. To be a Liberal Democrat today should be to understand that just telling someone they are free isn’t enough, it’s about standing with them to challenge the power and privilege that oppresses them.

Liberalism is internationalist at its heart, recognising that everyone deserves the same rights and respect no matter where they live, what language they use or who their parents were. People working together across national borders have achieved some of the greatest liberal successes of the last century, from eradicating diseases to ending apartheid, but we need to ensure liberal and internationalist values remain for the centuries to come. There is a great power in people acting together through global institutions and we need to ensure that power is accountable and effective to achieve future liberal goals across the planet, and even beyond it.

To be a Liberal Democrat today should also be to understand the danger of unaccountable economic power. We need to deal with the new concentrations of unaccountable power within the economy that have massive effects on people’s lives that they can do nothing about. Free trade was a means to an end, ensuring that the poorest in society would be able to afford to eat, but we have turned it into an end in itself, regardless of the effect it has on people. We talk of trade between nations and empowering individuals, ignoring the vast unaccountable powers of corporations and how they take away freedom and choice from individuals, concentrating economic power amongst an unaccountable elite.

Liberalism is about people and we need to create a world where the economy works for the benefit of the people, not one where people work for the benefit of the economy. We need to fight for education systems that develop people as individuals, not merely as future workers; for social security that concentrates on supporting people, not subsidising employers; and for an economy that liberates people to spend more time doing what they want, where everyone’s abilities and contributions to society are welcomed.

Beyond the state, society and the economy, there is a further power that we must address: our environment. This is a different order of power, where climate change is capable of destroying everything our society is based on, rendering liberalism and every other ideology meaningless. And yet, it is vital that we understand a liberal response to this crisis is necessary because only through liberalism and recognising the value of every life on this planet can we build a global response. Liberalism is international by instinct, seeing potential in every person, and that international instinct is also environmental, recognising that we need to protect our planet to ensure that it’s not just us who get the chance to live the lives we want, but all the generations still to come. Human survival is important, and we increase our chances of that survival by giving people reasons to believe in a better tomorrow.

To be a Liberal Democrat today is to recognise that liberals have made a start in tackling these unaccountable powers in the state, in society and in the economy but it is only a start and there is so much more work to be done. The fight for liberalism is not a new one: it has taken many forms and many different names over the years, but at its heart it has always sought to break up power, to make it accountable, and to give all the chance to live the life they wish. To be a Liberal Democrat is to want to take power from the unaccountable and let people use it for themselves because that’s the only way we can create a world for everyone.

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One thought that occurred to me after writing yesterday’s post – and clarified by a discussion about it on Facebook – was how depoliticizing something connects to structures of power. I ended up circling around the issue rather than addressing it directly, and I think it’s important to highlight it as we often avoid talking directly about power when we discuss politics.

As I discussed yesterday, ‘taking the politics out’ of a discussion or decision is to pretend it can be removed from the wider context it takes place in. Effectively, it’s saying that we need to accept the status quo and not challenge any of the assumptions we’re operating in. The status quo is presented as ‘just the way things are’ and almost objective facts rather than being subjective and the creation of a political process. By calling to take the politics out of just one thing, whole swathes of subjects are actually being placed out of the reach of political action and discussion.

It’s why attempts at depoliticising things are usually the tool of those already in power, as it’s a great way to load the argument in their favour. They’re just trying to discuss things reasonably, they claim, it’s everyone that’s challenging them who’s politicising the issue. At the extreme end of the scale, it’s why dictatorships implement one-party (or sometimes no-party) states because that allows them to strictly contain the boundaries of what’s political. Limited to only that desired by the party and conducted under its auspices, it assures that the political is kept within a small range and everything else remains unchallenged.

Although not on the same scale, a similar principle applies in our system. Consider that when someone challenges something that’s normally been an accepted part of the consensus, they’re usually then accused of politicising it, as though this is something terrible. All they’re doing, in fact, is putting forward an alternative view and demonstrating that something is political and has always been political. However, the more you can get people to believe that something isn’t political, that it’s part of the fabric of things and doesn’t need to be thought away – don’t look at the entrenched power structures behind the curtain! – the more you can protect that which gives you power: it’s not political, it’s just the way things are.

The key, I think, to understanding British politics is that there are a hueg number of things that have been taken out of the political arena, some recently, some for centuries. It’s the process Peter Mair talks about in Ruling the Void but it’s not a new phenomenon. Our electoral system, the way Parliament works, the Civil Service, the ownership of land and much more: all of these are issues that decide who wields the power in Britain, yet there’s massive attempts to keep them depoliticised and restrict politics to just a small area that doesn’t change too much of importance. Sure, the names at the top change but who wields power is not important, providing that the hierarchical structure always remains the same. Politics is about power, and taking the politics out of something is to remove any attempts to challenge the way power works.


Worth Reading 169: The absurdity of fatalism

14 things I desperately want to hear a candidate say before this campaign ends – And they’re 14 things Jonn Elledge probably won’t hear.
The Cambridge Election: Princess Bride Style – Excellent exploration of an individual voters dilemma in choosing who to vote for.
Mediamacro myth 6: 2013 recovery vindication – Simon Wren-Lewis’s latest post on bad reporting and understanding of economics issues, but you should read his entire series of posts.
Why So Many Americans Feel So Powerless – Robert Reich on an issue I’ve been thinking about recently – how the modern economy and modern society leaves so many feeling they have no power over anything.
Sacked for speaking your mind? Don’t expect the free speech brigade to help – An Australian story, so some of the references might not be clear, but the important point is about how libertarians obsess over state power while letting corporations do whatever they want.

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You may recall that when I started regular blogging last year, the spur for that was writing about Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. The key to Russell’s liberalism is that it is a creed that always challenges and seeks to break down unaccountable forms of power. The other side to that coin – and a key difference of liberalism and libertarianism – is the recognition that power isn’t solely the preserve of the state, and can be exerted on us by a number of unaccountable forces.

One of the main sources of unaccountable power in Britain is the nexus of it that exists in the City of London, where the City’s own cloistered system of government reflects the corporate and banking power that is exerted from there over all of us. It’s the sort of unaccountable power that needs to be confronted and challenged to make it accountable to the people whose lives it dominates, and yet much of British politics exists in its thrall, scared to offend it in any way. Which leads to this:

Not a challenge to the power of the City, the ‘markets’ or big business, but a capitulation to them, using their fears as a motivation to get people to vote. It’d be a weak message for the Tories to use, but for liberals to just roll over and willingly spread the message of an unaccountable few is just wrong.

We’re supposed to be a party that challenges power, that breaks it down and takes it back to the people. Instead we’re dancing to someone else’s tune in the hopes of a few crumbs from their table. We need to do better than this.

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Democracy happens more than once every four years

Thanks to Chris Black for linking to me yesterday and reminding me to write about this story (also covered in the press here).

It’s stories like this that make me realise that, for all David Cameron’s cosmetic changes on the surface, the Tories haven’t changed underneath. Maybe they’re good at presenting their caring, sharing face elsewhere in the country but give them raw power like they have in Essex (where Colchester is the only Council they don’t control) and the velvet gloves are swiftly removed. When I went to a County Council meeting last year, one of the Tory Councillors declared ‘democracy in Essex belongs to the Conservatives’ which is scary either in its ignorance of the meaning of the word or its utter contempt for the process.

And that’s why I don’t expect anything different from Cameron and the rest should they get into Government. Just like Blair, it’s easy to talk about caring, sharing, consensual government when you’re in opposition, but then you win an election, find yourself in possession of something close to absolute power and why would you ever want to give any of that away?

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