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The Lib Dems must not turn their back on social liberalism

Richard Reeves's classical liberalism is the wrong philosophy and the wrong strategy.

Liberal Democrat memorabilia on sale at the party's conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Davis recently achieved the remarkable feat of being simultaneously dead right and completely wrong on the economy, emulating the most famous feline in physics. Not to be outdone, the coalition’s junior partners now have their very own Schrödinger’s Liberal – Nick Clegg’s former directory of strategy, Richard Reeves, who is absolutely right in carving out a space for a liberal force in British politics, and at the same time sadly wrong on what such a party should stand for.

Writing in the New Statesman, Reeves correctly identified the need for a British political party with liberalism at its heart, given that the Tories and Labour swing wildly between stifling authoritarianism and careless libertarianism. Here, most Liberal Democrat members and voters will agree – we need a party that emphasises the importance of personal freedoms, of the freedom to set and achieve one’s own aims, and that takes a liberal approach to public policy. Reeves is also right that the question of Clegg’s leadership will be discussed at our Brighton conference. However, Reeves then recommends that the party takes a very different line to what most of its members and voters would recognise as being truly liberal – thus completing his task of being simultaneously right and wrong.

Having rightly formed a coalition, the Lib Dems were always likely to lose support. The choices Clegg and his parliamentary colleagues have made in government, often against the better judgement of the party’s grassroots, meant much of that support has been lost "to the left," territory he seems content to concede to Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. Reeves recommends jettisoning these voters (and by extension, I presume, the policies they supported), in favour of a retreat to the elusive "centre ground.’  In Reeves’s estimation, Clegg and the party must become "true liberals," but he fails spectacularly to define what that means. Liberalism itself may not be on a left-right axis (hence Reeves’s rejection of the soft-left), but few would argue that the Liberal Democrats were founded as and, at heart, remain, a liberal party of the centre-left.

The party’s constitution begins with a commitment to "a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity" (emphasis added). Reeves may have reason to dismiss Labour’s "statism, paternalism, insularity and narrow egalitarianism," but not in all cases; true Liberal Democrats recognise that individuals are at their most free to live their lives when they are part of an empowered community and participate in a fair economy – and that for these conditions to be met, the state needs to do more than grant people what Isaiah Berlin called the negative liberty of simply getting out of their way.

Indeed, it’s not just Berlin’s conception of positive liberty (more than the freedom from coercion or conformity, but the freedom to achieve one’s ambitions) that Reeves appears to neglect. He is a clever man with a wealth of knowledge, so I wonder why he skips 150 years or so of political philosophy in returning to so-called "classical 19th century liberalism." Liberals such as L.T. Hobhouse, John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge,  Amartya Sen and Will Hutton have all conceived of a public realm that does more than simply retreat from our lives; social liberals believe in a state that lifts everybody’s capabilities to flourish by securing the conditions in which we are all free to pursue our goals irrespective of the dumb luck of the circumstances of our birth.

So much for political philosophy, as Reeves himself says – it’s the hard political choices we make that define a party. So to be liberals, we must back free schools, says Reeves – but how can it be liberal to remove democratic accountability from publicly funded schools and watch as the already-privileged detach themselves from an education system that should treat all children equally? Reeves has little to say about how a liberal party should secure economic conditions in which all are free, and even less on how health and social care and other public services should be configured – all we find is more triangulation between Tory and Labour, which, as former Lib Dem James Graham identifies, is not what the public wants. All Liberal Democrats share Reeves's support for civil liberties and his desire to break up arbitrary concentrations of power, and we always will – but unless he and his supporters can define how a liberal party would bring about a fair, free, open society in which the values of liberty and equality are balanced, his call for more liberalism will remain empty.

Social liberals have always recognised the role for an active, accountable, participative, decentralised state in securing greater positive freedoms for its citizens. For most Liberal Democrats, who leads the party isn’t as important as the direction in which they lead it; if Reeves and Clegg acknowledge the contribution of Sen et al to modern liberal thought and want to work with us to frame markets and public institutions so that we’re all free to live fulfilling lives, they are welcome to do so.