The Lib Dems must not turn their back on social liberalism

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

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.

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

Prateek Buch is director of the Social Liberal Forum and serves on the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage