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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.