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.

Show Hide image

7 problems with the Snooper’s Charter, according to the experts

In short: it was written by people who "do not know how the internet works".

A group of representatives from the UK Internet Service Provider’s Association (ISPA) headed to the Home Office on Tuesday to point out a long list of problems they had with the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill (that’s Snooper’s Charter to you and me). Below are simplified summaries of their main points, taken from the written evidence submitted by Adrian Kennard, of Andrews and Arnold, a small ISP, to the department after the meeting. 

The crucial thing to note is that these people know what they're talking about - the run the providers which would need to completely change their practices to comply with the bill if it passed into law. And their objections aren't based on cost or fiddliness - they're about how unworkable many of the bill's stipulations actually are. 

1. The types of records the government wants collected aren’t that useful

The IP Bill places a lot of emphasis on “Internet Connection Records”; i.e. a list of domains you’ve visited, but not the specific pages visited or messages sent.

But in an age of apps and social media, where we view vast amounts of information through single domains like Twitter or Facebook, this information might not even help investigators much, as connections can last for days, or even months. Kennard gives the example of a missing girl, used as a hypothetical case by the security services to argue for greater powers:

 "If the mobile provider was even able to tell that she had used twitter at all (which is not as easy as it sounds), it would show that the phone had been connected to twitter 24 hours a day, and probably Facebook as well… this emotive example is seriously flawed”

And these connection records are only going to get less relevant over time - an increasing number of websites including Facebook and Google encrypt their website under "https", which would make finding the name of the website visited far more difficult.

2. …but they’re still a massive invasion of privacy

Even though these records may be useless when someone needs to be found or monitored, the retention of Internet Connection Records (IRCs) is still very invasive – and can actually yield more information than call records, which Theresa May has repeatedly claimed are the non-digital equivalent of ICRs. 

Kennard notes: “[These records] can be used to profile them and identify preferences, political views, sexual orientation, spending habits and much more. It is useful to criminals as it would easily confirm the bank used, and the time people leave the house, and so on”. 

This information might not help find a missing girl, but could build a profile of her which could be used by criminals, or for over-invasive state surveillance. 

3. "Internet Connection Records" aren’t actually a thing

The concept of a list of domain names visited by a user referred to in the bill is actually a new term, derived from “Call Data Record”. Compiling them is possible, but won't be an easy or automatic process.

Again, this strongly implies that those writing the bill are using their knowledge of telecommunications surveillance, not internet era-appropriate information. Kennard calls for the term to be removed, or at least its “vague and nondescript nature” made clear in the bill.

4. The surveillance won’t be consistent and could be easy to dodge

In its meeting with the ISPA, the Home Office implied that smaller Internet service providers won't be forced to collect these ICR records, as it would use up a lot of their resources. But this means those seeking to avoid surveillance could simply move over to a smaller provider.

5. Conservative spin is dictating the way we view the bill 

May and the Home Office are keen for us to see the surveillance in the bill as passive: internet service providers must simply log the domains we visit, which will be looked at in the event that we are the subject of an investigation. But as Kennard notes, “I am quite sure the same argument would not work if, for example, the law required a camera in every room in your house”. This is a vast new power the government is asking for – we shouldn’t allow it to play it down.

6. The bill would allow our devices to be bugged

Or, in the jargon, used in the draft bill, subjected to “equipment interference”. This could include surveillance of everything on a phone or laptop, or even turning on its camera or webcam to watch someone. The bill actually calls for “bulk equipment interference” – when surely, as Kennard notes, “this power…should only be targeted at the most serious of criminal suspects" at most.

7. The ability to bug devices would make them less secure

Devices can only be subject to “equipment interference” if they have existing vulnerabilities, which could also be exploited by criminals and hackers. If security services know about these vulnerabilities, they should tell the manufacturer about them. As Kennard writes, allowing equipment interference "encourages the intelligence services to keep vulnerabilities secret” so they don't lose surveillance methods. Meanwhile, though, they're laying the population open to hacks from cyber criminals. 


So there you have it  – a compelling soup of misused and made up terms, and ethically concerning new powers. Great stuff. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.