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How can liberalism be to blame for everything when we can't even agree what it is?

Everyone and their dog seems to be at war with one liberalism or another.

So the other night, I was hanging round the internet, looking for beef, as you do, when I spotted a tweet that made my blood pressure rise.

Matthew Goodwin, the politics professor who made his name predicting the rise of Ukip and then ate his own book live on television, had suggested that, so many months after Brexit and Trump, liberals were still struggling to get back in the game. The thing that got me was one of the responses: “Maybe liberalism is actually what got us into this pickle.”

First off, I was annoyed by this. The idea that an excess of rights for women and minorities and so on is what led to the Trump/Brexit backlash is one I've heard before, but it's still bloody offensive. Worse, even were it true, “your response to your oppression is the cause of your oppression” is the logic of the abuser.

Secondly I was confused, because wasn't the guy making this point meant to be on the left? What on earth was he doing peddling the “social liberalism brought about Brexit” line?

So I was just cracking my knuckles, readying myself to type a withering reply that would win him over, win the argument and definitely not be a complete waste of everyone's time, when I realised I was, in fact, wasting my time, even more than normal. Because I'd totally misunderstood what he'd meant. He hadn't, in all likelihood, been blaming liberal social values for the rise of the new nativist right: he'd been blaming economic liberalism, the nebulous Blair/Clinton/third way consensus that has made some people or places very rich while entirely leaving others to rot. So, I didn’t reply, which was probably for the best all round.

This thought process must have taken about three seconds, end to end, but it’s not the first time I’ve been through it, so you'd think I'd have got there rather quicker. Yet I still, every time, have to remind myself that there are two different types of liberalism, and so the point being made is not necessarily the one I instantly assume it is.

In fact, there are more than two. Off the top of my head:

“Liberal” – as in the values espoused by the yellow party in British politics;

“Liberal” – as spat out by gun-toting and grizzled Republicans on The West Wing, implying anyone half an inch left of Reagan;

"Liberal” – as used by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn supporters, which generally means the bit of the left that isn't far left enough;

“Liberal” – as used by firmly right-wing men like Daniel Hannan, Toby Young et al to describe themselves, which best one can tell is a reference to the battle lines of Victorian politics and now just means they don't like the state very much;

“Liberal” – used by the left to describe that post-Thatcher economic consensus (low taxes, small state, etc), in what one assumes to be a contraction of neo-liberal;

“Liberal” – meaning a straightforward belief that other people's relationship status, skin colour, or sexuality is none of anyone else’s business, and the state/religion/literally everyone else should just butt the hell out;

"Liberal" – as in the values of the Economist, which combines both the previous two into the sort of package that Hillary Clinton can really get behind...

There are probably more I can't think of right now, but I'm starting to go cross-eyed here, so I'm going to stop. The point, I hope, is clear. “Liberal” and “liberalism” can mean a lot of different things, depending on who is speaking and what they think about gay rights/Brexit/the government of Alexander Kerensky which ran Russia for eight months between the two revolutions of 1917. Sometimes these definitions overlap. At other times, they definitely don't.

And sometimes they would be unrecognisable not just to the person being described, but to the version of the person speaking who walked the earth just a few years ago. Today, Blairites are sometimes described as liberals, but Tony Blair himself appointed a succession of home secretaries who actively sneered at those “woolly headed liberals” who thought that (oooh, another definition) locking people up without trial was kind of a bad idea. Why are Blairites liberal now when they very definitely weren’t back then?

What’s more, a key component of Blairism in office was a big, high-spending state. So how did Blairites end up in the same ideological box as George Osborne, the architect of austerity? Is the fact they oppose both Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit really enough to make both or either count as “liberals”?

I'm not sure what we do about any of this. I'd like to suggest we start using different terms which more precisely describe the flavour of liberalism being discussed, purely in the name of clarity – but I don't immediately know what they would be, and it's not like anyone listens to me anyway.

Yet I worry that the mess of different liberalisms might do real and lasting damage to the body politic. Right now, everyone and their dog seems to be at war with one liberalism or another, and a line you hear from nativist right and resurgent left alike is that liberals are the problem.

But which liberals? And which values? There’s one more definition of liberalism we should remember: the one that’s the opposite of authoritarianism. I rather like that form of liberalism, and at this point in history I’m rather terrified about its future. Before you go to war against liberalism, you should ensure you're aiming at the right target.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.