Vince Cable’s leadership speech at the Liberal Democrat party conference represents a missed opportunity for the dems. There is a huge constituent of economically and socially liberal voters which are ripe for the dems to sweep up, yet they seem to have zero political dexterity.
It seems to me that the Liberal Democrats must decide, are they liberals or are they social democrats. This is the heart of the problem for the dems, by not being clearly one or the other, they end up being neither. Having observed the lib dems over many years, dedicating much thought to political ideology, I fail to see how believing in a European superstate with a huge bureaucratic central government, a government which in no meaningful way is democratic, can in any way be consistent with liberalism. I think many years of scratching my head on this one lay ahead.
Now if they were called the social democratic party this would make a little more sense, one could then make the argument that there are issues which can only be resolved at European level. Climate change for instance requires all nations to club together. You could make the left wing argument, Europe is the only way to put controls on the power of the big multi nationals. You could make the argument that, with the emerging power of China and India coupled with the size of the United States, Europe is the only way for us to stand tall on the world stage. These arguments however would all be diametrically opposed to liberalism which in any form puts the belief in individual liberty above that of the collective.
Politically the Lib Dem’s position makes little sense. In his speech Cable correctly stated “The Lib Dem’s will not succeed as reverse UKIP”. Yet this is exactly what they are becoming, if indeed they are not there already. The 48% and the young which they are trying to attract, are not a fixed group, they are a transient collection of different groups. Who will not vote at local and general election along brexit lines. If this were the case both UKIP and the Lib Dems would have performed much better at the election just passed. In fact the issue which dominated, both on the doorstep and across the media, was the Conservative plans on social care.
Cable’s speech referenced Labour’s slipperiness on brexit. This is where the dems can learn a thing a two. As a Corbyn’s political opponents it falls on us to try and hammer him and his shadow cabinet down on a fixed position. From a Labour perspective however, tactically Corbyn is playing a blinder, running rings around his opponents. Deliberately being vague and slippery allows Labour to transcend the brexit divide when elections come. It also means the Labour party’s hands are clean when the process comes to its conclusion. I take my hat off to Corbyn on how he has played this. The challenge will be whether Labour can continue to play the double game in the years to come. This is the type of political game playing which the Lib Dems are useless at, it is why Nick Clegg was such a disastrous leader.
Despite a brexit dominated speech, Cable did set out the Lib Dem approach to economic policy. The telling moment for me, was Cable pontificating about taxation on wealth. If one were to make the case that the dems are not liberals, this surely must be the smoking gun. What is liberal about infringing on property rights? This is the ownership is theft mentality of the hard left. The politics of envy. Let us tax people who have nice homes, let us tax your Nan’s jewels, let us tax people who own shares, let us tax people who own bitcoins, let us tax people who have saved, investing wisely and done the right thing. If you go down this road it never ends.
Given where the Tories are at the moment with Theresa May, her talk of energy price caps, controlling boardroom pay, putting more regulation on business, attacking the tech giants, there is a real opportunity for a liberal party to out flank the government. Not from the left but from the right. Cable and the Liberal Democrats once again fail to seize the moment.
(Photo: Liberal Democrats Flickr)