Labour MP Gerald Kaufman wrote a book based on his experiences in government, called How to be a Minister. It is a book that all potential ministers should read.
Lately it seems that some of our Liberal Democrat ministers might benefit from reading it. With the next general election only eighteen months away – and ‘business as usual’ with the Tories an unlikely outcome – these ministers also need a crib sheet on a set of policy areas that define who we are as Liberals. Coalition partners – In 2010, the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition not with the party of choice but with the only one that could create a stable government.
The political space we as Liberals have sought is not as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg defined our position in his recent conference speech, when he said: “Now we hold the liberal centre while our opponents head left and right.”
Liberals have always defined themselves as distinct from Labour and the Conservatives. We are not on a linear scale somewhere in the middle. Historically, we have been on our own Liberal scale, with economic liberals at one end and social liberals at the other.
Meanwhile, the neoliberal consensus, which has dominated British politics for the past thirty years, is coming to an end. The leadership of all three mainstream parties continues to cling to this consensus, even though the recent financial crisis has signalled its eventual end.
If the Liberal Democrats wish to prosper beyond 2015, ‘me too’ politics is not the answer. Why should anyone vote for the party if it lacks a distinctive offer? If it wants to thrive, the party should be leading the debate on providing a real alternative to conventional right-wing policies. And it should be leading efforts to realign the left and find allies among members of Labour, the Greens and others who feel alienated by the current stale party politics.
Liberal ministers should ask: Are we providing a true alternative to obsolete right-wing politics? The economy – Capitalism, as practiced today, has expanded inequality both here and around the world while using natural resources as if they were unlimited. In doing so unchecked, capitalism has made the world a more unsustainable and unsafe place.
The economic and social wings of the Liberalism have historically been divided on economic issues. However, the Liberal Democrats should have united these factions by advocating a new economy based on the best of J.M. Keynes and his disciple E.F. Schumacher.
As William Beveridge said, “Liberals believe our guiding force should not be self-interest or class conflict, but the determination not to rest while any are condemned to want, disease, squalor, ignorance or unemployment.”
The economic crisis was an ideal chance to channel this philosophy and reform the economy around a new set of values and policies. We could have used the recovery package, as many countries did, to spur economic growth while creating a greener, more sustainable world. South Korea spent 87% of its recovery package on green areas, China spent 35%, Germany, France and the United States spent 20%, while the UK spent just 8%. The country lost the chance to invest in the future, in jobs, in hope and in a long-term, sustainable recovery. Labour’s mistake has continued under the coalition.
Not only have we failed to create an economy based on sustainability, our recovery is fixated on debt reduction, which threatens a real recovery of any kind. This policy is based on the belief that a national debt over 100% of GDP marks the end of the world, even while the academic underpinning of this assertion – the work of Harvard economists Reinhart and Rogoff – has been roundly debunked. In passing, we would remind readers that in the UK we have exceeded that level for a large part of our history. Between 1914 and the 1960s, our debt as a percentage of GDP was over 100%. So why do we consider debt reduction a higher priority than creating a robust economy that addresses present and future challenges?
Liberal ministers should ask: Is our economic policy supporting the creation of a society that is more equitable and more stable, and an economy that accounts for environmental externalities? Education – We all know that the tuition fees issue was a disaster. The question is what that policy should be in the future.
If we truly value education and an educated society not based on privilege, why should tuition fees be charged in the first place? A better-educated society benefits everyone, so university should be a free resource for expanding minds and creating the next generation of an ever-growing educated society.
How do you pay for this? Beyond the higher tax revenues that come from a better-educated populace, we need to realise that the UK is no longer a global superpower. We need to stop acting like it and cut down our defence budget accordingly.
Also, new developments reduce the costs of education and may allow us to expand access even further. Education is changing, with over 700 million lessons downloaded on iTunes last year alone. Online courses are in many instances free.
Liberal ministers should ask: How can we expand education for all without putting a financial burden on the next generation? Foreign policy – Syria was a classic example of how inconsistency can cost a party its credibility. Over ten years ago, the Liberal Democrats argued that the British government needed a second resolution at the UN Security Council to legalise any action in Iraq. But this year, the leadership decided it did not need UN Security Council approval for action in Syria.
As an internationalist and multilateralist party, the need to work within the international legal framework is paramount. We must strengthen international law, not weaken it. A failure to get our way does not warrant unilateral action. In the coming decades, the challenges we face will be only greater and we must ensure international norms compel other countries to act within international law.
Liberal ministers should ask: Will policy strengthen or undermine international norms? Environment, energy and climate – While Liberal Democrats used to have the best environmental policies, today it is difficult for anyone who cares about the environment to be confident that the party will keep to its green policies.
Liberal Democrats made the wrong call with their recent policy shift on nuclear power. As a party that has consistently opposed nuclear power, this recent change creates the impression that the Liberal Democrats are no better than the other parties.
Do we need nuclear power in the Britain? Not according to the UK Commission on Sustainable Development, a source that the government could have consulted if it had not closed it down.
The problem is that successive governments, first Labour and now the coalition, have not introduced the policies needed to reduce energy consumption. This makes nuclear power seem inevitable, but only because of the failure to pursue the safer alternative of energy conservation.
We live in a resource-strained world with scientifically-defined planetary boundaries and enormous future challenges. It is clear the impact of climate change will cause water and food shortages. How we accelerate the move to a low-carbon economy will be critical.
Liberal ministers should ask: How can we promote a low-carbon economy and integrate natural capital accounting into economic policies? Companies and regulation – If Gordon Brown had not removed the banking system’s checks and balances, we would not have suffered so greatly in the 2008 financial crisis. Smart regulation should be the goal but current reforms of the banking system have not yet ensured that past mistakes will not reoccur.
Structural problems in the economy have always been present and recent comments by Vince Cable on a possible housing bubble are just the latest example of a phenomenon present since the tulip bubble in 1637. Crises will continue unabated unless we change the rules and fix the problems.
In 2008-2009, we saw the linkage between the increases in energy prices and food prices. There are some real perfect storms looming and, without smart regulation, crises will recur.
The finance markets should have to prove that their new cocktails are not a potential problem – they should be checked by a government body before being allowed into the market. One excellent idea is to require companies listed on the stock exchange to report on their environmental, social and governmental impact. This would enable the market to truly understand which companies are addressing these challenges and place a proper price to reflect this.
Liberal ministers should ask: Will policies strengthen or weaken the regulatory framework and protect the people? Defence – British defence policy has been underpinned by nuclear weapons for over sixty years. Although many Liberals have been sceptical, neither the Liberal Democrats nor the Liberal Party beforehand have yet gone so far as to support unilateral nuclear disarmament.
The end of the Cold War and the huge cost of replacing Trident, however, have changed the terms of the debate. The Liberal Democrat response was the new policy it adopted this September of a part-time deterrent. Like the ridiculous ‘euro bomb’ proposed by David Steel and David Owen in 1986, it is not a coherent defence policy but a political expedient, and it will come apart under scrutiny.
Britain is no longer a superpower. It neither needs nor can afford nuclear weapons. Its role in a changing world should be to support the UN playing a critical role in peacekeeping and supporting the reduction of armed forces everywhere.
Liberal ministers should ask: Will its defence policy lead to a safer non-nuclear world? Major disruptions – The future will present many challenges and innovations with a major impact on how society functions. Some estimates predict that new technology could replace two billion jobs worldwide. These developments may include nanotechnology, 3D printers, downloadable education, self-health assessments, and driverless cars.
Such changes will inevitably affect jobs and wages, and how we might create a stable society. They will also profoundly affect governmental tax bases and will require new thinking in many areas, including ethical considerations. Can we be the party to start that conversation?
What will be the contribution of Liberalism in the first half of the twenty-first century? Are we just another political party that, when it enters government, forgets what it stood for and the values that underpinned it? Or are we a party that strives for a world that is more just, more equitable, more sustainable, more multilateral, more educated, and more cooperative?
Future challenges will be complex and the world may become a more dangerous place. Liberalism could, and should, be the beacon of light that guides us. We could lead the nation to a better future for every woman, man and child, and for the planet itself, but only if we abandon a timid mind-set and think big.
Felix Dodds is an environmental campaigner whose latest book is One Only Earth – The Long Road via Rio to Sustainable Development
Simon Titley is a member of the Liberator Collective
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