UCLU Lib Dems hosted the first of our talks entitled “Who Are the Liberal Democrats?” last night, with Deputy Leader of the party Simon Hughes joining us to examine Lib Dem identity – from our earliest origins, right up to the coalition and beyond.
Simon Hughes on Liberal identity
write up by Paul Haydon (UCL)
On 9th February, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes came to UCL to give a talk to students about what his party stands for. Here is a summary of his talk:
After a long-anticipated arrival, Simon Hughes launches straight into an overview of liberalism as an ideology. He describes how there will always be a struggle between conservative parties who are resistant to change and more progressive parties seeking to reduce inequality. He then laments the fact that despite global advances in democracy and technology, we haven’t seen accompanying advance in equality. For Simon, the essence of liberalism then is that intervention is needed by the state to prevent injustices, both at home and abroad. However, he adds that the second central tenet of liberalism is to safeguard individual liberties. What then distinguishes liberalism from other ideologies is its dual aim of “protecting the liberty of the citizen from the state while also protecting equality of opportunity.”
Simon goes on to give a history of the British liberal party, from its roots in the early 19th century to its peak at the beginning of 20th century, when the Liberal-led government introduced state pensions and national insurance. At the same time the turn of the century saw the birth of the Labour movement, which would in just 25 years take over as the dominant force of left-wing politics. Simon blames this on the Liberal party’s failure to properly support the emancipation of women or the fight enough on behalf of working-class people, as well as its inability to effectively address the growing unrest in Ireland. Nonetheless, he emphasises that the Liberals retained a major influence even when their political power had waned. Two of the most important British thinkers of the 20th century were both members of the Liberal Party: Beveridge whose 1942 report served as the basis of the NHS and welfare state, and Keynes who pioneered the idea of using public expenditure to stimulate the economy.
1950 was the “nadir” for the Liberal party, when they gained just 2% of the vote. However from the mid 70s things began to change, and the alliance of the Liberals and Socialist Democrats under the newly formed Liberal Democrats led to the emergence of a three-party system by the end of the 1980s. For Simon, the difference in the philosophies of each party remains clear. The Tories believe in the free market and healthy competition which motivates people to create wealth, “if they feel inclined to share it”. And while the Labour party are no longer officially socialist, having symbolically torn up clause 4 under Tony Blair, they still have strong statist tendencies and believe control from the centre is best for the redistribution of wealth.
For Liberals, on the other hand, Simon emphasises that “there is no absolute view that public is good, or private is bad.” One of the factors which distinguishes liberalism from socialism is the idea that you should always devolve power as much as possible, and always stand up for the liberty of the individual. There is a recognition that governments will always try and claim more power and must be continually kept in check, as can be seen with Labour’s attempt to introduce ID cards or Tory proposals to repeal the European Convention on Human Rights.
Simon explains that the Liberals were also the first environmentally oriented party, having promoted policies such as renewable energy and recycling before the Green Party was formed. At the heart of this engagement is the belief that you should never take a “market view of the world,” and there is a need to make the world sustainable for future generations. He also strongly believes in Britain’s engagement with the world and describes the Lib Dems as an internationalist party, stressing the need to work together with the EU and the UN to prevent conflicts, promote peace and reduce poverty.
Next Simon explains the decision to go into coalition, which went against all his “natural instincts” as a left-leaning Liberal Democrat. He argues that they could have allowed the Tories to run a minority government, but six months later Cameron would almost certainly have got a parliamentary majority. That would mean the Lib Dems wouldn’t have been able to do all the things they have achieved to try and build a ‘fairer Britain,’ such as taking poor people out of tax or fighting to curb bankers’ bonuses. Whilst he admits there have been some difficult choices, he says it is better to have an influence on things rather than “just sitting on the sidelines and shouting,” something he says he has already has a lot of experience doing as a student leader.
Simon concludes that the final reason he is a liberal is due to the growing threat of extremism, both political and religious. He points to the contest for the Republican presidential nomination in the US where the debates are becoming increasingly bigoted, and to the rise of far-right parties in Eastern Europe which are influenced by Nazi ideology. He argues that there is a need to challenge these extreme views of the world and build a society where everyone is safe and tolerated. Ending on an optimistic note, he claims that liberal democracy is the fastest growing political ideology in the world, with more and more liberal parties being created throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East which fight for liberty of the citizen against the state, and for tolerance, environmentalism and internationalism. This then gives him hope in the “struggle for a more liberal, enlightened world.”
Several questions from the audience are now taken, beginning with a lengthy inquisition over the Lib Dems’ attitudes towards the EU. Simon emphasises his belief that overall the EU is a ‘good thing’, as it allows a redistribution of wealth to build up poorer regions, is vital for trade, and allows Britain much more influence in the world.
Simon is then asked about electoral reform. He responds that AV was nobody’s first choice and was poorly understood, quipping that he “didn’t hear anyone in the pub or Tescos saying they really wanted AV.” Nonetheless, he believes that a lot of people still want a fairer, more proportional electoral system in which the number of seats a party wins actually reflects their share of the vote. He then discusses the House of Lords, describing it as “lovely if you like antiques but a completely barmy idea for a law-making assembly.” This leads to an outline of the Lib Dem proposal to reform the House by having Senators elected on a proportional basis by region, with 20% remaining nominated.
Someone in the audience then asks Simon about improving the representativeness of parliament. He responds that he is in favour not only on grounds of equal representation but because more balanced parliaments make better decisions as they represent society better. He goes on to say that whilst the Lib Dems have not yet agreed to introduce women-only shortlists, their diversity and leadership programme is promoting more young, female, disabled, and ethnic minority candidates.
He also bemoans the rise of career politicians. “I don’t think you make the best decisions when you’ve gone from doing a politics degree to being a political intern, then a researcher, then a special adviser, and then finally becoming an MP. The real world just doesn’t pass you by.” Whilst admitting that you can’t stop people doing this, he says that the Lib Dems are now seeking proactively to recruit from all walks of life.
There is then a question about inequality, and Simon describes how he feels “doubly frustrated” by the way in which inequality rose in the days of Thatcher before rising again under Blair. He wants to introduce new rules on top-level pay and bonuses, for instance introducing a maximum ratio between highest and lowest pay or making the allocation of pay more transparent. He finds that currently some salaries are simply “obscene,” adding that “nobody needs £1 million, you just don’t need it.” Also, he finds that there is a need to incentivise the less well off to work hard as well as the super-rich, and to ensure people are better off in work than on benefits.
The final question addresses the dreaded topic of tuition fees. Visibly uncomfortable, Simon explains how he supported the policy of abolishing tuition fees as he thought they could discourage people from poorer backgrounds from applying to university. Following the coalition agreement which included a rise in tuition fees, the Lib Dem policy was that their MPs should be allowed to abstain from the vote. In retrospect, Simon believes this was a significant mistake and that they should have been allowed to vote against the policy. However, he explains that at the time if he’d voted against, the Lib Dem deputy leader would have been voting one way and the leader the other way, which would have reflected badly on the party. He also adds that whilst it was very difficult for him, it allowed him to later turn round to Tory colleagues and insist that they vote for agreed Lib Dem policies and also honour the coalition agreement.
Simon then turns to his book on the impact of tuition fees, of which he has brought several free copies. He explains that as he was really worried that people would be put off going to university, he volunteered to go around the country collecting evidence and speaking to people in schools. He states that the figures show that, including demographic change, applications to university are only down 1% this year and that in the context “that’s a miracle”. But he emphasises that the most important thing to note is that there is just 0.2% drop in applications by kids from poorer backgrounds, compared to 2.5% from richer backgrounds. Furthermore, the group put off most were mature students, not 18 year olds, whilst applications went down more in Scotland where there are no tuition fees. All this suggests that there is no “simple picture” for tuition fees.
He is also at pains to point out that under the new system you’ll only pay £7.50 a month when earning £22k, and only the most well off will pay the whole loan back, meaning in some ways it is more progressive than the previous system. The main thing then is the need to “get the message across”. However, he adds that he doesn’t think everyone should go to university, and that there is a need to make sure those who don’t acquire the skills they need to find work. In particular, he stresses that there is a need to recover Britain’s skill base which has diminished significantly over the last fifty years.
Simon concludes the evening by saying: “I hope some of those who weren’t liberals at the beginning may be liberals now.” Judging from the warm round of applause, it appears that on some level his hope has been realised.