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Thursday, October 07, 2004


An off-message greeting

Greetings to the Liberal Dissenter.

This is the first of what I hope will be many stimulating posts on topics of political and social interest. My objective is to provoke thought, through some random observations - and to draw your attention to some of the world's absurdities.

My standpoint is that of a Liberal who, though a member of the (British) Liberal Democrats, almost despairs of that party.

Any party claiming to be Liberal ought to be promoting the liberty of the individual as its primary goal. Yet the Liberal Democrats, in so far as they promote any values at all, are split between two factions - 'economic liberals', who seem far more concerned with the welfare of powerful business interests than those of the individual citizen, and 'nanny state' social democrats, who assume that people are incapable of doing anything for themselves and propose a welter of state interventions in people's lives.

Yet these two groups are only part of the problem. Far worse is the generally technocratic and managerialist approach that dominates the party's culture. The recent party conference in Bournemouth was a case in point. The motions before the conference were lengthy screeds of dessicated, technocratic and arcane detail, which lacked a moral core or any sense of passion.

Not that many of the conference delegates would have noticed, because they now spend all their time in 'training sessions'. There are now so many of these training sessions that the conference organisers have removed them from the fringe meetings directory and published a separate booklet to list them all. Well, I'm all for giving people skills and confidence, but much of this 'training' misses the point of politics completely.

Politics is basically about making moral choices, not management. Elected politicians should be popular representatives (in both senses of the term 'popular'). Yes, we need efficient management, but we employ civil servants and local government officers to do that. The more we insist on 'professionalising' politics, the more we disconnect politicians from the people they are meant to represent, and the more we fail to offer the electorate a real choice.

The response of many Liberal Democrats is to say that people don't like 'yah boo' politics but are interested only in getting their bins emptied on time. This is a myth. Argument is what differentiates parties and provides people with a real choice. What people actually don't like is when all the mainstream parties look and sound the same. A leader in the Observer (13 June, 2004) got it right: "We need the three principal parties to be clear what they stand for and to fight for coherent positions with integrity. Being all things to all men disaffects core support and benefits the fringe."

Conflict and argument are not a sign of failure - they are the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. The well-meaning belief that you can reduce politics to issues of 'efficient management' is one of the main reasons why democratic politics has become so uninspiring and discredited.

Try telling that to the party's managers. Like their counterparts in the other main parties, they are obsessed with media management to the point of making everything sound bland. God forbid anyone might say anything that upsets the Daily Mail. Well, they've finally succeeded in making the party conference thoroughly boring and I hope they're pleased with themselves.

The Liberal Democrats cannot tell the difference between politics and management, and consequently they are becoming sterile, earnest and po-faced. My goal is to do what I can to help remove the broom-handle from the party's bottom - though I may need to stab them with something a little sharper from time to time.

Well, yes. But at least the UK HAS a Liberal Party, albeit one that seems to be frequently forgetting its radical roots and preferring to adopt the sort of blase managerialism that you describe.

In Australia, we are increasingly faced with a US-style choice between two capitalist parties, one of which pretends to a socialist history.

And even they can't "get up", as we have just re-elected one of the most notoriously right wing governments in any Western democracy with an increased majority, and handed them control of the Senate (our house of review) as well, courtesy of them getting so many votes in one state (Victoria) in the upper house election that their spare votes (God bless PR) cascaded down and elected a Senator from a new, extraordinarily right wing fundamentalist Christian party that was only formed a couple of months ago, and who managed a mere 2% of the primary vote, but who now will vote with the Government to let them ram-rod any legislation they like through for the next three years.

Australia may be, in effect, unrecognisable three years from now.

So even a vague, wishy-washy centrist/reformist party which occasionally accidentally gets something correct but that doesn't bear much resemblance to the radical, iconoclastic Liberal Party that so many of us would like to see is better than, er, none.
Well, everything is relative, I suppose.

Right now in the USA, Democrat critics of George Bush's policy in Iraq are counselling a 'realist' policy. Since a western-style democratic government is not an option, they argue, it's more a question of which insane cleric is the least demented choice.

Suddenly, Australia looks like an attractive option.

I accept that the situation in the UK is not as bad as in Australia, but the British Liberal Democrats are capable of better. I don't want a situation where my best hope is the least worst option.
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