Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Lib Dem Factions: the battle for influence

In a mini series of posts I've been looking at the various Lib Dem "factions" (more like schools of thought than anything else) and so far I've looked at the Orange Bookers, Liberal Left and the Social Liberals.

But now I'd like to have a brief look at how these factions interact with each other.

The first problem with doing this is that the Social Liberals are a particularly ill-defined and fluid group with many people in it overlapping with those from the other groups. The second problem is that, with each "faction" actually being collections of like minded people, there's no single or united view amongst any of them (something which also applies to any group of more than two Lib Dem members).

However, the primary dispute in the Lib Dems has always been one of positioning - does the party see itself as being a liberal, left of centre party which embraces its Social Democrat, as well as Liberal, heritage to argue for a decentralised liberal state to tackle inequality and to protect people from the unrestrained excesses of the market, or does it see itself as a party resolutely of the centre, more in touch with the economic liberal heritage of the party, proudly arguing for a radical remaking of the state to role back the inefficient hand of central government, bring in the efficiency of the market, and to remove state created obstacles to business and individual mobility.

The latter of these views can be held primarily as being an Orange Booker view and the former as a Social Liberal/Liberal Left joint view. However, I should point out that, as I subscribe to the philosophy of social liberalism, my characterisation of both of the above viewpoints could be slightly off or biased.

On this central issue of what position the party takes, of whether the Lib Dems are to be first and foremost an economically liberal party of the centre or a radical social liberal party of the centre-left, generally (though not always) the majority of members seem to back the social liberal view.

The strength of the support for this position has weakened somewhat in this party - primarily through some centre-right people joining the party as a result of the coalition at the same time that some people on the centre-left have been leaving the party because of the coalition. This has obviously shifted the numbers in favour of the Orange Bookers somewhat.

Exactly how far the numbers have shifted is another question and one which it will be very difficult to answer until the party elects the new Federal Policy Committee and we see the manifesto it drafts for 2015. Because, perhaps more than anything else, it is the manifesto and the policies in it which indicate the collective mindset of the party as the policies and people chosen by the party members themselves are, more than anything else, what influences the party's manifestos.

In 2010, the Lib Dem manifesto was arguably a very social liberal one - a sign of the influence of the Social Liberals and their position as the group which, when coupled with the Left Liberals, makes up the majority of the Liberal Democrat members.

On the other hand, the Orange Bookers, while I have defined them as being a minority group in the party, still have large numbers on their side coupled with the fact that a lot of the people who I put in the poorly measured Social Liberal group are often people who don't fit neatly in any particular philosophical niche and who will agree with the Orange Bookers on quite a number of specific issues.

And this is why, despite being in a theoretical minority, the Orange Bookers have had a significant role in passing economically liberal policies - such as the increase in the tax threshold to £10,000 which, while eye-catching, jars somewhat with the social liberal preference for redistributive taxes.

Additionally, the Orange Book itself, while written jointly by many authors and being far from a bible for the economic liberal group labelled the Orange Bookers, does provide enough of an ideological underpinning that members of this group, even if they've no interest in the Orange Book themselves, are certain about what they think and have more confidence about where they want themselves and the party to be heading than members of the other groups within the party.

Couple this with a leadership at the very bottom of the party (that's how I like to see it anyway) who currently tend towards the economic liberal side of things and who, by nature of being in government, have to make policy on the go, and the Orange Bookers are pretty much evenly matched with the Social Liberals (and Liberal Left who are essentially a more left wing version of the Social Liberals) in the struggle to influence party policy despite their numerical disadvantage.

However, this, in many ways, is a consequence of the unique set of circumstances of being in a coalition with the Tories at a time of austerity and economic turmoil - all of which create a sort of perfect storm for Orange Booker influence. Whether this will last is something I doubt as it's my suspicion that the role of the Social Liberal Forum in providing a more coherent vision for the Social Liberals, coupled with numerical superiority amongst the members and a reaction to current Orange Booker influence, might well swing the pendulum back again at the next internal party elections (which will influence the 2015 manifesto).

Of course, this is all speculation, assumptions and guess work on my part. The only realistic guide towards where the party currently sees itself will be the 2015 manifesto itself - coupled with who is chosen to be Nick Clegg's successor when the time comes for him to go. But until then my guess is that the big debate over where and what the party should be is currently a tie between the Orange Bookers and the Social Liberals - with the Social Liberals perhaps starting to gain an edge.

1 comment:

I'm indebted to Birkdale Focus for the following choice of words:

I am happy to address most contributions, even the drunken ones if they are coherent, but I am not going to engage with negative sniping from those who do not have the guts to add their names or a consistent on-line identity to their comments. Such postings will not be published.

Anonymous comments with a constructive contribution to make to the discussion, even if it is critical will continue to be posted. Libellous comments or remarks I think may be libellous will not be published.

I will also not tolerate personation so please do not add comments in the name of real people unless you are that person. If you do not like these rules then start your own blog.

Oh, and if you persist in repeating yourself despite the fact I have addressed your point I may get bored and reject your comment.

The views expressed in comments are those of the poster, not me.