Free speech is to journalists and academics what tax cuts are to rich libertarians 

We all have our own understanding of freedom, and it usually begins to evolve, as a starting point, from our own immediate experience. To an artist, perhaps freedom means being able to express yourself through creative means without being told what you are and aren’t allowed to paint. To a political activist, freedom might mean the right to march, chant and strike without being beaten or arrested by police. For a large corporation, freedom may mean the lack of restrictions on your manner of making profits.

And for people whose job is to speak, such as professional opinion writers or academics, freedom, quite understandably, looks at first as if it can be measured purely in the right to speech. Or, more accurately, the right to an audience, because if you’re used to having one, you conflate your right to speak with your right to have people listen.

And if you’re still looking at things from this starting point, then ‘freedom’ is as simple as ‘free speech,’ and so free speech should be more or less absolute. If you’re coming from this starting point, removal from a panel at the request of the event’s attendees becomes censorship; having an article pulled because it is deemed harmful by the people it is written about becomes an attack on your personal freedom.

This is an almost endearingly childlike understanding of what freedom is. You hate paying taxes but you have to pay taxes so your freedom has been curtailed. You wanted to go to the party but they didn’t invite you because you’re a homophobe so your freedom has been curtailed. You want an ice-cream before dinner even though you’re unwell but mummy says you can’t have an ice-cream so your freedom has been curtailed.

And that may all be true as far as it goes but as an adult you usually develop the ability to recognise that the world does not begin and end with getting what you want, and that ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ are a little more complex than the things that directly impact you. As she gets older, the thoughtful libertarian looks in the mirror and realises, for instance, that perhaps she’s been giving a disproportionate amount of attention to the things that directly impact upon her own life. The rich, white, perfectly progressive libertarian perhaps realises that, quite unintentionally, she’s spent, say, half her energy on calling for tax cuts and and half her energy asking why, say, black people (especially women) are so much more likely to be detained when they have a mental health problem than white people (especially men) – as if these examples of curtailing freedoms are all of equal magnitude. It’s not that taxes don’t relate to personal liberty, it’s just that there are all sorts of examples of people’s liberties being trampled upon – and it turns out that some of them depend, unfortunately, upon collecting a bit of tax to rectify. It’s not about saying tax isn’t an issue of personal freedom. It’s about keeping things in proportion when it comes to focus and priority.

The fact is there are invisible freedoms being curtailed all the time. We don’t hear from the people who really are, in practice, being ‘censored’ and ‘silenced’ because, funnily enough, that’s a big part of what real censorship and silencing means. People may disagree about whether it amounts to ‘censorship’ or ‘silencing’ to petition a university to no-platform Germaine Greer on account of her transphobia, but I think we can all agree that those words do not apply to appearing on Question Time and NewsNight and in the papers to talk about how you feel about it. Incidentally, while we’re on the subject, it also does not apply to having your article removed from the Observer website and having it republished by the Daily Telegraph instead, as happened to Julie Burchill not so long ago, and nor does it apply to being sacked for punching someone in the face, or to being criticised for saying the N-word, as happened to Jeremy Clarkson.

Huge sections of our media, however, appear to view these cases as enormous and significant restrictions upon personal freedom. Perhaps so. Here is another example of restrictions upon personal freedom. A choice between dying from getting overworked in brutal conditions and dying from homelessness, starvation, or lack of healthcare.

That is, course, the reality of the ‘freedom’ most people enjoyed before there was government regulations about working conditions and wages, and before a basic welfare state was introduced in the form of unemployment benefit, sick pay, pensions and health care. These things were denounced as anti-freedom when they were new, because the focus was disproportionately on the powerful people having to make compromises instead of the individuals who became freer as a result. Nowadays even critics of welfare tend to accept that these things make most people freer, and give people more control over their own lives. To those defenders of freedom who never quite got past that initial starting point, with the disproportionate focus on that which impacts themselves directly, the minimum wage was the government interfering in business. Anti-discrimination workplace laws were denying employers free choice. Paying for universal healthcare out of taxpayers’ money was a blow against financial liberties. It is only if you are no longer forced to choose between starving or freezing, between unemployment or back-breaking labour that doesn’t pay enough to live on, between bankruptcy or leaving a sick loved one untreated, that you would, irregardless of the theoretical ideological principles that you may hold in abstract, in practice, find yourself to be freer.

What does all this have to do with Germaine Greer getting no-platformed, you might ask. Well, a lot. If you have never feared for your life when walking down the street because you were assigned the wrong gender at birth, if you have never been physically threatened and called an abuser for wanting to use the toilet, if you have never been told that you should not exist, told that you do not exist, by respected academics who are celebrated as experts in their field of study – their ‘field of study’ being your life – it may be natural, as a starting point, that you would feel as if being disinvited from a panel or having an article pulled is the most significant impingement on ‘freedom’ that you can imagine. But it is not.

If there are certain places you cannot go, because you know you’ll be at risk of severe violence, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not able to use the toilet safely, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not allowed to transition to your correct gender without the permission of your spouse, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are banned from accessing a women’s refuge or rape support service, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not allowed to exist, without your right to exist being put up for academic debate, you better believe that is a violation of personal freedom. Think about that. Not allowed to exist. Paying taxes is annoying and all, but what greater violation of personal freedom can there be than being told that your right to exist is wholly conditional upon the approval of those who seek only to hurt and destroy you?

We mostly accept as a society that ‘freedom’ is not simple and not absolute. I’m not arguing that there is no freedom of speech issue to be discussed when it comes to no-platforming, but rather, that every time we discuss it, by virtue of being the kind of people who enjoy discussing these things, we inevitably have our focus completely out of proportion. The exclamations of outrage we hear from people who take platforms for granted at the suggestion that a democratic, peaceful process like a petition be used to take someone off a panel, on the grounds that their inexpert views are actively harmful, is not unlike the exclamations of outrage you hear from very wealthy people over higher taxes, or corporations over the minimum wage. After all, if freedom means the absolute right to appear on panels even when you have no expertise in the subject at hand then God help us, nearly every single person in the country is oppressed. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a panel. I’m being censored as we speak, I presume.

Besides, most grown adults understand that words have consequences. If you say a lot of nasty things about people and deliberately drum up controversy, well, of course in a free country you can carry on talking, but guess what – some people might not want you at their events anymore. Only somebody with a job like an opinion-journalist or an academic could possibly imagine that most people have an unfettered, unadulterated right to free speech without consequences. Every other adult in the country surely knows that free speech means the police don’t throw you in prison for your opinions, not that you have a God-given right to be invited to universities to speak. In most jobs, your boss is entitled to dislike your offensive opinions, and they are entitled to sack you or remove you from projects if you show yourself to be inexpert, unqualified, or if enough people complain about you. That’s not censorship, it’s facing the perfectly legal and reasonable consequences of your own actions. Your friends are entitled to stop inviting you to parties if you become offensive (or for any other reason, for that matter). And that is not censorship either. It doesn’t stop there. Your partner is entitled to leave you if they discover you are a terrible person. Customers are entitled to complain about you if you’re rude to them. You are free to use any words you like but words have consequences. It is laughable to see the journalists and academics so used to the idea they are entitled to a platform (and a microphone and a captive audience) no matter what they use it for and no matter whether they are even qualified in the subject of which they speak that they are taking such profound offense at someone being taken off a panel – yet all the while, lecturing others about navel-gazing, living in a bubble, and being too sensitive.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not arguing for or against Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Nick Griffin or anyone else who comes out with hate speech to be given platforms. I believe that debate should be had between the people affected by their words – and the likelihood is, there will be different situations where a different approach is best. Sometimes no-platforming works, sometimes debate works. It depends upon the parties involved, the consequences, and, perhaps most of all, on what you are trying to achieve.

But freedom as a fundamental principle means looking at all of its manifestations. It means asking more than: “how does this impact my property and my free speech?” It means asking: “how does this impact people’s lives, all people’s lives, not in theory, but in practice?” The idea that freedom can be entirely measured in terms of what we are allowed to say without consequence is perhaps a positive evolution from measuring it entirely in terms of how much tax we pay, but it is still embarrassingly simplistic. Simple moral absolutes are like a comfort blanket. They make us feel safe. Opening them up for debate is challenging, scary, messy and complicated – especially when those absolutes happen to form the basis of how you make your living. But freedom matters, and the world is complicated, and we are all learning. And I think we can do better than this.

2 MINUTE RANT: Jennifer Lawrence, liberty, and victim blaming

People get so confused about what freedom means. The leaked photos of naked celebrities (including, most famously, Jennifer Lawrence) is one of those stories that exemplifies so perfectly that double standard – although it’s far from the first. Dismissing the story because it’s celebrity news, or because talking about it is publicising the existence of the pictures still further, is missing the point (and the latter verges on victim blaming).

The double standard I’m talking about of course is the unapologetically oppressive way victim blaming serves to control and restrict individual liberties, yet at the same time, those that perpetuate it so often pretend to be on the side of “freedom.”

I have free speech, cry the misogynists who like to shout at people they don’t know in the street about the shape of their bums or breasts. I have freedom of action, whine the creeps who like to grope strangers in clubs, insisting to themselves that she’s up for it even as she tries to edge away from their sad little grasping hands. I have the right to look at naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence, if I want. And if she doesn’t like it, she shouldn’t have taken them anyway. I have a right to look at them, without consequences, but she doesn’t have the right to take them in the first place, not really. Not without consequences. That is what “freedom” means, apparently.

This is just one more way that the extremely important concept of “freedom” gets hijacked by the mean and selfish, who care only for their own freedom, and not a jot from “freedom” as a concept; as a fundamental right that others, as well as themselves, are also entitled to. Only in the world of victim blaming are you entitled to hack, steal, violate, impinge upon others’ freedoms, then demand that they modify their behaviour (behaviour which impacts you in no way whatsoever) if they don’t like it. It’s just such an obvious lie.

It’s not just the prudish wankers (if you’ll excuse the pun) that ring alarm bells. There’s been a disconcerting amount of Liberal Dudes, some of them self-defined feminists, lamenting the need to be so uptight, puritanical, prudish about “nakedness.” It’s just a human body, they cry! It’s just sex! Why can’t we all chill out! Those Liberal Dudes can go sit on several pins. Feminist women are always being blamed for putting people off feminism. I say that the prevalence of Liberal Dudes is what alienates so many women from sex positive feminism. It gets associated with guys like you, blazing into discussions about consent and boundaries and privacy to bully women, sometimes by calling us outright misogynistic words like prudes or frigid, sometimes throwing around cleverer coded language like “Mary Whitehouse”, “pearl clutchers,” or “nanny state.” (Why is it always the ‘nanny’ state, a word associated with women, when the laws are overwhelmingly made by men?) You think the issue here is sex, and we can only assume that’s because you don’t know the difference between consensual sexy times and violating someone. You think when a woman says “no, I didn’t consent to this,” an acceptable response is “oh, relax, it’s just sex. Stop being so uptight. Let me liberate you.” You Liberal Dudes, you are creepy as hell. You are why sex positive feminism gets a bad name. I wonder how many of these guys would be happy for pictures of themselves fapping over the leaked photos to be posted online? I mean, it’s all just sex, right? Come on, stop being so uptight.

Here we have an impossible-to-misinterpret-unless-it-is-wilful example of the difference between sexual objectification and sex. Jennifer Lawrence expressing her own sexuality by sharing naked photos of herself with another party consensually is a sexual act. A stranger banging one out over those photos, when he knows they are not for his eyes, even after she has said “no, I didn’t consent to this”, because she’s no longer a person with rights – that’s objectification. And, in this case, potentially a sexual offence.

Some of the victim blamers are pretending that it’s okay because Lawrence is famous, or because she’s been naked, or partially naked, in films. Some of them dress up their victim blaming as moral or intellectual superiority. They don’t care about silly celebrity gossip like this (something that seems, incidentally, to be much more frequently hurled at celebrity gossip relating to female celebrities than male ones). But this isn’t just something that happens to celebrities. This is just a celebrity experiencing something that ordinary women experience all the time – from ‘revenge porn’ to the doxxing of sex workers and trans women, this entitled attitude manifesting itself through technological means is happening to lots of people, many without expensive lawyers, and it’s not going away just because you shake your head and call famous women foolish. It’s not going away until people shout back, and make it much more socially unacceptable than it is now to violate other people’s privacy and make demands on their personal freedoms this way.

To see just how ridiculously obvious the “freedom” double standard is, let’s take the victim blamers classic – the analogy of a sexual offence, and stolen property. (You know the one. Don’t drink, don’t get in a taxi, don’t walk home, don’t wear short skirts. It’s just good sense. After all, you wouldn’t leave a car door open/iPod on the table/wallet on display.) This logic says, if Jennifer Lawrence didn’t want the pictures hacked, she should never have taken them or stored them online. Okay. So, extending this same analogy, if you use online banking, it’s fair game for a hacker to post your bank details online – and for people who see that posting to use them. Right? If you access counselling or other confidential health support online, it’s fine for a hacker to sneak into your emails and publish the details online. If you shop online, expect credit card theft. If you gamble online, or watch porn online, or do, well, anything else online, then it’s perfectly acceptable for the details of all that information to one day be shared with your colleagues, family, friends, and several million strangers. Right?

Except that analogy never gets reversed this way, because we don’t believe other people have an entitlement to access your property or money or health records in the way we far too readily accept an entitlement to access women’s bodies. Remember that next time somebody tries to conflate their victim blaming “common sense advice” with freedom; remember the hypocritical, stark staringly obvious way it’s used to control behaviour. It’s the opposite of freedom, and anyone with any genuine concern for personal liberty in any meaningful way will never engage with it.

Unless, of course, they don’t really see women as people.

Richard Dawkins and the limits of liberalism

Richard Dawkins and the limits of liberalism

Richard Dawkins, scientist-cum-professional-controversialist, has confirmed what I have for a while suspected: that, in spite of being a very talented scientist, he is also a – how shall I put this – a less than lovely human being.

Today he is lamenting the great injustice that perpetrators of anti-Muslim hate crime are given too harsh sentences. “Who was hurt, except the pig?” he rhetorically asks his thousands of Twitter followers, as the pair who (in their own words) “invaded” an Edinburgh mosque by attacking it with bacon were sentenced to jail

This is the same Dawkins, let us remember, who, when Rebecca Watson wrote about how uncomfortable it was to be chatted up in an enclosed space like a lift right after giving a talk on sexual harassment, took the time to sneer at how trivial her complaint was, compared with the serious things happening to other women, in other countries. (Sam Ambreen has written a brilliant blog here about why this line of reasoning is nonsense.) This matter of anti-Islamic criminals being sentenced to jail is presumably the kind of high priority issue he would prefer people spent their energies on.

The attack on the mosque wasn’t just any attack. One of the perpetrators is a member of the Scottish Defence League – the Scottish version of the EDL. The self-appointed ‘rationalists’ seem to think the fact that you should always be free to criticise people’s religion (obviously true) applies here. But it doesn’t. The EDL and the SDL are not critiquing religious oppression. Many are hardline ‘Christian’ extremists, full of homophobic, misogynistic, anti-choice rubbish of their own. Nobody was critiquing passages or verses from the Quran. Nobody was asserting their own right to disbelief in Allah. This was bacon attached to and thrown at the door of a mosque, in a climate of rising hatred and violence towards Muslim communities. It is more akin to attacks on synagogues in a climate of rising anti-semitism than to an atheist or humanist critique of religion.

Attacks like these have nothing to do with ‘rationalism’ or atheism and everything to do with the nasty shadow of the far right that is creeping across Europe. When we talk about fascism and far right politics, we are too quick to talk about the role working class people play in driving it forwards, and too slow to talk about the responsibility of journalists, academics, politicians, scientists, and all sorts of other middle class professionals who have historically been central to the rise of fascism whenever it has occurred. Scientists, doctors and psychiatrists in particular played a huge role in legitimising racism in the early part of the last century, with their cold, ‘objective’ evidence based on measuring foreheads and gaslighting women into mental illness.

Rationalist liberalism likes to position itself as objective. The privileged arrogance of assuming yourself to be impartial and everyone else to be subjective speaks for itself. Too often, white rich men are able to see themselves as objective because they are the default human being, after all: what possible biases or prejudices could they have?

Nobody is removed from the context of the society they live in. If you describe yourself as a rationalist, far from being a super-rational person, you probably just have blind spots to your own privileges and prejudices.

Richard Dawkins talks of Muslims being “offended” by the bacon attack but we are talking about oppression, fear and real violence. Context, as I have written before, matters. Last week a woman was killed possibly, the police say, for wearing Muslim dress. Britain First are making threats to journalists for writing about them. Marine Le Pen’s Front National has topped the EU elections in France. The party is being widely reported, even by the BBC, as a ‘Eurosceptic’ party. This is the reality of the context this hate crime – for that is surely what it is – happened in. To say that nobody was “hurt” by one individual incident, as Dawkins did, highlights the limits of liberalism. Liberalism, by itself, ignores the structural. ‘Pure’ liberals, ironically, seem to have ended up as devout believers in the shiny religion of individualism, even when increasingly the evidence tells us that both socially and economically, liberalism is no longer, by itself, enough to make society better.

FEEDING THE TROLLS: The put-upon privileged who resist progress need to take responsibility for their actions

Rod Liddle, bless him, has somehow become a big-government, pro-statist left-winger. No, really. Here he is, in the Spectator, calling for regulations on businesses to protect employment rights for workers, even when the employee in question screws up so monumentally that your entire business’s credibility hangs by the skin of your gums.

You see, Rod Liddle thinks it was unfair of Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, to make a commercial decision about John Derbyshire’s future employment with him following his ‘controverisal’ (read: racist) article in a different, online publication. Derbyshire’s article The Talk includes titbits of wisdom like explaining to white kids that black people are usually less intelligent than white people, and that they should avoid, mistrust, and fear black people whenever they see them. You don’t need to spend much time joining the rather obvious dots to see how tragedies like the killing of Trayvon Martin, or, here in England, of Mark Duggan and Charles de Menezes, are the inevitable end result of having people walk around believing such racist nonsense. If it was published in England the article would quite likely be deemed an incitement to racial hatred.

America should be proud of the respect they give to their constitutional right to free speech. But the land of freedom is also famed for being the land of personal responsibility. If you’re seriously going to expect a black man wearing a hood to ‘take responsibility’ for the fact that some people see a hood as a threatening thing (rather than being, say, a good way to keep your ears warm), or a woman to ‘take responsibility’ for how she dresses or what she drinks in case she’s assaulted, you really have to also agree that racists should be expected to take responsibility for the consequences of their racism – or even to just use their common sense in understanding, as a grown up, that when they say racist things, some people will probably call them racist.

The National Review is a serious magazine, and, apart from anything else, it’s a well-run business. Lowry is perfectly entitled to decide whom he wants to employ and whom he wants to sack. Welcome to the free market.

Justice has been served by the free market itself (and it seemingly has because John Derbyshire has been sacked), so you might ask why I’m feeding the trolls with a blog post about the whining naysayers? Does it matter if people write silly things on the internet?

Well, for a start, the hateful Coffee House blog Rod Liddle wrote about the Stephen Lawrence case almost prejudiced the whole trial. It’s a horrible thing to make victims beg for justice in the first place; to risk dragging the quest for it out even further for the sake of your right to say silly things about a murder case with no consequences definitely does matter.

But this smug veneer of being lazily controversial at the expense of less privileged people than yourself is damaging to us all as a society in a much less immediately tangible way. It helps cultivate a culture of cynicism so pervasive that it serves to do exactly the opposite of what those who practice it pretend they want.

The Liddles, O’Neills, and Delingpoles are not the defenders of free speech. They are the very thing they say they detest: an oversensitive mob, shouting down dissent, and trying to ridicule people into silence.

They contribute to and facilitate a culture which is extremely saddening. It allows people to sit in their bedrooms nursing a convenient, uncharitable assumption that anyone who cares about any moral issue, ever, is only doing it because they’re following some trend, or else for some other selfish, hypocritical reason. It’s easy to miss how prevalent this world view is.

Real, serious work, such as that done by charities like Refuge, gets denigrated by Carol Sarler in the Daily Mail with no basis for the assumptions made whatsoever. Protesters get denounced because they drink coffee. In fact, activists, writers, and ordinary people taking any moral interest in anything are continually met with the most tenuous accusations of “hypocrisy” because, for example, they care about X, but not Y. And the criticisms usually come from people who feel no particular need to give a toss about X or Y. Or a A, B, C or D, for that matter.

Just look at the comments on the Guardian article by Ava Vidal about the Trayvon Martin case. Why don’t you do more about gang violence, demand page upon page of furious commentators? Why don’t you criticise black killers? Almost as if a black person’s opinion is only valid if they criticise some unrelated other black people first, which, come to think of it, is probably the inevitable logical conclusion you come to if you hold everyone of the same race responsible for each other’s actions (i.e. if you’re a racist).

And this fake concern for every other issue under the sun bar the one the person in question happens to be addressing at that particular point in time is more than just a mild irritation. It actually gives validation to whatever is being spoken out against. When Brendan O’Neill decided that the most pressing issue worthy of space on his blog was to criticise all the people who protested the execution of Troy Davis – protested it on the rather important grounds that he might have actually been innocent – he accused them of inverse racism. He may not have a racist bone in his own body, but the article spewed comments from a stream of people who had several, and who saw his sneering at anti-racism campaigners as a validation of their hate. When he criticised the language in the government’s gay marriage consultation by pretending to be offended that “us, the little people” are not welcome in the consultation process, he attracted pages of comments from people who “agree” with him that gender reassignment is nonsense, that people can’t ever truly change gender, and, weirdly, that the feminist movement should be honest and rename itself the militant lesbian movement.

It’s not just that these kinds of columns dismiss very real concerns from people who are often vulnerable and voiceless. By peacocking his own ignorance about gender reassignment and framing it as ordinary, O’Neill actually shifts the centre ground in terms of social progress. And, needless to say, he isn’t shifting it forwards. Keeping an issue like trans rights on the sidelines is the perfect way to provide yourself with endless column-fodder for years to come. While an issue is only defined a minority issue, it can be derided as irrelevant to ordinary people, and then, when awareness is successfully raised and people start to actually care about the issue in question, everyone taking an interest can just be mocked – then completely ignored – for being nothing more than fashion-following sheep.

To say nothing of the fact that declaring minority issues to be all bang on trend can be repulsively insulting to the people who know, with painful clarity, just who the most powerful “mob” really is.

Homophobes who sometimes have to – shock, horror – have their views challenged may think that being gay is “fashionable,” but a child bullied for being gay – whether they actually are gay or not – who is terrified to walk home after school, or go into the school toilets, for fear of being beaten up or worse, would probably disagree. Rod Liddle may be able to make money from writing in the Sun that disability is fashionable (before mocking and denigrating disabled people in the same article) but Fiona Pilkington and her daughter? They knew only too well that it wasn’t.

Yes, welcome to the smelly nub of the hypocrisy of these faux-libertarians. These people who side with the dominant groups in society, usually make money from doing so, and then pretend to be bravely rebelling against a fashionable trend. These people who say they agree that people are better at solving problems than governments are, but when people try to solve problems, they throw their toys out of the pram and call them names, because, as it turns out, they don’t like that very much either.

After all, when News of the World was closed down by the free market, because consumers and advertisers alike voiced their disgust in a great example of real free speech, against an organisation that actually was powerful, and had actually been engaged in illegal, harmful activities, Liddle, O’Neill and Dellingpole didn’t applaud that, or hold it up as an example of why government doesn’t need to regulate the press. No, they demonised the people speaking out about phone-hacking as biased, vindictive, and stupid.

There are some people who genuinely do value personal freedom, but we also value personal responsibility. There are others who use the very precious concept of liberty as an excuse to defend the indefensible. Make no mistake: that’s not about freedom of speech, or about freedom of anything else. It’s about resisting progress. Are these people to blame for every racist murder and every assaulted trans person? No. But every piggish snort they give out, every minute they spend finding reasons to mock the voices trying, however imperfectly, to drive social progress forwards for all of us, sets the whole fight back just a little bit further. And for that, they really should take some personal responsibility.

Keep your Whig on: should Lib Dem voters just give up on true liberalism?

One of my favourite political jokes is the one about the MP who gets caught up in a terribly embarrassing sexual scandal. “Apparently he was secretly into humiliation and stuff, too,” says one commentator. “Secretly?” says another. “He was a Lib Dem!” And never has it seemed more appropriate, or more fun, to make Lib Dem jokes like this. But, with Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms coming dangerously close to being taken seriously, with welfare being cut by £7bn and counting, with the AV vote decidedly lost, and with the kind of local election results that would make even Norman Tebbit cry, has the time come for Lib Dem voters to give up on the dream of a genuinely liberal Britain? Should yellow voters follow Ed Miliband’s invitation to save themselves from permanent blushes and, er, just go red instead?

Well, in some ways, the Labour party really do have a lot of nerve to even ask the question quite frankly. Let’s take the two biggest ‘betrayals,’ if it’s not too melodramatic to use that word, of Liberal Democrat voters by the party. Raising tuition fees is probably the most controversial, and most publicised u-turn. Well, after introducing tuition fees themselves, in 1998 (when they had a 179-seat majority), commissioning Lord Browne in 2009 to review the future of higher education funding without any particularly strict guidelines at all about, say, capping costs, and leaving it until after the 2010 General Election to implement the report, an election they knew they were unlikely to win, thereby in effect deliberately leaving the reform of higher education funding in the hands of the Tories, it is ridiculous and insulting for the Labour party to suddenly pretend they have some great moral desire to look out for the interests of students. People aren’t goldfish: we remember that Labour promised us that they “would not introduce top-up fees” and even that they had “legislated against them” before bringing them in. We also know who commissioned the Browne Review in the first place.

Despite the infamous (and rather idiotic, given that there were no electoral mathematics amongst even the most optimistic Lib Dem pollsters that suggested the Liberal Democrats would get a chance to form a government without being in coalition with at least one pro-tuition fees party) ‘pledge’ signed by Nick Clegg on tuition fees, their policy of abolishing them altogether wasn’t actually considered, by a lot of senior Lib Dems – David Laws, for example – to be a particularly central aspect of their manifesto. More important, argues Laws, is the targeting of educational funds at a much earlier age, and making sure that there are good, well-funded schools, with competent teachers, and proper levels of discipline, in the country’s poorest areas. In short, policies like the Pupil Premium, and Free Schools (50% of which, so far, are being planned with the specific aim of providing education for children from low income backgrounds), are more important to a lot of high-ranking Lib Dems than whether graduates earning over £21,000 per annum have to contribute something towards their own higher education. And these views weren’t secret: even though the Orange Book was officially rejected as party policy under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, it has never been a secret that the main contributors are also now some of the most heavyweight political figures in the Lib Dem party.

None of this gets them off the hook: they never should have promised something they almost certainly knew would be impossible to deliver, given the electoral mathematics of the situation, if nothing else. But sometimes, when a u-turn happens, it’s worth actually considering if there was a genuine reason for the change in policy. The tuition fees plan isn’t perfect of course, but, given that no major party is proposing anything much better, is it really, in the cold light of day, much of a reason not to vote Lib Dem?

The other enormous turnaround in policy from the Lib Dems is their approach to the economic crisis itself. There is simply no denying that they campaigned furiously on a platform of being anti-cuts. Even Orange Book libertarian Lib Dems tend to be against a big state in principle, but not necessarily in favour of cutting corners with social justice, just to save pennies. The only explanation they’ve offered for this complete reversal of belief is that they didn’t fully comprehend quite how bad the UK’s debt was until they got into power.

Do we believe them? I find it hard to. As many Lib Dems pointed out (before they went into coalition of course), even though the Tories are aiming extremely harsh cuts at the public sector, Public Sector Net Borrowing (PSNB) for 2010/11 was only 11.7% of GDP*. And the national debt was at 60.1% of GDP until government intervention in the collapsing financial section pushed it up to 148% GDP*. All of these figures have been in the public domain and none of them are particularly changed since May 2011; certainly not for the worse. In fact, some commentators say that the economic situation is a lot better than was thought during the 2010 election campaign. For example, government projections allowed for a further £500bn of potential financial sector liability costs, for things like mortgage securities, but this money seems more and more unlikely to be needed. Surely a tiny slice of that £500bn could be put into rescuing things like disability benefits?

So the excuse about the economic situation being worse than was once thought doesn’t seem to cut much ice. Even if it were true, it seems illogical to say that if the national debt is £910.10bn then spending will help to compensate for the recessive effect of increased private sector wealth-hoarding, as we often see in a recession, but if the national debt is £2252.90bn, then fast spending cuts, much deeper than the actual size of the debt, suddenly become a good idea (necessary, in fact), and that there is suddenly no need to worry about the impact of fast, deep cuts on, say lowering tax receipts and slowing the actual circulation of cash.

So there’s no hiding from the fact that on the economy, the issue that concerns the most British people according to the vast majority of polls, the Liberal Democrats really do deserve a bit of a kicking for their help in legitimising what many consider to be nasty, ideological cuts – Iain Duncan-Smith’s Welfare Reform Bill, for example – and also for insulting our intelligence by imagining that we can’t look at a graph of public spending for the past twenty years and see that public debt has been more or less the same throughout the Labour government as it was during Thatcher’s government – with a couple of spikes for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course.

But is even this enough of a reason to not vote Liberal Democrat again in four years time? Perhaps it would be, if the next question were not: if not the Lib Dems, then who?

Surely it cannot be Labour? Looking at welfare, the most disappointing of the cuts, only ten Labour MPs voted against the Welfare Reform Bill, and that was in defiance of the party whip: the official Labour line was not to oppose the bill. I have heard many Labour campaigners and bloggers saying this was for tactical reasons but I don’t believe them. If it was for tactical reasons, they would be constantly campaigning about welfare reform , trying to win the argument. They are not. Ed Miliband has accepted Disability Living Allowance reform, for example, which is possibly one of the cruellest and most unnecessary cuts happening within welfare, with only 0.5% of claimants ever being considered false, by the DWP’s own figures. The Labour party have done a lot of shouting about their ‘amendments’ to the bill, but in actual fact, their amendments aren’t much better than the content of the original paper. An example of a Labour amendment is that they want to limit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) eligibility to two years, instead of only one. If Iain Duncan-Smith had proposed limiting it at two years, they’d probably be making a fuss out of capping it at three. The concerns of the many charities and experts who object to this policy don’t relate to how many years you give claimants, they relate to the fact that the entire principle of time limiting a benefit like ESA is ridiculous, because overwhelmingly people do not choose to be on it in the first place. You’d think that the Labour party would know that. And don’t even get us libertarians started on the Labour party’s record on civil liberties. This is one of the big issues that won Labour voters over to the Lib Dems, and I’m still waiting to hear them apologise for all the people they locked up or placed under house arrest without ever convicting them of a crime.

So Labour shouldn’t be winning Lib Dem votes over spending cuts and welfare reform any more than they should be winning them over tuition fees. I suppose you can always vote Green, if you’re a left-wing Liberal Democrat; a refuge from the Labour party, perhaps, who was unhappy with the Iraq war and the bank bailout, but still intrinsically socialist rather than liberal. You could vote Socialist Worker Party (SWP) if you’re more interested in abstract ideology and Russian history than you are in actually helping anybody. And you could vote for the Communist Party of Great Britain if you’d like to have an MP who enjoys long philosophical discussions whilst handing out free sandwiches. (Incidentally I have nothing against free sandwiches. More politicians should hand out free food to people. Some days I actually think the Communist Party of Great Britain’s habit of handing out free, healthy sandwiches all the time is the most useful thing I’ve ever seen a politician do.)

But meanwhile, in the real world, where does that leave honest-to-goodness liberals, who actually believe in low taxation and decent standards of living; who believe in personal responsibility, but want to see it encouraged in landlords and employers as well as poor people deciding how many kids to have; who believe community and family are better at taking of people than the state, and therefore don’t want to see people being shovelled out of the areas they’ve lived in their entire lives because private landlords are too greedy to show any personal responsibility to their community, because local authorities house people in silly, inappropriate ways, and – most importantly – because successive governments have been all too happy to pass heaps of taxpayers’ money right into the hands of private landlords without questioning the price for fear of deflating the pumped-up housing market. Who do we all vote for?

Well, I’m afraid that as much as I shall continue to give them a kick whenever I see fit (which is often), I still can’t really see much better an option – for now – than to stick with the Lib Dems. And although it might feel like it sometimes, I know I’m not the only one: despite the appalling local results overall in May, ConservativeHome blogger and Tory strategist Rob Haywood points out that the Liberal Democrat local vote actually held up reasonably well in areas where the party currently has a sitting MP. Where Labour and Tory candidates for parliament often focus their campaigns around national issues, the Liberal Democrats are extremely good at engaging with their own constituents about important local issues, and their genuine local concerns. With more and more minority governments likely in future, perhaps that’s something worthy of a few Lib Dem brownie points as well.

*Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS)

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