Waterloo Lodge in the snow
Michael Meadowcroft & Liz Bee
 

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Labour reformers flounder on the Fringe

Michael Meadowcroft says it's the Liberal Democrats that offer a radical progressive future....

Labour activists Jon Cruddas, Helena Kennedy and Neal Lawson are to be congratulated on their efforts to challenge their party and for their openness to engage in debate, but, like so many pundits who put forward radical ideas, practically every one of their suggestions is already entrenched in Liberal and Liberal Democrat thinking. I'm all in favour of more and better debate, but why struggle to make the Labour party new when the new party they are looking for already exists?

Just look at the list of issues raised recently by those seeking a change of direction from Labour:

Scrap identity cards: ID cards have consistently been opposed by Liberal Democrats, and it was a Leeds Liberal who in 1952 was instrumental in getting rid of the wartime version.

A new role for the state in the economy: Vince Cable was warning of the impending economic crisis in 2003 and, for instance, was calling for the nationalisation of Northern Rock well before Alastair Darling realised what was necessary to prevent disaster.

Electoral Reform: Liberals and Liberal Democrats have had preferential voting in multi-member constituencies - the Single Transferable Vote - as their policy since 1922.

Localism: it was Liberal governments that laid the foundations of local government and it has been Labour and Conservative governments over the past sixty years that have reduced it to the pitiful state it is in today. At its height Leeds City Council was responsible for gas, electricity, water, National Assistance, the local hospital, police and fire; today it does not even run education and housing and its financial powers are limited and constrained by central government. Responsible and accountable local authorities are at the heart of Liberal Democrat policy.

Industrial Democracy: "co-ownership" in industry, with workers' councils, worker share-ownership and voting rights for employees, was adopted as Liberal policy in 1948.

Tax land values: this was Liberal policy from 1909 and was a key component of Lloyd George's radical budget of that year. In its local version, "site value rating", it is arguably a much better source of local government finance, both socially and fiscally, than both local income tax and a mansion tax.

Politics is all about judgement, and particularly about taking decisions at crucial moments, if necessary before all the details behind an issue become known. Here again, over Iraq, the Liberal Democrats were ahead of the other parties. Under Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell, the party was alone in taking a principled stand against the invasion of 2003.

Similarly, fifty years earlier, the Liberals were the only party to take the brave decision to support British involvement in European unification. Its 1955 election manifesto "advocated wholehearted support for the European Defence Community and for the Coal and Steel Community," the forerunners of the European Union. How different European development would have been had Britain been in from the beginning.

As can be seen, Britain has suffered greatly from the electoral weakness of Liberalism but it is not entirely the electors' fault. The regular problem in my long years in the Liberal cause has been that the party's representatives have too often appeared to lack confidence and have been excessively tentative in their exposition of their beliefs. It is almost as if they have been so surprised to discover that they are right that they retreat from the front line. The failure to hammer home the party's crucial judgement that the Iraq invasion would be wrong and unjustified is a prime example.

Now, unless we shout our aims and our policies as loudly as possible, there is just a chance that the Labour reformists may capture much of our cause. We must keep asking the simple question: "Why vote for the parties that get it wrong when you can vote for the party that gets it right?"

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