How liberal is too liberal? (16 September 2008)
A provocative index ranks Lib Dem MPs by their liberality. But is repealing the smoking ban really a vote-winner?
Liberalism has always been tugged between two conflicting ideological traditions, libertarianism and social reform. The Liberal party almost from its foundation until its nadir in the 1950s suffered splits, breakaways and defections from its economic liberals to the Conservatives and its radicals and reformers to Labour. None of these actually resolved the problem, and even in the 1950s the old conflicts were being played out in Lilliputian form.
A new pressure group, Liberal Vision, is interested in restarting the debate and has done it in the provocative form of an index of how liberal or not the 63 Lib Dem MPs are on various “lifestyle freedoms”, measuring their votes on measures concerning the smoking ban, gambling and licensing, and who signed which Early Day Motion on various subjects. The index was launched at a lively fringe meeting in Bournemouth, at which one of the speakers was Gavin Webb, a rebellious libertarian Lib Dem councillor from Stoke-on-Trent. Webb was introduced as having liberal views on drugs, prostitution, handguns and drink driving (hopefully not all at the same time). There are no out-and-out libertarians like Webb in the parliamentary party, but the liberal index is still quite intriguing and revealing.
The top and bottom scoring MPs for liberality on lifestyle issues illustrate a curious fact of political life. Lembit Öpik is the most “liberal” of the lot, but represents Montgomeryshire in mid Wales. The constituency has been one of the most consistently Liberal in the land, with only one Tory lapse (in 1979) in the last century. Despite a small influx of downsizing professionals and pot-smoking self-sufficient types, Montgomeryshire embodies the chapel-going, rural traditional heritage of the party. Other seats that consistently vote for the most liberal of the three main parties are also among the most conservative in their own social mores, such as Orkney and Shetland, the Highlands and Aberdeenshire, and to some extent Cornwall. The second and third most liberal, David Laws and Paul Keetch, represent Yeovil and Hereford, provincial towns not usually associated with letting it all hang out. Only at fourth place, with David Howarth of Cambridge, do we have a stereotypical liberal constituency.
The lowest score in the liberal index went to John Leech, who represents Manchester Withington. Withington is a classic example of a liberal, academic suburb. I would not be surprised if, despite Leech favouring a higher classification for the substance, Withington has a higher than average cannabis intake, and probably fair trade, organically grown cannabis at that. MPs’ views, perhaps particularly on these lifestyle liberal issues, are quirky, personal and often incongruous with their constituencies. Next lowest come three ex-Labour MPs, Mike Hancock, Vince Cable and Bob Russell, and leftwing Liberals such as Paul Holmes and John Pugh. Perhaps this means that MPs’ personalities are less important in deciding elections than they like to believe. Perhaps, also, voters tend to see these lifestyle liberties as being secondary to the principal questions of politics. Many voters who want these lifestyle choices just do it anyway, whatever the law says, and get away with it. Laws against brothels, pornography and cannabis are enforced in a rather liberal way, with the police usually taking action only in cases which clearly break the harm principle (such as people trafficking, child porn or gangsterism). The articulate and careful middle classes can already opt out, although it is unlikely that enforcing a law in a socially unequal way is a satisfactory way of dealing with lifestyle issues.
However, the view of Liberal Vision’s Mark Littlewood that some votes can be won on lifestyle liberalism is probably correct, even if the market for this sort of politics is smaller than Littlewood would like. There is potential in being the only large party that does not insist on telling people how to live their lives and which pleasures are officially licensed and which are punished. This has the potential to build a bridge between the old liberal left electorate and the new, more rightwing liberal types the party is wooing.
However, as the Liberal Vision meeting showed, what seems at first like a simple clear principle can end up being a matter of balance and compromise. Nearly every liberal accepts John Stuart Mill’s principle that activities that do not harm anyone else should not be restricted, but the question is always what counts as harm to others. The ban on smoking in public places is a particularly clear example of these differing interpretations and standards. Personal freedom will define and divide liberals long into the future.