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306 – Labels designed to confuse
27 October 2005 (10:03:01)

Caricatures built around political labels will stifle a vital debate on public services in the Liberal Democrats, says Nick Clegg

Labels have great power in politics. They create identity, summarise ideologies, pigeonhole opponents, and can foster both unity and division. They are also invariably inaccurate, unjust or downright false.

When labels are attached to other parties by their opponents, the intention is precisely to create a false impression of what those parties stand for. Blair has been the most cynical and ruthless dispenser of labels, happily branding his opponents as extreme (in the case of the Tories) or naïve (in the case of the Lib Dems), so falsely portraying himself as the voice of reason and reality. In politics, those who coin the labels usually win the contest.

The press is also a great dispenser of labels. It is perhaps forgivable for journalists to attach simplistic labels to individual politicians and parties when trying to make arcane political distinctions understood to their readers.

What is more alarming is the explicit propagandising in much of the written press, which has led to the proliferation of an array of deliberately false labels to promote the particular prejudices of editors and proprietors.

The perversion of the public debate on the EU by much of the British media – in which a complex issue requiring nuanced judgements and subtle distinctions has been reduced to a cartoon strip of falsehoods and misrepresentations – is the most notorious recent example.

So labels have a destructive power. If used intelligently, they can have a devastating effect on your opponents. Like verbal grenades, they can also blow up in your face.

That is why particular care should be taken when handling labels in internal party debates. The misuse of labels can soon transform legitimate differences of internal party opinion into great pitched battles in which there is all heat and no light, polemic and no discussion, division and no solution. In view of the internal debates at our recent conference in Blackpool, there is now a clear risk that we may topple into such a state of polarised labels in which two falsely drawn opposites are camped irreconcilably against each other.

As someone who has been labelled as a ‘moderniser’, ‘right wing’, ‘free marketer’, I’m aware as anyone of the destructive potential of such labels. They distort and ossify debate.

I have found myself being accused of being ‘conservative’ in arguing for democratic and institutional reforms in the EU, for a Dutch-style secondary education system, or for mayoral politics in England. All three assertions might be completely daft, but ‘conservative’ they most surely are not.

The same distorted logic allowed those critics of the motion on the EU at Blackpool conference to claim that it was part of an economically liberal, ‘right wing’ agenda.

There were perfectly good arguments against the provision which proposed to limit the EU budget to 1% of the EU GDP – arguments which in the end won the day – but to suggest that a proposal supported by six EU countries of different political persuasions was somehow ‘right wing’ or ‘economically liberal’ was intellectually dishonest, if politically convenient.

Writing during the middle of the Blackpool conference, Tony Greaves claimed the conference needed to be understood as a battle against the “advances of… well connected right-wingers”.

Bizarrely, having correctly railed against the mischievous meddling of the press in our internal debates, Tony went on to quote uncritically an article from Jackie Ashley, an in-house Labour Guardian columnist known for her derision of the Liberal Democrats, as evidence for his thesis that the party was being forcibly pushed in a right wing direction. I am a great fan of Tony’s liberal radicalism, but to endorse the deliberate distortions put about by our opponents in the press is not wise.

The reaction to Norman Lamb’s proposals for reform of the Post Office exposed similar oversimplifications. The debate at conference itself was on the whole of a very high quality, with advocates and critics setting out in clear terms the issues at stake.

Again, however, the labelling of those for and against as ‘right wing economic liberals’ versus the ‘left wing sandal wearing brigade’ was a travesty of the nuances at stake.

It is as preposterous to claim that those who harbour sincere doubts about the political tactics or economics of a partial privatisation of the post office are unthinking left wingers as it is to claim that Norman Lamb’s John Lewis-style ownership proposal is neo-Thatcherite.

There is now a very real risk that the exercise of policy review and renewal launched by Charles Kennedy, Meeting the Challenge, will be paralysed by the stultifying effect of such stereotypes and labels.

As someone who passionately believes that the synthesis of social and economic liberalism is one of the cornerstones of our party’s identity, I neither want to see Tony Greaves et al branded as statist lefties nor Norman Lamb et al condemned as right wing ideologues. Neither label does justice to the liberalism of either individual, and neither label helps me or other party members to decide on proposals such as the reform of the post office.

There are two more important reasons why we must shun these polarised labels. First, they represent a deeply introverted use of political language. I can get as agitated as any other liberal about our theological debates concerning different strands and traditions of liberalism, but such discourse is complete gobbledegook to voters.

We are a political party, not a precious think tank or intellectually pristine sect. Our purpose is to advocate liberalism, win elections, and reform and improve our society according to our political principles. But the voters are our audience, not each other.

It is a nice luxury, immediately after a general election when most of the electorate is happy to ignore politicians, to have a lively internal debate about our future policy direction. But we must not allow it to become an addictive debate since we will appear exotic, strange and utterly irrelevant to voters if we allow ourselves to talk in terms which are only understood by a miniscule fraction of the electorate.

Second, it is impossible to talk with any intellectual sophistication about the future of our public services, the core battleground of domestic politics, if the debate accommodates only two stereotypical extremes, left-wing statism and right-wing privatisation.

The truth, of course, is immeasurably more complex. We already have a mixed economy in the provision of public services and utilities in this country. Regulated private sector operators do a good job in previously state-owned utilities such as telecomms, but have a disastrous record in other areas such as rail transport.

The key difference here seems to be one between sectors (like telecomms) where meaningful competition between regulated private sector operators is possible, and others (like rail) where natural monopolies exist and competition cannot operate.

In Britain, we have the bizarre situation of having some of the most deregulated public services, especially in transport, anywhere in Europe combined with some of the most state-centred, top-down public service provision in health and education. It is as if we have over liberalised in some areas, while remaining more statist than any other developed country in others.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that this mixed picture presents two particular political challenges: what to do about the existence of abusive private sector monopolies in the public sphere (readers are welcome to try the privately owned bus monopoly in Sheffield as a good example); and what to do about the persistent over-centralisation and gigantism in the education and, especially, health sectors. These are two completely unrelated challenges, neither of which fit into a sterile right-left debate.

I believe that as Liberals we have a good story to tell on both – insisting on an aggressive assault against monopoly gigantism in both the private and public sectors – but we will not be able to do so as long as we fossilise our own internal debate with crude labels.

Liberalism deserves better than to be imprisoned by illiberal labels.

Nick Clegg is Liberal Democrat MP for Sheffield Hallam. Website: www.nickclegg.org

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