To be meaningful again, liberalism must actually seek to liberalise

The challenge facing contemporary liberalism runs far deeper than the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

The challenge facing contemporary liberalism runs far deeper than the leader of the Liberal Democrats

This week the Liberal Democrats took the worst battering in my adult life, affecting even my own Parliamentary campaign in Hampstead and Kilburn. It is no secret that these blows to the head have left my party slightly dazed. Panic has even led to some voices calling for an outright cull.

But this will not fix the problem. The challenge facing contemporary liberalism runs far deeper than the question of our leader.

As borders open up, the liberalisation of markets has increased equality between nations, while increasing inequality within nations. The losers in this trade off are those who find themselves competing, not just with a national workforce, but with better trained competitors from abroad too.

The world has left Britain’s working class behind. Feeling betrayed, such people are supporting fringe and xenophobic alternatives en masse. This is a pattern that is repeating itself across Europe, and broadly across the world.

It is usually the case that those who are most passionately against the status quo are the most active at proselytising, and so it is that the political extremes have best exploited this mood for exclusionary politics. Liberals and all we stand for are – not entirely unjustifiably – held to blame.

It would be naive to think that a change in leadership, less than one year away from a general election, could influence such geopolitical tectonic plate shifts. Any effective revival of Liberalism must view 2015 as a stepping stone to a longer resurgence and building up of liberal ideology. The only realistic option will be to redefine Liberalism for the public.

We have little chance of revival if Liberalism appears to favour the undesirable status quo. No one is happy with the status quo. Not even us. Labour is responding to these same global pressures by shifting to the Left, and the Tories will shift further right to stave off UKIP. This leaves an open, liberal ground for us to fight, and be associated with regardless of short term losses.

A survey reported in the Economist found that the overwhelming majority of young voters are socially and economically liberal. The challenge is translating these sentiments to votes. Repeating our achievements in government is insufficient. Yes we will ensure Labour do not run wild with our finances, and that the Tories do not run rampant with our freedoms. But we must also stand on our own unique values.

We must define a liberal brand.

Campaign unapologetically on issues that, though they may not attract older conservative voters who have already consigned us to history, would resonate with newer, younger voters who desperately want a stake in our society.

At 38 per cent, Britain has the highest gap in any democracy between the elderly who do vote, and younger people who do not. If our youth feel unheard then we must robustly defend free speech as the core pillar of liberalism. If our young feel disenfranchised, then fight for constitutional reform – specifically an elected second chamber, the disestablishment of the Church of England and electoral reform so that the young feel that their voice counts once more.

Let us also liberalise our country’s archaic approach to drugs, starting with the decriminalisation of cannabis. Drug addiction is now widely accepted as a health issue, yet we continue to criminalise young addicts instead of helping them.

Today, we can transfer thousands of pounds over the internet, order our weeks shopping online, meet the love of our life through Facebook and start revolutions via Twitter, yet we cannot vote online. Let us champion the introduction of e-voting nationally. Imagine the allure of campaigning to allow people to vote on their smartphones. Older voters balk at what younger voters instinctively understand: this is the future.

Radical liberalism would never be happy with things as they are. One of the biggest mistakes of the EU debates between Clegg and Farage is how our stance painted us as a party of the status quo, and UKIP as the party of change. We must accept a referendum on the EU, and campaign on a ‘Yes to a Reformed EU’ ticket, not merely a ‘Yes’ ticket.

On immigration, liberalism must not remain mute on the question of integration and citizenship. Liberalism will lose all meaning if, as has come to be suspected, it means nothing more than tolerance of illiberalism among certain minority communities, and a polarisation among neighbourhoods along divisive identity politics.

This means empowering liberal reform voices that are taboo within their own contexts, so that individual autonomy is given preference over group-think. We must fight to create a progressive social glue, not be content with self-segregation that can retreat into lazy, static ethnic or religious blocs.

It also means actively challenging the xenophobic arguments of UKIP where we find them, passionately arguing for a liberal, centre ground in a reformed, integrated, less bureaucratic, economically liberalised Europe.

Adopting, and vehemently campaigning on such a strong liberal platform would excite and reengage our disaffected young. It would also undercut the structural advantage of the other parties, defining us as the party of change. To be radical, and meaningful again, Liberalism must actively seek to liberalise.

Maajid Nawaz is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn and chairman of the Quilliam Foundation

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13 Responses to “To be meaningful again, liberalism must actually seek to liberalise”

  1. LB

    while increasing inequality within nations.


    No it hasn’t. What’s increase inequality is the welfare state. The premise of the welfare state is that the poor cannot be trusted with their money. Far better for the state to look after it so the poor are better off in their old age.

    Nice premise, but look at the implementation. Rather than saving the money for the poor, the state spent it, leaving a massive black hole that cannot be filled. So the poor have bugger all in assets, because the state took the cash.

    Meanwhile those with assets got them by and large because they spent less than they had coming in, and invested the surplus.

    Hence its the state that screwed the poor.

  2. Kryten2k35

    The Liberal Democrats should’ve formed a Parliament with Labour, not the Conservatives. I suspect their image wouldn’t have been as damaged now if they had done so.

    I mean, come on. What the devil were you lot thinking letting a Tory government into office? Labour were and are closer to your political ideology than the Tories ever will be. That’s what Nick Clegg will go down in history for; being that arsehole who formed a government with the Tories, when they were exactly who the country didn’t need.

    As a result, he’s enabled them to oversee the greatest fall in living standards and wages in living memory, possibly helped the destruction of the United Kingdom with the Scottish referendum (since a key point for the Scottish Independance vote is the fact that they dislike the Tories vehemently, and didn’t vote for them at all) and allowed the greatest buggering given to the NHS since it’s creation.

    Nick Clegg is now a complete joke.

  3. Conrad

    So if this is the case then how in periods where state spending on benefits and other poverty relief efforts are high like the 50’s and 60’s inequality goes down and in periods where there is little state spending such as the 80’s inequality goes up, i don’t know how your logic hear works.

    The budgetary blackhole has been nothing but an excuse by this government to drum up fears of a financial exodus that has after 6 years failed to appear, although they always say it is just around the corner, in a depressed economy deficits have at best a negligable effects as most smart investors keep their money in government bonds or gold or some other commodity with stable returns because interest rates are so low, they cannot make much money of loaning their money through the buying of shares as there won’t be any real returns, this is why the government needs to spend excessively, firstly to stimulate demand and get people back to work, earning and making but also to force investors to start investing in the private sector again BECAUSE of a rising budget deficit, why would you move your money into productive enterprises if you don’t see any chance for profits that are worth the risk whereas the UK government, with a history of always paying their debts are basically a foolproof way to keep your assets and make a profit (At least enough to keep your capitals value at pace with inflation)

    In short printing money and creating a deficit is a central part to getting the business cycle restarted and it frequently requires intervention of the state to do so, not just intervention from the state but in fact for the state to be irresponsibly lax with their money, at least until normality is restored, but the effects of the deficit is very negligable, a country is not a family house, for starts it largely borrows from itself (Only 25% of our governments bonds are held by foreign investors, the rest are domestic) and cutting back its budget only serves to throw more people into unemployment which increases our deficit further. This is basic econ 101 here we’ve known this since the 1930’s but Conservatives think we live in a morality play in which poor people have been silly and spent money on things they couldn’t afford (Or don’t deserve in their language) and an evil state that was buying votes, neither are true, Gordon Brown deserves far more praise for saving this country than he will ever receive and it is a real shame to see the Tories when on a platform that would lead to a repeat of the crises we just faced, also they extended the length this depression had to be in this country, that so many people are unemployed still is the real source of our deficits.

  4. Sakyamuni

    Labour & the Lib Dems did not have a collective parliamentary majority in 2010.

    You can play counter factional political history all you like, but reality doesn’t add up!

  5. dalecooper

    While I agree with most points (drug reform; integration, etc), I think that the call for reform to the Lords and the Church of England is more dogmatic than pragmatic.
    With respect to the CofE, I would only support disestablishment if it threatened democracy, which it doesn’t. Denmark has a national Church much like ours and is regularly ranked as one of the most inclusive democracies. The USA, on the other hand – constitutionally secular – has rampant fundamentalist organised religion in some parts.
    The CofE is an asset, and to disestablish it would be a mistake.

  6. Khuram Imtiaz

    i loved reading your blog and i’d like to share my website as well that is


    I’m with you 100% on this. Never before has liberalism been so important…

  8. Matthew Blott

    I’m appalled at the lack of solidarity shown by my comrades over his hounding by Muslim bigots and so I’d really like to agree with Mr Nawaz. But we’ve had enough economic liberalism this past thirty years and it tramples over democracy just as much as illiberal legislation on civil liberties. But too often the middle class fail to see this and get far more hung up on CCTV cameras (which poor people who have to live in crime ridden areas often like) than energy prices or lack of housing. So I really don’t know what this centrist crap is doing on a left-wing blog.

  9. christof_ff

    I believe that rather than their nationalistic aspects the attraction of UKIP to some voters is their liberal aspects – rejection of the nanny-state managerialism of Labour (& also the EU).
    Simple things like the rigidity of school holidays & the knock-on effect on holiday-prices.

  10. LB

    So if this is the case then how in periods where state spending on benefits and other poverty relief efforts are high like the 50’s and 60’s inequality goes down and in periods where there is little state spending such as the 80’s inequality goes up, i don’t know how your logic hear works.


    You have the wrong approach. Do you want to go back to 1950’s levels of poverty? Absolute levels of income and rapidly increased.

    So you are barking up the wrong tree.

    Branson has left the UK taking his cash with him. Inequality is down. Mind you so is the tax take. Branson was paying the tax for thousands of poor people. So you’ve taken the shot your self in the foot approach. Piss off the rich, and they leave. Now you have to hit the poor for the cash. Stupid and idiotic.

    The budgetary blackhole has been nothing but an excuse


    Again, you are barking up the wrong tree. The state owes 9 trillion, not the 1.3 trillion that’s a horror story according to the left. They’ve ignored the pensions debts. Why have you?

    history of always paying their debts

    Really? So why did they default on the retirement age by raising it?

    Why did they unilaterally default on their RPI promise, changing it to CPI.

    There are none so blind….

    On your analysis of why its not so good, you are close to the truth. There aren’t the returns because the state imposes huge costs, and if it works people like you decide they are going to take the money anyway.

    Printing money cannot pay off inflation linked debts.

    The current malaise was cause by too much borrow and spend, with the result that the people who didn’t pay their debts caused the mess.

    Why will more borrow and spend cure a problem caused by borrow and spend.

    That’s just economic voodoo.

    Meanwhile the lack of jobs is a myth. What do you think the economic migrants are doing?

  11. Kryten2k35

    Hung Parliament would’ve been better than what we got.

  12. Grouchy Oldgit

    My guess is the Liberals are getting hammered because Liberal voters are diametrically opposed to the Tories ideologically and angry at seeing Clegg make so many concessions to the enemy. Come the general election, despite this anger, Liberals will again benefit from tactical votes on the pragmatic reasoning that even a ConLib coalition is preferable to all-out Tory rule. Should UKIP & Tories come to some pact there would be a very strong case for Labour and Liberals to do the same to allow progressives to compete on equal terms.

  13. ross_stalker

    If you don’t have a working majority you can’t guarantee that you’ll get votes through, so you can’t make an agenda for governing. That’s just how it works, I’m afraid!

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