James Belchamber

Liberalism is left-wing - and it matters

When people talk about politics, they inevitably break it down along a spectrum - with ideas and values attributed to each end of this spectrum. Social Justice on the left, respect for hierarchy on the right, etc, etc. Universal Healthcare, Wealth Redistribution and Workers Rights on the left. Law and Order, Discipline and a strong military on the right. etc etc.

Liberals often want to avoid this conversation entirely - believing (correctly, but unhelpfully) that the left/right spectrum lacks the nuance and dimensions necessary to convey what we believe, they instead seek to lecture on why the spectrum should be abandoned. "We're not left OR right - we're Liberal!", we will say (often smugly).

This just allows us to be cast in place by others: Conservatives define us as left-wing, Socialists define us as right-wing, and the public define us as centrist - as well as smug, lecturing, and devoid of any tangible values.

Liberalism is left-wing - let's consider why.

A short note on history

Firstly, let's talk briefly about history. The history of Liberalism and the Left generally is entwined - but it only gives us roots, and I won't be concluding that Liberalism is left-wing simply because of our roots in history. That said: the original Left was PACKED with Liberals!

The French Revolution, regarded as part of "the triumph of Liberalism", was where the term left-wing and right-wing originated. The left-wing of the French parliament opposed the privilege of the monarchy to veto legislation specifically, and went on to form the groups that opposed the Monarchy and the Republic generally. Republicanism itself (the traditional idea, not the Trump party) was entwined with (though distinct from) Liberalism from the get-go.

We were there, as a major component of the modern development of the Left - arguably, the most successful, certainly the most liberating (so far). Historically, Liberalism is inarguably and inextricably part of the rise of the Left.

A quick definition

I will, at this point, quickly also note the opening line of the Wikipedia page on Left-wing politics:

Left-wing politics supports social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy.

Sounds very Liberal to me, but - moving on.

Our alignment with (most) left-wing values

History and encyclopaedic definitions only matter as part of a narrative though - largely, the reason the left-right spectrum matters is because it's the language people speak when they talk politics. In the same way we wouldn't go to France and expect a French barista to understand English (we.. don't do that, do we?). We cannot expect people to be open to our beliefs if we start by lecturing them on why their way of thinking about politics is wrong.

So, what do people believe left-wing values are?

I can read off anecdotes, but let's use some data. This is what YouGov found when polling Brits for left-right recognition in 2019 (with data linked at the bottom):

Now, there are some here that are clearly controversial to Liberals, who generally run cool on nationalisations and tend to be wary of trade unions. Opposing Nuclear Weapons is also controversial amongst Liberals (as it is on the wider Left).

But there's clear and obvious overlap here - Liberals do seek wealth redistribution (the Lib Dems have consistently called for wealth taxes, not implemented by the Labour Party in 13 years of government), we constantly seek to raise welfare (with a distinct view of raising people out of welfare, yes, but more recently also with a Universal Basic Income that would sustain people indefinitely), and most Liberals familiar with how the Grammar School system works oppose it both out of an ideological distaste and a pragmatic stance on the issue. Liberals also instinctively oppose monarchic authority (though we seem to have become placid on the British Royal Family's insidious influence on our politics).

Liberals struggle to agree amongst themselves, and I'm sure everyone has their particular bone to pick with the values of the Left. But hopefully we can agree that, broadly, we share a lot in common - especially when compared to the Right.

Opposition to (most) right-wing values

I will start this by saying that some Liberals definitely believe the NHS would benefit from private-sector involvement. But I'd like you to consider that what Liberals may want (for markets to improve healthcare for all) does not align with what a Conservative may want.

Conservatives have a very clear idea of how the world works - and a big part of that is a natural hierarchy, in which the fairness of your place on that hierarchy matters less than fulfilling your role in it. This hierarchy is reinforced by natural feedback loops, which must not be tampered with - if you have sex then you risk pregnancy, if you don't work hard then you risk destitution, if you don't purchase health insurance then you risk suffering - and death.

If you offer abortions, or welfare, or healthcare - where's the punishment for not perpetuating that hierarchy?

To Liberals, this is anathema - a hierarchy that oppresses people deserves no respect and must be broken down. Individual Responsibility? Sure, but: where's the value in forcing someone into parenthood, if we could instead just stop enforcing our morals on them? Where's the Liberty in ensuring a poor child, born into a poor family, grows up poor - just to act as a lesson to the middle-class son or daughter? Why should someone that - through no fault of their own - develops a debilitating disease be at the mercy of an insurance provider?

From the results YouGov see in their surveys you can draw clear lines between Conservative ideology and what people think the Right is - and these are all things that we ideologically oppose.

You're on the Left - and it matters

Lots of people will be rolling their eyes at this. Why does it matter? Why do we have to dig it up again? Don't the public want to talk about something else?

Well, it does matter - and I'll give three reasons.

People must know that we stand for left-wing ideas. Liberals today believe in wealth redistribution, redistributing power to local communities, and fighting oppression - and in the mind of the public these are all left-wing ideas! The idea of the Left in most people's minds overlaps almost completely with what Liberals believe - and by distinguishing ourselves, we implicitly signal that we oppose those things they associate with the Left (and by the time we've explained the distinction, they're bored and they've switched off).

We must ensure that left-wing politics benefits from Liberal ideas. A big-tent Left that includes Liberals can win more power (by attracting Liberal, and Liberal-inclined, voters) and free more people. Where Socialists reach for nationalisation and are tempted by authoritarian policies, Liberals can bring ideas like Universal Basic Income - and make the case that people can be trusted, if only given the opportunity to thrive. We have so much to offer a vision for the Left.

We must be laser-focused on fighting the rise of the new right. It's tempting to get in squabbles with our fellow lefties - they have different ideas, we don't share all the same values - but Liberals would prefer a nationalised railway to the introduction of new Section 28-style laws any day. We do not exist in a vacuum - not everyone shares our values. But we have far more in common with the Left than we do with the Right.

The failure of Liberals to reinforce and unify with the wider Left will have far more illiberal implications for us in the 21st Century, than anything we gain. With the rise of Fascism as a force of the emboldened Right, we must be clear about what we believe - and where we stand.

Comments

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hungoverseal

All this kind of shit will do is push away right-leaning liberals into the hands of the authoritarian right. It's also discounting the point that a decent chunk of the left-wing are authoritarians and have nothing to do with liberalism.

Selerox

One could argue that if the right-leaning liberals are so happy to vote for a right-wing authoritarian party, then that calls into question them being all that liberal in the first place...

hungoverseal

That is quite possibly true. Liberalism has always accounted for doubt though and doesn't view the world through a binary lense. There's the potential that some of these voters, misguided or not, viewed the threat of Corbyn to liberalism as somewhat greater than the Tories. There's also the possibility that they just couldn't vote Liberal Democrat due to the FPTP voting system. They're voters to be brought back under the wing of liberalism, not outright rejected. It needs to happen on both sides of the divide.

JamesBelchamber

You can't do that by pretending we're right-wing though. This isn't something I tackled in the article, but: if Liberals pretend that they're right-wing then they're just going to be out-competed by *actual* right-wing parties.

We are pro-equality and pro-freedom, and we don't value social orders or hierarchies that perpetuate oppression and inequality. We share almost no values with the political Right.

We need to make an authentic, Liberal case to people - and that includes using the vocabulary they use to describe where we are politically, and then making the case for our distinctiveness within the wider Left.