Aria Babu: Are the Liberal Democrats Still Pro-Market?
This summary was written by Matteo Baccaglini, President.
On Friday 7 February 2020, we were delighted to welcome Aria Babu, Board Member at Liberal Reform, to speak to the Oxford Hayek Society at Mansfield College on the subject of: 'Are the Liberal Democrats Still Pro-Market?'.
You can find a YouTube video of Aria's introductory remarks and the start of the follow-up question-and-answer session below.
Aria led a fascinating discussion highlighting the strong support for pro-market policies in the Liberal Democrats, perhaps contrary to prevailing perceptions.
She argued that the prospects for pro-marketeers are bleak across the political spectrum: the Overton window has lurched decisively to the left over the course of the last decade. Labour's last manifesto advocated nationalising a score of industries, while the new Conservative administration has dashed hopes for a more pro-market agenda, evidenced through bailouts such as Flybe's and extravagant investments such as HS2.
And of course, even the Liberal Democrats endorse anti-market views on several fronts - think housing, healthcare, online expression or the sugar tax.
But Aria noted that the Lib Dems have a strong record on pro-market policies too. In government, they spearheaded the increase in the personal tax allowance, while privatising the Royal Mail and raising the audit threshold. Post-coalition, they champion several flagship pro-market policies, from a land value tax to the legalisation of marijuana.
On social issues, the Liberal Democrats have consistently scored better than Labour and the Conservatives, especially on immigration. And on austerity, the Conservatives proved to be more profligate without the Liberal Democrats in coalition. Indeed, in the 2019 general election, the Liberal Democrat manifesto promised more balanced books and lower spending than the Conservatives.
Moreover, Liberal Reform candidates consistently win internal party elections; many party members fondly remember Nick Clegg, the party's Leader from 2007 until 2015 who was widely identified with more pro-market economic policies; and many still subscribe to the ideals of The Orange Book. A libertarian flame isn't just alive in the Liberal Democrats: it's also kicking.
Published in 2004, The Orange Book was a pro-market quasi-manifesto championing greater personal choice and market forces, with chapters written by future party headlights such as Nick Clegg and Ed Davey. It heralded a significant change in the Liberal Democrats' previous centre-left policy proposals: the publication revolutionised the policies adopted at party conferences and became a foundation stone for the Liberal Democrats' entry into the Coalition Government of 2010-15.
Nevertheless, Aria recognises that there are reasons to be cautious about the relationship between the Liberal Democrats and market-based policymaking. For one, nobody has yet conducted the necessary research testing whether a move to the economic right would be an electorally-successful strategy for the party to pursue.
And by becoming outspoken advocates of membership of the European Union, the Liberal Democrats alienated themselves from many supporters of the market that were veterans of a libertarian strain of Euroscepticism. Aria estimates that there's not much that the Lib Dems can do to win them back - except to hold on and wait for Brexit to be over.
The talk was thoroughly enjoyable and made for a delightful evening of insightful discourse. Many guests joined us at the King's Arms afterwards for further discussion and debate. On the behalf of the Committee, I'd like to reiterate our hearty gratefulness to Aria for visiting us: thank you.
Aria Babu is a Board Member at Liberal Reform, a Liberal Democrat internal group emphasising the benefits of open markets, entrepreneurship, competition and free trade. A member of the Liberal Democrats since 2015, she founded the UCL Liberal Democrats during her degree, interned at the Adam Smith Institute, a neoliberal policy thinktank, and has held a number of roles in the Federal Executive of the Young Liberals, the youth wing of the Liberal Democrats. Aria works as a Communications Analyst at Public First, a public policy research agency based in Westminster specialising in economic, social and opinion research.