Over the past four years, I have occasionally been scathing towards the Lib Dems. Some have interpreted this as a hostility in regard to the party’s lurch to the left post-2015 – this only a small part of it. Mostly, I have felt angered by the fact that in the midst of Brexit and Corbyn, the Liberal Democrats seemingly wanted to retreat into a cosy shell; we tried being grownups, appeared to be the collective message, and that didn’t work out for us. We want to be left alone to do our own thing in peace. This seemed callous to me in the face of what was at stake.
However, I come here today to praise the Liberal Democrats, not to bury them. As I’ve said before, with both the Tories and Labour locked in some sort of bizarre death spirals, each doing the wrong things to try and save themselves, coupled with the failure of Change UK in the most spectacular way imaginable, the Lib Dems have emerged as only hope remaining for some form of sane, liberal politics in the UK for the foreseeable future. As such, I’d like to talk about how the party could not only hang onto the poll numbers it has, but increase them, very possibly into election winning territory.
Imagine for a moment a party that took in Nick Boles and Dominic Grieve at one end, and Jess Phillips and Stella Creasy at the other. That would be a broad tent, some of you might say. Yes, it would be. But let’s examine what all of those political figures have in common:
- Dislike of Brexit and an unwillingness to see it go ahead on anything other than the softest terms.
- A respect for international norms and institutions.
- A desire to maintain Britain’s standing in the world and if possible, to claw back the image the country had internationally pre-2016.
- The need for a mixed economy where the numbers add up.
- An agreement on the pressing nature of some of the public policy problems Britain faces and the fact that they cannot be solved with simplistic ideas or sloganeering.
You might say that this isn’t enough to build a party around given all the differences between the people above I haven’t bothered to mention. Five years ago, you would have been spot on in saying so. Now, this is no longer the case. With the Labour leadership having long ago retreated from all of the above and the Tory leadership looking very much like it is about to, added to the fact that you have a new party polling in the 20s that is the antithesis of all of that, at least for the time being the country actually needs a party that stands for those five things. And the Lib Dems are not only primed to be that party, but are the only ones who can actually do it.
I’m anticipating the arguments. The Lib Dems are a liberal party, not a centrist one. I’m not proposing the Lib Dems become some squishy party of triangulation. It’s much more that I think people of the reasonable centre-right and reasonable centre-left not only can come up with solutions to the problems we face together, in the face of BoJo, Farage and Corbyn they bloody well need to.
These people will never join the Lib Dems, will they, is another likely objection. I obviously have no idea what Dominic Grieve or Stella Creasy may or may not do in future. But if the Lib Dems looked much more like the party I’ve just described, then it makes their recruitment much more likely. Or, you get the Dominic Grieves and Stella Creasys of the next generation – either way, the party becomes what the country needs. I think, in turn, the country would elect it as a result.
The most honest argument against what I’m talking about here is this: we like being who we are already. We don’t want the party to become a broad church; we are happy as we are. If more people want to join us, great; if not, oh well. I’d say as liberals, we should be welcome to new ideas and not retreat into bubbles of comfort. Lib Dems have some good ideas on things. They also have some very bad ones. If the conversation was broader, the good ideas would increase and the bad ones would get more scrutiny.
It is very possible the idea of the Liberal Democrats I’m laying out here, admittedly in broad as opposed to specific terms, is just a pipe dream of mine. But stop and think about it for a minute: I feel like liberal democracy is under threat and I want to stop that from happening. Shouldn’t a party called the Liberal Democrats be able to at least try and do that much?