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?
I would like to know whether you are more for an Emmanuel Macron type (essentially social democrat) party or a Charles Michel or Xavier Bettel type Liberal party.
I cite these because they are all heads of government, but there is a difference in mentality. I do not think Macron has ever campaigned at a local level and I do not think this bothers him. It seems to me there is a difference in the scope of role and conception of government.
Lev Eakins says
Perhaps a good response to anyone who argues “The Lib Dems are a liberal party, not a centrist one” is to say:
“That’s a bit like saying the Conservative party is a conservative party, not a right-wing one, or the Labour party is a socialist party, not a left-wing one. Whether we like it or not, the Conservatives occupy the right, Labour occupies the left and the Lib-Dems occupy the centre. It’s simply an observation of political reality, not an ideological declaration.”
A schop says
Get your orange book out again
That was wonderful triangulation
I think they’ve basically proved, haven’t they, that about 8-10% of the British electorate are actual liberals, but there’s another 12-17% or so who are not dyed-in-the-wool liberals but are willing to lend the Liberal Democrats their votes either as a protest (eg over Iraq or Brext) if they think that they might get something else they want out of it (eg ending tuition fees, remaining in the EU).
The problem the Lib Dems face is that those 12-17% aren’t actually terribly united; sometimes they have totally different outlooks, like the pre-Coalition coalition of right-economic/social-progressives and leftier-than-Labour banker-haters; other times they may at least all agree on one thing (bollocksing to Brexit, for example) but disagree on everything else (Conservative Remainers vs Labour Remainers have nothing much else in common).
So while the Lib Dems can try to expand their appeal by either being all things to everyone (the pre-2010 strategy) or focusing hard on one single issue (the aforementioned bollocks), they are still doomed to — if they every leave the comfort of opposition and actually have to start making choices — alienate some or all of those lent votes and collapse right back to their 8-10% core.
An end to boom and bust, anyone?
I think you might be looking at it the wrong way round – much more of Britain could be described as liberal than could be described as socialist. Labour has just been able to rely on their support for the last few decades because it’s essentially been a two-party system, and they managed to take the liberal spot on that axis.
I think you might be looking at it the wrong way round – much more of Britain could be described as liberal than could be described as socialist
I think it’s the other way around, actually. The great unrepresented block of opinion in UK politics is the socially conservative, economically… well, maybe not socialist, but pro-protectionism, pro-nationalisation, etc. The sort of old-fashioned trade unionist ethos. Definitely not liberals in any sense.
Labour’s move in a more socially liberal direction is now costing them in their old heartlands, as they have turned into a party of the urban / university socially liberal, and hasn’t gained them as much as they have lost because they have to fight for those voters with the Lib Dems. It’s a real long-term problem for Labour, the effects of which have only just begun to be seen.
A schop says
Pro protection pro nationalism etc so this is your answer is it the uneducated
The last refuge of the scoundrel is nationalism
You think that is where the majority are
A country led by the right of the conservative party driven by the bile of the brexit ideology
Look forward to where this slash and burn economics leads
Pro nationalisation, not nationalism, but I’m sure you won’t let your illiteracy dent your superciliousness.
Paul W says
“Labour’s move in a more socially liberal direction is now costing them in their old heartlands, as they have turned into a party of the urban / university socially liberal, and hasn’t gained them as much as they have lost because they have to fight for those voters with the Lib Dems. It’s a real long-term problem for Labour, the effects of which have only just begun to be seen.”
A very fair point M.
A schop says
Like I said brexit bile
Enhance your calm.
A schop says
Calm before the storm