I have written a series of articles, mostly in for the Spectator but sometimes elsewhere, about the state of the Lib Dems. I’ve written about what I think the party should do, what I think they will do, and what I think other parties need to be mindful of when it comes to the Liberal Democrats. There seems to be some confusion about what I believe to be the case, with some accusations thrown at me for being supposedly inconsistent. This, I believe, mostly comes down to people being confused between what I think WILL happen and what I think SHOULD happen, which are not the same things at all.
- I believe the only space for the Lib Dems is roughly Orange Book shaped.
I know the word “Orange Book” is instantly emotive in Lib Dem circles, but what I really mean to say here is that the Lib Dems’ available electorate is made up of mostly middle-class people in the “yellow halo” around London. St Albans is a classic of this kind that is actually held by the party at present. Remainers who are vaguely centre-right in their politics; people who would never vote Labour but have certainly voted Tory in the past and might do so again if someone less odious than Boris Johnson became leader.
Now, yes, it so happens I would like the Lib Dems to be this kind of party myself. Having said that, I’m so fed up with British politics, I would like any party that was vaguely decent and had a broadly okay vision of the future. Whether that was a little to the right or a little to the left of my “perfect” politics, I wouldn’t mind. So, I don’t describe the shape the Lib Dems can take as being Orange Bookish simply because I want the Lib Dems to be like that, but because I actually, genuinely believe it is the only place for the party to go that will not result in their annihilation. I do not believe that hoards of young, left-leaning voters will vote Lib Dem again unless something drastic happens – loads of Labour far left figures visibly joining or something very formal agreed with the Greens that was borderline merger.
2. I said the Lib Dems WOULD merge with the Greens
I even said this was inevitable. However, I don’t think it will happen anytime particularly soon. If it is going to happen it might as well happen now, when the Lib Dems are on what is probably going to be a relative high of local seats and activists – a hangover from summer 2019, essentially – but given the nature of both parties, any merger will not happen until both parties are crushed almost completely, which I figure will take another five to a dozen years to see through. Getting this straight: I think a merger between the Lib Dems and the Greens WILL happen (although not for a while) but I think it’s kind of a bad idea all round (I’m not saying it SHOULD happen).
3. I said that the Lib Dems SHOULD chuck it all in and join Labour
Actually, specifically what I said is that unless the Lib Dems are interested in carving a realistic niche out in British politics in which they are not any closer to one party than another, and instead of that they will always prefer a Labour government to any other realistic other option, then they should just join Labour as an entity a bit like the Co-Op grouping. I still believe this to be the case. Weirdly, this has caused some people to label me a Tory (more on this in a bit), which is odd because the Lib Dems merging into Labour would make a Tory win at the next election way less likely. Getting this straight: I do not think Labour should “take over” the Lib Dems. That would be weird. What I said was that the Lib Dems should melt into Labour of their own free will if what they want is a Labour government – which is what both leadership contenders keep saying they want.
I have also said very recently that I think Labour should be careful about the price the Lib Dems are saying they will want to extract in order for there to be a Labour prime minister after the next election, should Labour be the largest party in a hung parliament. This is not inconsistent with saying the Lib Dems should melt into Labour; if they were part of the Labour Party, the problem I highlight – that the Lib Dems would demand PR – goes away.
4. I am not a Tory
Trust me, the easiest thing in the universe for me to do would be to become a Tory and announce it to the world. I would have the protection of the whole of the right; there are any number of vocational opportunities that would arise quickly for me; I would take my place in the Tory ecosystem, which is a pretty cosy looking place to be. I haven’t done this because I’m not in fact a Tory. More to the point, I detest Brexit more than ever and think Boris Johnson is one of the worst if not the worst prime minister ever. Actually, even more to the point, not being Tory enough has actually cost me some concrete opportunities in the past few years.
Instead, the thing I have advocated more than anything over the last few months has been a Starmer-led Labour government, with a few caveats (if the progression he has made since becoming leader continues, essentially). I know some people like to throw around the word “Tory” like it’s an insult – I don’t feel insulted when someone calls me a Tory. I know and love a great number of Tories; in fact, career-wise, Tories have been more helpful to me than anyone else (again, this is why becoming a Tory would be very useful to me!). But I do feel like calling me a Tory is a way of avoiding my actual arguments, which is irritating. I know when I say mean things about the Lib Dems, the easiest thing to reach for is “he’s a Tory” – except, when I’m saying that I’ll vote for the Labour Party at the next general election instead of the Lib Dems, this doesn’t actually make a whole lot of sense.
To recap: I think the Lib Dems should accept that their available electorate is Home Counties Remainers who liked the Coalition. Since it’s clear they aren’t going to do that, I think they should melt into Labour. Since I know they aren’t going to do that, I reckon at some point a Lib Dem-Green merger is on the cards; yet given the impractical nature of both sets of activists, this merger will not happen until both parties are much smaller and thus much more desperate than they are now, making the merger mostly meaningless and ineffective. That’s what I have said and whether you agree or disagree with some or all of it, nothing in there is inconsistent with any other part of it. If you’re going to have a go at something I said, go for it – but at least take on my actual arguments.
I have a book out now called “Politics is Murder”. It follows the tale of a woman named Charlotte working at a failing think tank who has got ahead in her career in a novel way – she is a serial killer. One day, the police turn up at her door and tell her she is a suspect in a murder – only thing is, it is one she had nothing to do with. There is also a plot against the Foreign Secretary and some gangsters thrown into the mix while Charlotte tries to find out who is trying to frame her for a murder she didn’t commit.
Also: there is a subplot around the government trying to built a stupid bridge, which now seems a charming echo of a more innocent time!
Dave Chapman says
I think you’ve made a logical case and I don’t see any particular point in trying to poke holes in it.
Just for a loosely-associated record: 1. This time this next week, the official Leader of the LibDems will be an unelectable idiot. That’s guaranteed.
2.BoJo’s tenure at Downing Street was not inevitable if you take the flow of politics from prior to1990. The original sin is the tenure in the post of Prime Minister of John Major. In my personal opinion, the actual worst Prime Minister of the UK. It was he who unnecessarily split his party asunder and sowed the seeds of a party which couldn’t sustain politically in the ling term.
Alex Macfie says
“This time this next week, the official Leader of the LibDems will be an unelectable idiot.” You must be thinking of a different Lib Dem leadership election, one in which the candidates are Lembit Öpik and Mark Oaten. Besides, the new leader isn’t going to be announced until 26 August, so still more than a week to go.
I would not call either Ed or Layla “unelectable”. Both increased their majorities significantly in the last election. And let’s face it, it’s difficult for a Lib Dem Parliamentarian to be “unelectable” personally. If they were, they would not have been elected in the first place. There are no safe seats for us, every one of our successful candidates has won through a lot of personal effort in campaigning. The two blokes I mentioned above lost or would have lost their seats (Oaten jumped before he was pushed) because of their antics after they got elected.
Dave Chapman says
As I said to someone around here recently, when you get wiped out at the polls, don’t blame FPTP.
Alex Macfie says
Who says we’re going to be wiped out? Our death has been predicted many times before and never happened. The next GE isn’t going to be for another 4 years, maybe 4½ if Johnson successfully repeals FTPA and carries on until the bitter end. Plenty of time for things to change. At this stage in the electoral cycle in 1992 pundits were predicting that the Tories would win the next election with an increased majority.
Dave Chapman says
I was hearing exactly the same in November 2019. In January 2015. It’s a ‘yawn’ moment.
Try as you like, you can only convince yourself. You aren’t convincing anybody else, And you’re going to be proven wrong.
Alex Macfie says
“loads of Labour far left figures visibly joining [Lib Dems]” this in a nutshell captures how you fundamentally misunderstand the nature of young, left-leaning voters.They are mostly not ideological, the same as most ordinary people generally. It seems to be a common mistake among that small band of people who live and breathe politics to assume that everyone else does the same. The young people who voted Labour and “for Corbyn” in 2017 and (to a smaller extent) in 2019 were not some new cadre of hardcore revolutionary socailists. They were ordinary young people, who were just inspired by the Corbyn ‘brand’. This brand, however, did become tarnished in recent times, due to things like the antisemitism row and Corbyn’s prevarications over Brexit (which were down to his being, at borrom, a Brexiteer), so the “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” cult is pretty much finished now.
Young left-leaning voters were inspired by Corbyn in 2017. But an earlier generation of such voters was inspired by Charles Kennedy, someone who had nothing to do with the far left. There is no reason why they could not be similarly inspired by another Lib Dem leader, although it would have to be someone unconnected with the Coalition. It all depends on whether the person can capture the voters’ imagination, rather than their ideology.
A Lib Dem party that was overrun with far-left activists would quickly implode through its own contradictions. Quite simply the knee-jerk anti-westernism, tolerance of antisemitism, rigid class-struggle ideology and intolerant approach to politics are the opposite of Lib Dem philosophy. Radical liberalism and reactionary authoritarian leftism are oil and water politically. It would make no more sense than a load of far-right activists led by Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage joining the Lib Dems.
The phoenix says
Orange book liberalism
That went well
What did Einstein say about madness
What happened to that nice bloke Nick Clegg
Surely he was principled
Alex Macfie says
The trouble with the idea that we can win seats like St Albans by being some sort of British FDP is that left-leaning voters live there as well, and Lib Dems need them to be onside. As 2015 shows, seeming too similar to the Tories causes the anti-Tory tactical vote to unwind.
Alex Macfie says
Also Lib Dems merging with Labour (or having an electoral pact) would not necessarily stop the Tories from winning, because it would cause many ‘blue Lib Dem’ voters to return to the Tories. The Lib Dems have to walk a careful tightrope with a Labour party that’s open to cross-party collaboration. Polly Toynbee has got it right here: “Labour and the Lib Dems need each other, but must turn their backs on each other.” No parking of tanks on each other’s Tory-facing battlegrounds (as Labour was wont to do on ours in the last GE) but at the same time there must be no formal pacts or alliances and both parties must contest every seat in order to show that they are separate parties.
The phoenix says
Just admit it
You are the nasty party enablers
You have been since you were called whigs
Only difference is occasionally a liberal will feel empathy
Alex Macfie says
Dave Chapman: This isn’t a few months before an election, it’s 4 years before one. So why are you whittering on about November 2019 or January 2015? What you’re saying is like predicting a Lib Dem wipeout at the next election in August 1992. People did, and they were proved wrong. Just as they predicted the Tories would recover in time for an election in 1996 or 1997.
As I said, plenty of time for a lot of things to change. We can be fairly certain that there will be no early election; the next election will be in 2024 and will be fought under completely different circumstances to the last one. The country will be in a mess because of Brexit and the government approach to Covid-19, and it will be difficult for the Tories to blame anyone else for it because they will have been in power on their own for the previous 4½ years. The Lib Dems will stand to benefit from this, particularly if we elect a leader unconnected with the Coalition and Labour plays ball with us (as opposed to the Corbynista tactic of eliminating the competition).
This predicted merger of Liberal Democrats and the Greens: would this involve Liberal Democrats giving up on Liberalism or would it involve the Greens embracing Liberalism?
Haven’t the Liberal Democrats already demonstrated that progressivism is more important to them then liberalism? So I’m sure they could unite easily enough with the Greens on the basis of being the two wokest parties in British politics.
Alex Macfie says
There is considerable overlap between the sensible wing of the (English & Welsh) Green Party and the social-liberal of the Lib Dems. However, the watermelons and eco-fundamentalists in the Greens wouldn’t go along with it, and nor would (what’s left of) the Cleggite tendency in the Lib Dems. We’d end up with 3 separate parties. Let’s wait until we get PR before indulging in any splitting.
And actually there would be no way a small FDP type party of the type Nick Tyrone wants the Lib Dems to become would survive in FPTP, so it’s hard to understand why he’s decided he now likes the current system.