Thursday, 29 June 2017

What are the Liberal Democrats for?

Tim Farron’s aim when he became Liberal Democrat leader after the heavy losses in 2015 was to make sure the party survived. Now as he departs that is once again in question, with the Lib Dems in danger of seeming irrelevant to most voters.

I will therefore examine some options for the future - and I am starting with two assumptions. First, that the party is, and will remain, progressive - as defined in my Manifesto for Progressive Politics. Second, that the Liberal Democrats need a single clear identity in the minds of the public: something voters see the party as for, and which is territory not successfully claimed by anyone else - or likely to be claimed in the future.

That presents a problem, though, because the Liberal Democrats are not unique in being a progressive party. The Green Party, I believe, shares all five of the progressive principles I set out; and Labour may well do too, and if not the Labour Party as a whole, certainly many Labour members.

Even if a distinctive role can be identified, I believe the party must then somehow “own” it: everything must be presented through the prism of that one Liberal Democrat purpose, and the leader must be seen to embody it. That means this has to be decided before the leadership election takes place, and a candidate who not only believes it but represents it will have to be persuaded to stand.

If none of the MPs embodies this Lib Dem purpose, the party’s procedures may have to be torn up to allow non-MPs to stand. I say “torn up” because there is not the time to pass constitutional amendments; by then a new leader will be in place - perhaps the wrong leader - and the opportunity will be lost. So, with that urgency in mind, let’s take a look at five options.

Option 1: give up

No, really - just pack it all in and find another hobby. The party’s brand as a progressive alternative has been destroyed by its association with the Conservatives. Never mind what may be said about a coalition government that was better than it would have been without the Lib Dems, the need for stability at a time of financial crisis, the House of Commons arithmetic after the 2010 election, or a belief in political opponents working together even though that requires compromise. That’s all irrelevant; and the Liberal Democrats are irrelevant now. The party’s over.

And yet... what did Tim Farron represent, above all else, as leader? I suggest it was that the party could not just accept defeat and disappear - “not on my watch” - and under his leadership the Lib Dems have been successful in recruiting new members, and in getting more MPs elected (although it could be argued the latter was mainly the result of the perhaps inevitable reduction of the SNP vote from their near-complete dominance in Scotland in 2015).

Tim Farron’s legacy, surely, should be that the Liberal Democrats continue, and find a way to flourish. That requires more than a determination to survive, though. The party must be seen to offer something distinctive.

Option 2: be the UK European Party

This has the advantage that it fits the strategy adopted for the recent general election, but the disadvantage that the outcome then was not particularly successful. So take it further: appeal to those in the Labour and Conservative parties who support remaining in the EU, and drop other policies that would prevent them joining the Liberal Democrats. Be a single issue party (in the minds of the electorate) like UKIP.

That doesn’t mean having no other policies, it means being identified as the party for staying in the EU - and for rejoining if we leave, or at least having the closest possible relationship.

As I’ve argued previously it’s not a position I agree with, but it is consistent with long-standing Lib Dem EU-enthusiasm, and with internationalism that I believe follows when the first progressive principle - ending “them” and “us” thinking - is applied to nation states.

Option 3: be the Light Greens

It could be argued that the Green Party has exactly the right agenda but that their policies go too far (and are too left wing) for mainstream public opinion. The Liberal Democrats could provide environmentalism with a heavy dose of realism, combining the third progressive principle - that we are custodians of our planet, its living things and its resources rather than owning them - with the fifth, which is pragmatism.

However, pragmatism does not mean simply watering down every policy; it is about doing what works best. Some problems are so serious they require urgent and substantial changes - and global warming and air quality are two such issues. Also, being a pale version of the Greens would not give the party a distinctive identity, which I am suggesting it needs.

Option 4: be centrists

A pragmatic centre party could help end political tribalism by aiming to build consensus on the biggest issues confronting our country, including Brexit and social care. On the economy, it could mean ending austerity but not having profligate spending either. Interestingly, Ken Clarke has called for a “centrist government with cross-party support” (on Channel 4 News at approximately 7.35pm on 20 June, at the end of a discussion that also included Vince Cable).

There does seem to be a vacancy for a moderate party: before Theresa May’s ill-fated snap election the two biggest parties seemed further apart than for decades. But the electorate also seems to be polarised, with well over 80% of those voting in the recent general election choosing either Labour or the Conservatives.

So if there is indeed a vacancy in the middle, it is quite small in terms of the votes available at the moment. Moreover, believing in moderation, compromise and consensus, while laudable, seems vacuous as an identity.

I remember the 1980s Spitting Image parody of the Liberal-SDP Alliance: “not left, not right, but somewhere in between”. That sounds fine... but the satirical version applied it to every single issue. In truth, though, it’s an easy position to mock, however unfairly - an ideology of not having any ideology, a party willing to jump from “propping up” the Tories to Labour and back again.

There is nothing wrong with being near the political centre ground - although the fourth of the progressive principles I set out, which recognises that wealth is generated within a society and not solely by an individual, would suggest a progressive party should be to the left. But whether in the centre or the centre-left, I think the party needs to be for something: clear, strong and uncompromising. Otherwise it will indeed be seen as irrelevant. And would the Liberal Democrats really want to be “somewhere in the middle” on global warming, on poverty, or on civil liberties?

Option 5: be the diversity party

By putting the focus on the first and second of the progressive principles set out in my Progressive Manifesto the Liberal Democrats could be - and be identified as - the diversity party. Whether on age, religion, ethnicity, sexuality or disability, to mention just a few, the Lib Dems would celebrate individuality.

Diversity, however, need not mean division. By fighting to end scapegoating, demonisation and hatred, it could promote social cohesion and inclusion. The party would be for acceptance, respect and togetherness.

Of course, many Lib Dems would say it already does this, and has been doing for many years - and one of the notable successes in coalition was Equal Marriage - but despite that I suggest it is not how the party is seen. Look at its MPs or even just its leaders over the last few decades and that will be no surprise.

So in conclusion, I think the Liberal Democrats need a new - or renewed - purpose. It must be something the party and its leader are seen to represent, something distinctive the party is identified with, something it is for. My recommendation is to be the diversity party, and say to people: “Let’s be different together.” It would require major changes to the way the party behaves and how it presents itself and its policies - changes that cannot wait for Brexit to be out of the way first. Whatever is decided, it needs to be done now... or perhaps they will have chosen “Option 1” after all.