It is a truth often acknowledged that Tony Blair and David Cameron, in moving their respective parties to the centre ground, left a gruelling obstacle on the road to a truly Liberal Britain.
But it’s not from those leaders that the next generation of Liberal Democrat’s must learn, rather it is from a leader who would regard liberalism as a dirty word, and many Liberal outcomes as inimical to her view of society, Margaret Thatcher.
The lesson for Lib Dems is that Thatcher understood that the less well off are just as aspirational as those born to wealth. The Tory method of helping to deliver these aspirations contained the eternal flaw inherent in all Tory policy of being too myopic to care about providing for those whose aspirations are not quite achieved, or indeed in ensuring that many of the obstacles placed before the less well off be removed.
The Liberal Democrats take great pride in being the party that will safeguard the safety net, and indeed we should make more of the fact that Liberals, from Lloyd George to Beveridge, did more than any other party to invent the concept of a safeguard.
But Liberal Democrats have often gotten the balance wrong, deciding that our party’s role should be to focus only on holding the safety net, while creating an environment in which the aspirational are driven away from us and into the arms of the Conservatives.
Thatcher understood the gut-need of many UK adults to own their own home, and won many working class voters to the Tory cause by allowing them to buy their council house. Many Liberal Democrats deride this as populism, yet connecting with voters on this rather visceral level is something the Liberal Democrats do very well at local level, but are failing to replicate at national level. That’s why many of our national electoral successes have been rooted in our local campaigning traditions.
Thatcher replaced the ugliness and emptiness of ‘class solidarity’ and associated rhetoric with the view that anyone could strive to be anything – this is closer to liberalism than traditional Toryism, and something which our party must reclaim.
This is the next step in the development of the Liberal Democrats at national level, is to become the party of the aspirational, even if those aspirations are more mundane than those which our predominantly educated middle class membership would identify.
The great divide between Liberal Democrats and the country was not caused by tuition fees or electoral reform, it’s deeper than that. We are seen as the party of “causes”. Instead we must be seen as a party which is on the same side as people’s dreams, however quotidian those dreams may be.
* David Thorpe is a member of the Liberal Democrats in Newham, and works for an economics publication.