I’ve been a member of the Liberal Democrats (and sometime activist) since the mid-1990s. So I don’t want to encourage anyone to leave the party, despite the frustrations we share.
Admittedly, when supporters (and a few members) dropped away in the immediate aftermath of the Coalition I wasn’t entirely unhappy. Many seemed not really to have engaged with our political culture, even if they liked individual policies (and didn’t like Labour or the Tories). But since then many good liberals have left, for reasons we all know. The response of remaining members has been characterised by sadness, rather than rancorous demands to ‘stay and fight’.
Liberals have been here before. They were always a fissiparous bunch – think of the various political destinations of the Young Liberals of the ‘60s and ‘70s, not to mention Lloyd-George, the National Liberals, Liberal Unionists… After the dramas of the merger in 1987-89, 31% of Liberal Party members never joined the Liberal Democrats, and only a small number joined the tiny ‘continuing’ Liberal Party. A tremendous amount of political energy was dissipated. (I guess much of it went into civil society: members of the pre-1988 Liberal Party were characterised by high rates of participation in other organisations, too).
At the moment there are no clear institutional options open to disaffected Liberal Democrats. Some are restricting their party activity. It is now possible to join the Social Liberal Forum as an Associate Member (as long as one doesn’t belong to another political party). This creation of Associate Membership is welcome, but of course the SLF’s strategy is predicated on working within the party. A very few people have joined the 1989 Liberal Party, but it is not surprising that this has proved unattractive to most: it barely functions as a national organisation, and seems to define itself in large part by antagonism to the Liberal Democrats. The Greens haven’t provided a home for very many, either (that’s a subject for another post). Personal friendships remain between current and former members, but in themselves they can’t amount to anything more than setting the world to rights in the Dog and Duck. Nor can subscribing to Liberator (‘for radical liberals in all parties and none’), splendid though it is.
In 1988, the Liberal Movement was established to fill a similar gap, but it didn’t gain momentum, and I can’t see that a similar initiative would be any more successful now (although good luck to anyone who wants to try!).
So I don’t have any answer to the question of what disaffected Lib Dems should do, but I hope that it’s possible to keep open lines of communication between liberals inside and outside the party. The British liberal tradition is far too important to rest with the fortunes of a single political vehicle.
I’ve set up a blog intended to point readers towards the doings and saying of liberals who are no longer Lib Dems (especially those who haven’t joined any other party). Of course this isn’t any sort of answer, but I hope it will be of interest to those worried about the question.
* Bernard Gowers is a member of the Liberal Democrats, and blogs at Liberals Together.