I was sorry to see Richard Grayson has resigned from the Lib Dems. We’ve met only once. It was at the 2010 Brighton party conference when we were interviewed together for Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour. As I noted at the time:
I felt almost sorry for Richard as we chatted beforehand, a loyal liberal and Lib Dem who finds it baffling to be almost a lone voice making the case against Coalition within the party. … the Coalition — if not always the Coalition policies — is broadly popular across the membership, and across the different sections of the party. True, there is more concern on the liberal-left of the party than there is in the centre, or among those who are economic liberals. But for the moment at least there is large degree of unity. Of course this is the ‘easy’ conference: next year’s, and especially the year’s after, will be the tough ones. By then Richard might not find himself quite such a lone voice.
He isn’t a lone voice. He has chosen, along with thousands of others since the autumn of 2010, to leave the party. The party’s membership has declined over the past couple of years from over 60,000, following the excitement of ‘Cleggmania’ and the Rose Garden, to little more than 40,000.
I’ll be honest: I’ve always respected Richard’s thinking more than I’ve agreed with it. But I like the party being a broad church. An unashamed economic liberal, I think the focus on more equal outcomes of the social liberal wing of the party is an important corrective to the free market self-reliance I favour. A Liberal Democrat party which tilts too far in either direction will be purer, but impoverished.
I like the sparring, the dialectic. It makes us stronger. And that’s why I’m sorry to see Richard, and the many other who agree with him and have already lapsed their membership, depart.
Let me be honest again, though: I think the rationale Richard has constructed for his resignation is deeply flawed.
Richard claims his angst is rooted in his fundamental disagreement with the Coalition’s economic policy. Well, it’s not hard to criticise. The Lib Dems made two major mistakes in May 2010. Agreeing to follow Labour’s plans to cut capital expenditure, and agreeing to put George Osborne in charge of implementing them.
The reality is all three parties signed up to austerity. Yet Richard slates the Lib Dem leadership for noting “savage cuts” would be inevitable whoever won the election, while ignoring Alistair Darling’s pre-election warning of “cuts deeper than Thatcher” even if Labour were to win.
In truth, Richard could never forgive the Lib Dem leadership for agreeing to enter a coalition with the Tories. He’s pretty explicit about that: ‘the Liberal Democrats are a left-of-centre party and should work for a coalition of that nature.’ In other words, we can deal only with Labour.
It’s an absurd argument. Intellectually absurd because the Lib Dems should be prepared to deal with either party if we can deliver liberal policies as a result. And pragmatically absurd because you cannot negotiate effectively unless you have a viable alternative partner.
Politics is a pendulum. Currently the Lib Dems are in coalition with the Tories. It’s quite plausible that in under two years’ time a Tim Farron-led party could be in coalition with Labour. If so, there will (I’m sure) be plenty of economic policies with which I disagree that I will have to swallow.
In that scenario, I’m happy to have these words quoted back at me: I will stick it out because I recognise that coalition requires compromise and until the Lib Dems are a majority we are going to have work with parties with which we disagree and sometimes vote for things we don’t much like. Why? Because that’s what happens if you can’t persuade enough of the public to vote for you.
I’m sorry to see Richard resign. But I’m sticking with the party full of liberals even when I do disagree with it.
PS: do read David Boyle’s superb blog-post: Why Richard Grayson got it wrong.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.