Agenda 2020 Essay #12: What it means to be a Liberal Democrat today

Editor’s Note: The party is currently running an essay competition for members of the Liberal Democrats, to submit 1000 words on the theme “What it means to be a Liberal Democrat today.” The deadline for contributions is TODAY. If you would like us to publish your submission, send it to [email protected].

For me, it means what it meant in 1986/87 when, in the early years of Secondary School, I was taught about different electoral systems. The Modern Studies teacher explained the ins and outs of First Past the Post and alternative forms of Proportional Representation.

I pointed at PR: “I support that, and the people who support that.” I said.

It means what it meant in 1992 when I cast my first General Election vote. Still  politically naive (despite many hours of listening to Radio 4 over the years prior: the demise of Thatcher, the election of Major, through the first Gulf War and the scrapping of the poll tax…) but knowing that I wasn’t Tory (I had seen how Tory policies has decimated large parts of Fife, with pit-town upon pit-town in ruins) but also that I wasn’t Labour – even though, in those days, Labour votes in Dunfermline West were weighed not counted.

I may not have been able to articulate it, but I knew in my heart that my outlook was different. That Labour didn’t speak for me any more than the Tories, for all that you may have they should have done. I voted Liberal Democrat because I knew they offered something different.

It means what it meant in May 2010 when I (re-)joined the party, post-coalition. Here was a party prepared to work with their political opponents, in the interests of a stable government. Here was a party not content to take the easy road of opposition-ism but instead to step up to the plate and make the hard choices. Here was a party prepared to be pragmatic, not dogmatic.

It means what it meant in March 2013 when conference took a view at odds with the coalition/party leadership on the issue of Closed Material Procedures in civil cases. To be a party that defends Civil Liberties and speaks up for open justice. (And that isn’t afraid to tell its leaders when they are wrong.)

It means what it meant – although may not have clearly said – on May 7th 2015.

I’m sure you remember May 7th:

Stability. Decency. Unity.

Look Left. Look Right. Then Cross.

Giving Tories a Heart and Labour a Brain.

Stronger Economy. Fairer Society. Opportunity for Everyone.

What these slogans tried to say, in varying degrees of cack-handedness, was that Britain needed balance. We could foresee the line the Tories would pursue (although they have surprised me with their haste, spiking the Green economy and screwing the poor faster and harder than anticipated), and the ever more interventionist approach favoured by Labour (who have also, in their way, gone further down the track that failed to work for them.)

But what arguing for balance does is define us in relation to others. By seeking to split the difference, we conceded ground to both sides. Those who wanted (so-called) fiscal responsibility went for the industrial-strength version of cuts. Those who wanted social responsibility perceived Labour as better placed to offer that.

We do stand for balance – but we need to better at articulating liberal means to achieving the end, rather than seeking to split the difference in any given argument. We need to (re-)learn how to define ourselves, distinct from our opponents.

When the other parties are also fighting on the centre ground, our voice becomes diminished. Our challenge is to fight on the liberal ground that exists on a separate but intersecting plane. To argue that balanced outcomes are achievable but through different, not just amended, routes than those pursued by our opponents.

It means what it meant on May 9th, when as local membership officer I checked our database and saw the scores of people joining. After near-annihilation, there were people prepared to stand with us. A recurring chorus of “Britain needs a Liberal voice, and it’s not enough now for me just to vote for it, I need to do more.”

Voices that, when otherwise I would have moped, moaned and despaired gave me hope.

And it’ll mean the same on May 7th 2020 (yes, I checked a calendar…) when once more we will face the electorate. When we will be able to lay out our vision of a Liberal Britain: a society where people are free to be want they want to be, are treated with fairness by the state and where no-one is enslaved by conformity.

What does it mean to be a Lib Dem today?

It means to be for Fairness. For Difference. For Pragmatism. For Civil Liberties. For Balance. For Hope. And for the Future.



* Andrew Brown is a Deputy Leader of the Lib Dem Group on Bristol City Council, and was parliamentary candidate for Bristol South in 2019.

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