Breaking the stranglehold of the monoliths

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One of the most distinctive statements we have made in recent years has been that we are not afraid of coalition government; indeed we entered into one in 2010. Now the media see serious divisions in the two apparent monoliths who swap power between them, and ask whether the time is ripe for a new ‘party of the centre’. Vince speaks often of a realignment of politics and implies that the Party could benefit significantly from such a seismic shift. Which begs the questions, in what way and with what objective?

It has become clear that neither Labour nor the Tories are actually monolithic; each contains factions hardly on speaking terms with each other. Applying a simple left/right measure there seems to be a hope that both moderate Tories and moderate Labour voters can be persuaded to fall in behind a moderate, centrist banner, carry the day and emerge as the new monolith displacing one or both of the two current ones. But why on earth would we want a new monolith?

A painful lesson we learned as a result of our 2010-2015 experience is that where the role of a small party is to make up the numbers for a big party which has fallen short of an outright majority, the consequence is that it will attract hostility from supporters of all parties, including its own.

The hope that all these ‘moderates’ will be able to coalesce around a common vision and a common set of policies is anyway a vain hope; moderate Labour, moderate Lib Dem and moderate Tory are three very different things and lumping them all together would likely alienate at least as many voters as it attracted.

In my view three things at least are necessary to bring about a meaningful realignment. Firstly, we should be actively encouraging the emergence of new small parties in the way that the SDP was born out of earlier strife within the Labour Party. They can form the seeds of new entities as was the case with the subsequent merger of the Liberals and the Social Democrats. And it can take many seeds to achieve a few strong plants.

Secondly, these smaller parties must from the outset be prepared to talk to other parties, working with them where there is a mutual benefit or a shared vision; they should be practising coalition ahead of the day when formal coalition is called for.

Thirdly, these kinds of changes will only succeed if one of the shared aims is to change the voting system to one that gives equal value to every vote, indeed at the appropriate moment that could well serve as a common manifesto pledge for a limited term parliament to bring in a new system and then hold fresh elections under the new system.

There would be a whole raft of other reforms needed thereafter, but I would suggest that this would be a good way to start.

* Ian Hurdley joined the Liberal Party back in the 1960s. Before retiring to Spain he served for fourteen years as a magistrate on a Northern metropolitan bench and continues to take a keen interest in all matters to do with justice

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  • The trouble is with such an approach is that Brexit is likely to have been decided by the time of the next GE – and the Tories will become unified again [the signs are that they will be sufficiently united until the GE – to avoid allowing Labour in].

    This should also allow the Party to start to concentrate on matters that interest the voters – and give it some hope for revival.

  • Hanging about waiting for dramatic events in other parties is never going to be a successful strategy. Nor is trying to influence them from the outside. Even when they are showing the most seismic stresses and strains, interference in private grief is never advisable. The vice-like grip of First Past the Post on Westminster elections seems to produce a recurring pattern over the long term. A Labour or Conservative Party gets obsessed with internal disagreement. It breaks out onto the public domain, there is blood-letting and resignations and a major split seems inevitable. Even if a formal split happens (as in the SDP story) the balance between party leavers and party remainers is very lop-sided. Then for a period things settle down again, fences are mended and it is business as usual. After a few years, perhaps a decade or so, people in the coalitions which are the Labour and Conservative parties find the energy for another round of internal feuding.
    Liberal Democrats must always look to their own strengths rather than what I remember Lady Violet Bonham-Carter describing as “a-whoring after foreign women”
    (not very PC but we knew what she meant). With a strong philosophical base, well articulated values and a legacy of on-the-ground campaigning we can build up a party that drop-outs from other parties and the politically despairing may feel is worth joining. If we have the guts and the energy the trick is always to aim for what is within our own control rather than waiting for things to happen to other people.

  • Linda Dickins 25th Jul '18 - 12:41pm

    A well thought out sensible arguement. Let’s hope it happens. My fear is that people are so turned off politics they won’t bother putting their energy into forming a small centrist party.

  • Phil Beesley 25th Jul '18 - 12:46pm

    @Ian Hurdley: “One of the most distinctive statements we have made in recent years has been that we are not afraid of coalition government; indeed we entered into one in 2010.”

    Liberals are not afraid of coalition government, merely terrified. Lib Dems had lots of experience in local government with Labour and Conservative councillors. That was insufficient knowledge for government negotiations.

    “A painful lesson we learned as a result of our 2010-2015 experience is that where the role of a small party is to make up the numbers for a big party which has fallen short of an outright majority, the consequence is that it will attract hostility from supporters of all parties, including its own.”

    The painful moment was the Rose Garden cuddle between Nick and David. Every door step argument that Lib Dems could be a moderating influence on the Conservatives was destroyed by 10 seconds of video.

    “Firstly, we should be actively encouraging the emergence of new small parties in the way that the SDP was born out of earlier strife within the Labour Party.”

    All sorts of parties get thrown up. Oswald Mosley’s New Party emerged from a Labour split.

  • paul barker 25th Jul '18 - 1:45pm

    We can start the break-up of the monoliths now by approaching other Parties (Greens, Womens Equality Party, Renew ?) to form an Electoral Pact. The existence of such a New Alliance would make it easier for New breakaway Parties to form & establish The Libdems as the natural Leader of any such alternative.
    There would have to be some basics that everyone signed up to : Remaining in or rejoining The EU, enthusiasm for Electoral Reform & further Devolution & a commitment to Green issues & reducing inequality but there is already a lot of agreement on those issues between us, The Greens & dozens of Tory & Labour MPs.
    We can start the process of Realignement now & give the Media/Blogosphere reasons to look at us again.

  • David Evans 25th Jul '18 - 1:46pm

    I’m sorry Ian, but you are simply ignoring facts. The lesson of “our 2010-2015 experience” (Why not call it coalition?) wasn’t that “it will attract hostility from supporters of all parties, including its own.” It was that if you break pledges and betray your supporters and your values, and pretend you have done little wrong, particularly after emphasising “An end to Broken Promises”, you will get destroyed.

    It seems too many of us still haven’t come to terms with that enough to accept it.

  • ………………………..One of the most distinctive statements we have made in recent years has been that we are not afraid of coalition government; indeed we entered into one in 2010………..

    I was taught the old adage of “Once bitten, twice shy”; it seems rather strange to read that the ‘New Improved LibDems’ preach the opposite.

  • nigel hunter 25th Jul '18 - 3:00pm

    Yes,when you go into coalition you alienate voters of all parties and also break you promises people do become dis-interested in you for you, then, cannot be trusted.That trust has to be rebuilt. One way could be to only vote on policies that we agree/disagree which are nearest to our values.

  • Ian Hurdley 25th Jul '18 - 3:39pm

    @ David Evans. Had you paid attention to my opening sentence you might have noticed that I said in so many words that we entered a coalition in 2010. Thus my reference to our 2010-2015 experience clearly refers to that coalition. What concerns me more, however, is that apparently we should cling to Nick Clegg as the scapegoat on whose back we can load all our problems ever since. The reality is that Labour immediately and constantly howled that we had ‘got into bed’ with the Tories, thereby proving ourselves to be Tories at heart, whilst from the Tory came complaints that were impeding true Tory Government. Within our own ranks were those who huffed and puffed that we should have returned to the opposition benches, sniping from the sidelines.
    That, as they say, was then; this is now. Whether we leave the EU or remain in it, politically there are only seven months to run with the Exit to Brexit theme. After that, what? That’s what I’d like us to be planning for.

  • William Fowler 25th Jul '18 - 4:04pm

    Mrs May is about as centrist as you are going to get, believes in the Big State and keeps on expanding it any chance she gets, though is reigned in somewhat by core Conservative beliefs in good money. Labour would love to have an extremely large state that encompasses the whole populace. LibDems seem to want a rather bigger state with increased taxes to pay for it rather than the much expanded deficit and overall debt of Labour.

    This does suggest that the hole in market for a new party is one that wants a minimal but effective State that gives maximum freedom to the individual as long they don’t impinge on other people’s freedom.

  • paul barker 25th Jul '18 - 5:33pm

    A good way to destroy Our Party would be to onsess about the unchangeable Past rather than think about the unwritten Future.
    I dont know if we will be able to make an effective intervention in The Brexit struggle but I do think we can lay the groundwork for Political Realignement, starting now. An offer of an Electoral Pact to other Remain Parties would be a good way to attract attention during The Summer. We have led such an Alliance before, we can do it again.

  • We may not have been afraid of coalition government before, but we are now!

  • Little Jackie Paper 25th Jul '18 - 6:23pm

    That bit about the electoral system seems to me to be making some very big assumptions. The electoral system is there to convert votes into seats, no more no less. It’s not there to be kind to any party (whatever the size). Nor is it there to bring about coalitions of any form. It’s not there to moderate anything, still less manipulate the outcome. If the upshot of all this is a CON-UKIP-DUP coalition then the only response is, ‘so be it.’

    I would equally ask why it is an article of faith that everyone who is centrist will like the EU. Appreciating you don’t have to love the EU very much to vote remain nor do you have to despise the EU to vote leave.

    As it is I agree with other comments that rumours of the major parties’ demise are probably exaggerated. It feels like I’ve been promised a Conservative Party explosion on a weekly basis since 1991.

  • @David Raw
    I should have added Internationalism to my list of basic requirements for joining this proposed New Alliance, that would definitely exclude The SNP & PC & possibly The Scottish Greens too. The fight against Nationalism of any sort is core to our values & to the Remain campaign in general.

  • The cooperative party rarely gets a mention in these realignment debates. The values of the Co-operative movement are closely aligned with social liberalism. With 38 Members of Parliament they can arguably lay claim to being the 3rd largest party in the House of Commons, although as all of its MPs sit in the Parliamentary Labour Party, this distinction is seldom made. It also has representatives in the House of Lords, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, London Assembly and local government.

    Although the Co-op have had an electoral pact with Labour since 1927 they espouse community politics or associative democracy and could be a ready made party for Labour MPs wishing to go it alone in the way the SDP did. The Co-op has deep roots in the working class – something the SDP did not have.

    An independent Co-op party constituted of former Labour MPs would be a natural partner for the Liberal Democrats in an electoral alliance.

    In May the Co-op Party Chair Gareth Thomas tabled a bill calling for a peoples vote on the terms of the UK exit from Brexit. He said that he sees the EU as “the biggest co-operative project in the world”, warning: “Leaving it will have bigger ramifications for the country than any bill or budget, so I think it is only right that the people decide how we leave.”

  • JoeB makes some valid points about the Co-operative Party. However while they have been regularly clobbered at Labour Conferences over the years they are probably unlikely to opt for being hammered by First Past the Post.

  • @ David Raw. If, on the other hand, it was an electoral pact on a single issue like reform of the voting system to an STV type of system accompanied by extending the franchise to 16 year olds and with an early election promised under the new system, that would be sufficient common ground for co-operation with no group asked to compromise its wider policy stance.

  • @Ian Hurdley, Well let me see.

    “Labour immediately and constantly howled that we had ‘got into bed’ with the Tories”.
    What did you expect?

    “from the Tory came complaints that were impeding true Tory Government.”
    What did you expect?

    “Within our own ranks were those who huffed and puffed that we should have returned to the opposition benches, sniping from the sidelines.” or as is more realistic

    “Within our own ranks there were people who realised that huge long term damage was being done to the party. They knew that having a leader who insisted on breaking a pledge having first majored on ‘An end to broken promises’ and on sticking out the whole five years, but didn’t realise that it would give him no leverage at all with David Cameron would be a disaster.”

    However most of the members who were left preferred to believe in their hero than fight for the future of Liberal Democracy.

    Hence we are where we are.

    However, as a supporter of a party that claims to be evidence based, can you explain how you believe we can “build and safeguard a free, open and fair society” when we have only twelve MPs, and so many like you don’t want to learn from the errors of past to the extent that you apply pejorative terms like “those who huffed and puffed” to good Lib Dems who did look at the evidence, saw the catastrophe coming and tried to save the party.

  • Ian Hurdley 26th Jul '18 - 4:12pm

    @ David Evans. It’s clear that you and I have different perceptions of the last eight years, as is quite reasonable. Can we agree to differ on that topic, important though it is, and focus on where we go from here and how best to get there?

  • Peter Hirst 26th Jul '18 - 5:13pm

    The question is what comes first, electoral reform so we have a more pluralistic party system or unworkable coalitions that go outside the Parties grip on power? The sensible thing is for electoral reform that might mean the other happens. The time is ripe for a constitutional convention.

  • David Evans 26th Jul '18 - 5:20pm


    You will note that I do not used pejorative terms like “those who huffed and puffed” and “sniping from the sidelines,” to describe those who disagree with me. Equally those who surrounded Nick came up with the expression “grown up politics” so that those who disagreed with him were by inference “not grown up.”

    This sort of tactic is far too common in politics and is something we should eliminate from our vocabulary wherever possible, especially when describing fellow Lib Dems who have simply come to a different conclusion.

    But as the song goes “Words are like weapons, they wound sometimes.” Perhaps if you could apologise for using words to all those good Lib Dems it covered as such then we would be closer to being able to “agree to differ” and then perhaps have a discourse to work out how we could start to Turn back time.


  • Ian Hurdley 26th Jul '18 - 6:15pm

    I have said everything I intend to say.

  • Ian, I’m afraid the results speak for themselves. Maybe it’s just as well the old lost deposit level was reduced from 12.5 % to 5%…… but could you ever have imagined 375 seats where over 95% of the electorate didn’t vote for us ?

  • @ David Raw. Not only can I imagine it; for many years that was a reality you lived with, the Grimond years, the Thorpe years. Saving your deposit was an achievement in itself. It was a long hard road until an arrangement with the SDP, then the Alliance, and finally a new party, the Liberal Democrats. We made mistakes over the past decade and we’re paying a heavy price. We’ve licked our wounds, now we need to set off afresh on what will once again be a long, hard road. So what I’m asking is where might we find that road and how we should travel it. One thing I do know; at 78 I’m unlikely to see the destination reached; quick fixes belong with the unicorns and magic money trees.

  • Simon Banks 10th Sep '18 - 8:28pm

    John Roffey assumes there won’t be a snap election. The Tories are in such disarray, I would agree with him if it weren’t quite possible the government might lose a key vote on Brexit and resign, with Theresa May asking for and getting a dissolution, believing voters would back her over chaos.

    Geoff Reid’s comments appear as if parties were monoliths after all. Loosening up monolithic behaviour can come through co-operating with people in other parties over specific issues and discussing issues of common concern. My memory suggests we haven’t generally been against that.

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