Christmas Competition: Why be a Liberal Democrat?

That’s a good question at the moment, one I’m constantly asking myself. To be clear, I’m looking at this question from the holistic point of view, that is – why be a Liberal Democrat at all? I’m not going to give you a list of reasons justifying membership.

Considering the current shambolic state of our nation, the appalling failure of our Government and the ineffectual weakness of the supposed Opposition (the not-much-confidence motion, I ask you), it is almost inexcusable that we, the party of Remain, should be still scraping along the bottom in the opinion polls. Even our improving by-election performance now seems to be stuttering, though the party machinery tends to turn a blind eye to this. I can understand that; motivation and encouragement are important.

However, it’s time to face up. We’re so close to being a busted flush, and below the radar significant money and effort are being put into furnishing a phoenix to replace us, rising from the ashes of Brexit. Please, don’t think I’m disloyal or lobbing bricks in from outside – I love this party, I’ve spent thousands of pounds and thousands of hours running local parties, supporting campaigns and fighting for it and its predecessor as a council and parliamentary candidate over the past forty-five years. That’s why I want to save it.

To save it we must have clarity of direction, and total commitment to that direction. I’m afraid the time for a ‘broad church’ of opinion within our party is over. We now have to renounce the cuckoo in the nest – the Orange Book ovum – and take up the centre-left position of social liberalism this country so badly needs. Please don’t mistake this piece for a diatribe against the internal opposition. I respect OBers. I even like many of them. However, their politics aren’t mine, and when I hear that some of those prominent among them are attending Adam Smith Institute functions, I’m afraid the cracks between the aisles in that broad church have grown too wide.

The excessive pursuit of free-market political solutions (the economy, education, the NHS) has got us to where we are now – Brexit, xenophobia, disillusionment with the political system – and through our complicit behaviour in Coalition we are now rightly being held in part responsible for that and not seen as a trustworthy or effective alternative to the ghastly government and the appalling opposition. Note this is not an attack on the Coalition per se, it is an attack on our attitude in Coalition and our appeasing behaviour within it.

In this country and others, the need for change is clear. Many of those offering the wrong solutions to our ills rightly identify those ills and their causes, and that’s dangerous. Dangerous because it fosters hate and extremism.

So why be a Liberal Democrat? Well, be one if you’re prepared to join the party and prepared to fight for it to be a genuinely progressive and socially liberal party, and help throw off the shackles to the Orange Book-inspired excessively free market bastardisation which advanced the careers of a handful and ruined the prospects of the many. Our country desperately needs a strong, fair pro-European alternative. Don’t let someone else provide it, make it us, the Liberal Democrat

* Mark Blackburn, SLF Council and ex-Westminster Chair and PPC for Westminster North.

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43 Comments

  • Roger Billins 19th Dec '18 - 4:20pm

    There will be a by-election coming up in Peterborough. I beg our leadership to put aside tribal loyalties and for there to be one Remain candidate whether he or she is Lib Dem, Labour, Green or Conservative.

  • My answer when asked why be a Liberal Democrat is as follows:

    “Lib Dems:

    “Right about the Iraq War.

    “Right in the run-up to the 2008 Crash.

    “Right about Brexit.

    “Wrong about Tuition Fees.

    “Please put these in order of importance.”

  • Nonconformistradical 19th Dec '18 - 4:49pm

    It’s a very marginal seat – see
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peterborough_(UK_Parliament_constituency)

    and a no-hoper for Libdem or Green.

    Probably don’t look to Stewart Jackson – the tory defeated by Fiona Onsanya in 2017.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stewart_Jackson – he’s a Brexiteer and only 53 so presumably he’s a likely tory candidate for the by-election.

    See also https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/pro-leave-mp-tells-journalist-to-suck-it-up-whiner-over-brexit-concerns-a7105701.html

  • Andy Briggs 19th Dec '18 - 6:19pm

    Ah yes, that Adam Smith Insititute event, where amongst topics of discussion were such illiberal policies such as drug reform, the benefits of migration and the decriminalisation of sex work…. oh wait, those are all Liberal Democrat policies.

  • Daniel Carr 19th Dec '18 - 6:29pm

    Has anyone checked out what that Adam Smith Institute event attended by Liberal Reform people was about? I’ve just looked at it (link below). Awful stuff.

    It looks like these Liberal Reform people attended an event which had speakers who support drug legalisation, immigration, e-cigarettes as a means of reducing normal cigarette consumption, building more houses for people to live in, lab-grown meat as an alternative to killing animals, and more.

    What an odious bunch! How can we have such people in our party?

    https://www.adamsmith.org/events/the-asi-presents-forum-2018

  • Callum Robertson 19th Dec '18 - 6:32pm

    The Tory candidate is Paul Bristow. He was selected a while ago.
    We have a good candidate and a growing local party who made gains in 2016, 2018 and got a defection in that time.
    The greens in Peterborough are not our friends and labour fight dirty against everyone.

    We would be doing a disservice if we didn’t fight this seat in a way that helps the local party grow and prepare for the local elections.

    We have 7/60 councillors in the local authority. Are the main opposition in all the Cambridgeshire area. It is accessible from London and less than 3 hours from Edinburgh on the Trainline. We have a physical HQ and a vibrant local party.
    If we don’t stand a candidate, I will stand as an independent Liberal Democrat.

    Beki Sellik is the local candidate and an expert in transport policy.

    Whatever we do, we MUST stand in this seat

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Dec '18 - 6:47pm

    If I want the sort of tone here, might as well join Labour if this party is of appeal to the social liberal left only of it, or the Conservatives if appealing mainly for the economic liberals and actually win something like power to do that thing called govern, to accomplish those things called change.

    A narrow party is the Green party and they are on three per cent.

    The way to win is to appeal to, not only against, even Corbyn does that, as does Rees Mogg, yes him.

  • Can I be the first (at least here) to predict that Nigel Farage will stand in this by election? Peterborough had one of the highest Brexit votes in 2016. He will have to stand as an Independent ‘save Brexit’ candidate of course. But UKIP will also want to stand, and the Tory is a brexiteer, so the Brexit vote could be split three ways.
    I can understand the calls for a single united anti-Brexit candidate. But I agree with Callum. We cannot refuse to stand, and we certainly can’t align with Labour on this issue. That’s not tribalism, it’s just coherent politics.
    PS I think Mark’s article above is great and I agree with every word. I’m a social Liberal who was all for the broad church, accommodating the OBs. But I now think I was wrong. We need to be a progressive radical Liberal party of the centre-left again.

  • Token Orange Booker here! I think this piece makes some good points, but you also slightly misunderstand our position.

    Economic liberalism of the sort many in our party (including myself) promote is, and has always been, distinct from the excessive free-marketism that you speak of. Unlike the Tories, we recognise both that markets can be a force for good, but also that they require regulation, and that they need to be coupled with strong public services and safety nets etc. to ensure that prosperity and liberty is accessible to all. That world view is basically the “orange book” in a nutshell, and I think it absolutely does have a home within the Lib Dems.

    We probably disagree on certain policy areas, but ultimately we are all liberals, and we are all moving towards the same goals (an equal society with opportunity for all, with a role for both the market and the state). There’s plenty of room in this party for lots different views, and indeed I’m not sure that thinking of our party as several competing groups is particularly helpful. We are ALL liberals, with a great deal in common, and we can accomplish so much more by working together.

  • I do feel that “we’ll be more successful if we concentrate on having interminable fights among ourselves rather than taking the fight to those who are ruining our country with their authoritarian legislation” is a… courageous message.

    But good luck in the Christmas competition.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 19th Dec '18 - 11:01pm

    I have a whole load of policy differences with some of my friends in Liberal Reform. However, when real touchstone liberal issues like secret courts come up, I fight side by side with my friends in Liberal Reform. I agree with Jennie.

    If you sign up to the Preamble to the Constitution, you belong in this party. End of.

    While I totally agree that we should take a radical, social liberal position, I’m not into us fighting each other. We hang together or we hang separately.

  • Declan Stones 19th Dec '18 - 11:14pm

    Well I don’t entirely agree with everything the ASI stands for, this event in question was about liberal immigration policies, the legalisation of cannabis and the abolishing of the Green Belt, key policies that I wouldn’t exactly call left or right which are often avoided by some within the party machine to dislike of many within the Young Liberals.

  • David Evershed 20th Dec '18 - 12:38am

    Freedom of the individual from the state is surely at the heart of liberalism.

    Many Liberal Democrats appear to be Socialists who are remainer refugees from Labour.

  • Jayne Mansfield 20th Dec '18 - 11:03am

    @ David Evershed,

    Beggars can’t be choosers.

  • The actual answer to why be a Liberal Democrat is: so that I can look myself in the mirror every morning and know I fought in the best way I can for the things I believe in. What are those things? Fairness, and freedom, but only freedom up to the point where you start to do harm to others. Oh and with the country in the state it is, probably also important to mention evidence-based policy-making i.e. the use of logic, reason and facts! And compassion!

  • David Evershed 20th Dec '18 - 11:34am

    David Raw

    The state pension scheme is a contributory system called National Insurance.

    The Liberal party of Lloyd George introduced the idea of these paid contributions in the National Insurance Act of 1911.

    Personally I did not trust the government to manage my pension contributions and opted out whenever I could and instead have made contributions to private schemes.

  • Callum Robertson 20th Dec '18 - 12:01pm

    As a person that could be accurately described as one of the more economically liberal members of the party, the fact that the author of this piece wishes to see people like me leave the party was particularly hurtful.
    In the past week I have delivered over 1000 leaflets for various councillors (one a former conservative who joined us, another a self-confessed lefty liberal), when deciding to go out and volunteer for the party, it is disheartening to see that when I arrive home cold and wet after the terrible weather, there is an article such as this that suggests this is not the party for me.
    I think that the author would be well served to remember that when it came to secret courts, left and right stood together. When it came to equal marriage, it wasn’t our economically liberal MPs who voted against. When it came to standing by Stephen Lloyd when he was being illiberally abused, it wasn’t Liberal Reform signing open letters en masse trying to drive him out.
    We are not the evil market fundamentalists, we are hard working campaigners who happen to have different economic policy views.

  • Not putting up candidates is an insult to the electorate. It assumes they can’t make up their minds if they should back one candidate over another if they want to remain in the EU. If, as I suspect, any Labour candidate will back whatever Corbyn is saying about Brexit then standing down would in any event leave voters without a 100% anti Brexit candidate and certainly without a candidate backing giving the people the final say about Brexit. Sure FPTP is crap but voters can make up their own minds.

  • Alexander Hegenbarth 20th Dec '18 - 12:11pm

    Hopefully it isn’t just me, but I find some people’s obsession with Liberal Democrat Tribes as unhelpful af best and at worst, tedious. We are Liberal Democrat first and foremost; time to get some perspective.

  • There will always be an inherent conflict in trying to determine the optimal mix of state vs market based solutions in a mixed economy. It appears to be an issue that William Beveridge struggled with throughout his life https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/07/william-beveridge-hated-term-welfare-state
    “He was twice a wartime convert to interventionism – and twice he repented. The huge degree of government control during the great war left him, as Professor Harris says, “considerably more sympathetic to traditional views of laissez-faire and considerably less enthusiastic for state intervention than he had been in 1914″. And so it was after the next war.
    Like Keynes, whose name is also so often now invoked, Beveridge was not a socialist at all but a lifelong Liberal. In 1944 he left Oxford to become a Liberal MP, believing quite wrongly that a great Liberal revival was in the offing. Instead came the Labour landslide, and the Attlee government’s managerialist-socialist state – to Beveridge’s dismay. He was profoundly attached to the British traditions of personal freedom and individual initiative, which he now saw under grave threat.
    More specifically, he was shocked by the Labour government’s assault on the voluntary friendly societies, those glorious creations of independent working-class endeavour. In 1948, Beveridge published Voluntary Action, a book which was a very different kind of manifesto from his report six years earlier, a passionate defence of voluntary provision of social welfare, and quite obviously a palinode: Beveridge was recanting his own role in the creation of a vast centralised bureaucracy.”

  • Geoffrey Payne 20th Dec '18 - 1:00pm

    Orange Book Liberalism is an exhausted ideology. There are still plenty of right wing Liberals around but I do not see a coherent program for government emerging from them.
    The general election result of 2015 was the final verdict.
    Whatever your roots are in the party today, we need to learn the lessons of the past and put forward something better from now on.
    We need to have an answer to the causes of the foodbanks – it is scandalous that they ever existed during a Lib Dem government , how to strengthen and democratise our public services – from the NHS, education to local government all degraded during the Coalition, and we need to take serious action on climate change – Chris Huhne and Ed Davey did a good job on the whole but the Green Deal was a failure.
    Mark is right to point out that the Adam Smith Institute – famous for their whiz idea of the poll tax that the Tories were forced to abandon and for the disastrous “Shock Therapy” advice to Eastern Europe after the fall of communism – do not have the answers that we are looking for.
    I am encouraged that our policy on education is improving hugely under the leadership of Layla Moran, and I see there is a lot of interest in the UBI (some of that from the party’s right wing I notice). There is plenty we should be doing right now.

  • “The Adam Smith Institute is one of the world’s leading think tanks. Independent, non-profit and non-partisan, we work to promote neoliberal and free market ideas through research, publishing, media commentary, and educational programmes. The Institute is today at the forefront of making the case for free markets and a free society in the United Kingdom.”

    Interesting that they self identify as neoliberal.

  • The problem is what is an “Orange Booker” or an “Economic Liberal”. Of course I would like the party to be dominated by “Social Liberals” like me. Then it would have policies to reduce economic inequalities and provide everyone who wants a job with a job and everyone who wants a home of their own with a home. Therefore for me the question is what does a member think the role of the state should be? Is it only to provide a level playing field and then let the market allocate who is wealthy and who lives below the relatively poverty level? If so, then I would define them as an economic liberal and they are opposed to what I think the party should have as our policies. Even if they think that the state should provide a “safety net” and regulate some markets they are still not supporters of what I consider a liberal society should look like.

    The role of government is to ensure that no one lives below the relative poverty level, that everyone who wants job has one and everyone who wants a home has one. It is only when a person does not have to struggle economically that they can be free.

  • Sue Sutherland 20th Dec '18 - 2:06pm

    Please could someone lock the Orange Bookers and social liberals in a room and not let them out until they’ve agreed on how to fund a truly Liberal society and explain it in a single sentence using 10 plain English words to describe it.
    As for criticising people for attending a meeting, doesn’t that belong with the thought police? Anathema to every Liberal Democrat I would have said.
    Political organisations under stress typically break up into different factions arguing about minutia and, whilst discussion is the life blood of politics, treating political friends as the enemy will only lead to disaster.
    I would have said that the discussion is about questions of degree, not different objectives and quite honestly no one has the holy grail of truth on their side. We can look at theories and evidence and try to come up with policies that meet a goal we all share, which is to create a society in which we all, as Lib Dems, would like to live.

  • @Michael BG: “The problem is what is an “Orange Booker” or an “Economic Liberal”. Of course I would like the party to be dominated by “Social Liberals” like me. Then it would have policies to reduce economic inequalities and provide everyone who wants a job with a job and everyone who wants a home of their own with a home.”

    As I understand it, this is exactly what “Orange Bookers” believe in too. Any disagreement is on the best way to achieve these aims. Perhaps the only slight disagreement would be over “economic inequalities” as economic equality isn’t virtuous in its own right.

  • Paul Pettinger 20th Dec '18 - 2:37pm

    Mark Blackburn is right to single out New Right ideology. It’s in conflict with modern liberalism, and our flirtation with it is a big reason why the Party has ended up in such an enfeebled state. Most voters with a culturally liberal outlook are centre left on economic issues. We have inflicted enormous reputational damage on ourselves over the last decade and, if we hope to be a Party for most liberals again rather than some, we should return to the centre left. Libertarians should let this happen and one reason because once we achieve PR, libertarians may be able to sustain a meaningful national party of their own!

    As a social liberal, I know what it feels like to be made to feel unwelcome in the Liberal Democrats (see Nick Clegg’s former head of ‘strategy’: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/sep/19/libdemconference.liberaldemocrats). It’s not something I want for other liberals. However those who think it is a good idea for us to be a party that draws together libertarians and modern liberals are kidding themselves. It’s unsustainable, strategically toxic and won’t work.

  • David Evershed 20th Dec '18 - 6:46pm

    David Raw

    You are right, the contributory state pension scheme only came into being in 1925.

    My point is that as I have had no choice but to make minimum contributions to the state pension scheme I will certainly be claiming the pension. The government can change the terms of the arrangement at will, such as raising the age at which the pension becomes payable, whereas a private scheme has a legal contract of the terms.

  • Callum Robertson 20th Dec '18 - 7:38pm

    Paul Pettinger, it is extremely disappointing to see you echo the comments made in the article.
    It must be clearly stated that neither economic nor social liberals have a monopoly on good ideas.
    When asking whether someone is a Liberal Democrat, the first question we ask ourselves is whether or not they subscribe to our values.

    You can subscribe to our values and have disagreement over how to achieve those value outcomes.

    As an economic liberal, I disagree with wanting people to leave the party based on small policy differences. I would certainly never tell a member of the SLF to leave the party, I hold myself to a higher standard than that. I am disappointed both you Paul, and the author appear to slip below the high standards we expect of ourselves as Liberal Democrats.

  • It’s not been a good week. The trauma of Brexit seems to reach new lows each day, we have the faux drama of Corbyn’s appraisal of the Prime Ministers attempt at pantomime……..and then I log on to LDV to read a piece suggesting that what the party needs is a good dose of internecine warfare. Good Grief !
    I lack the patience, or the will, to explain the numerous reasons why this is a very bad idea. I will just make the point that once upon a time liberals believed in free markets and if you wanted the state to control the economy you were probably a socialist and joined the Labour Party. @Callum Robertson and @Fraser Coppin have said just about everything else that needs saying.

  • Paul Pettinger 20th Dec '18 - 9:44pm

    So you are trying to make a home for libertarianism Callum. Thanks for the confirmation

  • Jayne Mansfield 20th Dec '18 - 10:04pm

    @ Paul Pettinger,

    I absolutely agree with you and the author.

    By the way, our previous disagreement was because I accept -politicians make a choice to be politicians. It is quite brave given the nasty environment in which they operate. Their families do not make that choice and I feel strongly that they should be off limits when it comes to family loyalty. I am sorry if I expressed my view too forcefully.

  • Mark’s article does not suggest that anyone should leave the party. As I read it, he’s saying the party should be one in which social liberalism is the mainstream/dominant view. That does not mean economic liberals have to leave. And Callum is right to point out that on many policy issues the distinction is meaningless.
    It is healthy for the party to contain divergent interpretations of what Liberalism is. It keeps our policy discussions fresh and stops us moving too far in either direction. We’ve had these philosophical strands for 150 years, and we are at our best when they work together and complement each other. Personally, I do believe the Clegg years saw us move too far in the EL direction. We need to re-calibrate and – I believe – re-take the centre-left position that is our natural place. But I don’t want to see anyone leave the party over this. It isn’t necessary.

  • @ Andrew T

    I am not convinced that economic liberals believe that the government should be running the economy to provide everyone who wants a job with a job and everyone who wants a home of their own with a home. I am not sure that economic liberal policies could reduce economic inequalities. Therefore I am not convinced that economic liberals have the same vision for the role of government to achieve these economic aims as I have.

    @ Chris Cory

    The reason liberals believed in free trade was that this would provide cheap food which would benefit the poor. The EC I believe has tariffs on food imported from outside the EU! Liberals never supported unregulated markets which is what “free markets” are. Can you name any laws passed by either a Whig government or Liberal government between 1846 and 1914 that reduced regulations? I can’t think of any. Liberals supported giving all sort of powers to local government so it could provide healthy water, deal with sewage, provide electricity and gas and maybe even buses and trams. Keynesian economics is often seen as liberal and was never seen as socialist.

  • Alex Macfie 21st Dec '18 - 8:21am

    Let’s leave any talk of splitting until we get proportional representation. After all, factionalism worked so well for us in the 1920s and 1930s didn’t it? (Sarcasm alert)

  • There will always be competing/complementary philosophical strands within “liberalism” – but we need to retain a sense of perspective and context. At a time of national crisis with fewer than 100 days left to avert the growing possibility of a disastrous “no deal” Brexit and the HoC seemingly deadlocked, the last thing we Lib Dems currently need is a dose of internal factionalism! On the contrary, we should be facing outwards and urgently working, on a constructive cross-party basis with others who broadly share our progressive and ‘internationalist values, to build the case for and to secure an extension of Article 50 in order to hold a ‘People’s Vote’ (perhaps better described as a “Final Say” referendum) including the option to remain in the EU. In the meantime, let’s please not indulge in incessant debate about the social vs economic liberal dichotomy – which is a classic case of “fiddling while Rome burns”.

  • Katharine Pindar 22nd Dec '18 - 2:06am

    Good luck to Peterborough Lib Dems, and let us all support them. I agree with people above who hold that within our shared values, of fairness, freedom, community, individual empowerment and so on, differences should be accepted without factions or exclusions. Interesting to read more about the views of Beveridge and Keynes (thanks, Joe B. ) and see no need to discard them as simply out of date.

    I would like more development of the ideas of social Lib Dems. How far would a social Lib Dem want the state to go to provide full employment, for example? Would s/he expect if a Universal Basic Income were instituted that it would come with restrictions and limitations? And as to everyone having a home, is it desirable that everyone should have the chance actually to buy one, or would rental be acceptable?

    Regardless of that,, as I have written elsewhere I think our members whether social or more economic-orientated tend to be outward-looking, internationalist and open-minded people, mostly middle-class and probably well educated. I just hope that we do not grow too much metropolitan in outlook as well.

  • Neil Sandison 25th Dec '18 - 11:57pm

    reading through the article and the comments that followed it is clear we need a new and refreshed liberalism.A progressive social liberalism is part of our DNA and is reflected in our constitution .But equally we need the economic tools to deliver the benefits and taxes that will pay for those services .We should not fall into the Labour trap of raising expectations beyond the ability of the country to pay or borrow or stack up debts for generations to come .We do need to embrace the new economics like the circular economy .We will need fresh ideas as to how to fund the impact of an aging population and a reducing birth rate .AI will change our lives rapidly but so must we improve the skills of our work force . Lets not get caught in ideological cul de sacs but be prepared to imagine a new and vibrant liberalism to take us forward.

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