Is being purist consistent with building majorities for change?

I’ve been vaguely following the debate triggered by today’s launch of The Independent Group, and I have to admit to a tinge of despair. The competing stances of “we look forward to working with them” and “they’re not proper liberals and we shouldn’t touch them with a bargepole” are hardly unexpected, and there are people that I respect on both sides.

But, of course, I’m a bureaucrat, inherently cautious, and I’m older and wiser than I once was. So I find myself wondering, what is it we want, and how can this help us to get it?

Think of it as being an opposition group in, say, Venezuela. You have short term goals, i.e. getting rid of the Maduro regime, and long term goals, rebuilding society in the style of your ideological preference.

Our short term goal is to stop Brexit, and whether or not you prefer Parliament to simply revoke the Article 50 application, or a referendum, you need to build a coalition to do it. So, first question, what is The Independent Group’s view on Brexit? Their initial statement indicates that they

believe the multilateral, international rules-based order must be strengthened and reformed

which is kind of wishy-washy really, leaving their collective position unclear. So, nothing there that obviously helps.

For the long term, do they see themselves as potential collaborators or competitors? The early signs are, again, unhelpful. The suggestion that they opted not to join the Liberal Democrats due to our alleged toxicity isn’t cause for optimism, yet their initial statement includes much that we could endorse.

The only way to answer these questions is to talk, informally, out of the spotlight. Explore the points of similarity, where combining might impact on Government policy, but make no commitments on anything but an issue by issue basis. If trust can be built to make working together easier, than so be it. But if we simply conclude that they aren’t liberals, and leave them to twist in the wind, we risk the loss of an opportunity to build a bigger liberal force in British politics.

After all, we win elections by bringing together liberals and those who might not see themselves as liberals but share enough mutual interest to form electoral coalitions ward by ward.

But it’s a bit early to get excited, or defensive, for that matter. They’ve been up and running for less than twenty-four hours, they aren’t even entirely in agreement with each other on some issues, but they do offer liberals an interesting challenge. For, if we truly believe in breaking up the current adversarial model of British politics, something has to change, either through legislative change (currently unlikely) or through force majeure, brought about by the disintegration of one, or both, of the two main parties. If this is a step towards that process, then so much the better.

I would venture to suggest that, given that there’s no harm in keeping a watching brief, we take a deep breath and keep our options open. Because, if they do offer a serious threat to us, it might be because they’re offering something we don’t, or can’t. Change is not always our friend, but resisting it didn’t do us any favours a century ago either.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • It is very sad 😞 to hear people from a party who have the word democrats in their name saying we must stop Brexit when it was voted for in a people’ vote and then confirmed in a general election.When you can’t rely on liberals to support democracy you know the country is in trouble.

  • Sometimes it is right not to say too
    much in the face of private grief. Mark is right to pose questions but building a majority on the issue of the day involves many more people than today’s group of seven.

  • David Becket 18th Feb '19 - 10:31pm

    Promises and claims were made that were fantasy. It is most likely that it was illegally funded, and foreign elements were involved in the on line campaign. At no time were electors told that in the short term, and possibly long term, they would be poorer. They were told the EU would eat out of our hands, we can have cake and eat it, that it would be the easiest negotiation ever, and we would have forty trade deals in the bag by the time we left. (At least we have got the Faroes). If Martin and others call that democracy they have a different definition to most followers of this site.

  • I suspect that the urge to “purism”, Mark, would be a lot weaker had our own party leadership not spent the last 12 months or so giving every impression of wanting to positively roll out the red carpet to entryism from whatever wandering political figures were willing to call themselves “moderate”. As we do, in fact, live in that reality, I am eyeing the whole situation with rather more suspicion than I otherwise would.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Feb '19 - 11:41pm

    It is all beginning to feel like tragedy (the formation of the SDP and the Alliance and the outcomes) being repeated as farce. People are even beginning to use the same foolish language (such as accusation of “purism”). For the moment it does seem to take the Focus and pressure off Mrs May and the disaster of Brexit (the Tory leadership must be laughing themselves silly) – and it does expose the feebleness of the national leadership (broadly defined) of the Liberal Democrats. As David Raw rightly says, What a mess.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Feb '19 - 11:42pm

    The British application was vetoed by President De Gaulle (who also pulled France out of NATO and forced the HQ to move ). NATO went to Belgium. De Gaulle wanted to reform the French Senate and considered whether a general election for the National Assembly or a referendum was the most likely to get the result he wanted. He chose a referendum and told the French electorate that if they did not agree with him he would resign the Presidency. They took their opportunity, he resigned and the British application succeeded under a different French President.
    Studies of many referendums and equivalents in the USA show that the populace do not always answer the question asked.

  • So much of what has happened over the last 24 hours, and the months leading up to it, has been shaped by our broken electoral system. It isn’t just the difficulties with starting a new political party, but that FPTP encourages the party machines to dedicate a disproportionate amount of campaigning time to pointing out all of the flaws in rival parties, especially those with whom they might have some overlap.

    The consequence is that some or all of the breakaway seven might like our policies, and like our MPs and feel at home within the LibDem parliamentary group, but we have to remember that they’ll have won elections based on their campaign teams having a go at our policies and our trustworthiness and so on. They might know that it’s just campaign speak, but it might jar to the people who took it at face value when they voted for them.

    I also think that this group of seven are behaving as they are because they expect others may follow. The reaction of the current Labour leadership will be decisive in whether or not they are joined by more of them, or even if any of them return. I believe that most, if not all, of them would rather have stayed in a reformed party, and might hope to return should Corbyn resign and they adopt the members’ position on Brexit.

    We can argue that some of them might always have been more at home in the LibDems from a policy point of view if they were picking a political party based purely on policy, and not expectation or likelihood of getting elected in any particular area.

    But we can second guess all we like what might happen in the future. For the time being, we should recognise this was a big decision for them, they are not traitors, and extend the hand of friendship when it comes to working together on areas of common interest. We must also reflect on why no-one has decided they’d prefer to defect to us, and not just because of FPTP. Although we should also take this opportunity to talk about the failings of our political system that pushed for us to pick between two large parties.

  • Arnold Kiel 19th Feb '19 - 8:40am

    This 2016 Tory-centric exercise was nothing but an abusive emotion poll that skilfully played the segments of the electorate least prepared to judge the EU-membership question on its real merits. Brexit was portrayed as a radical but directionless departure from an unliked status quo, while in reality it will deliver much more of the same and quicker. Brexit is an illegally funded coup that could hardly be further away from good democratic practice.

  • Yesterday was a day of great sadness for the state of our political system and institutions, both because seven MPs felt it necessary to leave the Labour Party for the reasons that they gave, and because they felt unable to join the Lib Dems.

    The Preamble to our Constitution starts “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society….”. Therefore, if the formation of the Independent Group presents opportunities to further the objectives of our constitution, we should seize them. If we do not, then – according to our constitution – we begin to lose our reason to exist.

  • David Becket 19th Feb '19 - 9:40am

    The mess we are in is partly down to failed leadership of the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems. If you are going to leave a party because of failed leadership are you going to join one where, in the words of Tony Greaves, the national leadership is feeble. (And that is not just down to one man)

  • Peter Martin 19th Feb '19 - 9:58am

    @ Fiona,

    “We can argue that some of them might always have been more at home in the LibDems from a policy point of view if they were picking a political party based purely on policy, and not expectation or likelihood of getting elected in any particular area.”

    The reason you “can argue that” it because it’s obviously true!

    There are many others, besides them, who should never have been in the Labour Party on personal preference. These people are often decried as “careerists” but if their choice of party has been because of, and as you say, “an expectation or likelihood of getting elected in any particular area”, how else can they be described?

  • Peter Martin 19th Feb '19 - 10:12am

    @ Arnold Kiel,

    “Brexit is an illegally funded coup that could hardly be further away from good democratic practice.”

    We all know what “good democratic practice” means in the EU. As J-C Juncker once put it:

    1) On UK concerns over a loss of sovereignty due to the Lisbon Treaty:

    “Of course there will be transfers of sovereignty. But would I be intelligent to draw the attention of public opinion to this fact?”

    2) On French referendum over the EU constitution:

    “If it’s a Yes, we will say ‘on we go’, and if it’s a No we will say ‘we continue’”

    3) On the introduction of the euro:

    “We decide on something, leave it lying around, and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don’t understand what has been decided, we continue step by step until there is no turning back.”

    4) On eurozone economic policy and democracy:

    “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it”

  • What Andy Hinton said: I am happy to keep a watching brief and see what happens and work together with like minded individuals or parties issue by issue.

    I am not going to volunteer to be their army, though, like Tim Farron said I would yesterday.
    I am not going to happily be subsumed by them like various of our parliamentarians and group leaders, in apparently co-ordinated statements, are saying I should be.
    I am not going to blindly state that I will be happy to work with them both in parliament and on a constituency level as Our Glorious Leader did yesterday before they even released the statement of values…

    Keeping a watching brief would be great: everything coming from our top brass suggests that’s not what they are doing, not what they expect us to do.

  • NOR what they expect us to do, dammit.

  • Arnold Kiel 19th Feb '19 - 2:07pm

    Peter Martin, it will not surprise you to learn that I am an admirer of Jean-Claude Juncker. Not only has he, unlike you, understood that societal progress requires an elite nudging the population forward, he is also occasionally honest about it.

    I therefore consider elitist a compliment, David Raw. I reserve my disdain for the part of the elite that relinquishes its leadership responsibilities, pushes the complex and toxic questions back to an unprepared electorate, and then systematically and criminally abuses and instrumentalises those voters.

  • Arnold Kiel 19th Feb '19 - 4:24pm

    Martin (blue letters), thank you for chipping in, and sorry for being drawn into personal attacks on me as a consequence.

    David Raw, you will agree that even many politicians were totally unprepared to judge the merits of the EU question, including cabinet ministers. These were not just innocently unqualified (excusable for almost anybody except them), but outright arrogant and misleading in their failure to do their jobs.

    Instead of pretending to ask for interpretative help for my very clear and in no way dismissive formulation, just refrain from intentional misinterpretation, thank you very much.

  • At least Arnold’s disdain is equally distributed – both for “the segments of the electorate least prepared to judge” AND “for the part of the elite that relinquishes its leadership responsibilities…”. Thanks Arnold – that’s very balanced of you! But how such messages would be received on the doorstep is quite another matter!!

  • Sean Hyland 19th Feb '19 - 9:00pm

    I think Arnold Kiel is just being honest and upfront with his personal beliefs. Not the first time on LDV that he has dismissed the notion of an electorate making choices and not just in regard to Brexit. I get the impression,IMHO< that he believes there is pre-ordained elite who should run everything and make all the decisions on behalf of the masses. Said masses should be grateful and happy to accept such decisions and hang democracy. I am basing this thought on various posts made by him and seen on this site. This is not a personal attack -just an attempt to gain a better understanding of his belief system and happy to be corrected by him if wrong.

  • Peter Martin 19th Feb '19 - 9:34pm

    @ Sean,

    Your assessment of Arnold Kiel’s views seems perfectly accurate. I think we all do understand that it is the role of leaders to lead and maybe do a little “nudging the population forward” from time to time. But in a democracy leadership has to include persuasion too.

    What’s happened in the EU has gone much further than a little “nudge”. The so-called “elites” have taken the EU population from a position they were happy enough to be in with the old EEC into a position which they aren’t at all happy to be in with the dysfunctional EU. The supposed “elites” have discarded what worked reasonably well and replaced it with what doesn’t work very well at all.

    The Treaties of Maastricht and Lisbon, once implemented cannot easily be unimplemented. There’s really far too little popular support for what the “elites” are trying to achieve in the EU for it to ever work successfully. So, just on a practical level there needs to be more democracy than the “elites” will ever allow. That will be their undoing.

    I’m pleased we have Arnold on this blog. He’s a good indicator of the mindset of those “elites” and his comments are really quite unacceptable to everyone who does wish to put democracy before their own particular political ideology. This is why I, for one, want as little as possible to do with the present day EU.

  • Arnold Kiel 20th Feb '19 - 4:06am

    Sean Hagan,

    I have not anywhere in any way expressed disdain for unprepared voters, just their abusers.

    David Raw:

    “Your comment is breathtakingly elitist and undemocratic. You clearly feel a disdain for what you take to be the less intelligent members of society who don’t think the same as you do. I’m afraid anyone with views and attitudes like yours is no help at all, thank you very much.” “It was not a personal attack on you” Hm.

    Knowledge, education, and intelligence are generally accepted to be helpful tools to judge complex questions. Naturally, they are not equally distributed, and the referendum showed a clear education-pattern. I am indeed not in the hearts (not a good decision making tool for complex questions)-winning business; but on minds I’ll keep trying.

    Sean Hyland,

    your intentional misinterpretations (of course “This is not a personal attack -just an attempt to gain a better understanding of his belief system and happy to be corrected by him if wrong”) just highlight your lack of arguments. I have always advocated representative democracy, never a “pre-ordained elite who should run everything and make all the decisions on behalf of the masses”. I even accept that people like Farage, Johnson, May, Orban, Kaczynski, Erdogan, Putin, Trump (if democratically elected) are legitimate representatives of their voters. There clearly are idiots and criminals among the elite.

    Peter Martin,

    “The so-called “elites” have taken the EU population from a position they were happy enough to be in with the old EEC into a position which they aren’t at all happy to be in with the dysfunctional EU.” Wrong. This misperception was cultivated by the cast of characters listed above. The current EU is factually beneficial for Britons, as you might soon find out. “There’s really far too little popular support for what the “elites” are trying to achieve in the EU for it to ever work successfully.” Possibly. But the reasons are populist campaigns directed at unprepared voters, not a real negative cost-benefit balance of EU integration endeavours.

  • Geoffrey Payne 20th Feb '19 - 7:08am

    I accept we have to work with them. However when it comes to the question of ideological purity then it is worth pointing out that it is they who instead of joining the Lib Dems are starting their own party, with all the duplication of what we do is involved. And as we are expecting some Tories to join them then isnt it odd that they have more in common with each other that they would rather do that than join us. They might say we are tainted after the Coalition but they still have to do a deal with us. For one reason you could argue that they are not ideologically pure is that they have no ideology at all. They are more defined by what they are against than what they are for.
    At this moment in time they are popular because they are all things to all people. They are a soft option. At some point they will have to make difficult decisions that all parties have to make in real world politics. The opinion polls are meaningless until that happens. That was the story of the SDP – a far more impressive party than what we have seen so far and yet one that failed to meet it’s ambition.

  • Peter Martin 20th Feb '19 - 9:57am

    @ Arnold Kiel,

    “But the reasons are populist campaigns directed at unprepared voters, not a real negative cost-benefit balance of EU integration endeavours.”

    People are people and they aren’t computers. I lived for in Australia for quite a few years, which you might know is not too far away from New Zealand. People were free to come and go between the two countries. There were some trade disputes, I seem to remember, about NZ apples for instance, but by and large trade was free too. However, both NZ and Australians were near unanimous in their view that they didn’t want any further integration that that. They didn’t want a common Parliament, they didn’t want a common currency.

    It’s pretty much the same story in Canada and the USA. Different dollars. Different Parliament. Almost Free trade etc. You can argue all you like about “real (positive or) negative cost-benefit balances” but that’s the way people want it. And it’s not because they lack education or hate each other or anything like that at all. There’s zero chance of any war breaking out between Canada and the USA!

    And until they change their opinion that’s the way it will stay. It’s the same in Europe too. If you try to force countries to integrate when there’s clearly insufficient public support you’ll always fail. There’s no use crying about supposed ‘populism’.

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