Liberal Democracy must become the engine room of progressive ideas

With Boris Johnson finally ejected from office, the next task is to rid Britain of this appalling government altogether. First, it seems, we must endure two years of a Liz Truss administration: unthinking, uncaring, populist, and damaging. But then, there is a real opportunity for renewal, for rebuilding, for a progressive, liberal, decade.

We must not blow this opportunity.

Electoral success will only come through cooperation among progressive parties and that means facilitating a Kier Starmer led government. To win, Labour needs Liberal Democrat success but recent events suggest a much bigger mission. Starmer is a ‘safety first’ candidate who will offer voters stability and security. His leadership promises executive competence and integrity but his party lacks imagination and innovation. He has failed to articulate any meaningful vision or offered any real insight into the condition of our country or how to repair the damage of the past seven years.

Into the political vacuum of the cost of living crisis, rode Ed Davey recently with a thought through and costed proposal to scrap the energy price rise, paid for in part by a windfall tax. A week later and the policy was all but adopted by the Official Opposition. What should we make of that?

Remember, Nick Clegg’s great power in coalition after 2010 was not so much the ability to instigate policy, though there were notable successes, but rather that of a veto player. Liberal Democrats were able to check the excesses of the Conservative Party’s right wing. If not apparent at the time, the years since 2015 have demonstrated just how significant that role was in protecting the country from damaging and fatuous policy.

Talk of a coalition after the next election is premature. But the relationship between Labour in office and the strengthened Lib Dems will be important. Ed Davey’s job will not be to hold Starmer back, to check his government’s excesses, as was the lot of Clegg. No, it will be to push him to go further, to be more radical, to be genuinely transformative. If the opportunity for a progressive decade is to be grasped then Lib Dems need to be the engine room for transformative ideas.

The challenge facing the next progressive government is significant. It will be to repair the damage to our economy, our society and our constitution caused by a truly terrible period in our country’s political history. It will be to prepare Britain for the world as we find it, making it more equal, productive and open. And it will be to strengthen public life such that never again can a self-interested populist ride roughshod over our constitution.

That all requires a thought through, coherent, ideologically consistent and progressive package of ideas. They must be radical, liberal and transformative, capable of punctuating the equilibrium. This is no time for inward looking, self-indulgent policymaking (the trap the Tories are falling into). It is a calling card to feed the progressive decade before us with intelligence, inspiration and honesty.

* Stephen Barber is Professor of Global Affairs and a former Parliamentary Candidate

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15 Comments

  • “We must not blow this opportunity.”
    The Liberal Democrats will only have an opportunity if the next election results in no single party having an overall majority. In that situation, there may be opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to work with Labour, or even with Labour and the SNP, to consign the Conservatives to opposition. What would be completely unacceptable would be to repeat the disaster of 2010 and back the Tories.

  • Stephen Barber 15th Aug '22 - 5:48pm

    Sadhbh, no overall majority presents the possibilities for coalition, but I disagree that this is the only circumstance in which Lib Dems will be able to influence progressive politics and policy. This past week has demonstrated that…. (Ps I’m not advocating coalition with the Tories)

  • Tristan Ward 15th Aug '22 - 5:51pm

    @ Sadhbh

    Given that working with either Labour, the SNP (or both) would probably prove just as damaging to to us as forming a coalition with the Tories was, it is essential that the price of such cooperation is proportional representation.

    A failure to get PR was the biggest failure of the 2010-15 coalition in my opinion.

  • Nigel Jones 15th Aug '22 - 6:27pm

    Not even sure that we should be in coalition with any party even if we get them to promise proportional representation. Will they deliver ? However, Stephen Barber has summarised well where we need to stand in relation to the other parties, i.e leading with progressive ideas that will establish not only better government and democracy but a fairer economy as well as a fairer society. Ed Davey’s idea for stopping the rise in the energy cap is fine as a temporary measure, but we must come forward with a more coherent long-term strategy to include a stronger energy ombudsman system, investment that ensures green energy does not make people feel it is increasing their bills and more tax on excessive profits that are not used for investment in renewables.

  • Martin Gray 15th Aug '22 - 7:29pm

    Never underestimate the willingness of the English voting public to return a Conservative administration ..
    Someone who was 18 at the 1979 GE , has only ever known one democratically elected Labour PM.
    At the next GE , they will be pushing 64…

  • George Thomas 15th Aug '22 - 8:17pm

    “Never underestimate the willingness of the English voting public to return a Conservative administration ..
    Someone who was 18 at the 1979 GE , has only ever known one democratically elected Labour PM.
    At the next GE , they will be pushing 64…”

    That is a depressing stat. At least we can all agree that Scotland – who have never supported Tory politics – should absolutely not be able to try something different…

  • Alex Macfie 15th Aug '22 - 8:37pm

    @Sadhbh: Ed has already ruled out any arrangement with the Tories after the next election. The obvious reason is that the two parties have absolutely nothing in common nowadays. But there is another reason why it would be a bad idea. If the Tories lose the next GE (even just by losing their Parliamentary majority) they would be in the same position as Labour was in 2010, a party that had lost its mandate after a long period in power. It would look very bad for us to be helping them back into power in such circumstances. If the Tories land just short of a majority at the next GE, then we let them go begging to the DUP.

  • James Fowler 15th Aug '22 - 9:21pm

    While I hope for the best, I expect our main contribution to helping Keir Starmer will be depriving the Conservatives of 5 to 10 more MPs across southern England, and to do that we’ll have to keep very quiet about any kind of relationship with Labour.

    In practical terms, we’re just too small to count and likely remain so – for which I am very grateful, as I will explain below. Intellectually there’s the odd good and liberal idea, but ironically the benefit of being small enough to be able to say the unsay-able is mostly wasted by deep inconsistency brought about through chasing undecided votes and by-elections. A necessary evil perhaps, given the extreme precariousness of the years since 2015.

    I’m glad that the Party has come through the worst of its post Coalition tribulations, but while I have respect for the pragmatism of the strategy of being all things to everyone 1970-2010, we do now know where this eventually leads. Ironically, despite being a Party which talks a great deal about Coalitions, we’re not nearly coherent enough to survive one.

  • Chris Platts 16th Aug '22 - 12:01am

    Lets us be positive about how things would be better with liberal Democrat ideas and principles

  • Neil James Sandison 16th Aug '22 - 10:11am

    Should we have a successful future election our progressive credentials will again be under scrutiny but lets face it we really got our fingers burned in the coalition years and carried much of the blame for poor government decision making some of which was justified . No we should use any strength we have as a shield for democracy both Labour and Conservatives are autocratic , driven by power for powers sake and frequently do things that pander to their own supporters and are not in the national interest just party political gain or personal self interest . We have seen the cavalier attitude over large majority since 2019 . So lets argue for whats right and in the public interest .

  • Neil James Sandison “So let’s argue for what’s right and in the public interest”.

    Totally agree.

  • The first stage for coming up with ideas for policies needs to be agreeing what the present situation is. This involves a considerable resource. But this is only the first stage as we then need to find the best ways of communicating messages first to ourselves, then to the public.
    We know there is an economic crisis now. But how do we agree on what that means to each family in our country? And even more how do we test our ideas against, for example the need to define then eliminate poverty?

  • Kyle Harrison 16th Aug '22 - 12:39pm

    If we get a Labour minority govt and the Lib Dems can prop them up then the Lib Dems should not enter coalition (I doubt Labour want one anyway). Ed Davey should instead be very kind to Starmer. He should offer Labour full backing for all their manifesto promises and to back every Labour budget. He could go even further than this and tell Starmer he would make a public statement saying the Lib Dems will be minded to back Labour in most circumstances, apart from in the most extreme or exceptional circumstances. In return for agreeing to prop up a Labour govt for an entire Parliament Davey should demand Labour introduce a bill to change the Westminster electoral system to the Additional Member system used in Wales and Scotland. If Starmer refuses then Davey will instruct Lib Dem MPs to vote down the first Labour budget thereby causing the Lab govt to fall.

  • Any coalition or backing to a Labour budget deal after the next election should there be no majority for any party should be on a commitment to a change to the electoral system to The Single Transferable Vote (STV) as supported by the Electoral Reform Society and with Plaid Cymru.

    The Liberal Democrat party and Plaid Cymru MUST commit to STV as agreed by our party conferences.
    The Welsh Labour Party will try to stop STV as they are trying to do in reforming Senedd elections system: Their Labour leadership prefer Party List PR.
    Both LD & PC need to re-iterate if there is no STV no deal can be made.

  • Peter Hirst 17th Aug '22 - 3:45pm

    I agree. It could be a fruitful relationship if both parties accept the strengths of the other. We need to strengthen our values, principles and vision so we are not brow beaten by numbers. We will also need to act quickly with climate change bearing down on us drowning out other progressive ideas such as you mention.

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