Liberal Democrats need to be prepared for more than a change of government at the next election

Yesterday, Stephen wrote of the damage to our politics caused by the current Conservative administration. Today, he looks at how these might be repaired…

Boris Johnson has damaged Britain: its cohesion, its standing, its reputation, its economy and its constitution. But what is increasingly apparent is that he has also damaged his own Conservative party. When the time comes to remove them from office, an electoral strategy will be insufficient; there needs to be a positive plan for long-term progressive politics that both fixes the mess left by Johnson’s opportunistic populism and makes sure no future Prime Minister can act with such gross impunity. And that represents the singular opportunity for Liberal Democrats today.

The North Shropshire by-election, which smashed the Blue Wall, demonstrated the role and reach Liberal Democrats have when it comes to ejecting this government from office. But that is only the beginning. It must be the springboard into a decade of permanent progressive reform.

The tragic invasion of Ukraine has shown Johnson’s government to be left wanting in response, shone a light on Russian money backing the Tory party, demonstrated how out of step he has become with public opinion on refugees and abrogated his little England rhetoric on what has been a truly damaging Brexit. Ukraine has demonstrated not only that we need to act together with our European partners (note Liz Truss attending a European Council meeting) but more fundamentally that these are partners because we share such fundamental values. The idea of Britain forging new deals with anyone and everyone around the world regardless of values was always absurd. The geo-politics of the war in Ukraine underlines that. It has solidified the resolve of the EU (and NATO) on defence, energy, trade and yes values. It puts them in stark opposition to the non-free world headed by Russia and China.

Fortunately, it is clear where Britain belongs here and that blows a Brexit shaped hole in Johnson’s rhetoric. It will be for a future government to fix the mess but it is clear that Lib Dems must make the case for those shared values and the consequence of re-establishing constructive cooperation with Europe and the single market. We must pave a way back for Britain in Europe.

But there is more. Johnson and his cronies should never have been able to have caused so much damage to Britain, its reputation and its institutions. As Tim Farron recently put it, we don’t have to agree with the prime minister, but we do need to trust him. Treating parliament and the constitution as his personal plaything was wrong and this must never be allowed to happen again. Real structural change is needed and not as some sort of nerdy package of constitutional reform that doesn’t speak to the concerns of voters, but a real progressive project for re-establishing trust, integrity and accountability at the top of politics and preparing Britain for the future.

It might seem like a distant prospect but we must start preparing for a prolonged period of progressive politics. We need collaboration and cooperation with those with whom we share values – internationally and in domestic politics. We need to fix the mess and fix the system.

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

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12 Comments

  • Two very good articles with views I heartily agree with, and could I add that Tim Farrons’ statement about not needing to agree with Boris Johnson but we do need to trust him is perfectly correct and respect him as well would be appropriate!?

  • Tristan Ward 15th Mar '22 - 8:11pm

    Did I read that right? “Trust Boris Johnson”???

  • Barry Lofty 15th Mar '22 - 8:34pm

    I certainly do not trust Boris Johnson but in the high office he holds we should expect to be able to do so!, but given what has unfolded over recent one wonders who we can trust?

  • Tristan Ward 15th Mar '22 - 8:56pm

    I see! We should be able to rust a British PM even though we cannot – and should not – trust this one.

  • Barry Lofty 15th Mar '22 - 9:17pm

    No we certainly should not, to be honest I despise him!

  • Rif Winfield 16th Mar '22 - 8:57am

    While I accept that constitutional change cannot solve every concern, there is an unescapable fact. While a government of whatever party controls the majority of votes in the House of Commons and commands the support of its back-benchers, it can – whatever the parliamentary opposition, the media and all commentators might protest – legislate as it wishes. And it can do this because we do not have any written rules – i.e. a written constitution – to prevent it so doing. In other words, there is nothing to stop it becoming an elected dictatorship, and even abolishing the limit on parliamentary terms of office. It is not a matter of whether or not it can be trusted to follow the rules, if it has the ultimate power to change those rules. This is why a written constitution – one which cannot be overwritten or altered by a simple majority in the House of Commons – remains an essential requirement.

  • David Goble 16th Mar '22 - 9:10am

    @ Rif Winfield. I agree with what you, and previous commentators, have said; in addition, I would say that, in order to stop the risk of a majority Party in the House of Commons becoming an elective dictatorship, should we not look at changing the FPTP system to a system of Proportional Representation? Whilst this would probably result in an everlasting hung Parliament, it would mean that, for one Party to progress its legislative wishes, it would have to talk to other Parties and may also have the advantage of stopping the confrontational nature of debate in that institution.

  • Jenny Barnes 16th Mar '22 - 10:46am

    I read the headline, but found the article disappointing. “more than a change of government” implies more than some constitutional tweaks. Since 2001 we have been living through a series of crises – starting with 9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions and subsequent failure of US hard power to achieve their desired outcomes, the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit, a Covid pandemic, de globalisation, the rise of China, Climate change, and now a European war that could very well go nuclear.
    It’s clear that the economic models that we have been using are no longer fit for purpose, if they ever were. When humanity is in the process of destroying its only home in order to increase profits for a very few very rich people, it’s clear that things need to change. The old is dying, but the new struggles to be born.

    So can we have a few ideas which are a bit more to the point than changing the electoral system?

  • Governments set the tone for those governed as well as making laws. We need more compassionate leaders who lead by example. Coalitions would make this easier. I’ll sleep easier when I hear more caring during the exchanges in the HOC.

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Mar '22 - 12:13pm

    @Jenny Barnes
    “So can we have a few ideas which are a bit more to the point than changing the electoral system?”

    How are you going to change the economic models which you say are not longer fit for purpose (I wouldn’ disagree from that view) without reforming the UK political system so that the people who benefit most from the failing (for most people) economic models no longer control the political system as well?

  • Jenny Barnes 17th Mar '22 - 2:18pm

    “How are you going to change the economic models which you say are not longer fit for purpose (I wouldn’ disagree from that view) without reforming the UK political system so that the people who benefit most from the failing (for most people) economic models no longer control the political system.”

    You’re assuming the political system controls the economics. Far more likely is that the super-rich decide what they want the political system to do, and then use their money to make that happen. See oligarchs, cronies in the HoL, corrupt public contracts, etc,

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Mar '22 - 4:20pm

    “Far more likely is that the super-rich decide what they want the political system to do, and then use their money to make that happen.”

    That’s the point – we have to get the system back from the super-rich who control the economic system (getting even more super-rich) and control the political system via funding it to a significant extent.

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