Liberalism at the crossroads in UK politics

One of the biggest hits the party took during the coalition years was not so much being associated with the Conservatives (though that was toxic enough) but losing so much of our identity. And if we want to have a future as a party, we have to get that identity back.

Our coalition years slogan ‘Stronger economy, fairer society’ was fine up to a point, but it didn’t provide us with much distinctiveness. Associated messaging that framed us as having more head than Labour and more heart than the Conservatives effectively defined us in relation to Labour and the Conservatives. It did not emphasis what we stood for and make clear what a vote for the Lib Dems meant. By the time of the 2015 seven-leaders TV debate, most people could have formulated in a few words what six of the seven parties stood for, but they might well have struggled with us.

In trying to re-establish our identity, there are two things that are essential. Firstly, we need to set out what radical liberalism means in today’s political context. When we’ve done that, we need to frame our policies in a way that both generates a sense of what the Liberal Democrats stand for that the general public can assimilate, and allows scope within that framing for the
formation of shared agendas with parties of similar outlooks.

As a first step towards getting the ball rolling, Paul Pettinger and I have written a paper The Place for Radical Liberalism in the 21st Century. It’s a short paper – just nine pages – because what’s important is to set out the bare bones of what we need to achieve; the flesh can come later.

The term ‘radical liberalism’ may frighten some members, but while there is room for disagreement about what it embraces and what it doesn’t, there should be no doubt that without a radical offering, liberalism will struggle for a place in British politics. We have seen that the safe and soggy centre ground is not safe and so soggy that we can sink into the quagmire.

What will frighten even more members is the idea of formulating our policies to allow for shared agendas with other parties. This is indeed territory fraught with difficulty, because being willing to work with any other party could frighten off some voters who might otherwise support us.

But think of it like this. The real obstacle to the pursuit of liberalism is our awful electoral system, and there’s no way we’re going to get PR from the Conservatives. We can’t be sure what we’ll get from Labour, but in the paper we explain why there’s a much greater chance of achieving it through working with other progressives in centre-left parties, and why, if we believe in PR which will inevitably bring hung parliaments, we have to establish the principle of inter-party cooperation alongside our clear identity.

The point we make is that the Lib Dems will have to take the plunge and be seen as part of the broad progressive centre-left. As the Lib Dem councillor and political scientist Nick Barlow has explained, where the main parties of the left and right are not close together and cannot form governments with each other, most liberal parties must ‘pick a side’ between left and right. Liberal parties that stick to the centre in these conditions tend to get heavily squeezed. We believe we have reached the moment when we have to choose.

Do read the paper, and if you like the broad thrust of it, please spread the word.

* Chris Bowers was a two-term councillor on Lewes District Council and a co-editor of "The Alternative" which explored the idea of a progressive alliance. Paul Pettinger is a Lib Dem activist of 25 years and currently a Westminster Borough member. He serves on the Council of the Social Liberal Forum, sits on the Council of the Electoral Reform Society and has recently joined the Management Board of Compass.

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31 Comments

  • Michael Cole 27th Oct '17 - 11:06am

    “The real obstacle to the pursuit of liberalism is our awful electoral system, …”

    I have searched in vain for LDs who are willing to campaign actively for electoral reform. In desperation I joined up and worked for in Labour’s MVM until I became frustrated with their tribalism. Are their any willing LDs out there ?

    Chris and Paul, I shall read your paper.

  • Michael Cole 27th Oct '17 - 11:09am

    Apologies for typos – delete “in” and “their” should read “there.”

  • Michael Cole. you were right the first time with their.
    A good paper. It sets out my thinking to a large degree.
    I have always seen myself as of the left, but not of the authoritarian centralising Labour sort. I agree fully with the absolute priority for PR, as long as it’s STV and not some kind of list system. We want to put voters in control of who gets elected, not the party machine.
    I must post a warning about trusting Labour to deliver anything. My experience of being shat on from a great height by Labour when supposedly working with them has given me little trust in their ability to stick to agreements. When they are more concerned with defeating Nick Clegg than beating the Tories it’s time to be very wary indeed of so-called progressive alliances. The one that exists at the moment almost always recommends supporting Labour.
    The other points in the paper are bang on. It is up to those of us who want that sort of Liberal Democrat party to campaign to make it so.

  • Daniel Walker 27th Oct '17 - 11:40am

    @Michael Cole

    I was under the impression that Make Votes Matter was cross-party? They co-hosted a reception with the Electoral Reform Society at Autumn conference.

    Also, in my experience most Lib Dems are in favour of electoral reform, but there’s also the Associated Organisation Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform.

  • One of the biggest hits the party took during the coalition years was not so much being associated with the Conservatives … but losing so much of our identity. And if we want to have a future as a party, we have to get that identity back.

    Whilst re-establish our identity is important, it isn’t the lesson learnt from coalition!

    I suggest the real lesson from coalition which the LibDems are going to have to address is: how to retain the identity of the party when working with others in government.

    If the LibDems really wish to see more governments that better reflect the electorate then minority governments will become more common and thus having agreements with other parties to form a government – with such agreements ranging from full coalition through to single pieces of legislation, then it needs to find ways to not only communicate its identity but also it’s contribution. I suspect the real reason the LibDems did so poorly in this respect during the Coalition years was that the party machine just wasn’t prepared for the reality of coalition and floundered. Hence why I suggest the need is to learn how to communicate your contributions, when at the end of the day there might be little to show for all your efforts.

  • PR isn’t the panacea that many on here imply…

    In the 2015 GE, under PR…. Tory, 242, Labour 199, UKIP 82, LibDem 51, SNP 31….

    This would have given a Tory/UKIP government a more than comfortable majority and, I contend, as bad as the UK may look at present, after 5 years of Tory/UKIP control it would be almost unrecognisable today…

  • Peter Martin 27th Oct '17 - 2:20pm

    “Stronger economy, fairer society” ???

    Being part of a government which increased VAT to 20%, and prattled on about the need to have balanced budgets, in the middle of the worst post war recession wasn’t quite consistent with this slogan, now, was it?

    VAT is a regressive tax which means the poor are affected disproportionately by having to pay it. Raising taxes generally takes away economic demand and depresses the economy.

    There is no way a party of Keynes should have had any support for such a government never mind being a part of it.

  • James Morshead 27th Oct '17 - 2:40pm

    @expats that’s assuming people would vote the same way.

    @Martin is right, FPTP forces you to vote against who you hate more, or probably waste your vote. With PR, knowing you can vote positively for what you believe in without wasting your vote, I expect the outcome would be very different.

  • Andy Briggs 27th Oct '17 - 3:10pm

    A few issues to raise:

    1) The paper first argues for the party to adopt a radical approach, setting it apart from both the Conservatives and Labour, it then goes on to argue for closer co-operation with “parties of the left”, is this a coherent strategy?

    2) The paper suggests that both Lib Dem voters and members lean left, do you have any evidence for this? I seem to recall an Ashcroft poll suggesting that Lib Dem voters were more likely to prefer Theresa May as PM than Jeremy Corbyn, so surely this debunks this theory? As for the members, I don’t recall any significant poll of members views since the majority of members joined the party, post 2015.

    Happy to be proved wrong on both counts.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 27th Oct '17 - 3:28pm

    I was in the Labour party, then I was in the radical centre and moderate centre left and am yet and ever shall be !

    I have been a member and or voter of this party consistently since the Iraq invasion led me to look yet again enthusiastically to this broad but sensible area of our national and international political life.

    Sorry, Chris and Paul, if you want to make friends with a neighbour do not start by insulting their land , their garden , their house and shared space with their other friendly, more friendly neighbours !

    There is a soggy centre ground and a quagmire too.My political house and those of my political friends and colleagues who inhabit the same area, is not on such ground.Yet it is in the centre ground. It is also , for many, our common ground and those of us on it share common sense.

    Have a common sense of perspective and see there is more to it. The centre left we share has the word centre in it . I am there too, but not on the left turf as often the far left direction never.

    We should bond with Labour more than the Tories , not because that makes us on the left or not or radical or not, neither of which I have any problem with. We should bond with Labour because there are many there yet on the centre ground and centre left who are being evicted from their house !

  • @expats: that’s assuming pure PR, which no one is advocating, most groups want something like STV which would have meant a Tory/UKIP coalition would have a slim majority. But as other’s have said, people would vote differently under PR.

  • @expats
    True but that’s what people voted for and are entitled to.

  • Michael Cole 27th Oct '17 - 6:15pm

    Mick Taylor 27th Oct ’17 – 11:29am: Thanks Mick; I get your point about “their”. And yes, STV is by far the best and fairest system of PR.

    The MVM group ruled that we shouldn’t advocate any particular voting system; I presume that they hadn’t made up their mind. When asked by people on the street I always stated STV as my personal preference and gave the reasons why.

    I will not recite here my many experiences of Labour tribalism. Suffice to say, it confirmed my view, as it is with the Tories, ‘don’t trust the …….’

  • Michael Cole 27th Oct '17 - 6:20pm

    Daniel Walker 27th Oct ’17 – 11:40am: “I was under the impression that Make Votes Matter was cross-party?” So was I until I got involved.

    I approached LDER. It seems they are not interested in active campaigning. They told me that they ‘do not have the resources.’

  • Michael Cole 27th Oct '17 - 6:28pm

    expats 27th Oct ’17 – 12:23pm: You ignore the fact that the electorate would vote differently if a different and fairer system was in place.

  • Michael Cole 27th Oct '17 - 6:32pm

    James Morshead 27th Oct ’17 – 2:40pm: Yes, you have already made my previous point .

    I also strongly agree with you that FPTP almost always ends up with the choice between the lesser of two evils.

  • The 2017 manifesto was already largely “centre-left” including:
    Increasing income tax, corporation tax, CGT, and ctax on second homes
    increased funding to healthcare and education, Spending more than Labour on reversing benefits cuts, £100 bn of borrowing, takeovers of two railway companies
    Policies on zero-hours, and more.
    You either do not recognise this because it is inconvenient or you mean something else by centre-left.

    As for perception, there was a party leader that had nothing to do with coalition and rebelled against it often. there was no big “alliance”, true, but there were still initiatives in seats, with organizations like Compass, newspapers, the Greens,, and even a few of the higher profile LibDems making noise about it, including paid tactical vote advertising online. there are 100s of articles (check in Google News using a timestamped search) from the last 2 years referring to the Lib Dems exactly as centre-left, and Tim Farron using the term himself. adding to that, YouGov polling in Sept shows majority of left wing voters have forgiven the party for coalition.

    And yet despite these centre-left qualities,despite perhaps a perception of being aligned to the left (at least in certain seats if not nationally), and despite the two other options being pro hard Brexit and extreme, the party did worse in vote share and second-place seats than the supposedly soggy centre-ground of 2015. True, the party now has 4 more seats, but how many of those gains were down to former MPs with name recognition, or unionist tactical voters in Scotland, who might instead dump their vote somewhere else rather than choose a party that might be aligned with the SNP in a “progressive alliance”? 1/2

  • No, some of you that so bravely resisted the party’s transformation to a pawn for the Tories during coalition, now seem willing to turn it into pawn for a Marxist-run Labour party (i doubt Labour will ever agree to an alliance, and have Nat parties who’d happily prop up their government without a PR deal). I guess many of you think that merely being seen as subservient and utterly willing to help Corbyn’s Labour , in itself, will finally remove the taint of coalition. More than likely it will see soft Lib Dem, soft Tory and Tory-LibDem swing voters (and most of the party’s target seats rely on them), that this document talks about, disappear, and the small third-placed Labour vote remain mostly tribal and unwavering, meanwhile Lib Dem vote in every non-marginal will remain depressed with Lib Dem voters getting the impression to tactically vote for the biggest left wing option.

    The ideological and moral decay of the party is a sad thing to behold, and for many years now. Until Liberals learn to convert people to liberalism again, rather than wanting to rely on being propped up tactically by non-liberal voters, or trying to take bits and pieces from opponents’ ideologies that have 0 to do with liberalism, there will never be progress, only languishing as a third party. In truth, the defeatist mentality of many members tells me that there is little faith in liberalism within the party itself. 2/2

  • Katharine Pindar 27th Oct '17 - 10:18pm

    Liberalise, I think there is a difference between, on the one hand submerging policies and soft-pedalling Liberalism to gain electoral advantage, and on the other, clear-sightedly while maintaining ideological distinction co-operating with other parties in order to get things done. Presumably Lib Dems are able to do that in hung councils. At national level it will need to be worked out again in some future coalition, because the Lib Dem core vote is small.

    However, I maintain that the Liberal Democrats are strongly and markedly different,in their values and principles, and in the policies that they have derived from them, from either of the two large parties. Liberal Democracy is alive and well, though too little heard. as has been much remarked, owing firstly to FPTP which I also wish to campaign against. But I believe that what is important for our growth is that we should now identify, not with being centre-left, but with being radical. And radicalism is a subject which should be further explored by us all.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th Oct '17 - 12:33am

    Liberalise

    A very studied , analysis , a very staunch criticism.

    I understand it even if only agreeing with some of it thus far , without hearing from you more , having you explain what you offer , as Liberalism.

    If I peek into your Liberalism here, what I want is to take a real look.

    As a regular contributor here , my views for a definitely unashamed , different approach, do not lead me to the conclusions of some, that the radical centre, moderate centre left, is an aping of others.

    Share more, and who are you ?

  • Paul Pettinger 28th Oct '17 - 3:20pm

    Michael, MVM are cross party and really good. I’ll assume you are already a member of the Electoral Reform Society. As Daniel notes, you can also join the Lib Dems for Electoral Reform (who do campaign for PR) at http://lder.org/.

    Daniel, I v much agree we should highlight similarities between Con and Lab. This will help accentuate the liberal dynamic in party politics.

    Roland, I agree. I think we were wrong to own the Coalition, rather our distinct contributions to it. I think the example of our 8 years in Government in Scotland between 1999 to 2007 (where we fulfilled a large number of key pledges and maintained vote share) offers useful lessons.

    Expat, that would be the wrong lesson to draw about the electoral systems. As James Morshead writes, you assume people would vote the same way. Furthermore, first past the post enables minority groups to become dominant. In 2005 Labour got 55% of MPs on only 35.2% of the vote. Proportional presentation is a bulwark against extremism. FPTP helps those with extreme positions to take control.

  • Paul Pettinger 28th Oct '17 - 3:22pm

    Andy, the paper does argue that we should more clearly uphold our separate identify from other parties, but talks about the risks of equidistance and having to ‘pick a side’ as a reality of our situation. We believe doing it is shown to work, both for liberal parties in other countries and here. During the electorally successful mid 90s to 2010 period, we differentiated from Labour on an ongoing basis and operated as a centre left party.

    On the point about Lib Dem votes, the paper talks about the leanings of voters of a liberal outlook (so not actually people currently voting Lib Dem). Regarding, evidence of members leaning towards the left, check this poll by Lib Dem Voice from October 2014: https://www.libdemvoice.org/hung-parliament-what-lib-dem-members-think-will-happen-and-what-you-want-to-happen-42775.html.

    51% preferred a post-2015 general election alliance with Labour, and only 18% preferred a continuing pact of some kind with the Tories. 10% self-defined as centre-right, 25% as centrist and 49% as centre-left. I think it would be great were Lib Dem Voice to undertake another survey. I think LDV’s survey are a valuable resource. Thanks for reading.

    Liberalise, we don’t want the Party to be anyone’s lackey, but to pursue strategies that will help liberals sustain influence over the long term. We know what we’re suggesting can work because it has been shown to work before and elsewhere. The Party continues to suffer from the past. 2017 was not a great result, but Progressive Alliance campaigners helped up win in OXWAB and prob saved us from a banana skin of our leader loosing their seat. They also helped us win Richmond which gave us a much needed boost of credibility. There are many more seats where a PA can help us win. The concept has much more potential for us and our ideas. We think it’s time to embrace it.

  • Michael Cole 29th Oct '17 - 11:01am

    Paul Pettinger 28th Oct ’17 – 3:20pm: Paul, You say that “MVM are cross party and really good.” I can only comment on my own experience of working with them. Perhaps yours is better ?

    As for LDER, as I have already stated, they are not interested in active campaigning.

  • Katharine Pindar 29th Oct '17 - 3:21pm

    Chris and Paul. In the section on Framing of Policies in your paper, you write,
    “the party could formulate the following two-pronged vision:
    * A society that respects environment, sustainability and internationalism.
    * An economic model that puts equality, human dignity and innovation at its core.”
    Did you recognise your two-pronged vision? You shouldn’t have because I’ve swopped over two of the terms, but then again you mightn’t have because this formulation either way makes little sense. With respect, this is real woolly liberal thinking. What’s radical about this? If we are going to present ourselves as being radical, we have to have sharper formulations that group our policies in meaningful ways. And I think we should accept that we aren’t especially radical at present, but could step in that direction if we adopt our Leader’s idea of redirecting the tax system to wealth rather than income, and reforming taxation of land, property and inheritance.

    I also would suggest that you are too optimistic in envisaging majority centre-left backing either from voters or from our members. In the case of the member survey, there was such dismay at Coalition policies that there was likely to be a rejection of Tory, ie right and centre-right or neoliberal thinking at that time. In the case of the voters, a YouGov survey for Professor David Sanders of Essex University last year found that since 48% of British voters hold ‘authoritarian populist views’, the Liberal left will have to depend on the larger Liberal centre-right bloc of voters to attain a majority.

  • James Baillie 29th Oct '17 - 3:33pm

    As outgoing chair of the party’s Radical Association, it will surprise nobody to learn that I think Paul & Chris’ call is generally correct. I think I’m a little more wary than they are about explicit progressive-alliance-ism at a national level, and worry that this counteracts the very sensible call for us to more firmly re-establish a separate identity – I think the route towards this if any needs to be to give local parties more operating freedom regarding alliances, more than trying to make top-down deals.

    I think my other minor quibble with the paper as written is that the policy outlook feels to me fairly mainstream in its social liberalism – the radical elements of Paul and Chris’ proposals are more in their progressive-alliance leanings, and (though correct me if I’m wrong) I can’t see much on the policy side that feels particularly far from where the party’s policy centre now is as of 2017. If anything, then, it may be that what Paul and Chris are really arguing, and rightly, is that our messaging really needs to catch up with our policy outlook, which has already shifted significantly back to core Lib Dem positioning in the past two years whilst the party leadership still all too often trot out the “vacant centre ground” line (which rings pretty hollow to anyone who’s actually compared the Lib Dem and Labour manifestos).

    Nonetheless, I think this is a broadly sensible strategy document and worthy of discussion – now I’m stepping down as chair of the RA (which I really encourage anyone who wants a more radical, ideas-driven Lib Dem party to join), I’m going to hopefully be writing some more blogposts which will respond to and expand upon some of the ideas involved here 🙂

  • Simon Wilks 30th Oct '17 - 9:33am

    As a new member, but an old(ish) person, I can see some sense in this. But a ‘progressive alliance’ isn’t something I can join or vote for. However thrilling the conceptual framework, it could easily look like an academic flirtation with whataboutery that effectively shifts the democratic burden out of voter’s hands, without saying who or why or how. Or what, for that matter.

    We already have a distinctive and attractive identity, though we do our best to hide it. Our core values, as the constitutional preamble makes as clear as need be, are the radical, almost revolutionary, “Liberty, Equality and Community”, and everything else springs elegantly from those. Including policy. But, having read the document, I am mostly wondering why an evidence-base is vital for Education but not for Civil Liberties, or how I’d sell the aim of persuading the government to consider making education less of an overbearing adjudicator of relativity on the doorstep. I may be wrong but, at a strategic level, those feel uncomfortably like distractions.

    If we want folk to vote for us, we don’t need to open rabbit-holes to stumble down. We need be clearer about who we are. A prospectus for amicably squabbling over who can get closer to the middle of the arbitrary and arguable left-right swamp might work as an internal strategy, and the idea of collaborating with quavering place-fillers from elsewhere, at least until they get caught, is attractive. But it’s not a roadmap to anything, nor does it play on our own strengths. And, even if it did, without a clear definition of exactly what modern version of radical liberalism we’ve somehow found ourselves choosing to pursue, and what that might mean beyond the thrilling world of political theory, it’s all a bit vague. In reality the LibDems aim to rebalance the scales of life not, as other parties do, by putting an elbow on the plate, but by making sure the scales work properly for everyone, everywhere, from the start. Sometimes that will involve pursuing radical reform. Sometimes just some light collaboration. But those are tactics. The strategic aim, surely, remains the same. Would it hurt us too much to say so?

  • Progressive alliances and vague PR only make marginal differences. MVM varies according to locatio. And yes we reed to be radical.
    Deal with PRfirst. There are very few chances to make changes. We have had two. We have been lied to on both occasions by other parties. Evenhandedly,once byLabour and once byTories. The present set up suits them. They don’t say so, but it is a fact of life. So chances of doing it are limited. It does mean knowing which version of
    PR is best. Even Jenkins did not recommend STV. When challenged he said the public liked it but the Parties didn’t! And his Report was the best chance since the old style Eurorletions to get it discussed. Not very popular for rural areas, though.
    It matters that we take the values from the Preamble and use them locally. This means using different tactics according to either the area or the shade of politics you are up against. I have friends and people I can work with in both Tory and Labour Parties and a few I can never trust. All in one Borough. It means I know the need for local judgement.

    Just as my unheeded advice, and that of others, to Nick was to take into Government someone who would see the pitfalls ahead, my advice to newbies is to talk to people who have been around and done it the hard way. Then they can ignore it but do listen first.
    We put up with GE slogans. Occasionally they mean something

  • Peter Hirst 1st Nov '17 - 12:50pm

    I don’t know; the centre ground is so attractive. I don’t see how aligning with other Parties helps us to forge our identity. It will be a hard slog though I still believe there is a huge space for the agenda for human rights, freedom of thought, word, assembly and action, privacy of our personal characteristics, a free media and tolerance. It’s just that the other Parties jump on these when it is to their advantage. We need to pick a few events that identify these values and campaign hard on them. We also need to show the inconsistencies of the others.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 1st Nov '17 - 1:20pm

    Very good comments from Simon Wilks and Peter Hirst, showing that not every member over a certain age is as negative or angered by the modern party.

    Clegg and company messed up big time on several fronts, but , as with the Labour party of the Kinnock and Blair years , it would be wrong to write off and denigrate the good things too.

    Clegg is a decent Liberal who does articulate things well.

    I am to the left of him, to the right of the left that now emerges more than ever, dogmatic, bitter, angry, it is there in politics and it is not that we should align ever, with.

    But there is a lot to be angry about.

    We need to be positive and plucky and have a plan to deal with the anger , personally and politicly.

  • Simon Banks 29th Dec '17 - 6:00pm

    Excellent short article, Chris and Paul. I shall read your paper.

    I don’t entirely agree with the comment that we lost our identity because of the strains of working with others. Yes, several things we did or let happen in coalition confused or angered our natural supporters, but we handled the coalition badly partly because the coalition fostered an idea of the party’s character – the alliance of nice, reasonable, middle-of-the-road people – that was at variance with the hearts of our activists and of many of our supporters and was influential in our leadership already.

    If you look at how Liberal Democrat or forerunner party groups have handled similar situations in local government, you find we do sometimes retain identity and support.

    I don’t think we should get hung up on the left-right thing. Analysis of the views of people who might consider voting Liberal Democrat showed from the turn of the century and still shows that they’re mostly strongly Liberal on open-shut issues (immigration, civil liberties, gay rights etc) and moderately pro-redistribution on pocketbook issues. Labour supporters are pro-redistribution, but while some are very pro-open, others hold illiberal views which most commentators would place on the far right. As for the choice of prime ministers, you can lean to the left and still think J Corbyn would be a disaster as prime minister, perhaps because you suspect as I do that while he talks well, he has no idea of how to manage anything.

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