Mark Thompson quits Lib Dems. Is this the death of party politics? Not so fast!

Mark Thompson, winner of Lib Dem Blog of the Year 2012, has announced he’s leaving the party. You might be thinking, “Ah, another one who’s so annoyed with what the party’s doing in coalition that he can’t face renewing his membership.”

But you’d be wrong. As the title of Mark’s piece makes clear – Why I am leaving the Lib Dems – AKA This is not a Flounce – it is not the party he is disillusioned with but party politics:

The impetus for me to leave is really because politics is broken. The Westminster Village is obsessed with who managed to shout the best for 5 minutes and get their friends to jeer and point at the other side just after midday on a Wednesday. … The tribal nature of much of what goes on drives me nuts. Labour have been the worst for this in recent years castigating the current government for doing things that they would almost certainly have done themselves and in a number of cases were actively planning to. But none of the main parties are free from this sort of thing. …

None of this is specifically the fault of the Lib Dems. But they are complicit in it. They have 57 MPs. They are part of the government. They have tried to change some of this but on the constitutional and political reform front they have utterly failed. Again I am not blaming them particularly. The forces of conservatism in Labour and the Tories closed ranks to ensure AV (what would have been a very minor, positive change) was a failure and they killed Lords reform too. Those who sneer that the Lib Dems are to blame themselves for all of this fail to recognise just how far the status quo will go to preserve itself. …

I have become convinced that real change needs to come from outside of the three main parties now. I’m not calling for a Brand-esque revolution or telling people they shouldn’t vote. That was totally irresponsible. I will certainly be voting at the next election and I may well vote for the Lib Dems. I have been interested in some of what the Green Party has to say although some of their more statist policies turn me off. I am also interested in the nascent Pirate Party philosophy. But the truth is I have had enough of being a member of a party for now. I only joined at the age of 34 having spent the previous two decades as a highly politically engaged lone wolf. Perhaps that is my natural state.

I think that love them or loathe them groups like 38 Degrees and the TPA have shown how much outside groups can influence things. The power of political parties is waning. The financial crisis has shown the limits of business as usual and yet nothing his really changed yet. We have a political system that was designed hundreds of years ago and it is utterly unfit for the world we now live in. But I see and hear very few people agitating for the sort of fundamental change we need. And I include myself in that criticism. …

I will miss attending the conferences and being part of a strong movement with very deep roots. I have made some good friends in the party and I hope to keep in touch with them all. I expect some will be disappointed that I have not chosen to continue to fight the good fight from inside but I hope they will understand my reasons.

It’s well worth reading Mark’s post in full (the above is only an extract).

I’m sorry to see Mark leave, as I’m sure are many others. I know him a little, and he’s a natural liberal. The blessing and the curse of natural liberals, though, is that we’re not very tribal: we’re sceptical and (self-)critical, both great attributes, but also ones likely to lead most thoughtful people frequently to question their loyalties.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a piece, Stick or twist? What’s your tearing-up-your-membership-card threshold?:

I couldn’t not be involved in politics – it matters too much – so I chose the party closest to my views, fully expecting it would sometimes take stances I disagree with. I guess it’s always possible I might get to my cumulative ‘red-line’ in the Lib Dems, but I’ve never been close to it, despite fundamentally disagreeing with some of our party’s positions in my dozen-plus years as a member. That’s because leaving changes nothing, except ensuring those who share your views become more of a minority.

Party politics isn’t the only way to make a difference by any means. But it’s the place where people of like minds comes together, both to agree and disagree, and find a way forward.

And for all the laments about the death of party politics in the last month, let’s remember one thing: non-voters are still the minority. Which, given few elections turn on any individual’s sole vote, and even less so under first-past-the-post, is pretty remarkable really.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • I am saddened by what you wrote it just confirms what most in country think. My thinking is partys should be banned and ALL MPs should be independents so when someone preposes some law it cannot be rammed through or killed by a party idiology but can be assed by each member an hopefully better solutions come from such. I really think thats how it should be

  • The point where Politics is broken is the point where it changes, this is the time to be joining Parties not dropping out.

  • When oh when are some people going to bite the bullet and admit that the AV vote was lost through a rubbish campaign and by a half hearted approach that wasn’t actually AV at all, and that dismissing well meaning and intelligent people who happened to vote No and lumping them under the dark forces of conservatism label is hardly likely to bring them onside to the argument .

  • peter tyzack 16th Nov '13 - 6:16pm

    I know how he feels, having been a member 30 yrs, a PPC three times, a councillor (consecutively Parish, District, Unitary) 24yrs, Local Party Chair on and off for 10, and lost count of how many conferences I have been to(I was at Glasgow the first time!). but now my campaigning spirit is exhausted. What could restore it? If I felt that the party machine cared about the ordinary member and communicated properly with us(not the standardised blanket email pretending to be from Nick or whoever’s name is appended); if they stopped treating those with elected positions as some sort of cash cow; if they started to resonate with the public, starting with convincing the raft of naysayers and backbiters who appear on here; if they REALLY tackled the corrupt self-serving press and stood up against their partisan behaviour; .. if they were just a little less London centric and Middle Class in their attitude..
    Politicians work best when they work together, across party. Yes the electoral system is pants and a lot of reform is needed, but we need to major on how we work ‘with’ people to achieve things and that adversarial politics should be binned.. the public like that message!

  • Peter Watson 17th Nov '13 - 12:01am

    “I think that love them or loathe them groups like 38 Degrees and the TPA have shown how much outside groups can influence things. The power of political parties is waning. ”
    Hence the two parties in government trying to stifle such groups with the Lobbying Bill / ‘gagging law’.

  • In two words: cop out.

    @ Peebee

    “When oh when are some people going to bite the bullet and admit that the AV vote was lost through a rubbish campaign”

    Never, because it wasn’t.

    It was lost because supporters of the other two political parties ganged up together to trash any prospect of reform. Those on the Labour side should NEVER be trusted again on political reform, nor should they be forgiven.

  • Peter Watson 17th Nov '13 - 9:20am

    The biggest personal attacks on Clegg and AV seemed to come from the tories so why single out Labour as the party to ‘NEVER trust again on political reform’. Didn’t Labour give us PR in european and London mayor elections (which would hopefully get voters used to the idea), some reform of the Lords, devolution (with a proportional electoral system in Scotland)? What reform have the Lib Dems delivered in government? The biggest obstacle to achieving AV (itself only a minor step in the right direction) was Clegg himself. He was personally attacked for being untrustworthy, partly because of his tuition fees volte-face, partly because he was asking for voters to support what he had himself dismissed as a grubby little compromise. Clegg and those around him presented Lib Dems as an unprincipled party that could not be trusted (and which was anti-Labour) and then immediately asked for an electoral system that would increase our influence permanently (why not wait until the “success” of coalition could be demonstrated?). Even on Lords reform Clegg can be attacked with some justification for pulling the plug on it because he did not want Parliament to have time to debate it properly. On political reform, Clegg and those around him blew it for us.

  • jedibeeftrix 17th Nov '13 - 10:12am

    @ Peter – “Didn’t Labour give us PR in european and London mayor elections (which would hopefully get voters used to the idea)”

    The logical corollary to this is that familiarity might breed contempt.

    There is nothing inherently virtuous about PR, it just so happens to align with your own [personal] preferences.

    Please do not make the mistake of thinking that other people hold the same preferences, and should thus reach the same ‘logical’ conclusions.

    All this talk of ‘betrayal’ over the AV referendum is amusing, for the heat seems purposely designed to hide from the fact that it was [popularly] rejected as the future of british politics.

  • Peter Davies 17th Nov '13 - 11:00am

    I rather like the idea of a proportionally elected mayor.

  • William Nigel Jones 17th Nov '13 - 11:22am

    I am sorry to see another keen activist go. A week ago I was listening to Sarah Teather who expressed similar views, obviously fed up with the leadership of all three parties. I am also reminded of Martin Bell; some years ago in a local public meeting he explained how he could not get on with the culture at Westminster. Political reform is long overdue.
    I share Peter Tyzack’s comments, having been a councillor since 2002 and Parliamentary candidate in 2010; I continue to campaign locally and do what I can on national issues. I want to stay in the party, because I could not join any of the others, but long for a clearer lead from the top on basic Liberal Democratic principles, even if that risks the coalition and risks annoying both the media and the other two parties.

  • Michael Parsons 17th Nov '13 - 12:37pm

    Democracy has always seen general elections as instruments of oligarchic power, because of the role played in them by money and influence. To give political meaning to the claim that Citizens be regarded as equal, political power could never be granted to “representatives” to act on their behalf, as if they were absent, or under-age. Obviously for technical issues they hire technical experts: if you are taking a voyage, you hire the best captain, but he does not choose the destination.
    The stock response of Party oligarchs is that in a mass society such democracy would not be practicable. However there are ways which have been explored. For example Fisher’s Deliberative Democracy outlines practical means. Cornelius Castoriadis’ “Rising Tide of Insignificance” gives a master-mind’s discussion of the current Big Sleep, and that is readily available on
    The web still offer us potentially universal enlightenment, and it seem a pity when we are discussing fundamentals not to take advantage of it. Rejection of the role of party apparatchik would seem a good social liberal move in anyone’s book, whatever its actual motivation.

  • Richard Boyd OBE DL 17th Nov '13 - 4:19pm

    I read the original posting and was reminded of long-term Liberals who left our local party in the mid=80’s when Grammar Schools was a major issue. For them is was the Last Straw, an issue not comprehended by the majority
    of voters, but one of fundamental faith to them. We lost loyal, generous, committed colleagues. Nothing changes.Peter Tyzak and William Nigel Jones, reflect that long-loyal effective contribution.
    The exhortations of the young team captain, who told his tired team “I am truly different. Trust me. I will
    show you the moves that will outwit the traditional opponent” and then repeated their moves- can
    justifyis ideas to himself and those that read the same text books. Those who created the data, from the mud of the
    field of campaigning, that led to those books being written in warm studies, are not convinced.

  • it is not the party he is disillusioned with but party politics.

    I sympathise with Mark’s decision to leave – not to mention all the other activists and much of the support base – but is it really a problem of politics or of parties?

    Parties exist because, when it comes to politics, we hang together or hang separately. So if we are not even managing to retain and enthuse activists let alone the wider electorate is that the fault of politics in the sense that none of the three main parties have a clue how to run the country in the eyes of much of the electorate. Or is it the fault of a party that just isn’t very good at what it does? Of course, if it was any good it would soon convince the electorate. We can make excuses till the cows come home but the brutal fact is that the Lib Dems are far and away the least successful main party. This could change, and quickly, but we would have to want to change and be prepared to ask uncomfortable questions. Is there an appetite for that?

  • Yes, we need parties. The problem is partly that all three parties have been bought up by vested interests. The problem is also that all parties are now run by careerists whose three top priorities are winning, winning and winning. Achieving something worthwhile once elected comes a poor second. Achieving a specific goal promised to the voters (as opposed to just getting reasonable ratings by doing the right gimmicks) comes an even poorer third.

    There used to be one party that was better than the others. Then the careerists and the Orange Bookers took over, and the principled politicians with at least some real ideals – Kennedy, Ashdown, Jenkins, Steel, Grimond, – passed into history.

  • A Social Liberal 18th Nov '13 - 11:43am

    David Allen

    I couldn’t agree with you more. However, if there is one thing I have learned from the last three years is that social liberalism will not be part of the Lib Dem agenda if we do not fight for it. This means generating a sea change in internal party politics and making sure that we articulate that change to the activists we have lost, to the right thinking (that is, centre left thinking) Lib Dems who have left the party and to the voters who are left without a party to put their cross against.

  • Julian Tisi 18th Nov '13 - 1:40pm

    @Peter Watson
    There is good reason why Labour are the ones above all never to be trusted on political reform. It’s because on both AV and Lords reform they apparently supported both but when it came to voting for both they turned face and voted both down. On AV – something in Labour’s manifesto (not even the Lib Dems) – the majority of their MPs campaigned against AV and Ed Miliband refused to campaign alongside the Lib Dems for it. On Lords reform they refused to support giving any parliamentary time to its debate, because they cared a lot more about voting down changes to parliamentary boundaries. By refusing to support the program motion Labour allowed themselves the veneer of being able to say they didn’t vote against reform itself, although that’s what it amounted to, as they well knew.

  • @Julian Tisi
    “… Ed Miliband refused to campaign alongside the Lib Dems for it.”

    One shouldn’t cast stones though, after all I don’t recall Nick Clegg etc being overly keen on campaigning alongside UKIP either.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Nov '13 - 5:22pm

    David Allen

    Yes, we need parties. The problem is partly that all three parties have been bought up by vested interests.

    Indeed, and vested interests can buy them up cheap because they have few members to resist. Democracy works because people volunteer to do it. Over the past few decades we have had a message constantly pumped out by the political right “Politics is bad, don’t get involved”. So people don’t get involved, political parties are empty shells easily bought up by a few wealthy people, and then there’s comlaints about that and the solution given is – er, what caused this in the first place.

    I joined the Liberal Party because I believe in democracy, and I believed the Liberal Party offered new ways of re-awakening the democratic spirit, of getting people involved, of cvhallenging vested interests who can so easily take over when democracy is weak. Nick Clegg and his followers have killed my dreams. But I don’t see any other path, I still believe in democracy. Only now I hope that when Clegg is brought to the end he so deserves, the party I once was so enthusiastic for can be revived for what I joined it for.

  • I recently re-joined our party because I read that members were really to be consulted on the manifesto in future – in addition to all those good people of the in-groups who set the agenda in the past. I’m not one who goes to groups but I follow politics assiduously and hope to have a contribution to make. I hope to help a prospective MP win a seat, unfortunately not in my home constituency. And I hope to see the party return to principled politics – difficult though it will be in any coalition. So nothing in the above piece and following comments surprises me. Lib Dems need to “return to the party” which we made together before we were overtaken by jobs-worths around the leader.

    I’m sure Mr Clegg will not listen to people like me and change his attitudes, nor the attitudes of his inner circle who have become increasingly unpleasant to members of the party. I guess if you live your daily lives next to pompous Tories you have to work very hard not to become a little like them. But despite the negatives the inner circle has created I believe that now is the time that inner circle will listen to members much more – because they should know that they will nearly all be out of jobs if they remain in a mode which they think is not vulnerable at the elections of 2014 and 2015. The inner circle needs a good shaking and will get it. The members will also be shaken but we know what the reasons are but the inner circle doesn’t realize it is because of them! But the members are the roots and branches which will save something for the future to build on and that is why I have re-joined – to contribute my small bit to the party which is closest to my principles, despite its many failings since certain people took power and became corrupted by serving the wrong people and in a poor way too.

    I believe now is the time for us to return to save the best of the party. So though we will still lose some members we should try to regain our old membership and its principles. I will be contributing as best I can to that.

  • For me Mark’s decision demonstrates the limited impact that blogging has on the process of politics in the UK.

  • Power of political parties waning? So how many votes do 38 degrees have in parliament on the legislation that affects our lives? How many seats were won by independents last time?

    If opinions and politics are fashion accessories then political parties are in decline. Not in any other sense.

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