My reply to Paddy’s essay: “Learn from history and prepare on multiple fronts”

Dutchmen are often called blunt, uncouth because of their direct way of expressing themselves, so I don’t mind Paddy’s warning that as an ex-commando he “doesn’t do subtlety”.

As an activist since 1976 in a coalition politics country, I fully support his plea to work pragmatically with like-minded people of other parties (non-tribalism), and/or people who don’t want to affiliate permanently or at all. And having witnessed many local political deals by D66 with leftist Dutch parties (in their peak days, the 1970’s/’80’s), I also agree that a progressive, ameliorating, modernizing perspective/aim is key, not clubbing together for the sake of “being progressive”. Red, green or blue feathers don’t make a progressive political peacock more useful, or worth being, having.

But where Paddy compares our post-coalition revival with the rich programmatic harvest of “radical”, taboo-smashing ideas of the Liberals in the Grimond and Orpington days, he is being somewhat one-sided. Remember: Grimond became leader in 1956, but the avalanche of radical ideas only really started after the 1959 elections: the “New Directions” brochures of 1960-’67 (see: Arthur Cyr, Liberal Party Politics of Britain, Calder, London, 1977, p. 115-24,147-9; R. Ingham & D. Brack, Peace, Reform & Liberation, Biteback, London, 2011, p. 241-3, 245-’56). Grimond started by losing Carmarthen to Lloyd Georges deserting daughter, 1957; other high-profile Liberals defected; and we held our Bolton and Wade seats (40% of 5 seats) by deals with Tories.

But we were right on Suez (jitters about Boltons deal notwithstanding)and joining EEC; Grimond’s phrases were “polite yet devastating”, like Cable’s about Gordon Brown; and in the 1959 election, a trio of ITV television journalists (Robin Day, Ludovic Kennedy, Jeremy Thorpe) were among our candidates. Grimond himself proving to be better on TV than Macmillan and Gaitskell, made people start reading his articles, pamphlets and books. The Liberals were better TV-age pioneer politicians; Thorpe and our 1958 Torrington hero Mark Bonham Carter (at Collins publishing) were leading our publishing strategy, profiling; and Thorpe started targeting seats. But after Orpington, the Liberal surge petered out despite us continuing to put out radical ideas; so all that wasn’t enough to keep us surging.  

When from 1970, radical ideas were combined nationwide with intensive canvassing and focus-leafletting, the surge resumed. Paddy mentions the canvasser who made him join the Liberals around 1972 (“45 years” before 2017); that canvasser (a “Community politics” activist) would have pointed to the wealth of recent Liberal literature.

With the “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” adulation and resurgent dissidents deselection, don’t count on too much Labour politicians joining our positions; Tories never like us anyway (see David Laws’ “Coalition”, passim). So we have to wait until the Brexit facts show both May and Corbyn to be shamming. Then our new thinking, our realist, honest politics and excellent leader will come into their own and do the trick.

 

* Bernard Aris is a Dutch historian (university of Leiden), and Documentation assistant to the D66 parliamentary Party. He is a member of the Brussels/EU branch of the LibDems.

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9 Comments

  • Michael Cole 29th Sep '17 - 1:11pm

    Dear Bernard,
    “So we have to wait until the Brexit facts show both May and Corbyn to be shamming. Then our new thinking, our realist, honest politics and excellent leader will come into their own and do the trick.”

    I hope you are right.

  • Darren Martin 29th Sep '17 - 3:15pm

    Very interesting read regarding our journey to revival.
    I take your point about Brexit and I think you are right but that still does not build a long term strategy for the party.
    What I took from Paddy’s essay was something a bit more existential- What is our purpose?
    Even if, as I suspect it will, the Brexit debate will rage on for a generation, we don’t want to become UKIP in reverse.
    So we need to combine the good work Vince Cable has already begun on things like wealth taxes with policy for the future, those “dangerous ideas” Paddy was talking about.
    I was pretty depressed looking at the conference agenda, we essentially just reaffirmed what we already believe in without setting out a vision for the future.
    We may be small, but if we make enough noise, people will take notice.

  • David Evans 29th Sep '17 - 7:29pm

    Bernard, I’m afraid wait is a tactic we have been following for 7 years now. If began with “just wait and see how people will appreciate that we have saved the country”; morphed into “look at the good bits we have achieved and wait for things to improve”; became “Wait until election results improve”; “Wait until after Nick has out-debated Nigel”; and “Wait until the General Election then things will improve, then “Wait for Labour to implode over Corbyn” and “Wait for the Conservatives to split over Europe” and is now “just wait for the awfulness of Brexit to become clear.” and “Wait until people start looking at all our new policies.”

    The problem is that the only thing that has become clear is that as most of those in the party have waited for something to turn up all that has happened is that most people have totally given up on the Lib Dems and 50 years of hard work has gone down toilet.

  • I think we are the Party representing human rights, civil liberties and good governance amongst other things. If others want to help us improve these quality of life issues, we should embrace them on an issue by issue basis. A more fluid political environment would benefit everyone.

  • Geoff Hinchliffe 30th Sep '17 - 4:12pm

    David, you have put my thoughts to perfection. I have not felt as dispirited as this since joining the party in 1974, but can find nowhere else to go.

  • paul barker 30th Sep '17 - 6:25pm

    Surely what our collapse in support demonstrates is our failure to even try to build a core vote based on a coherent National platform ?
    The old methods worked perfectly well until we tried to actually use our 24% to do stuff. There are plenty of signs that we have learned from our experience & our Anti-Brexit is at the core of that. If we look at the extensive Polling on the differences between Remain & Leave Voters we see that Brexit is not a “Single Issue” but the touchstone for a whole spread of attitudes & assumptions. In fact Brexit has given us a handy tool to distinguish between voters who might back us at The National Level & those who wont.

  • David Warren 30th Sep '17 - 11:21pm

    Being in coalition cost us dear.

    The original decision can be defended on some levels but after that to many concessions were made and poor policy agreed to which then became legislation.

    Some of that legislation hit the poorest in our society.

    People haven’t forgotten that yet and as a result we polled very badly in the last General Election.

    The fact 12 seats were won is a near miracle.

    It is going to be a long hard slog from here, our activists will sustain us but it will be tough going.

  • Bernard Aris 1st Oct '17 - 1:56pm

    As a great supporter of Community Politics (D66 is just about the only party using canvassing in Dutch election campaigns nowadays; the leftiset parties have abandoned street activism giving flyers to people in shopping centers and suchlike), I never wanted to imply that we sit back. For starters, it’s not in our nature, so I applaud Vince marching on the Tory conference on the day we surpass them in membership. That last fact invites the media to interview him while marching (or after adressing the marchers like Charlie Kennedy), which is another opportunity to for him point to our pro-EU, pro-Civil Rights, pro-schoolchildren (& pro-Education), pro-NHS Mental care, pro-people on Universal Benefit getting paid something from the first day, etcetera identity as a contrast to the monomaniac Brexit obsession now literally consuming the Tories.

    I also agree that the brexit leave vote was a cry for help, a cry of feeling locked-out of “democracy” and general welfare; and that is what Social Liberalism everywhere was launched to remedy. We, not the outdated Socialists with 1970’s solutions (or 1922 ones: Clause 4), are what’s needed here.
    If you want the Sun to shine, you’re better off with us than with the Tories of Boris.
    And if you want an easy ride in politics, don’t join the LibDems; that has always been true for our party.

  • Russell Kent 3rd Oct '17 - 4:24pm

    What strikes me, also looking from the Netherlands where I live, is how tribal everything is in the UK. Shame really.
    However, after looking at the three main parties conferences, it seems to me that the only party capturing the imagination of younger voters is Labour. Now, Vince has often commented on ways the older generation has stuffed the younger, but we have no concrete policies that attract the youth. We do not appeal to them on education, future pension provision or housing. And until we do, we will forever remain on the fringes. Not even beyond them:-)

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