New party: An opportunity, an unhelpful distraction or a timely kick up our posterior?

A year ago Emmanuel Macron held is first political rally. 12 months on he sits firmly ensconced in the Elysee Palace and En Marche enjoy a comfortable majority in the Assemble Nationale.The obvious question this demands is whether, at a time when the gulf between the two main parties grows ever wider, there is an opportunity for a new centrist party to make a similar breakthrough here in the UK.

Last week, the team that created the Lib Dem Newbie Facebook group put a poll asking members of the group a simple question: If a new liberal centre party were to emerge as a result of the increasingly polarised state of Labour and the Tories, with the backing of more moderate MPs escaping the madness currently consuming those parties should we join the new party or stick to our guns and keep on focusing on the task of rebuilding the Lib Dems?

This was only ever a hypothetical scenario. That party does not exist yet. It may never emerge and unless it does, and is able to prove itself to be genuinely liberal in its heart and soul, then there is no question of anyone being asked to consider any steps that might negatively affect the Liberal Democrat party. It remains our belief that within the current political landscape the Lib Dems remain the best and most capable vehicle to promote and defend liberalism, to stand up for people’s rights and liberties, to make the case for a decent, fair, open and tolerant society and to wholeheartedly fight to stop the Eurosceptic ideologues delivering a hard Brexit that would be a total disaster for this country and future generations.

In less than 24 hours, more than 500 people within the group responded to our poll – and it drew some passionate debate, including many people who were fiercely determined not to see the Liberal Democrats wound up. This is undoubtedly a good thing – it would be a very sad day if no one wanted to fight for the future of a party that so many people have worked so hard to build and maintain.

Nonetheless, the result of the poll also tells an important story – 62% of respondents (primarily new members who have joined the party since 2015) would be prepared to join a new party were it to emerge (and of course to meet their criteria in terms of policy, approach etc). This is important in two ways.

Firstly, it suggests that there is appetite within our own party for a new political force to emerge in this country that could potentially put an end to the era of polarised two party politics in the UK. The sense appears to be that were such a party to emerge, which is better placed than the Liberal Democrat party to achieve our goals and champion our values, then we should embrace it rather than fight it. And if we did, and the poll is reflective of the membership as a whole, then the new party would potentially have an army of over 60,000 seasoned activists ready to call upon. This is not without obvious challenges – how would such a party avoid the fate of the SDP and struggle to undo the Gordion Knot that first past the post places on our political system, and what makes us think there really is an appetite for centrist politics after an election in which more people than ever before appeared to vote for the very opposite?

Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently however, it also suggests there is recognition that in our current state, we are not the force for good that our country so desperately needs us to be. That is a message that urgently needs to be heard by the party’s leadership – if we are to prove there isn’t a need for a new party in the centre of British politics then we clearly need to reform and change the whole way in which we operate, campaign, develop policy and present those polices to potential voters. There already appears to be appetite for this – Paddy Ashdown has consistently be calling for us to become a new, more digitally enabled type of party – but whether that amounts to much more than rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic remains to be seen. It’s hard to imagine a successful political party that isn’t digitally enabled in 2017 so that alone wouldn’t appear to offer much differentiation.

What seems clear is that, at such a critical juncture in the UK’s history, we need a strong liberal voice that can help to steer the country on a more positive course. The brutal reality is that a party which struggles to gain more than 7.5% of the vote simply cannot do that – we therefore need to build a much more formidable party that can better appeal to the majority of people in this country who share our hopes, fears and values. It’s now in our own hands to determine whether that can be done through our existing party, or to build a new one that isn’t held back by the trappings of the past.

In truth, maybe there isn’t that much real difference between the two options. Whether carrying the Lib Dem brand or not – a centrist liberal party that successfully challenges the status quo needs to offer something substantially new and different to what currently exists. To genuinely break the mould it would need to be able to attract politicians, activists and supporters from across the current party spectrum, it would need to offer a clear and optimistic vision of Britain’s place in the world and its relationship with its European partners that is neither a desperate attempt to retain the status quo nor a disastrous hard Brexit that would damage our country for generations, and it would need to operate in a way that enables it to talk and engage with voters the length and breadth of the country and from all parts of society, rather than focusing on localised strongholds and a narrow demographic base.

Is this possible you may ask? But arguably the more important question is can we afford not to try. There is undoubtedly a pool of talented and dynamic politicians who look increasingly out of place in their own parties and with the leadership of both Labour and the Conservatives determined to ignore the concerns of the 48% who voted remain just over a year ago, there’s almost certainly a core vote to play for as well. And if we can’t truly beat FPTP then it’s worth bearing in mind that a third party with over 100 seats would be strongly positioned to reform it. Unfortunately in our current state we’re unlikely to be in that position for many years.

To do that requires a party that can truly challenge everywhere and not just where it’s traditionally strong. To finish with an analogy from another example from across the channel – we need a party that’s a bit more like Chris Froome and a bit less like Mark Cavendish.

* Ben Maitland is a new member

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43 Comments

  • Be the change you want to see in the world!

    We can be the new party that people are looking for – it needs a new strategy, a new brand and a new, bigger team of people to deliver it. It also needs a lot of money. It’s not something that can be done overnight but with vision and purpose we can deliver it and squash any thoughts of another party being needed to fill the space we already whole-heartedly occupy.

  • Peter Sigrist 19th Jul '17 - 3:31pm

    Great post Ben. I want to pre-empt the inevitable criticism this will attract from those who (entirely justifiably) hate the idea of a new liberal force emerging in British politics – when there’s a perfectly good one right here! That very sentiment – of loyalty and in-group motivation – is precisely the one that prevented a single defection when Tim Farron invited MPs from the Labour or Conservative parties to join us – precisely zero showed the merest hint of being willing to do that for the same reason that we would. It countenance joining those parties. If we are honest about wanting our liberal political values to shape the future of our country; if we are serious about rescuing a devastating situation before the delivery of a hard Brexit; we must understand this can only happen via the radical emergence of a third party relative to the two major parties – and indeed to ourselves too. An urgent liberal British future might be delivered by us. It would certainly be delivered by a radical new liberal force.

  • Play to your strengths, end police corruption.

  • “hate the idea of a new liberal force emerging in British politics”

    I don’t. But what would emerge is a centrist, possibly progressive party. But it wouldn’t be a Liberal party – at least as I would recognise it. Ultimately if that is the direction the party goes down then the influx of new members post 2015 will in may mind have been a retrograde step.

    A number of people around the general election sympathised with my views that the LIb Dems lacked leadership and direction. But their alternative was to hope that Corbyn lost and dozens of Labour MPs started looking for a new home (along with a few pro-EU) tories – and they didn’t seem to see how much of a problem that inclination was.

    Fortunately the electorate have kyboshed that idea!

  • David Allen 19th Jul '17 - 3:53pm

    Macron’s breakthrough deserves our attention. However, it happened after the French Socialists were seen to have tried and failed, while their opponents on the conventional Right were mired in sleaze and offered reactionary policies such as banning adoption by same-sex couples. That opened up a gap for Macron. Things are different in Britain because so many put their faith in an untried Jeremy Corbyn.

    Brexit may indeed be the political gift that keeps on giving. Some political group will eventually gain ground in the wake of national disaster. Sadly, I fear that will be the Tories. Ridiculous? No. The Right have made the “Shock Doctrine” their stock-in-trade. It was right-wing laissez-faire banking that caused the 2008 crash, and yet the Right successfully posed as the people whose briliant austerity policy would be the only way to rescue the nation. It is the Right who are leading us into Brexit, and in five years time it will be the Right who solemnly declaim that only they can rescur Britain after a disastrous Brexit.

    It would be great to see a strong centre-left force emerge, and if that happened, the Lib Dems would do well to embed themselves within a greater force and not cry about their loss of tribalism. But the conditions for such a force to emerge are not yet fulfilled. Beyond Brexit, nobody has yet defined the stirring cause, the unifying appeal, or the rational policy platform that a new force should offer.

  • It appears that of those new members who voted 62% of them have a very weak attachment to our party. This should not come as a surprise as I expect many new members joined because of our opposition to Brexit and not our vision for a liberal Britain. We need to address this with a clear vision of what a liberal Britain looks like and a clear method of delivering it.

    Also as these are new members it is unlikely they know of what the SDP was like and why it failed so they are prepared to a try new party.

    As well as us not having a clear message our brand is not liked and we are seen as untrustworthy and we are associated with student tuition fees which is a huge negative for our traditional supporters.

    The answer is not a new party; the answer if for this party to have a policy of replacing tuition fees with a graduate tax and for us to have as our central message that neo-liberal economics have benefited the rich and increased economic inequalities and that a Liberal Democrat government would run the economy to reduce unemployment to below 3% and to have policies to really assist everyone (including those who are disabled or have a long term illness) to be full members of society, and we would reform the whole of society to make it responsible to the people and reduce the power of big business and globalisation and unresponsive state institutions and give power to the people.

  • Phil Wainewright 19th Jul '17 - 4:17pm

    The thing is, an imaginary party of the centre is always going to appear more attractive than the one that already exists. But even a new party would have to face the grubby reality of how to get things done – local party executives, hard-slog campaigning, lots of persuasion and compromise to hammer out its national and grassroots strategy, policies and organisation.

    Meanwhile, by accepting the narrative that the LibDems have lost all credibility to become the dominant party of the centre, you are accepting the arguments of the people who are most opposed to seeing your ideas prevail. That’s what they want you to believe.

    So rather than wait for some new centrist party to spring perfectly formed into existence, please work with like-minded people within this party to rapidly build it into the powerful force for a Liberal Britain that you want it to become.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Jul '17 - 4:22pm

    A new centrist pro-EU party would be a near clone of the Liberal Democrats, so there would be little point in it.

    Some people seem to think that the country becoming more pro-EU means there is a big space for such a party, but any sudden pro-EU upturn in opinion would be down to pragmatism, not idealism, and could fall back down again.

    Migration is slowly binding continental Europe and the UK together with the blood ties of family, but it will take years for that change to appear in the electorate, unless we give EU nationals the vote, which I think they deserve.

  • @Michael BG
    ‘the answer if for this party to have a policy of replacing tuition fees with a graduate tax’
    Sorry. don’t agree.
    You can’t stuff your dirty laundry down the back of the sofa and expect it not to smell. It will cost about £18 bill to honour the pledge and about £6 bill p.a. to keep tuition fees at £3k. Half the loan book is going to be written off anyway. Honour the pledge and then if you want to change things, maybe.

  • Peter Watson 19th Jul '17 - 4:36pm

    @Michael BG “It appears that of those new members who voted 62% of them have a very weak attachment to our party.”
    Totally agree. I have often expressed my concern that apart from opposition to Brexit, it was not clear what other values and opinions were shared by all of those new members. I’ve also commented that the party’s pretty vague positions on other policy areas seemed engineered not to scare any of them away.

    Added to this, I think the appointment of an unopposed new leader does not help as it leaves the party without a clear sense of a direction that has been debated and chosen.
    Furthermore, the policies to be debated at the next party conference (and the last one) look a world apart from the concerns of voters, and the hottest debates on this site are about the need for a vision and policies and processes, but without any clear indication of what they should be.

    Frankly, it all looks pretty hopeless.

    Opposition to Brexit is the only clear selling-point of the Lib Dems, and I don’t see why anybody who really wants to stop Brexit instead of just talking about it would want to choose the Lib Dems as a vehicle to achieve that. Why not join either the Tories or Labour, both of whom are divided on the issue, and oppose Brexit from within those parties, or mobilise as a single-issue pressure group outside any single party?

    Somehow, your party needs to get its act together or the votes that those of us on the outside have lent to Labour, Conservatives, SNP, etc. will be gone for good. Or perhaps a new centrist party that ticks the right combination of left and right boxes will steal them away.

  • Peter Watson 19th Jul '17 - 4:39pm

    @Peter Watson “the right combination of left and right boxes”
    Actually, for me, the right combination would be more of a left combination! 😉
    A better phrase might have been “the optimum combination of left and right”.

  • Frances Alexander 19th Jul '17 - 4:45pm

    I think this conversation should be postponed. It may not be necessary when our new Leader has been appointed.

  • ‘A number of people around the general election sympathised with my views that the LIb Dems lacked leadership’

    Don’t think that issue will go away,a coronation followed by the party being led by the cabinet minister that implemented the tripling of tuition fees.

  • Peter Sigrist 19th Jul '17 - 5:05pm

    The organisation of the past depended on people without access to enough information flocking to the security of what they knew. This was the era of the brand; loyalty was strong and change was slow. The organisation of the future depends on people with access to a wealth of information flocking to what matches their values and meets their demands. This is the era of the connected consumer and user experience; loyalty is dead and change is rapid. All these arguments that “new members” have a “weak” connection to the party are speaking the language of the 20th century. We need a movement of the 21st century; to drop the demand for loyalty and recognise a new liberal organisation will not be tarnished by the fear of radical renewal. And for what it’s worth, I’m sick of hearing “well the SDP didn’t work”. That’s intellectually lazy and reflects the complacency of the arguments for the status quo.

  • Brian Evans 19th Jul '17 - 5:37pm

    Ben refers to “the Gordion Knot that first past the post places on our political system”. The same paradox faces the LibDems as would face a new party. We need to get rid of FPTP in order to be in a position to get rid of FPTP. Can we, without losing our own identity, give sufficient support to non-party groups, such as Make Votes Mater, to engage the support of like minded socialists and tories, to create such force for that reform to actually happen?

    P.J. says, of the tuition fees problem, “You can’t stuff your dirty laundry down the back of the sofa and expect it not to smell. ” I quite agree. Many of my friends have refused to back the LibDems solely on the basis of that fiasco, now some years into history, but something that will rankle for many more. We have to tackle the stink head-on and expunge it.
    Any future LibDem economic policy must, in my opinion, include sufficient provision to make third level education fee-free. If the devolved nations can do it, then England should, too.

  • @ Peter Sigrist
    “All these arguments that “new members” have a “weak” connection to the party are speaking the language of the 20th century. We need a movement of the 21st century; to drop the demand for loyalty and recognise a new liberal organisation will not be tarnished by the fear of radical renewal.”

    Yes!

    Maybe many of us do believe in equality of opportunity, we do believe nobody should be enslaved by etc etc……, but we see the language of the preamble and think, yes fine, but so what?
    Thousands have joined because of the parties USP on the EU, which may still play out and we’ll all live happily ever after, BUT these are young people (mostly), they have grown up in Blair’s Britain, a country which is multicultural yes but many are professional people, they have values and dreams and ideals, sure, but they, from what I have seen are driven to achieve, they have little fear of change and many have great skills particularly digitally.

    It is my view that it is up to the party (as Michael BG) suggests above, to show them all what a Liberal socially in 2017 can look like (practically), because these people will not sit around waiting for one to appear.
    Remember, no-one has actually seen one in Britain.
    They are more likely to take inspiration from Canada and France than the British Lib Dem’s and try to apply something that actually looks like it works and adapt it to Britain? No amount of reminiscing about past glories is going to cut the ice here.
    Especially in the absence of a strong vision and strong leadership, people will insist on their own because that is what they have been brought up to believe they need to do to survive in a competitive world and then education system most have grown up in teaching them to challenge the status quo as a virtue – which I would have thought most here would respect, so don’t be surprised when they do. You need to have answers!

  • @ Peter Watson “I think the appointment of an unopposed new leader does not help as it leaves the party without a clear sense of a direction that has been debated and chosen.

    Yes, it would be better if a contested leadership had led to candidates offering their own vision for the party.

    However, that’s not how it actually works in the Liberal Democrats. In both the Clegg/Huhne and Farron/Lamb contests it was impossible to put a cigarette paper between the candidates. Both stuck religiously to the party line as laid down by conference – and fairly so in a way because to do otherwise would have driven a coach and horses through the party’s constitutional arrangements for policy-making.

    As it turned out Clegg did in fact take the party in a direction for which he had no mandate causing much unhappiness but nevertheless getting away with it. In contrast, Farron has stuck to the party line with no indication that he understood the need for reform – confirmed by his subsequent leadership. From this I draw two conclusions.

    Firstly, that governance and policy-making should be reformed so that the leader actually has the responsibility to LEAD – that is he should be primarily responsible for the vision (naturally, in conjunction with MPs and others). Leaders who are merely parrots, are no use to the party. The ponderous committee-based system we have at present has never come even close to providing a vision so why anyone might think it’s a good thing is a mystery.

    Secondly, the leader should be (and should expect to be) deposed very fast if/when he loses the plot rather than being allowed to lead the party to disaster. To do otherwise is, in effect, to see the leadership as a sinecure.

  • paul barker 19th Jul '17 - 7:10pm

    Im sorry but this is a lazy & dishonest article.
    Lazy: what reason do we have for thinking that a self-selected group of a few hundred fully reflect the views of the entire membership ?
    Dishonest: the vast majority of us want to retain the “Status Quo” as regards Europe, ie we want to retain full membership of The EU at the least. Of course we want to Reform The EU but we have to be in it to do that.
    There is no “Middle Way” between The EU & Brexit & the idea of a Centre Ground on the dominant issue in British Politics is a fantasy.

  • Bill le Breton 19th Jul '17 - 7:23pm

    Peter S, I am an old timer, I campaign, therefore I am.

    Hence when you write, “The organisation of the future depends on people with access to a wealth of information flocking to what matches their values and meets their demands” I am right by your side.

    Now the bad news: we won’t learn anything from Macron. I am prepared to bet you will be disillusioned if to try that route. Hywel’s words above are wise. A Liberal Party is not a Centre Party. Create a Centre Party if you will, but it won’t be a Liberal Party.

    And it won’t satisfy the ‘information-rich’ who you rightly identify as the shock troops demanding and campaigning and looking for new ways of increasing freedom.

    We have to go one step further that your comment (of 5:05) suggests, because in that comment you still see people as ‘consumers’ when a Liberal future sees them as ‘producers’ of their own freedoms in joint enterprise with their ‘fellows’.

    You want them to demand a Party, I want them to be free. To use a metaphor I want to work with people to develop strategies, ideas, tools, concepts that help people working together to create life chances by the million, opportunities galore, as each helps the other realize more and more of their potential.

    I too do not regret the passing of loyalty as it is the passing of fealty. Which is why the idea of a core vote in this new condition is itself a false and retrograde step. Each day we must earn trust. Each day win support for our ‘means’ of increasing freedom.

    So that Liberal is not a Party but a way of life. Humble. Immersed in community.

  • Even if a centrist party were to form with a liberal agenda, it would be missing the other element that matters to me if it was hugely dominated by (allegedly) moderate Labour MPs. That is being a radical political force that led to political change. Whilst there are criticisms of the SDP it did bring people with a record of radicalism with them (Jenkins and Williams). (Of course it also brought conservative centrists like Owen)

  • ‘We hate all the existing parties, so lets create a new one.’ It’s understandable, and logically I suppose it makes perfect sense. But then there’s the reality.
    Politics is hard work. Really hard work. Creating a party isn’t just clicking your fingers and voila. It means things like writing a constitution, drawing up rules and structures, devising strategies and policies on every single issue, raising money (a lot of it), setting up regional and constituency branches in every part of the UK, buying premises, employing staff, selecting candidates for next May and beyond. Oh yes, and working out exactly what your purpose is. And all that is before you start the /really/ gruelling bit of trying to get people to vote for you. And working out how to operate in a FPTP system where all the old parties instinctively want to strangle you a birth. Are the 62% of people in your survey up for all that? I suspect not really.
    And the bottom line is that we already *have* a party that represents liberal values. It just needs to start acting like a fighting political force. That’s something we haven’t really done properly since the day we went into coalition 7 years ago. We need to be bold, visionary, and drop the grey, managerialist instincts that have hobbled us in recent years. If we do that, I believe we can be the party that those people want.
    But as I said, politics is hard work. No easy solutions. That’s the reality.

  • Richard Dawkins proposed a re-vamp for the Lib Dems. Reborn as the European Party, he says, they would leave their old baggage behind with the old name.

    http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/03/richard-dawkins-we-need-new-party-european-party

  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Jul '17 - 10:53pm

    Bill le Breton – I don’t think that there’s much that can be learnt from Macron for now. But it will be very, very interesting to see how he gets on because his task is pretty clear cut and it’s one that will resonate across Europe.

    It is not right, as some have done, to say that he is Hollande 2. But he’s facing exactly the same problem that Hollande did. The EU in general and the euro in particular aren’t totally doing France too many favours. The effect on Hollande was a Presidency with such a low rating that he couldn’t even get on the ballot. If he can’t get anywhere it’s entirely plausible to think Macron will go the way of Hollande.

    Here’s Macron as French Economy minister https://www.euractiv.com/section/euro-finance/news/france-s-economy-minister-calls-for-fiscal-transfers-in-eurozone/.

    ‘“If the member states are not ready, as has been the case thus far, for any form of financial transfer in the currency union, we can forget the euro and the eurozone,”

    He is even quoted using the term ‘euro-government.’

    These are profound changes that would, to say the least, get an uncertain reaction in referendums. At a minimum it’s reopening the Treaties and all that entails. Cameron tried and (just) failed to get EU reform. Next up is Macron – I suspect many will see it as a learning experience.

  • @ Gordon
    Apologies – work just took over this week.

    Sharing notes – yes.

    Also I remember back in November last year, the guidance i received as a “green behind the gills “plunged into the light. I have learned much and still have much to learn.

    Notes are indeed aligned – there is so much potential. How to harness it?

  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Jul '17 - 11:23pm

    Martin – One of the more interesting things about Macron and En Marche/La République en Marche is that France uses a (2 round, admittedly) FPTP system.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily true that the electoral system would protect anyone. Like you I struggle to see the circumstances that would result in such a big change. But I don’t see it as just whimsy.

  • @ Bill Le Breton
    Ok Bill – you know I respect your approach and view – expand as much as you feel you’re able here. Not sure I’m as with you as I maybe should be here?

    I get the fact the the mushy centre is a very dangerous place for a brand to be (I know people hate marketing speak) but I know you’ll get my drift.

    So: “You want them to demand a Party, I want them to be free” If you feel able to expend on this in the everyday speak we all crave 🙂

  • Laurence Cox 19th Jul '17 - 11:48pm

    @LJP

    The French system is closer to Supplementary Vote (as used in the London Mayoral election). The benefit of having a week between the two votes is it allows the voters to know who the last two contestants are before they have to cast their second vote. If there were only two candidates in each UK constituency, then FPTP would work quite well (as it did in the 1950s when the Liberals only put up candidates in about 1 in 6 seats).

  • @ P J

    Why would we want to keep tuition fees at £3,000? A graduate tax was the NUS’ policy in 2010, so if it is progressive then students will still pay, but will not have a huge student debt for 25 years to affect their futures.

    @ Peter Sigrist

    You may be sick of hearing “well the SDP didn’t work”. But it is relevant, and its failure needs to be recognised and the lessons of history learnt or we will just repeat history and end in failure again.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 20th Jul '17 - 7:40am

    An excellent analysis, Ben. Thank you. It is best to reform our existing party which will be bruising, messy and necessary. A new centrist party would attract a fraction of moderate Labour and Tory MPs and then diminish when either of those two parties moves back into the centre ground.

  • Katharine Pindar 20th Jul '17 - 9:42am

    This vigorous debate shows my party is alive, well, sensibly aware of the past but also forging ahead into the future. Creative chaos is the seedbed of growth, entirely welcome.

  • John Probert 20th Jul '17 - 9:58am

    Bill Le Breton: “A Liberal Party is not a Centre Party. Create a Centre Party if you will, but it won’t be a Liberal Party.”

    Thank you Bill. That’s it in a nutshell. Centreism is not Liberalism!

  • @Michael BG
    ‘Why would we want to keep tuition fees at £3,000? A graduate tax was the NUS’ policy in 2010, so if it is progressive then students will still pay, but will not have a huge student debt for 25 years to affect their futures.’

    Because the LibDems made a pledge and very publicly, Nick Clegg signed it. He then went into coalition negotiations with the Tories. At some stage he had a call of nature and took the opportunity to flush that pledge down the toilet. In one act he said to a whole generation and more ‘you can’t trust us’. Until we do something about it we will not get those voters back. After that, you can go with your graduation tax if it is better.

  • Peter Watson 20th Jul '17 - 11:15am

    @P. J. “he said to a whole generation and more ‘you can’t trust us’. Until we do something about it we will not get those voters back. After that, you can go with your graduation tax if it is better.”
    I completely agree. The party cannot demonstrate that it is trustworthy until it has the opportunity to exercise power or influence, and it is unlikely to have that opportunity (at a national level) until it is trusted.
    The problem for the Lib Dems is not finding the best way to fund university education; it is simply to be trusted (and heard) when they talk about it (or any other policy area).
    I think that Nick Clegg belatedly realised this, but his mealy-mouthed apology only made things worse, and the party’s position has looked incompetent and two-faced.
    I believe that the party needs to ‘lance the boil’, perhaps by saying loud and clear either that it was wrong to increase fees after 2010 or that its policy before 2010 was wrong. Whichever option it chooses should involve an apology and a little justification of why it was wrong but well intentioned. I think it is too late to try a more detailed, subtle and nuanced explanation that might have worked 7 years ago.

  • Sue Sutherland 20th Jul '17 - 12:21pm

    Gordon, I disagree that the leader should be responsible for the vision together with other members of the great and the good. We are Liberals and the vision must come from the membership and not be imposed on us. I believe that this is what Liberalism is about. Your Liberal Britain did an consultation with members about our values and they are remarkably similar. The party can use this to determine what a Liberal Britain would look like (the vision) and then produce policies to bring it about.
    The leader should embody all this and persuade others that our vision will work but the first step should be members creating and deciding on the vision.
    We have almost been decimated by a leader, and some of the great and the good , with a vision that was not shared by many in the party. We need to argue, persuade and get emotional with each other and hammer out the way forward through our belief in one member one vote.

  • @ PJ I disagree with tution fees but it is not a debt, it is a time limited and amount limited graduate tax that you only pay when and if you are earning.

    On leadership Disraeli said “i must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”

    Another quote ( not from Disraeli) I quite like is “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

    We must all be leaders for a more liberal, democratic and better Britain and world!

  • Peter Watson 20th Jul '17 - 2:59pm

    @Michael “it is not a debt, it is a time limited and amount limited graduate tax that you only pay when and if you are earning”
    It is a debt; one which can be avoided by those wealthy enough not to require the loan or minimised by those with enough money to repay it quickly. Repaying (there’s a clue in that word) through the tax system does not make it a graduate tax and Lib Dems did not consider it one when they opposed the system under Labour.
    Weasel words will not help trust in the party recover. Either love tuition fees and the repayment system for what they are or reject and reform them: lack of commitment one way or another simply weakens the party’s image even further.

  • @ Sue Sutherland – The party can use [a consultation] to determine [the vision]”.

    But who or what is “The party” in this context?

    Policy-making as it has been done since the Liberal/SDP merger (nearly 30 years ago) simply doesn’t work. Votes in national elections – or rather lack of them – is proof positive of that.

    The idea, AFAIK, always was that policy, vision etc. should emerge organically from the membership through a carefully structured system intended to facilitate that. That’s a noble ambition but in practice its democratic credentials are thin to say the least; only two members of the Federal Board were supported by more than 0.5% of the membership while the averages for the Federal Policy Committee are even worse. Moreover, the system we have is process-heavy, bureaucratic, operates in “silos” and is largely the preserve of (mainly) metropolitan insiders. And to cap it all, a party leader can, if he wishes and as we have seen, ignore the membership and take the party in a direction few support.

    All of that is almost the exact opposite of the intention. To achieve the goal of an empowered membership (and citizenry!) we MUST profoundly change the way the party works.

    The difficulty isn’t the *vision*; there is a large measure of cross-party agreement about that (perhaps I should have said ‘strategy’ earlier) since disputes centre mainly on how to get there – more regulation or less, more tax or less and which sort – and so on and also which things really matter and which really don’t.

    In short, there are multiple strands of thought, of insight etc. Some will be crucial, others less so and still others not at all and all this complexity has to be ‘composited’ while simultaneously synthesising rival views wherever possible. This is an act of political creation that “the party”, as a bunch of unrepresentative committees, simply can’t do.

    This is a supremely *political* task so it should be the responsibility of elected *politicians*. That doesn’t mean that the leader should be able to impose his views (that’s what can happen now!). Rather, as Michael’s Disraeli quote puts it, “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” And if he doesn’t he should be deposed.

  • @ PJ

    I now understand your logic, but I think it is flawed. The pledge was not to keep tuition fees at £3,000, it was to vote against any increase in fees (in 2010 I thought it was not to vote for an increase in fees). We are seen as breaking that pledge. Restoring them to £3,000 will not change history, a majority of our MPs broke their personal pledge. The problem for ex-students now is the huge debt they have and how it will affect them for the next 25 years of their life, and it is this we need to fix, hence a graduate tax and no huge student tuition debt.

    @ Peter Watson

    I agree we should say we were wrong to keep tuition fees in 2010 and we should have rejected the Browne report and gone with a true graduate tax and so kept our pledge not to increase tuition fees and if the Conservatives wouldn’t agree we would have kept the old system.

    @ Gordon

    In 1988 our opinion poll rating was within the margin of error. In 1997 we increase our MPs from 18 to 46, in 2001 to 52, in 2005 to 62. We achieved government in Scotland and Wales with another party. We continued to increase the number of our councillors until May 2007. Therefore until 2007 what we were doing worked; the “proof positive” was the rise in the number of Liberal Democrats elected. It was only in 2007 and the moving of our position under Campbell and Clegg that we stopped advancing and then the coalition nearly destroyed us. This is nothing to do with our policy making process.

    If the problem is to do with method and social liberal verses economic liberal then maybe the answer is not to scrap the present policy making system but have a great debate about the direction of the party. Should we be an economic liberal or social liberal party? To be decided after each general election and policies that do not support the victor from this great debate and vote will not get discussed at conferences for the duration of that Parliament. Give the Conference and Policy Committees the tasks of checking that motions and Policy papers agree with this vision – economic or social liberal.

  • Michael BG

    Yes, out councillor numbers did increase as you say but my point was about *national* elections – although national and locals obviously influence each other. But since you mention local elections, ask yourself this; do you know any successful council group that decides on its local policies in anything remotely like the way the national party does? I don’t.

    As for national elections, for the last 2 or 3 of the elections while MP numbers were still increasing that result owed much to better targeting as total votes were declining which suggests the message wasn’t compelling to say the least. In support of that view, the Lib Dem vote was always notoriously soft with perhaps only around 10% core vote and the rest really for ‘none-of-the-above’ which depended for its existence on the awfulness of both main parties.

    If that’s correct then a resurgence of either main party to become *seen* as less awful and more on the side of common people (irrespective of whether or not it actually is), could lead to a collapse of the Lib Dem vote. As we have now seen.

    As for the social liberal vs. economic liberal, yes we need a great debate; that’s long been obvious. But a system that starts by fragmenting everything into “silos” can’t do that which was part of my point. FWIW I think it’s like the Indian legend about a group of blind men who come across an elephant and fall out about whether it’s more like a wall or a tree etc. – both are right about some things, both wrong about some. The existing approach has never managed a working reconciliation, what I called “an act of political creation”, because a bureaucratic committee-based approach cannot be creative in any sustained way. Innovation notoriously comes from the margins, from upstarts as Microsoft and Google once were. In bureaucratising their approach the Lib Dems have eliminated the margins and in so doing have hamstrung themselves.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Jul '17 - 8:53pm

    Laurence Cox

    If there were only two candidates in each UK constituency, then FPTP would work quite well

    So you think it is “quite well” when there is a gross regional imbalance between the parties? When almost every constituency in southern England outside London has a Conservative MP and almost every urban constituency has a Labour MP? It is “quite well” is it that southern voters who are not Conservatives have no voice in Parliament? And “quite well” when urban voters who are not Labour have no voice in Parliament?

  • @ Gordon

    “As for national elections, for the last 2 or 3 of the elections while MP numbers were still increasing that result owed much to better targeting as total votes were declining”

    You are wrong. Our percentage of the vote increased in 2001 by 1.5%; in 2005 by 3.7%; and in 2010 by 1%. The collapse of our vote started with our going into government with our tradition opponents – the Conservatives, and then a majority of our MP’s broke their personal promise to vote against all increases to tuition fees after fighting an election in which we stated people could vote for us and there would be no more broken promises. This has nothing what so ever to do with our policy making process.

    If the membership wanted a great debate on social liberal verse economic liberal it should be possible to get a majority of people who wanted such a debate elected to the correct bodies to make it happen. In fact if there was a majority wanting it, maybe a campaign would do it.

    In a democratic organisation it is right that the members decide the policies, and if there is a majority for a radical policy then it will get passed. There is no guarantee that having an elective dictatorship would create radical policy, but it would be against our liberal principles.

  • Michael BG

    Thanks for that statistical correction; what had lodged in my memory was a weak performance in votes (as opposed to seats) in that era. Given that the 2005 vote was greatly boosted by Charles Kennedy’s good call on Iraq and 2010 was in the aftermath of the financial crisis we surely should have done far better.

    To be clear: I believe the right approach to policy-making should involve the membership extensively and should also avoid the perils of an “elective dictatorship”. On paper the existing system does that; in practice it doesn’t. And that is a problem.

    For instance the several Federal committees are not ‘democratic’ by any reasonable yardstick (see earlier comment) and they certainly don’t manage to draw on the vast pool of expertise on every imaginable subject that exists in the membership. Also it’s difficult to argue that the Federal committees are doing a good job; we get lots of detailed policies but no high level view and no discernible strategy with respect to policy-stance (‘narrative’ if you prefer). There is no forest, only leaves out of context.

    As for “elective dictatorship”, surely what we got with Clegg was a reasonable approximation to that. He took the party in a direction that had no democratic mandate from the members and basically got away with it even as polling numbers collapsed and members drifted away. I still don’t understand why the MPs didn’t take action to prevent the impending rout. Turkeys, it seems, sometimes do vote for Christmas.

    Ultimately it’s impossible to separate policy-making from governance – they are just different aspects of how the party works. If that is indeed badly suboptimal as I believe then that is a very serious problem so I hope to continue this interesting conversation on a later, fresher thread.

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