No. The Lib Dems should not disband, but we have got to change strategy

I’ve been involved in politics for five years – although it has felt a lot longer – and experienced three General Election campaigns. Each one has been disappointing for the Liberal Democrats and each has led to a lot of soul-searching after polling day about what went wrong. The answer is almost always the same: the Lib Dems got squeezed out by the playground bullies of the British political system and failed to stand out from the crowd.

That sort of answer then seems to lead directly to the usual articles in tabloid newspapers about the relevance of the Liberal Democrats as a political party. These articles, usually calling for the Liberal Democrats to disband entirely and be absorbed into the author’s preferred choice of either Labour or the Conservatives, rest on the idea that a political party which is not one of the two parties most likely to form a government in its own right is not relevant to political debate. This is nonsense perpetuated by columnists who fail to understand that it is the voting system, not the parties themselves, which dictates the government which is formed after an election.

While I could spend the entirety of this article explaining the reasons behind my support for a proportional voting system which would give political parties a share of the seats in the House of Commons which more closely aligns with their share of the popular vote, I want to focus instead on the Liberal Democrat platform which is so often derided as being centrist.

Political commentators have focused almost exclusively on pitching elections as a binary choice between left and right. This is exacerbated by a political system which forces voters to choose the enemy of their enemy instead of their friend. This forced binary choice is why the Liberal Democrats have been squeezed out of recent General Election campaigns. The Liberal Democrats don’t really sit directly on the left vs right political spectrum. That’s because the Liberal Democrats are focused more on improving the well-being of individuals rather than altering the distribution of wealth in society (although it certainly plays a part in a broader sense when looking at the economic well-being of individual citizens).

The Liberal Democrats are the party of individualism. We believe the primary purpose of government is to improve the quality of life for individual citizens. Our economic policy, therefore, focuses on improving the economic well-being of individuals by ensuring everybody has the money in their pocket to lead fulfilling lives.

Our domestic policy is centred around improving individual citizens’ social well-being. Nobody should be prevented from forging their own path through life because of prejudice and discrimination based on nothing more than the circumstances of one’s birth or situations beyond their control.

Our foreign policy prioritises cooperation over competition. It is to the benefit of the citizens of the United Kingdom that their government works with other governments around the world to solve problems which one country cannot solve alone – such as Climate Change and International Terrorism.

With a leadership election coming up, I will look closely at each candidate’s ideas for the direction of our party and base my vote on who can convince me that the basic values I have noted above are going to be placed front and centre of local and national election campaigns.

We are seen as too technocratic by working class voters, like me, all across the country. It feels sometimes that the party is the political wing of the civil service. That has to change.

I will finish this article with one last request: we need to find our radical heart again. We aren’t “centrist”. We reject the false dichotomy of left vs right. We are liberals and the well-being of every person lucky enough to live and work and love in our great country is our top priority. We must be prepared to champion radical solutions to the real problems people face or be left behind and deemed irrelevant. That is the challenge for the next leader of the Liberal Democrats.

* Jack Davies is a District Councillor in the New Forest and stood for New Forest West in the 2019 General Election.

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  • Sandra Hammett 20th Dec '19 - 1:27pm

    Shame you didn’t become an MP.

  • Oliver Craven 20th Dec '19 - 1:46pm

    Totally agree Jack.

    Solid result btw, well done!

  • I have been involved with politics for fifty years as I am sure others here have. Liberals are political survivors.

  • Paul Barker 20th Dec '19 - 3:38pm

    Newer Members should look up 1989 which among all The Revolutions very nearly destroyed The Liberal Democrats. In The Elections for The European Parliament We got 6% while The Greens got 15%. Cue lots of articles about The Greens taking our place as Third Party. Mrs Thatcher announced Our Death at The Tory Conference.
    Everyone agreed that The Libdems were finished.
    We are still here.

  • John Marriott 20th Dec '19 - 4:19pm

    I have been actively involved in ‘politics’ for forty years (I joined the old Liberal Party in 1979). I must admit that, over the past couple of years, my ‘involvement’ has been more as an observer of and commentator on events as a member now of no political party.

    Mr Davies writes worthy stuff. However, haven’t we heard it all before? Rejecting what he calls “the false dichotomy of left vs right” is all well and good; but, for many of us this description holds true and is really the only game in town with FPTP. What we want is something in between. It used to be called the centre, which is currently an abandoned building falling into decay. “We aren’t centrists”, he tells us. Well, how does he know what “we” are. One criticism of the Lib Dems has often been that they are “all things to all men”. What the Lib Dems ought to represent is common sense and they should LEARN FROM THEIR MISTAKES, some of which they keep repeating.

    Well before the end of the General Election, some of us expressed our doubts about the party’s revoke strategy. Unfortunately, as far as I was concerned, several of my posts were ‘moderated’ and never saw the light of day. I just hope that the ‘party of Remain’ takes the advice that Clement Attlee gave to Harold Laski after WW2. A “period of (Brexit) silence” on Its part would be beneficial to all.

  • Christine Headley 20th Dec '19 - 4:42pm

    Paddy used to say that, when he became party leader in 1990, we were within the margin of error of nil. I think he described it as an asterisk, the symbol used for such a small number of voters.

  • Peter Rothery 20th Dec '19 - 5:56pm

    Not sure I agree Liberalism is about individualism.

    Sure, we’re about the inherent worth dignity and respect of every human being, which leads us to respect the human rights to protect the interest of individuals against that of the state and the community.

    But to say we are the party of individualism might suggest we are closer to the libertarian conservative position than we are.

    Liberals recognise that human beings are social creatures who can only be truly free and achieve their potential in well functioning community.

    You are right though about the need to be radical and reformist.

    I would like us to commit to taxing labour and capital on the same basis. Why we as a society privilege capital over earned income is inexplicable. If we want to address structural inequalities in society we should look at tax reform.

    One of the great achievements of coalition was tax reform. That the conservatives pledge to remove more people from income tax is down to us.

  • Paul Holmes 20th Dec '19 - 6:15pm

    @Paul Barker. The 1989 Euro election (I was Campaign Manager for one of only 6 LD candidates who did not lose their deposit in that election), was a very early illustration of the fact that minor Party surges in EU elections bear no resemblance to subsequent GE performance, whether it’s Greens, BNP, UKIP or Lib Dems doing the surging at any given time.

    The electorate always treated these low turnout, PR elections as a ‘free hit’, rather like Parliamentary by elections where they could make a protest/send a warning in a risk free election. Despite that our Leadership/Campaigns Team seem to have genuinely believed that our second place earlier this year (always ignoring that Brexit came first) presaged a huge shift our way in the coming General Election.

    At Weds nights Council meeting a Labour Cllr criticised me for giving historical examples of how the Labour Council had behaved in reality, instead of just accepting their fine words and promises about the future. As a Historian by profession I think we can all benefit from a dose of historical reality.

  • Nigel Jones 20th Dec '19 - 9:06pm

    @Peter Rothery: Instead of individualism we should say that Liberal Democrats put care for each person at the center of policy making, accepting people in all their variety and diversity. Policies then seek to change government and society in ways that sustain that care for each person in their relationships to others.

  • Katharine Pindar 20th Dec '19 - 10:39pm

    @Peter Rothery. You may not know, Peter, that the Brighton Conference in September 2018 passed a motion called Promoting a Fairer Distribution of Wealth . It calls for “Equalising the tax treatment of income from wealth and income from work by abolishing the separate capital gains and dividend tax-free allowances and instead taxing these through the income tax personal allowance; aligning capital gains and income tax rates while introducing a basic inflation or ‘rate of return’ allowance; abolishing capital gains forgiveness at death, which creates an incentive to hold on to assets to avoid paying tax.” There is much more in this radical policy, including abolishing inheritance tax and instead taxing recipients at income tax rates with the bands specified, and making council taxation more progressive.

    Perhaps we should recommend this policy to the Labour Party when they are having a rethink about their manifesto proposals?

  • Following on from Katharine’s interesting comment, it would be interesting (as a Christmas quiz ?) to see if anyone can give the names of which politician wrote this in tribute to another politician :

    “For him the only test of progress was in the improvement of the individual and thus the community. Greater educational opportunities would not only free exceptional people to realise their exceptional talents but allow common people to make the most of their common humanity, and ordinary people to realise their extraordinary potentials. The social equality he supported was not for the sake of equality but for the sake of liberty. It would free men and women from the fear of poverty, the uncertainties of unemployment and the miseries of deprivation”.

  • David Raw – I believe that we should return to a free tuition fee policy once more. Some may argue that “taxpayers should not subsidize rich students”, but I now disagree and totally believe in universalism and also, the taxation system to pay for it already requires the rich to pay more (and if not, we can make it so). Universal programs that do not pitch the rich against the poor are way stronger and more stable in the long run, and they will also prevent the issue of social stigma. Once they are mean-tested (for example, in case of current British unis, the minimum amount of income at which tuition fee debt payment kicks in), the right-wing can simply, for example, change the definition of “rich students”, or twitch the minimum income requirement, to undermine those programs. I mean, mean-tested, discretionary programs are always vulnerable to cuts and attacks. In addition, publicly funded higher education, which is no longer profit-making, will provide an incentive to raise entry standards, because doing so will simultaneously improve university education quality and save costs. Things like “Trump University” rarely or never exists in countries like Germany or Finland. In places like the US and even in our country as well, so many universities try to maximize profits with predatory tactics such as lowering entry standards and introducing quack degrees with crappy cirruculum to rip off students.

  • @ Thomas I agree with the thrust of your comment………………. but you’ve not attempted to answer the quiz. Who said it about which other politician ?

    It might surprise a few Lib Dems if they knew the answer.

  • That’s a very interesting and perceptive attempt, Martin, especially in the way you relate it to Mill, but I’m afraid you’re incorrect. I’ll see if anyone else can get it today and give the answer later. Jenkins is interesting because there is a Glasgow connection.

    Here’s a very slight (but not literal) clue for you to reflect on from my original home patch, “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”.

    Anyway, Merry Christmas and Happy Hogmanay to you….

  • @ Geoffrey Payne. Completely agree….. but does this party agree with it any more ?

    @ Martin, quiz answer. By Gordon Brown about red Clydesider Jimmy Maxton M.P.

    Brown’s Ph.D. thesis at Edinburgh University is online as a downloadable PDF. A fascinating read for those interested in The Strange Death of Liberal Scotland. He subsequently wrote a biography of Maxton.

    The Labour Party and political change in Scotland 1918-1929 … › handle
    by G Brown – ‎1982 – ‎Cited by 21 – ‎Related articles
    Author. Brown, Gordon.

  • Peter Hirst 22nd Dec '19 - 6:45pm

    I agree we need to change our strategy. Looking 5 years ahead, we should position ourselves as the climate party. We need to propose a climate budget and throw everything we’ve got to tackling climate change globally and that means a lower quality of life and higher taxes for everyone until we’ve helped solved this issue.

  • If the Liberal Democrats want to continue to use the word ‘democrats’ as part of their name, they need to promise to never again propose to overturn the result of a referendum without another referendum

  • On the one hand we have the “Labour’s Little Brother” brigade, well represented above, and talking about collectivism and redistribution of wealth via punitive income tax. Note to you chaps – this is well occupied (Socialist) ground, with a party firmly ensconced in this particular bandwidth range of the political spectrum.

    On the other hand we have the gaping space in the British political landscape, given that both Conservative and Labour are fighting over a narrow channel of nationalistic, socially-conservative, fiscally irresponsible territory.

    That is where we Liberals should be headed (it is, after all, our natural home) – the gaping space of the internationlist, socially liberal, economically liberal party that we need to finally become.

    We have nothing to fear, except fear itself. Arise, Liberals – your destiny is before you!

  • @Martin “Unfortunately the concept of economic liberalism has been confused with economic libertarianism, where lack of regulations and restraints exacerbates wealth inequalities and therefore suppresses freedom and the ability to realise potential for the majority.”

    Confused by whom? Not by economic liberals. If it is confused, it is done so either willfully or through ignorance by those who favour a Statist/collectivist approach. The term “neoliberal” is one banded about by leftists to mean “what I don’t like”.

    What exacerbates wealth inequality is the excessive taxation of income over wealth – we see that with the Boomers who sit on unearned property windfalls, enjoying their pensions, whilst calling for rises on income taxes on the working age to fund their (Boomer) healthcare and social care, whilst those of working age will continue to work, and work, and never see the benefits the boomers have accrued to themselves.

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