Opinion: Liberals together?

I’ve been a member of the Liberal Democrats (and sometime activist) since the mid-1990s.  So I don’t want to encourage anyone to leave the party, despite the frustrations we share.

Admittedly, when supporters (and a few members) dropped away in the immediate aftermath of the Coalition I wasn’t entirely unhappy.  Many seemed not really to have engaged with our political culture, even if they liked individual policies (and didn’t like Labour or the Tories).   But since then many good liberals have left, for reasons we all know.  The response of remaining members has been characterised by sadness, rather than rancorous demands to ‘stay and fight’.

Liberals have been here before.  They were always a fissiparous bunch – think of the various political destinations of the Young Liberals of the ‘60s and ‘70s, not to mention Lloyd-George, the National Liberals, Liberal Unionists…  After the dramas of the merger in 1987-89, 31% of Liberal Party members never joined the Liberal Democrats, and only a small number joined the tiny ‘continuing’ Liberal Party.  A tremendous amount of political energy was dissipated. (I guess much of it went into civil society: members of the pre-1988 Liberal Party were characterised by high rates of participation in other organisations, too).

At the moment there are no clear institutional options open to disaffected Liberal Democrats.   Some are restricting their party activity.  It is now possible to join the Social Liberal Forum as an Associate Member (as long as one doesn’t belong to another political party).  This creation of Associate Membership is welcome, but of course the SLF’s strategy is predicated on working within the party.  A very few people have joined the 1989 Liberal Party, but it is not surprising that this has proved unattractive to most: it barely functions as a national organisation, and seems to define itself in large part by antagonism to the Liberal Democrats.  The Greens haven’t provided a home for very many, either (that’s a subject for another post).  Personal friendships remain between current and former members, but in themselves they can’t amount to anything more than setting the world to rights in the Dog and Duck.  Nor can subscribing to Liberator (‘for radical liberals in all parties and none’), splendid though it is.

In 1988, the Liberal Movement was established to fill a similar gap, but it didn’t gain momentum, and I can’t see that a similar initiative would be any more successful now (although good luck to anyone who wants to try!).

So I don’t have any answer to the question of what disaffected Lib Dems should do, but I hope that it’s possible to keep open lines of communication between liberals inside and outside the party.  The British liberal tradition is far too important to rest with the fortunes of a single political vehicle.

I’ve set up a blog intended to point readers towards the doings and saying of liberals who are no longer Lib Dems (especially those who haven’t joined any other party).  Of course this isn’t any sort of answer, but I hope it will be of interest to those worried about the question.

* Bernard Gowers is a member of the Liberal Democrats, and blogs at Liberals Together.

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  • So as far as you’re concerned, the Liberal Democrats is actually the Liberal party in all but name.

  • Helen Dudden 19th Mar '13 - 10:09am

    I feel very much at a loss, with the attitude of lack of interest in some areas. Having interest in children’ s issues and human rights, I was so surprised to see that no one could be interested in the Child Abduction All Party Group. Only one member Mike Hancock MP.

    I even telephoned the office of Nick Clegg, again, little interest, I think that is how we feel, the things that attract coverage and television time are on the top of the list. I am told not enough MP’s in the Party. I wonder why?

  • There should be no reason for a political party to exist outside of a representation of the views of a section of society. Yet there exist an increasingly vocal number of conservatives who don’t feel at home in the Tory party, socialists who disagree with Labour and liberals leaving the Liberal Democrats. This is a ridiculous situation and seems to have arisen from a corporate management style approach to politics where the branding and senior management “vision” rules all.

    As loathed as I am to say anything positive about UKIP, their recent successes are at least partially due to an honest representation of the views of the people they represent. Political “leaders” need to get back to being leaders and stop being managers. Only then will people begin to feel more united and listened to.

    Political messages should flow from the bottom up, not from the top down.

  • Geoffrey Payne 19th Mar '13 - 12:48pm

    In Holland they are lucky enough to have 2 liberal parties, but under our electoral system we can only possibly have one. If we were to give up then the other possibility will be that there will be none.
    I always take the view that politics is what you make it, and for the matter the same applies to the Liberal Democrats. Our MPs have supported illiberal policies, whether they are benefit cuts or secret courts under the pressure of being in Coalition. I for one dearly wish they had not. Not all of them did of course, whilst others have to adhere to “collective responsibility”. We as activists need to make sure that the next generation of Lib Dem MPs do not get intimidated by the idea of ending a Coalitionand having to forsake our principles as the price for not doing so.

  • Steve Griffiths 19th Mar '13 - 12:53pm

    Well this is refreshing and for once I congratulate LDV (normally pretty loyal to the leadership) for running such a topic. Yes, as I have stated in several threads on this website, I am a departed member. I simply let my membership lapse (after decades) before even the coalition, as I and others saw the direction on which the party seemed to be setting out. Like many others I have not gone to another party, although I have several times looked long and hard at the still existing Liberal Party. Reading the ‘Liberator’ does keep me sane and reminds me that I am not alone in my views and beliefs out here in ‘Liberal wasteland’, and it has a glimmer about it of what once was.

    I do recognise the argument put to me by friends that have stayed in the Lib Dems, that the more members from the left of the party that leave, the more rightwards it will shift. I just do not see much attractive in the Lib Dems at present and still cannot really fathom how the ‘take over’ of the party came about. Although the ‘Liberator’ has its own ideas here:


    As a liberal viewing the Lib Dems from outside, watching conference clips and reading blogs like at LDV, I am struck by how divorced the membership has become from the MPs in the Westminster ‘bubble’. As I have written before, I wish to still be politically active in some way and still get that ‘buzz’ when there is an election in the air; it’s just that the Lib Dem leadership has an air of intolerance to any notion of Social Liberalism or the Libertarian Left (which is how I more correctly see myself) and I will not get out and fight for a party solely consisting of economic Liberal centrists; the party was never like that.

    Yes, we should keep lines of communication open and I shall add your blog to my reading list Bernard.

  • I fancied myself working as a parliamentary clerk a few years back so left the party in order to appear more politically neutral. However, I still very much wanted to support liberalism. Three organisations I joined at that time that you don’t mention are the National Liberal Club (lovely place, but expensive and only any use if you life in London), the Liberal Democrat History Group and the Liberal International British Group. All three go far beyond the Liberal Democrats but keep an interesting dialogue going with the party.

    I have to say though that on failing the civil service tests for a second year in a row it was nice to rejoin.

  • Yellow Bill 19th Mar '13 - 1:53pm

    The difference between the merger of 1988 and the wholesale desertion of Liberal Democrats from todays party is this. In 1988 was all about the formation of a party that would futher the aims and objectives of the two parties merging – good, centre left aims and objectives. The Liberal Democrats are losing members because of its decision to favour centre right and even right wing policies, policies that further are hurting the Liberal Democrat party in respect of those who would normally vote for them.

  • I’m not often moved to respond, but this post did it for me.

  • Well, this pre-merger Liberal helps the LDs out, because they have been the best bet for the advancing of liberal politics, but personally I’d like to have the pre-merger party back! I don’t see the so-called SLF as adding anything to the situation, just posturing. And so I am disengaged, but over fees, atrocious haranguing of public sector workers and now secret courts, so illiberal policies and not any supposed ‘rightward’ drift.

  • Michael Parsons 20th Mar '13 - 10:24am

    Peter Tyzak supporting PR writes:’subsequent coalitions that will then form the governments will be far more representative of the country and lead to a less adversarial form of govt’. Yes? or perhaps as the political spectrum plays out in ever more discreet sub-sections a tiny undistributed middle will hold the balance and the result will be less representative of the people than even before. (like the present Coalition which disappoints Liberals and Tories alike?)

  • Isn’t all this at root “stop the world I want to get off” stuff? Few Lib Dems are going to find themselves cheering everything the leadership does – especially when the inevitable compromises endemic in coalition government are being made. However the Lib Dems are for a liberal like me overwhelmingly the best organisation likely to exercise power in this country. Any withdrawal of support weakens the Lib Dems and in effect strengthens other parties who are highly unlikely to adocate or implement anything close to liberal policies.

    Every political party is internally a coalition. You choose the best one and you stick with it (sometimes with gritted teeth) unless and until another party with a real prospect of wielding influence comes along which better (overall) represents your views. Or just stand by and leave it to others to get their hands dirty.

  • Or perhaps more individuals should be encouraged to stand for elections and seek positions of greater influence themselves.

  • Simon Banks 20th Mar '13 - 9:36pm

    Well, I’m still in. I joined the Liberal Party at the end of 1966 and that and a History degree help me take a long view. Soon after the merger I seriously considered leaving (not over the principle of merging with the SDP, which I supported, but over the terms of the merger and the apparent direction of the new party in the early months) but I’m glad I stayed. Things got better.

    There have always been centre-right or centre-centre Liberals. The Liberal Party in the mid to late 1960s had a marked right-left conflict, but it was manageable. The problem for a Libertarian Leftist and communitarian Liberal now is partly that the balance of the Parliamentary party does not seem to reflect that of the party in the country. This is partly, I think because we now have numbers of MPs who were never really grassroots activists. This is a serious problem if they’re in leadership positions. This is not impossible to solve. Activists are powerful in candidate selection and MPs and PPCs cannot afford to ignore their own local activists.

    Oh, and the SLF is not mainly engaged in posturing. It’s bias is towards influencing policy formation. Maybe it should do more posturing.

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