Opinion: Should Liberal Democrats accept defeat and join the two main parties?

Yesterday in The Times (£), Daniel Finkelstein, former SDP member turned Tory, writes that it’s all over for the Liberal Democrats. The best thing, he says, for those who wish to advance liberal ideas is to join whichever of the Tories and Labour they feel most comfortable with.

I would be lying if similar thoughts hadn’t crossed my mind, particularly after the 2015 general election. It’s heart breaking to see the party you support make steady progress throughout your adult life, culminating in entry into government in 2010, only to be seemingly pushed back to square one. Do we need to wait another 20 years to get back into government? Is that even a realistic objective anymore?

With the UK’s punishing electoral system working to maintain the two party status quo, does it make sense to be on the inside of that system, working for change, rather than pushed to the margins?

I think Finkelstein’s argument only really holds for those inside the Westminster elite. Yes, I can understand that if you’re an ambitious Liberal Democrat MP who has lost their job, you might now be wishing you’d jumped to one of the big two parties, where you might still be in government and looking to implement your ideas. But the argument isn’t really valid for anyone else.

For a start most elections in the UK now use proportional representation. If you are looking to get elected in London, Scotland, Wales or to the European Parliament each vote really counts and Liberal Democrat influence corresponds to its success (or sometimes lack of) in those elections. For those of us not standing for election anywhere, I fail to see the attraction of being a flag waver for a party that isn’t very democratic and doesn’t particularly correspond to my point of view.

I liked the coalition. I thought it provided good government and on the whole I agreed with its policies. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats should have moved to become a clearer defined adjunct to the Tories, entering a coupon election that would have saved some seats in the South West of England. But the idea that I could be in the a party irrevocably bound to the anti-EU fanatics sickens me. Let’s not forget that a majority of Conservative MPs voted against their leader on same sex marriage. Now that the Tories have a majority they are wasting no time furthering their illiberal policies. There are historical reasons too – I’m of the generation that lived through the effects of Section 28 in secondary schools. I don’t think I could ever forgive the Tories for that.

What about Labour? I often find their economic policies to be populist and incoherent. An Ed Miliband-led Labour party would have been extremely hard for me to support. I’m a liberal and the idea that you can fix prices and control rents and not expect negative consequences I find naïve and ridiculous. Their authoritarianism seemingly knows no bounds. On social policy it might be easier – there are fewer Labour people trying to hold back progress on gay rights for example. But on the EU I find them spineless. I’m an internationalist and Labour never seems to feel able to stand up and make the case for Europe. I guess we’ll see how they act in the forthcoming referendum.

Looking at the Labour leadership election I suspect that Liz Kendall is a leader that I and many Liberal Democrats could support. What I’ve seen of her in media interviews has impressed me. But it seems doubtful that she can win over Labour’s membership and the unions, who are averse to supporting any candidate vaguely Blairite. I’ll admit I’m not familiar with her positions on many policy areas, but I get the feeling she might have made an excellent leader of the Liberal Democrats, but probably she took the decision to go to Labour for the reasons that Danny Finkelstein outlined in his article. She is perhaps part of that political elite who had to decide where their career is best furthered.

The rest of us can only go with our conscience. Yes my views overlap with both the moderate wings of both the Conservatives and Labour, but no other party represents my opinions as well as the Liberal Democrats. I think Finkelstein doesn’t understand that for ordinary members being a member of a political party isn’t always about influence. It’s about being part of a family, joining together with like-minded people to feel part of something bigger than you. As I’m not looking to further my political career or to work behind the scenes in the corridors of Westminster, this matters more to me than being on the government team.

This piece was originally published here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

* Martin Petts is a Liberal Democrat member living in Barcelona, Spain

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63 Comments

  • Paul Ankers 28th May '15 - 1:09pm

    Excellent post.

  • Sadie Smith 28th May '15 - 1:12pm

    Danny the Fink not entirely disinterested in this! And he would probably like our new members.
    Of course he is wrong. We have rebuilding and campaigning to do. Much more fun

  • paul barker 28th May '15 - 1:14pm

    I seem to remember Lady Thatcher announcing our death in the late 1980s, we are still here.

  • Presumably in Scotland we choose between Labour and the SNP?

  • Peter Sigrist 28th May '15 - 1:24pm

    I think you have captured the views of many Lib Dems, especially newbies like me. I also think you’ve identified what henceforth should become known as Finkelstein’s Error. Here it is: both the tired big parties are stuck in statist and authoritarian positions. It’s an unavoidable consequence of their needs to rally their diverse party members under a single banner. So, aside from the brief centre-drift around election time to win over moderates, these party leaders are forced back towards their hard-core statist, authoritarian and above all illiberal bases, whose support they need through the cycle. Those bases represent perhaps 20% of Britain yet this is the calculus of the election cycle. What does this calculus mean for Liberal Democrats? Well, bluntly, it means we are the one party – the moderate party – that gets to stick to our guns throughout the cycle. We’re of the view that economic liberalism and civil liberties are of equal importance in Britain and that’s a view with which Britain, conveniently, largely agrees. The question Finkelstein should have asked is this: why do we not do better if we are so well-aligned with the values of the British people? That’s a very good question and goes right to the heart of how we can show Finkelstein’s Error for what it is: wishful thinking. So that is the question all Lib Dems – new and old – must now ask collectively. And until we get a good answer, we need to keep asking it.

  • David Bingham 28th May '15 - 1:33pm

    I agree with the conclusion although I am not sure I share the title or the opening statements.

    I am a liberal/Liberal. I support liberal principles. I could never ever find a home in the Tories or Labour even if some of the policy detail I may agree on.

    One of the biggest mistakes in GE15, other than to believe that somehow we were going to be able to hold on to 30 seats with average opinion poll ratings which never got above 9% , was the campaign of “head or heart” which failed to define why we are Liberals rather than not as bad as them or them.

    So I will always be a Liberal and support the Liberal Democrats. And Danny Finklestein can go and do one!

  • Neale Upstone 28th May '15 - 1:36pm

    I cannot fathom how anyone could make such a recommendation, and I don’t think the arguments against it are particularly well made (sorry Martin).

    For me there is a clear divide between liberal policies and authoritarian ones.

    Truly liberal economics is something not practiced by either the Tories or Labour (and frankly less and less by us, but still better than the others, and I hold out hope for Tim Farron as leader on this).

    Personal liberties are again something that the Tories and Labour just don’t get. They are happy to solve social problems by wielding oppressive measures; they believe in snooping on us “for our own safety”; they are luke warm at best on clearly personal issues such as sexuality and recreational drugs.

    A big problem with Lab and Tories is that they are “the two main parties” in a system that ends up meaning that you’ll not get elected if you upset the wrong people (often newspaper barons). It means they end up, from out dated starting points (the “landed” for the Tories; and the oppressed and mal-treated “workers” for Labour), and then trying to appeal to the masses from their. Neither can appeal to the whole nation without finally giving up their legacy.

    By constrast, the Liberal legacy is even more relevant today than it ever was. We should be ambitious in that. If in doubt, just read Tim Farron’s speech at SLF Conference last year: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/07/tim-farrons-beveridge-memorial-lecture-full-text

  • Simon Gilbert 28th May '15 - 1:51pm

    I think the biggest two political parties have made it easier than ever to support the liberals. As Peter above said they both offer flavours of authoritarianism, just with different constituencies that might benefit. Fortunately there are more opportunities than ever to make a localised, decentralised yet globally linked economy and society work. This is what liberalism must champion and is the reason I joined.

  • Bath resident 28th May '15 - 1:58pm

    Not sure what it was like in other constituencies but here in Bath part of the reason the Lib Dems lost (both their commons seat and a lot of council seats) was due to the rise in the Green vote. There has been a rise in the Greens’ membership, plus of course last year in the South West the Greens got an MEP, at the expense of the Lib Dems. Anecdotally, whilst not being a Lib Dem member myself, I know Lib Dems who quite the party because of the coalition and joined the Greens, and at least one stood for the council as a Green. I must admit I was slightly baffled by why Labour came ahead of the Greens (by a few hundred votes) but perhaps this is due to students not being aware of the local picture and voting according to national politics.

    Regardless, it’s clear that for those who supported the Lib Dems due to their environmentalism, social libertarianism (drug liberalisation, for example) and concern for social justice, that the Greens are the natural party to shift towards, particularly for middle class voters who for whatever reason find it hard to vote Labour, and particularly in the South West where outside of Bristol, Exeter and perhaps Plymouth, Labour don’t really stand a chance.

    So rather than focusing on the two biggest parties, perhaps the Lib Dems can look at some kind of relationship with the Greens? It would have to be voted upon by the constituency parties, and wouldn’t make great sense at a Parliamentary level (unless neighbouring constituencies agreed to stand one of each party to boost chances of both being elected) but at a local council level , particularly with multi-member elections, the Greens and Lib Dems could choose to run 1 candidate each and see the 2 Conservative candidates defeated.

    Not only this, but a formal relationship of some kind between the two might see policies spill over from one to the other, with some of the more crazy Green policies weeded out (these are to be expected in a party’s infancy, when there’s been an influx of membership, just as you expect with UKIP).

    At the end of the day the political scene looks like it’s going to shift a lot in upcoming years, particular if (as is likely) we vote to remain in the EU, as UKIP could split between a classical liberal party and an anti-immigration party. Would a classical liberal party draw in people from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats? Would this leave th remainder of the Liberal Democrats to move more towards being a social democratic party once again?

  • Jonathan Pile 28th May '15 - 2:10pm

    Fink is half right. Winston Churchill famously left the Liberals after 1924 but he refused to surrender the country to Hitler (Never Surrender) . The Next leader will have 12 months to save the party. Either a narrow party inward looking or a broad and outwards looking coalition (across SLF&OB) working in a Rainbow Alliance of Issues with other parties (inc Labour, Greens, UKIP and SNP) and groups (Amnesty,Liberty, Hacked off). Already that unofficial alliance has scored a victory with the postponing of the leaving of the HRA by the Tories. And yes some of us will have to forgive Nick Clegg. http://libdemfightback.yolasite.com/liberal-free-voice.php

  • Neil Sandison 28th May '15 - 2:33pm

    There is only one thing that divides the Tories and Labour and that is whos turn is it to be in power .They do not share our goals of enablement and empowerment except where they have the whip hand on that council or that community organisation .We share responsibility they dictate to terms for engagement .Thanks but no thanks Danny I always had my doubts about you when you joined from the conservatives to the SDP because I always thought you were more interested in the manipulation of power. This article just reinforces that belief..

  • jedibeeftrix 28th May '15 - 2:42pm

    “Daniel Finkelstein, former SDP member turned Tory, writes that it’s all over for the Liberal Democrats. The best thing, he says, for those who wish to advance liberal ideas is to join whichever of the Tories and Labour they feel most comfortable with.”

    Vernon Bogdanor made much the same point in his recent BBC election lecture.

  • Simon Foster 28th May '15 - 2:59pm

    Should we accept defeat? No.

    Should we look at what went wrong, learn from the mistakes, praise the bits we got right (there were some), and campaign for the values we still believe in? Yes

    And vitally, having campaigned in OxWAb….

    Should ducks be involved in this process?

    DEFINITELY! 🙂

  • Disband and join another Party………………. yes if were a ‘ Liberal Party ‘ to join…..it would be worth considering ….as there isn’t one then no. I keep an eye on the continuing Liberal Party, but couldn’t join them because of their anti EU stance, and flirtations with UKIP in parts of the country. Also they appear obsessed about doing down the Lib Dems.

    As for the Greens – they appear to despise liberals (at least the ones I have met)……. if you are not one of them – you must be against them and everything they support . Liberals in general have a different outlook – Quaker like – seeing some good in everyone. I have never heard a leading Green support or acknowledge the environmental achievements or ‘greeness’ of the Lib Dems (happy to stand corrected) . They would be better off as a pressure group IMO if they really wanted to change things. They have had no responsibilities running a Principle Council apart from leading on Brighton …..which didn’t turn out well. They can Grandstand for now, but I fear the wheels will soon come off when they & where they have power.

    Anyway I have rejoined the Lib Dems & will be active too! Already sorted Liberal drinks for new members next week!

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th May '15 - 3:36pm

    I believe in plurality in politics. I am horrified by the idea of political monopoly: one party of the right and one party of the left and that’s it. We have seen what that leads to – in many parts of the country one party permanently in power in local government, permanently the one which selects the MP, and so to complacency in the politicians and no real sense of democracy in the populace.

    It is a sign of people with no real liberal inclination that they do not see the problem with this, and so think they are just being sensible and generous in inviting Liberals to join whichever branch of the Labervative Party they are associated with.

  • paul barker 28th May '15 - 4:11pm

    We are in a strange twilight zone at the moment, its the start of the “silly season” & everyone interested in Politics is in recovery from May. There are no Polls except on Europe & the Labour leadership race. At some point Polls will start to be published again, probably showing The Tories higher, & us & Labour lower than we got in May. That will be tough on Labour & Libdems; we will see how both Parties deal with it.

  • @Neale Upstone If it is an liberal economics you want, Tim Farron is probably not your man. He is generally considered on the left-ish wing of the party. Norman Lamb is generally considered more on your free market end of things (although he is no Jeremy Browne!). Of course, neither candidate is either a statist nor an extreme neolib!

    Enjoyable article, by the way, Martin.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th May '15 - 5:15pm

    Good article Martin. If Lib Dems lurch to the left and Labour lurch to the right then I might support them instead. It’s not just Liz Kendall who I would be happy with, but as I keep on telling people on here: Yvette Cooper. I seem to find boring but competent politicians and wonder why no one else can see their magic. Lol.

    I have doubts about the Conservatives ability to occupy the centre-ground. Their manifesto was right leaning and Dave is a bit close to his rich mates. Although in terms of diversity and winning they seem to be doing a lot better than us.

  • Phil Beesley 28th May '15 - 5:28pm

    As a Liberal Party student activist, I met Daniel Finkelstein, an SDP activist. At the time, he was anti-Thatcher. I never felt that he was “one of us”, whatever that might be. Owing to the politics of the time, the Conservative Party was a revolting place and the Liberal/SDP Alliance felt comfortable to him.

    Danny didn’t get it. He was a centralist, no revolutionary.

  • I am not going anywhere, I want freedom first.

  • @paul barker: ‘its the start of the “silly season”’

    I thought our ‘silly season’ was the last election where certain persons blindly prophesied that the Liberal Democrats would retain most of their seats, helping foster an indifference to electoral realities, and a refusal to change the wrong track that the Party was on.

    Once again I have to ask: Why should we be listening to people who were consistently wrong about everything for the last five years?

  • As a 71 year old I’ve probably voted Lib(Dem) more times than most….As to why? I find it difficult to pick on any real reason other than, “It feels right”….
    There is much in the Labour party that I support (rather less in the Conservative), but on equality, human rights, the environment, etc.,,like ‘Kilroy’, we were there first…

    **** ‘youngsters’ just google “Kilroy”

  • James Sandbach 28th May '15 - 8:24pm

    In various jobs I’ve regularly attended other Parties conferences and always bump into and catch up with ex-LibDems who have left to join other Parties in a rightward, leftward or greenwards direction, and continue to advocate liberal values, causes and ideas through various ginger or interest groups and routes in other parties – I entirely appreciate and respect their reasons, which are usually well thought out and we shouldn’t demonise them.

    However crucially for me the other Parties or Tory/Labour especially lack any meaningful internal democracy or member driven ethos – our internal democracy, local party and conference culture is valuable in and of itself in valuing everyone’s contribution in the Party equally. One of our biggest challenges of recent years has been to avoid becoming top down and elite driven like the other two…… we’ve drifted too far in that direction and if we don’t want to lose liberals to other parties we need to be able to involve our members more in ways that are meaningful to them.

  • John Minard 28th May '15 - 8:53pm

    the devil or the deep blue sea – which can we best influence?

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th May '15 - 9:16pm

    Peter Sigrist

    We’re of the view that economic liberalism and civil liberties are of equal importance in Britain and that’s a view with which Britain, conveniently, largely agrees.

    No, obsession with these issues and thinking them the only thing that matters in politics is confined to comfortable elite types. Most ordinary people couldn’t give a toss about them. Our constitution says “None shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”, which suggests something different from what you are pushing as the core of liberalism.

  • There are a number of axioms it seems to me about politics:
    1. Never believe columnists and pundits as 99 times out of 100 they are wrong!
    2. Always expect the unexpected! (as well as the Spanish Inquisition!)
    3. The currents of politics runs deep and regimes and governments that can never be defeated – often are – sooner or later. Parties that can never come back – mostly do
    4. The exaggeration of FPTP – in 1997 the Tories more than halved their number of MPs on a 10% drop in vote. We almost doubled ours on a 1% drop in the vote. By my calculations – the Tories had a combined majority of 848 votes in their 5 most marginal seats this time – that is if 424 or 0.0014% of the total number of people voting had voted differently they wouldn’t have an overall majority and in their 50 most marginal seats a total majority of 115059 – so if 57530 or 0.19% of the total voting we would have a very hung Parliament and about equal number of Tories and Labour.

  • “So rather than focusing on the two biggest parties, perhaps the Lib Dems can look at some kind of relationship with the Greens?”

    I fear the Greens are doing to us what Labour did to us in the 1920s.

    They are not Liberal. They are deeply authoritarian. No relationship.

  • I was Leader of West Wiltshire DC when our PPC for Westbury defected to Labour in the mid 90’s. He didn’t even indicate his intention to me in confidence and he never spoke to me again as he scarpered.
    I might have been more forgiving if he had. Id have respected his confidence.
    He got a job in Downing Street as a Blair advisor and got a seat in the Lords and a seat in the Cabinet.
    I give you Andrew Adonis. Lord Adonis.
    I will let you guess how I feel. But whilst he jumped ship, I am proud to remain a Liberal Democrat. I have principles and wont sell out.

  • william jones 29th May '15 - 8:03am

    The author who is a Liberal Democrat member in Barcelona is right people do join us for different reasons other than being elected.

  • Peter Sigrist 29th May '15 - 8:48am

    @Matthew Huntbach

    I suspect we largely agree with one another (though you make it sound like we’re diametrically opposed). I’ll take your lucid argument and take it one step further: nobody gives a toss about slogans at all. If you said to someone on the street in Walthamstow where I live – “excuse me madam, would you like to sign up for the fight against enslavement by conformity” she’d rightly think you were a crank. I’m not saying British people agree with weird politico-fanboy statements about economic or civil liberties. I’m saying they are not fans of government price fixing or rent controls (see how that worked out for Ed Miliband) but neither are they fans of government dictating our lifestyles (look at support for gay marriage, home ownership or any number of other issues).

  • Danny Finkelstein talks nonsense. We are part of one of the longest political traditions in British politics. Liberalism is not something you can just cast aside. It’s in the blood, it’s an instinct as well as a philosophy. And none of the other parties are cemented in those core values. Labour looks at things in a polar opposite way – it’s so authoritarian. They sounds cuddly on social justice and social personal issues etc but dig deeper and it’s all about control. Keir Starmer has just become a Labour MP and I dread him getting hold of the Home Affairs portfolio. This is the man who made the CPS a PR machine. Prison numbers soared under labour etc etc. There are more liberal tories than there are liberal labourites. But essentially how dare Finklestein suggest 2.5million voters can simply be herded this way or that. As someone said above, the lib Dems have another huge pull – we aren’t part of the cosy two party establishment duopoly and therefore threaten the status quo – much more so than UKIP, the SNP or the Greens. And that’s why our demise is so important to the big two. And it’s why we consistently get a battering in the media.

  • @Peter / @Ashley yes you could well argue that the Liberal measures presented by Labour have always ultimately been due to the diaspora element in their party who value pragamatism/power more than purity of principle. Similarly for the Tories.

    The fundamental issue we have is that there will always be a bigger pull for the uber-pragmatists towards the big two unless and until the electoral system permits a share of power for a smaller Liberal party

  • Neither Conservative nor Labour but Liberal. The Liberal Democrats with liberal aims is going to be needed more than ever and soon. The coalition with the Tories was a mistake so bad that it won’t happen again.

  • Andrew Whyte 29th May '15 - 9:33am

    Let us hope that the current loss of those 50 odd SNP seats, and the prospective loss of seats through boundary changes will finally wake the Labour party up to the fact that (if we ever did) we no longer live in a binary, Buggins turn, electoral landscape.

    I am a Grimond era Liberal/Liberal Democrat and try as I might, I can’t envisage a situation where voting Labour or Tory could ever appeal, as the tribal, “ours is the one true faith”, attitude of the main parties is so abhorrent, and their approach to policy development i.e. cobbling together a rag bag of titbits to appeal to their core constituency is equally unappealing.

    I well remember being berated by a Labour activist at a Euro count in deeply Tory Surrey for stopping them getting the seat – when they were a very distant third to us.

    That sense of entitlement is not in our DNA, which is why our constituency MPs are generally so astounding by any empirical measure, and probably why so many former Lib Dem voters will be experiencing buyers remorse before too long.

    Tories now have power for the first time in living memory, and unless Cameron proves to be a master tactician (something that looked absent in coalition) a couple of years into untrammelled Tory rule will find voters starting to experience what they voted for, and the fightback will begin.

    And at least we now have a pool of prospective London Mayoral candidates

    Being a Liberal/Lib Dem has never been the easiest path, but its the only path I can ever walk ……… always look on the bright side of life, da da, da da da da da da …..

  • @David-1: “why should we listen to people who have been constantly wrong”. Indeed. Get advice from those who have been proven correct, it’s more likely to be good advice. Did Steven ever do his naked run?

  • Finklestein makes sense to anyone whose prime objective is to get a career in politics, for whom the political outook is secondary. But who is he addressing? Despite repeated sneers, mostly from the Labour side, no one joins the Liberal Democrats in the expectation of gaining high office.

    Some who expected a secure sinecure in Scotland will have had a very rude shock.

    Clearly Nick Clegg, David Laws, Vince Cable and others could have had a much easier route to cabinet posts if they had laid principles aside. Lord Adonis is clearly an example of someone who could have jumped ship in either direction depending on the prevailing wind, which is what he did.

  • ACN “The coalition with the Tories was a mistake so bad that it won’t happen again.”

    We don’t know this. There are all sorts of potential future changes that mean its an option.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th May '15 - 10:39am

    Peter Sigrist

    I’m not saying British people agree with weird politico-fanboy statements about economic or civil liberties. I’m saying they are not fans of government price fixing or rent controls (see how that worked out for Ed Miliband) but neither are they fans of government dictating our lifestyles (look at support for gay marriage, home ownership or any number of other issues).

    I’m not saying that civil liberties are unimportant, but for most people they tend to be a theoretical background issue and not the issue that motivates them politically. So a party which puts civil liberties as the big thing it is about is unlikely to gain mass support, and it likely to be dismissed by most people as elitist because it seems uninterested in the bread-and-butter issues that are at the forefront of people’s minds. If you are relatively wealthy and secure so you don’t have to worry about how you are going to pay the bills, what happens if you lose your job and so on, well, then maybe civil liberties will matter more for you, but most people are not in that situation. Of course, the fact that it is an important issue really but not at the forefront of people’s minds is just why there is a need for a party which takes on the role of defending civil liberties. However, if such a party is to survive under our current electoral system, it needs something else to attract sufficient votes concentrated in places to win seats.

    I think if you went onto the streets and asked people if they wished to see the government come in and ban rent rises and fuel cost rises and the like, they would say “Yes!”. So I think you are very wrong to say people are instinctively opposed to this sort of thing. Of course, the knock-on effects of attempting such controls are likely to be unpleasant, but I think the issue here is not that most people can easily see that, rather it is that the right-wing press is very eager to tell people about it and use that to turn people away from politicians who suggest it. Whereas other important knock-on issues which need a bit of explanation for most people to see remain unappreciated because no-one much is interested or has the power to push them.

    I just don’t see among ordinary people as opposed to people who are politically active this great support for free market economic policies which you and others insist there is. Indeed, what I find is quite a naive belief that the government could and should step in and control various things. There is little realisation of the extent to which the power of government to do that, even if it tried, has been diminished by the shift to a large scale global economy and the privatisations of recent years. There is much nostalgia for a 1950s style economy, which was much more tightly controlled and much less global, and a really naive belief which UKIP is exploiting that somehow pulling out of the EU will give us that.

    What we are actually seeing, is that people who aren’t active in politics and who aren’t interested in it and don’t think through the details of issues tend to hold contradictory positions. So, sure they like the idea of owning houses and making money through doing that. But they’ll also moan about how bad it is that house prices are so high meaning it is impossible to get housing now for most people. And then they’ll moan like anything at any measure that might help solve this – whether it’s building loads more houses (any proposal to do this will ALWAYS get shouted down with the line “nasty dirty rotten politicians, wanting to take our nice greed environment away, they must have been bribed by the developers, how else could they agree to something like this which we all oppose?”) or any sort of control or taxation on property to reduce the attractiveness of holding on to it when you don’t have a need for it (“nasty dirty rotten politicians, all they want to do is tax us, so they can have lots of money to spend on their expenses”).

    So, it’s easy to exploit these contradictions by asking the questions you know will give you the answers you want. You can ask one set of questions if the answer you want is that people want a more left-wing politics which is about using state power to build a more equal society, you can ask another set of questions if the answer you want is that people are fans of free market economics, so if a party wants to win support it must move in that direction. Again, we have the right-wing press and well-funded vested interests very keen on asking the second set of questions and using it to further somewhat dubious propositions.

    On the whole, I think the growth in free market economics has not delivered the wonderful freedom society that its advocates said it would, but it has led to a growth in stress and anxiety and a loss of feelings of security which is leading to people feeling unhappy, though they can’t place why, and there isn’t anyone much helping them with it. I’m not saying here that all free market ideas are all bad, but I am saying since they have been the dominating ideas in politics since 1979 just perhaps it’s time to turn around and question them and think maybe we’ve pushed things far enough that way and ask why they haven’t delivered all they promised. Much as was necessary in the 1970s after a similar amount of time when social democrat ideas were dominant.

    So I don’t think Miliband’s Labour was rejected because it was insufficiently pro-free-market. I think it was rejected in part because it came under a lot of biased attack ultimately for that reason, but as we know that biased attack was as much printing photographs of Miliband that made him look odd as it was about a serious analysis of his policies. And I think those attacks worked for several reasons. One is that Miliband and those surrounding him come from an urban elite background and so don’t have the sort of experience to be able to connect and explain things to those from a very different background, who used to be Labour’s core vote. Another is that Labour does have the attitude that votes should just come its way naturally, so it doesn’t really have to do anything to win them by actually talking seriously to people about political issues. In 2015 it though victory was certain, because it thought abusing the Liberal Democrats in particular would cause that party to collapse, the two-party system to be restored, and there would then be a natural pendulum swing to Labour. What actually happened was that the main beneficiaries of destroying the Liberal Democrats were the Conservatives, seeing as how so many LibDem held seats and LibDems possible wins (in the old days) were seats that would otherwise be Tory and would never (well, almost never, I say as someone who grew up in Hove constituency) go to Labour.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th May '15 - 10:41am

    Me

    nice greed environment

    Hmm, Freudian slip maybe, but I meant “green”.

  • Not knowing that much about the so-called commentators on politics- I wonder why we are supposed to listen to Mr Finklestein?
    As far as I am concerned ,the two big parties are composed of people,that, – mostly – if not only, see the world from their own “side”.; like the West-side gang v’s the East-side gang.
    To me the Liberal Democrats are the one true party. ” All for One, and One for All” as someone once said.
    Anyone that leaves such a position was never there in the first place.

  • Notorious right winger writes article saying Lib Dems shouldn’t exist – shocker.

    There could be no better recommendation for people to stay with, rejoin or join the Lib Dems for the first time than the disapproval of Danny Finkelstein.

    The UK NEEDS the Lib Dems precisely because people like Danny Finkelstein exist.

  • Peter Sigrist 29th May ’15 – 8:48am
    “… would you like to sign up for the fight against enslavement by conformity”

    Fascinating coincidence !!!

    20 years ago Kingston Town Neighourhood incorporated the key words from the Preamble into its annual policy statement. “No-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity” is there in the public records in Kingston upon Thames. That may surprise Peter Sigrist.

    A key mover in including these words was a young councillor, called Jonny Oates, who has spent the last five years as one of Nick Clegg’s top people in The Cabinet Office. Fighting against conformity does not seem to have held him back in his political career.

    The extraordinary coincidence !
    That same councillor Jonny Oates as chair of Kingston Town Neighbourhood renamed a brown-field housing development “SIGRIST SQUARE”.
    The name was commemorating a key person in the former aircraft factory on which the housing was built.

    Are you any relation, Peter Sigrist ?

    I’m not saying British people agree with weird politico-fanboy statements about economic or civil liberties.

  • @Matthew huntbach ” In 2015 it though victory was certain, because it thought abusing the Liberal Democrats in particular would cause that party to collapse, the two-party system to be restored, and there would then be a natural pendulum swing to Labour. What actually happened was that the main beneficiaries of destroying the Liberal Democrats were the Conservatives, seeing as how so many LibDem held seats and LibDems possible wins (in the old days) were seats that would otherwise be Tory and would never (well, almost never, I say as someone who grew up in Hove constituency) go to Labour.”

    The other mistake Labour made was assuming they would have 40+ seats in Scotland.

    The mistake they’re likely to make is that following Scottish Independence, boundary changes, the flight of their vote to the Greens and UKIP and demographic changes around the political attitude of the under 35s, that they’re ever likely to win a FPTP election again.

  • RC 29th May ’15 – 11:43am
    “….The UK NEEDS the Lib Dems precisely because people like Danny Finkelstein exist.”

    Yes indeed! Well said. I hope the Twitterati are repeating this sentence ad nauseum.

  • Peter Sigrist 29th May '15 - 2:50pm

    @John Tilley – I suspect you refer to the Sigrist whose name was on the flight controls of the Sopwith Camel. Unfortunately, I can claim no connection. I’m amazed to discover that a housing development gained the name though. It is Swiss and very unusual in the UK. Thanks for recounting that.

    Incidentally, think you understood I was commenting on the wording of our slogan, not it’s content.

  • Peter Sigrist

    If you want to know more about Fred Sigrist and his connection with Kingston ( I take quite an interest as I live 200 metres from the old factory site now known as Sigrist Square). As you will see he had quite a key role in the Sopwith Company and the pioner days of English aircraft manufacture —

    http://www.kingstonaviation.org/js/plugins/filemanager/files/Banner_._1B.pdf
    http://www.vads.ac.uk/flarge.php?uid=71459&sos=0
    http://www.flightglobal.com/FlightPDFArchive/1956/1956%20-%201789.PDF

  • Peter Sigrist 29th May '15 - 3:42pm

    @Matthew Huntbach

    I like and agree with much of what you say. Holding to account the direction of economic policymaking is only ever a good idea. Acknowledging the bias in British newspapers is important before we begin any campaign. We must look at the influence of vested interests in our politics. So I will make two points related to another area on which we risk being in furious agreement: whether people want more government intervention or not.

    Point 1: research shows that there has been a decrease in ‘universalism’ in the UK. People are less likely these days to agree that “the welfare of all people should be protected”. Moreover, people under 50 years old (and even more so under 30) are far less likely to support “welfare benefits for the poor” if it means they will have to pay higher taxes. This is all in the recent paper: “HM Government Horizon Scanning Programme: Social Attitudes of Young People”, December 2014

    Point 2: I agree with you that government interventions can be perceived as positive, so long as they come wrapped up in media support. So rent control = bad; help to buy = good; energy price cap = bad; social housing sales = good. It’s a travesty that any of these things is seen as good. They all inevitably have consequences that people wouldn’t like if they were properly considered (underinvestment in housing; even higher house prices; less competition among energy companies; yet more pressure on housing).

    This is where we come in: you and I. Only a liberal party would argue against such populist measures. The real skill here is in developing a sophisticated network of researchers, experts, academics and other partners to help make the argument; and developing a really potent method of harnessing the connected environment in which we now communicate. The media’s power is waning and we must work hard to build a digital community that is more potent than those of our competitors.

    Being the voice of reason is hardly a vote-winner but I think it’s absolutely essential that we are that voice when it comes to the perverse activity of the statist instincts of both Conservative and Labour. To do otherwise is to say “if you can’t beat them, join them”. And as the research I cited above shows, time is on the side of the liberal movement. The young (and the slightly less young too) are moving our way. We need to make sure we spend the next 5-10 years proving we are the only truly liberal party in the United Kingdom. There are huge issues building up in our economy and the political state of the UK. We have to be the party fighting for the long-term good of both. That good lies not in statist intervention but in liberalism, does it not?

  • SIMON BANKS 29th May '15 - 4:11pm

    If it was worth doing at any time in the past, it’s worth doing now. The government is illiberal, the power structure is illiberal and the two main parties are illiberal. Yes, we can co-operate with them on local councils, in government and so on, but their approach is profoundly different. That’s why when I thought the party might be turning away permanently from a liberalism of liberty, equality and community to a comfortable centrism, I did consider I might leave the party, but Labour was worth ten seconds’ thought and the Tories none at all.

    The marvellous surge in new members – new members who mostly want to DO SOMETHING – is evidence that British Liberalism is far from dead.

    Danny Finkelstein was a Social Democrat who found it easy to become a Tory. We might as well listen to advice from David Cameron.

  • Matthew:

    “. In 2015 it though victory was certain, because it thought abusing the Liberal Democrats in particular would cause that party to collapse, the two-party system to be restored, and there would then be a natural pendulum swing to Labour.”

    Labour’s attack on Liberal Democrats was, I believe, highly successful. We have to count it amongst our mistakes that we did not take sufficient account of Labour’s tribalism. Labour’s attack on Liberal Democrats actually helped to secure the position of the Conservatives both in terms of seats and image. Perhaps they really did believe the government would collapse, yet failed to appreciate that no sane party would willingly offer itself to the electorate when support is low. In any case, I do not think they really considered what a collapsed government would bring under the FTPA.

    In reality the Coalition more or less pursued the economic prescriptions of Labour’s Alistair Darling, while at the same time Labour claimed that the Coalition was “the most right wing government in living memory”. In consequence their economic policy lacked coherence. The claim that the Coalition was far to the right, only served to claim a position of being that much to the left; a position they could not sustain and sat uneasily with pledges to stick to the governments economic targets.

    I do not really know what Lib Dems could have done to counteract Labour’s targeted campaign against Lib Dems throughout the Coalition. We can blame particular maladroit actions and strategies, but against a tidal wave of bilious anti Lib Dem criticism from Labour in online media and from the right in much of the press, these mistakes were relatively of second order magnitude. It really does, as Coetzee acknowledges, raise the awkward question whether any coalition can be considered in the future. You, Matthew, have made cogent arguments for a better strategy (though I do not really get the virulence of your antipathy to Clegg), but I do doubt whether such strategy modifications would have helped that much.

    I really had hoped that we could demonstrate a functioning coalition: we did, but at a prohibitive cost.

  • Richard Underhill 29th May '15 - 5:27pm

    It has been the function of columnists to stimulate debate since Beaverbrook hired Michael Foot to write in the Express.

    Those who joined the Liberal Democrats, or continued in membership from a previous party, could have joined another party if they had chosen to do so.

    Eric Pickles asked our members to “come home to the Conservative Party”.
    Charles Kennedy read out large sections of Pickle’s letter to conference, to widespread amusement.
    It is on U-tube.

  • Neil Sandison 29th May '15 - 6:10pm

    SIMON BANKS Danny Finkelstein was briefly a member of the SDP who returned to his former conservative roots .
    A Social Democrat ,well we rarely if ever saw any real evidence of that.

  • Andrew Whyte 29th May '15 - 9:03pm

    The “Yellowsurge” (sorry Natalie) is fantastic, but can I issue a plea to NOT turn off these new recruits by dumping 4000 FOCI on them, or waxing lyrical about which Branch/Federal/National Committee they can sit on?

    If the Lib Dems need to re-invent and rebuild, we won’t do it by taking our best new material and grinding it to dust.

    Given that most effective political activity is organised online (38 degress etc) we desperately need these new resources to be utilised in the way they feel most effective

  • Christine Headley 29th May '15 - 9:17pm

    Kennedy quotes Pickles (and Ted Heath):

  • Tony Greaves 30th May '15 - 4:15pm

    “Conformity” was added to the Liberal Party constitution in 1969 when there had been a thorough constitutional review led by Nancy Seear. Michael Steed was a member of the group that rewrote the constitution before it went to the 1969 Assembly in Brighton and pushed “conformity” to go alongside poverty and ignorance. These came from the Liberal party constitution preamble written in the mid-1930s by Elliott Dodds and Ramsay Muir.

    Tony

  • “We have to count it amongst our mistakes that we did not take sufficient account of Labour’s tribalism.”

    While there may be much in the Labour mindset that may be accounted as “tribal,” campaigning against a party in the governing coalition to which Labour were in opposition can hardly be one of them. That is not “tribalism”; it is simply politics. And why should we expect Labour to be any easier on us than we are on them?

    The fact is that we lost a dozen seats to Labour, ten to the SNP — and twenty-seven to the Conservatives, our government partners and allies. Maybe it is Tory tribalism we failed to account for?

  • Shirley Campbell 30th May '15 - 11:14pm

    Thank you Ashley. I live, in hope, that your voice speaks for many of the silent of my generation and beyond:

    Ashley 29th May ’15 – 8:58am
    Danny Finkelstein talks nonsense. We are part of one of the longest political traditions in British politics. Liberalism is not something you can just cast aside. It’s in the blood, it’s an instinct as well as a philosophy. And none of the other parties are cemented in those core values. Labour looks at things in a polar opposite way – it’s so authoritarian. They sounds cuddly on social justice and social personal issues etc but dig deeper and it’s all about control. Keir Starmer has just become a Labour MP and I dread him getting hold of the Home Affairs portfolio. This is the man who made the CPS a PR machine. Prison numbers soared under labour etc etc. There are more liberal tories than there are liberal labourites. But essentially how dare Finklestein suggest 2.5million voters can simply be herded this way or that. As someone said above, the lib Dems have another huge pull – we aren’t part of the cosy two party establishment duopoly and therefore threaten the status quo – much more so than UKIP, the SNP or the Greens. And that’s why our demise is so important to the big two. And it’s why we consistently get a battering in the media.

  • Patrick Nelson 31st May '15 - 3:39pm

    Rather than self-immolation, why don’t you Lib Dems try to forge a regular Progressive Alliance with Labour along the same lines as the SDP-Liberal Alliance of the 1980s? After all Labour and Lib Dem traditions may differ but policies are now almost identical and using the same voting-candidacy methodology as the Gladstone-MacDonald pact could be the way to winkle the Tories out of No 10 in 2020.

  • Various people claim that the EU is ‘internationalist’. It isn’t – it’s a large failing state. The UK always was genuinely internationalist, and would be again outside the EU.

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