Opinion: The LibDems will bring consistency in an unstable British political landscape

A view from the Dutch Social Liberals (D66)

Before I dive into my analysis of the present British political instability, my commiserations with all the LibDem activists (& dogs), cadres, councillors and parliamentary candidates who got caught in the pincer of

  • Labour seeking revenge for their well-deserved ousting in 2010, and
  • the Tories repeating the betrayal of their coalition partners of the Electoral System referendum.

We in D66 got clobbered in the same way when we participated in our first government coalition (1973-’77; D66 was founded in 1966), but that was because we simultaneously attempted a realignment of Dutch progressive politics via a merger with the Socialdemocrats (PvdA) and Greens (PPR)  which was aborted by the PvdA once they started winning seats in that realignment. We emerged from it with just 250 members in the whole of the Netherlands, and it was only because we distanced ourselves both from the PvdA and the rightwing (National) Liberals (VVD) and the christiandemocratic CDA as the “reasonable, rational alternative” to all three: “Het Redelijk Alternatief”, that we were able to rebuild. We put forward green issues, we supported technological and economic innovations, and a reforming, democratizing adherence to the EEC (now: European Union). We abhorred and combatted the political-correct (Militant-like) leftwing-ism taking hold of the PvdA and PPR, and put forward unheard-of issues like euthanasia and the freeing up of opening hours for shops and pubs & public services.

To summarize our electoral adventures since then: we always grew and recovered in opposition, but never shied away from forming/joining coalitions if that was in the national interest (keeping out Fortuyn-ist populists, LPF; 2003), even if our coalition partners (2003-’06: VVD and CDA) were able to bypass us on progressive issues by doing deals with LPF and others.

In 2006 we broke up the coalition over abuse of power by immigration minister Verdonk (VVD), but meanwhile our numbers of seats in local and provincial councils had tanked. We scrambled and held on to 3 seats in parliament.

The traditional three big parties (CDA, PvdA and VVD) shied away from supporting EU federalism after the failed Dutch referendum on the “EU Constitution” in 2005; but we kept the pro-EU flag flying, and took the lead in bashing the islamophobic and xenophobic populism of Geert Wilders MP and his followers (his PVV party has just one member: himself; everybody else is a follower without a say in policy decisions). We also criticized the Moroccan an Turkish clientelism in PvdA ranks, and supported Turkish- & Moroccan-Dutch citizens emancipating from such dependency.

From 2006 we have professionalized the selection and training of D66 candidates, and increased our emphasis om sound budgetary policies. Along with our pro-EU and anti-Wilders profile this helped us recover: 10 seats in 2010, and 12 in 2012. When Wilders blew up the rightwing coalition in 2012, we arranged an agreement amongst some parliamentary parties to enable the coalition rump (VVD/CDA) to submit our budget on time to the EMU scrutiny in  Brussels. Although we were kept out of the 2012 coalition (VVD/PvdA), this set the trend for a series of similar agreements which were necessary because VVD and PvdA had neglected the fact that they don’t have a majority in the First Chamber (our Senate).

Our constructive attitude from 2006 onwards paid off handsomely in local government (we ousted the PvdA after decades as biggest party in Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague and a host of big cities) and provincial government (we now sit in 8 of the 12 provincial government coalitions). Together with a professionalized organization, and vastly increased membership (from around 10.000 in 2006 to over 25.000)  that gives us a buffer once we rejoin a future national coalition. We know: “to govern is to get halved”; but we are willing to risk that, if we can contribute to sound government and international policies.

Let this Dutch example be an inspiration to you.

The LibDems have emerged badly bruised numerically from their coalition participation, but there are reasons for optimism.

First of all the spectacular LibDem membership rise since the 2015 result became known. But secondly: look at the government record, and the history of splits inside the governing party  in British postwar governments with flimsy majorities: Wilson I (1964-’66, putting of Pound devaluation), Wilson III & IV (1974-’79; Callaghan didn’t bring new accents), and especially the infamous Major government after his surprise win in 1992. The Labour yearning to govern again, made possible the business- and bankers-friendly “New Labourism” of Blair & Brown, but exactly that alienated many working class neighbourhoods an regions (Scotland!), at the same time obscuring the rising euroscepticism in such places.

Now both Tory and (remaining) Labour bulwarks in England in the 2015 parliamentary elections have recorded substantial UKIP electorates (7.000 was frequently mentioned); to regain the votes of people with just one kitchen Labour has to take heed of that mood. It also means that Tory and Labour by-elections will see hard fights over Europe and immigration, both big parties will “obsess about that” to quote Cameron. And the substantial UKIP vote will from the start tempt europhobic Tory backbenchers to follow the UKIP line or even defect. In those by-elections the racist substream in UKIP will re-emerge also. And guess who will lead the fight against such bigotry and Europhobia, with the full support of both CBI and the SNP (who has a massive budgetary shortfall once they’re budgetary autonomous in Britain)?

Even in the bad old days of only six seats in parliament, the Liberals kept on bringing up new ideas and innovations, and kept inspiring students to support them and contribute their thinking. With

  • the organizational professionalism I witnessed growing in the LibDem Conferences I visited from 1992 onwards, and
  • the unstoppable optimism and willingness to argue our point (“walk towards the sound of gunfire”) we Social Liberals all share,

I see a bright future for the LibDems in what promise to be tumultuous years in British politics.

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

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  • No, the LibDems got themselves clobbered and denying that is making it worse.

  • Thank you for this, Bernard; it’s interesting to see a perspective – and a parallel – from elsewhere.

    “Walk towards the sound of gunfire”, indeed. Words worth remembering.

  • jedibeeftrix 11th May '15 - 5:44pm

    “the Tories repeating the betrayal of their coalition partners of the Electoral System referendum.”

    come again?

  • Clobbered, perhaps slaughtered is the right word. Just continued what had occurred in Local elections, 4000 councillors down to several hundred, Euro MPs what was it 12 – 1 and so it went on. Well happily we are moving into a new environment where we have to slowly establish ourselves, find our feet and start to reverse the situation. It will be a long process with setbacks along the way but the word we must keep in mind all the time is REALISM. Unless we are realistic we will get nowhere, we have demonstrated a consistent pattern of self delusion over the past 4 years, that must end.
    We have to stop arrogantly telling people how great Liberalism is for them and listen to what they say and want.

  • I love the word clobbered. Yes, that’s what we got this time.

    I would rather be responsible for my own problems. I made them, therefore I can fix them. The really fiendish problems are the ones that happen out of our control. There are too many variables. We can come through this problem.

  • “The LibDems will bring consistency in an unstable British political landscape”

    That was the basis of the GE campaign and it was roundly rejected by the electorate!

  • noorderling 11th May '15 - 6:46pm

    Let’s hope the LibDems won’t follow D66 on the extremely right wing economic road that party is currently Pursuing.

  • Bernard Aris 11th May '15 - 8:48pm

    I recognise the PvdA/SP frame about D66 in the comment by “Noorderling” (Dutch for: Our Friends in the North) .
    May I remind him that sound budgettary politics has been a D66 priority (just like “Retrenchment” was for Gladstonian Liberals) ever since Erwin Nypels and Maarten Engwirda, respectively our cofounder and longest sitting MP, and our former Party Leader and Innovation-champion. Although having been a member of Den Uyl’s leftish coalition, we were the first to call for abolition of its wasteful WIR law only five years later (1982) because it didn’t do any good.

    By the way, The Economist agrees that the wafer thin Cameron majority and the Eurosceptic backbenches are a threat to his government; the LibDems won’t support him now he has a minister who is pro-Death Penalty (De Volkskrant, Dutch newspaper, today), and is re-introducing the snoopers charter. The Economist calls the future: “a very unpredictable time”.
    Unpredictable the LibDems wo’nt be; thus the consistency I talked about.

  • Steve Comer 12th May '15 - 9:21am

    Thanks for this Bernard. I’ve always been impressed with the D66 MEPs I’ve heard speak, and I was in Amsterdam at the time of the last local elections, when it was good to see so many D66 posters in less prosperous areas of the city, as well as more middle class parts.

    Depite the Liberal Democrats being the most pro-EU party in the UK, I don’t think we’ve had enough contact with our allies, most of whom have a lot of coalition experience. Most have them have also dealt with authoritarian forces far worse than UKIP (eg, Front National, Willders PVV, Sweden Democrats etc). We should be learning from each other, but too often we fall into the trap of being too ‘Britocentric.’

    Why has Guy Verhofstadt never addressed our Party Conference for instance? Back in 2012 He tackled Farage head on about UKIPs lack of participation on issues like fisheries that they purport to care about. He has also led the debate on what the EU could look like in th future, a debate too many shy away from.
    (Cheer yourselves up and watch his pop at Farage here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0M4hExU-tfg)

    I hope other Liberal from our sister parties will contribute to our debates. Given the results in Scotland and some of the hysteria they have generated, some wise rational words from ALDE and LI member party Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya would be very much appreciated. Whether nation state boundaries evolve or not, the Liberal Parties of Europe need to work better together….

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