Opinion: There is one coalition that needs to last

I have been staring at the faces of Lib Dem councillors for days as part of a piece of work I have undertaken.  Although the highlight has been finding out Cllr Ken Ball has managed to wangle Deputy leader of Chorley Council despite leading a group of him and one other Councillor, my abiding thought is that I could have a stand up row with each and every one of you.  And I wouldn’t mind a bit of it.  That’s what being a LibDem is all about.

However, news of yet another splinter group from the left of the party has got my hackles up.  I think it will damage us to have many fractious cliques for a number of reasons.

Entrenched groups are forming at precisely the time we need to be united. The future for the party is to claim the centre ground and muscle Labour and Tory out of it.  Remember Paddy claiming this as the Liberal Age?  We are enjoying our first spoils of that by being in government.  Whether we get any more rewards remains in the balance, but we need to be in a position to take advantage in 2015 if it tips our way.

We need to be a party of Blairites, Ken Clarke, Orange bookers, economic Liberals, social democrats, blokes in hairshirts & sandals and slightly unhinged former MPs.  All those people are up for grabs, but I can only guarantee Lembit’s vote at the moment.  It may feel like the age of the Orange book if you are in one of the other trenches, but in no man’s land it is very equal mix.

We are a coalition and have been from day one.  There are still fissures from that merger that have never healed with some members but what threatens to engulf us over the coming years is a new split of the same divergent ideologies.  I am a Liberal Democrat in the purest of senses, because, paradoxically, I want two competing ideologies to fight it out and one (or a mix) claim the spoils.

The coalition at government is not perfect, nor could it ever be, but government is much better than during the decades of elective dictatorship that preceded it.  My own MP, John Leech, rebels regularly but picks his fights to keep a united party. His vote has more weight  than the Labour lobby fodder a decade ago.

The emergence of the Orange Bookers, the Social Liberal Forum & now Liberal Left are all bad for the party.  We are in danger of moving from a broad church to numerous angry sects.  It is a danger for the other two main parties whether it is Technicolor Labour or a Tory party with the wets in charge.  They don’t matter,  but you infuriating Liberal Democrats do, whatever your politics.

* Paul Ankers is Chair of Manchester Withington Liberal Democrats.

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  • Agreed. And very much in the spirit of the foundings of our party (be it captured by Limehouse or Orange Book) and what liberalism is about (cf my LDV article on Jan 26th: https://www.libdemvoice.org/question-big-or-small-government-answer-effective-26811.html ).

  • Tbh not sure I fully agree – what holds us together is our cultural LDness – “leaflet cult”!. Discussion on what we do in power is separate & healthy for a mainstream party – centre ground is ideologically broad, after all.

  • Ian Patterson 8th Feb '12 - 7:15pm

    We will cling onto withington at next election, with what ever boundary changes you have?

  • I agree that we need to work as a group: but not that we need to act as if there are no internal disagreements. I can’t agree that internal groups are bad for the party. Having internal groups doesn’t stop the Conservatives or Labour winning elections. At their best they make others think more about their own arguments and contribute a great deal to the internal debate.

    I notice you don’t mention, for example, the Green Liberal Democrats, who undoubtedly have their own agenda and policy aims. Are they leaving the party a worse place for their existence? I don’t think so. The same can be said for several of our MPs in the Beveridge Group. Are they an angry sect?

    People being rude to each other is one thing, but disagreement and the formation of groups is a product of tens of thousands of people attempting to ‘own’ a party. It doesn’t mean anyone is trying to take it over, it just means that they want their own views represented.

  • Daniel Henry 8th Feb '12 - 7:56pm

    I agree with you that we need to be a broad coalition with wide appeal.
    (It’s also nice to see that I’m not the only one here who doesn’t think “Blairites” should be automatically treated with unforgiving hatred!)

    I disagree that these “factions” are a problem though, I think the organisation of different viewpoints is a healthy thing. The key thing is how these groups relate to each other. If debate is rational and amicable then the different groups will complement each other nicely. If we descend into bitterness and accusations of “x isn’t a liberal, they’re a Tory/socialist and should join another party” etc THEN we’ve gone wrong.

    The problem with Labour’s factions wasn’t that they organised their disagreements, it was that the bickered and battled with each other maliciously.

    So long as the formation of the group doesn’t lead to the kind of bickering described above, I think it could benefit the party by giving our Labour-leaning members a place to voice their views and encourage them to work within the party rather than outside it. It’ll also help build links with Labour, giving us further options should we ever want to work with them in the future.

    For me, I think what’ll make or break the leftliberals is not what they do but the way that they do it.

  • Paul Ankers 8th Feb '12 - 8:17pm

    There are plenty of groups within the Liberal Democrats that don’t pitch Lib against Dem or even LibDem against LibDem. The Green Liberal Democrats are one such group; driving forward our thoughts on policies, but the growth of groups that push and pull the party is growing.
    The latest group is the most diversive, seemingly unable to get their own way in a party broadly in favour of a coalition, nor within the Social Liberal Forum, they work to get a big splash in the Guardian. Their founder, Linda Jack sits on our Federal Policy Committee. Could she not drive policy from our policy making body?
    There is a good point about policy in government, not least with the mid parliament policy review less than a year away, but who will Nick et al listen to? There are more and more discordant voices as every day goes by.

  • Lorna Dupre 8th Feb '12 - 9:23pm


  • Richard Marbrow 8th Feb '12 - 9:36pm

    An excellent post by Paul.

    I think we are in danger of there being a false consensus on groups within the party in these comments.

    Personally I have no problem with groups such as the SLF or Green Lib Dems who largely exist to emphasise different aspects of the Liberal tradition. I share Paul’s worry about the Liberal Left grouplet however.

    I don’t agree with them on the deficit. Personally I believe it is morally wrong to undertake a massive intergenerational debt transfer of the level proposed by Liberal Left and the Labour Party but this is a policy disagreement so live and let live.

    I don’t agree with their use of scare quotes around “overspending” or their statement that everyone on benefits is being demonised. This hyperbole is pathetic tactics and a little sad but this is a stylistic and tactical disagreement and I should be more tolerant of these things.

    My problem with Liberal left is their outright repudiation of a core value of the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems are a broad church but there are certain core issues for Liberal Democracy and one of those is pluralism. Liberal Left is anti-pluralism, vehemently so and therefore in my mind is not part of the broad church. The SLF clearly isn’t fond of the coalition and the Tories but unlike Liberal Left they don’t believe that the centre right of UK politics is somehow beyond the pale and incapable of being included within plural politics.

    I’ve had many debates with people from the SLF. I enjoy them and some of them have even moderated some of my own personal positions. I suspect I will never debate with the Liberal Left splinter. I suspect if I come across any of them what will result will be a row. A blazing one.

  • Tony Greaves 8th Feb '12 - 9:58pm

    Factions are essential as a basis for democratic debate and for people organising for what they think. The important thing is that they are not exclusive, they are tolerant of other views (otherwise how can they debate?), and they are within the general purview of the preamble to the party constitution.

    Tony Greaves

  • Tony – you are right; not being exclusive, and listening to others, and allowing a debate is crucial.

  • David Allen 8th Feb '12 - 11:11pm

    Tony Greaves is right. I would add that an internal party faction which is behaving acceptably should be open and honest when promulgating their views, and should never seek to win an internal election by pretending to stand for one thing while planning to implement something quite different.

    On that basis, Liberal Left pass muster. Nick Clegg fails.

  • Paul Ankers Nick Thornsby 9th Feb '12 - 12:01am

    If internal party groups help come up with and drive debate on issues and policies that can help keep us at the radical edge of British politics they are to be welcomed in my view. I’d broadly class the SLF as such a group; not so Liberal Left.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Feb '12 - 8:11am

    During the years I was a councillor, 1994-2006, I paid very little attention to political debates within the party, all my efforts went into being a councillor and local campaigning. I only started looking at internet discussion within the Liberal Democrats in the run-up to the last leadership election.

    What I saw shocked me. I had been vaguely aware of the Orange Book and a few other attempts to push the party in this sort of policy direction. However, I found now there was a loud faction of people within the party, perhaps particularly within internet discussion circles in the party, very determined to push the idea that “liberalism” means essentially support for what I had previously known as “libertarian” (and that too was a hijacking of a term which did not historically mean this) and had thought of as a movement primarily in the USA and on the right-wing of the Conservative Party. When I was last extensively involved in national party policy directions, which was in the Liberal Party in the years up to the merger, there was no such tendency in the Liberal Party, and one of the reasons some people in the Liberal Party had for opposing the merger was certain elements in the SDP who seemed to be moving that way – which came out in particular with the SDP contribution to what became known as the “Dead parrot” document (it was intended to be a foundational document for the merged party written by the leaders of the two parties, but the SDP leader delegated his part to two proto-Orange-booker types).

    I’ve no problem with the Orange Book itself. It’s just a collection of essays, rather too influenced by the trend in recent years towards looking at cash market economies as the best way to drive things forward, but we need thought and discussion in the party, it was good to see it even if in a direction I don’t favour myself. The phrase “Orange Book” or “Orange bookers” has from this come to be attached more generally to the stream of thinking within the party which favours a free market approach. It’s perhaps a convenient shorthand, it can be used in a way that does not involve any ideological commitments, whereas “economic liberalism” and “libertarianism” are not entirely neutral – using them involves a degree of acceptance of their claims to be freedom-enhancing. This needs to be said because the convenience of this term means it can be thrown around in a way that is not entirely fair to the original contributorss to the book, who did not necessarily contribute with the idea of starting a “movement”.

    My concern was with the aggressive way this stream was being pushed in the party by people who seemed to be almost fanatically in favour of it, the same sort of ideological fanaticism I had seen in Trotskyite socialists with whom I had argued in my student years. I did not like the sort of “one true way” attitude I was seeing. I did not like the way these people seemed to be trying to seize the word “liberalism” and get it to mean just themselves and suggest those of us who did not like this direction were not true “liberals”. I did not like the way there seemed to be various “think tanks” pushing this sort of politics, very welll funded it seemed, not officially part of the party, but eager to give that impression when they were quoted in the media – which they often were because the media favoured them, and they seemed to contain a lot of smoothy PR types who go down well with the media.

    I am concerned at the way younger recruits to the party seem to have taken this for granted, indeed vocal younger members seem mainly to be of this sort. I was always to the left of the party, but I used to think of myself as fairly mainstream. I found when I started contributing to Liberal Democrat Voice discussions that I was often having to be extremely defensive, that I could not assume as I did in the past that I was working with people who basically agreed with me, instead, without my politics changing much, I found I seemed to be on the far left fringe of what the party had become. I don’t know if Liberal Democrat Voice is mainstream in the party or somewhat to its right, to be honest I have not found it a very welcoming place since I started contributing to it, and interactions I’ve had here have been the main thing making me wonmder whether I am still in the right party – I mean the predominance of casual right-wing thinking, and the way I often find myself almost alone and under strong attack when I put a position to the left of what some right-wing young trendy has written here.

    One of the things that has particularly alarmed me, and I recognise it as classical propaganda war techniques, is the way there has been an attempt to rewrite history and make out the Liberal-SDP differences at the time of the merger were on the “economic v. social” line, with the Liberal Party on the “economic liberal” side and the SDP on the “social liberal” side. No – as someone who was involved at the time and ended up opposing the merger from the Liberal side, it wasn’t like that at all. We can see this in Paul Ankers’ words “There are still fissures from that merger that have never healed with some members but what threatens to engulf us over the coming years is a new split of the same divergent ideologies”. No Paul, no. If anything, what we see now is a healing of any remaining Liberal-SDP fissures, because old SDP people and old Liberal Party people such as myself now tend to find ourselves on the same side fighting against this trend which has appeared from nowhere and is pushing the party towards what in those days we called “Thatcherism”.

    This perhaps strikes me more than most because of the long period of time when all the efforts I could give to politics were given to being a councillor and local campaigning. It’s much easier to see a change if you go away and come back rather than if you have been there while it has been gradually happening. What I’ve experienced does seem to be quite general, however. Those of us more to the left in the party seem to have been busy with our local campaiging, leaving the right to work at pushing the party nationally in their direction. There seem to be a great many in the party who are not ideological free marketeers, but rather than confront the push in our party in that way, prefer to bury their heads in cracked paving stones and planning committees and all the other humdrum things I spent my time dealing with when I was a councillor.

    So it seems to me that if there are now attempts to organise a “left” faction within the Liberal Democrats it is in reaction to the very organised push to the right that has already happened. I’m sorry, but I think the political right in the party have acted in quite a nasty sneaky manner to push their way, and it is part of that nasty sneakiness when in reaction to that there are attenmpts to organise a resistance that they start shouting out “factionalism”.

  • Paul Ankers Prateek Buch 9th Feb '12 - 9:43am

    @Dave Page:

    while the SLF claims to support the coalition, its constant criticism of the party and its leadership with little positive contribution does incline one to think “with friends like these…”

    Little positive contribution? would you consider a summer policy conference attended by over 200 people – not all of them on the left of the party but who wanted to engage in a discussion – and addressed by cabinet ministers not a positive contribution? Or the emergency motion on banking, overwhelmingly backed by conference, that reinforced the party’s tough stance on banking reform? or the outstanding work Janice Turner has done to improve our policy on pensions that is supported by pensions minister and will be debated at conference in Gateshead? none of these are positive?

    Also, could you please back up your assertion about not backing the democratic nature of the party please? please provide examples of where The SLF are simultaneously advancing arguments which oppose the mainstream of the party, and claiming to represent that mainstream

    If a group within the party promotes healthy discussion about the direction we’re taking, about the policies we promote and those we oppose, and if it is democratic and transparent itself, I’m unsure as to how it can be called a faction.

  • Dan Falchikov wrote: “Aligning yourselves wih illiberal elements in the Labour party doesn’t make you either left or a liberal. Supporting frankly bonkers economic policies doesn’t give you any credibility as a wonk. I can only draw the conclusion that the oxymoronic Liberal left is an exit vehicle from the party for people like Jack and Grayson – who apparently prefer to work with egregious right wingers like Liam Byrne than with other Lib Dems.”

    LibDems are working with right-wingers like Eric Pickles, Michael Gove and George Osborne through the coalition, so I don’t see why the idea of working with right-wingers like Liam Byrne (although I imagine he would contest that description) is so anathema.

    Yes, there are illiberal elements in the Labour Party but there are also plenty in the Conservative Party too. It is Conservatives who are agitating for repeal of the Human Rights Act, not Labour (who introduced it).

    As for Labour’s “frankly bonkers economic policies”, their central claim, that cutting too fast and too soon, would damage economic recovery, has been borne out by events. I recall Nick Clegg saying much the same thing before the election.

  • mike cobley 9th Feb '12 - 2:59pm

    Time for a reality check – there is no doubt that in the old Liberal party there was always a thread of yearning for Gladstonian free trade notions, which historically can be seen as a kind of proto-free-market Toryism. And it would seem, going by various comments and assertions made by NIck Clegg and David Laws and others before and after May 2010 that that thread has burgeoned forth into life once more. Back in the last century, back about the time of the merger, such differences didnt seem to amount to much, and in fact the SDP (being then the former centre-right of Labour as-was) was seen as being somewhat more economically liberal (to use that term) than the Liberals themselves, then under David Steel. Now, however, social democrats have gone from being vaguely on the right of the Labour movement to being to the left of almost every other party in the mainstream. I find it hilarious, in a gallows humour way, to see pro-Clegg/Coalition party members claiming to be at the radical edge of British politics while supporting the Tory party’s avatistic urges made legislative flesh. All of which is heavily tinged with a kind of resentment towards the general public who seem incapable of understanding how much good we’re doing for them, even though 100s of thousands of jobs (and therefore lives) are being thrown overboard.

    We are defined by what we do, not by what we say about ourselves or what we believe about ourselves. 20 months of coalition government have brought this party only humiliation and contempt, and laid bare the political ineptitude and conceptual folly of the leadership. In any other party the loss of hundreds of councillors and MSPs and membership and popular support would have led to heads rolling – instead, Clegg hangs around our collective neck like the albatross of yore, dragging us down.

  • mike cobley 9th Feb '12 - 3:01pm

    doh – atavistic – spelling, apologies.

  • Lee_Thacker 9th Feb '12 - 11:11pm

    @ Matthew Huntbach – brilliant analysis there. It is true that these economic liberals seems to have come out of nowhere. I just wish they would they would put forward a motion to conference. Then we could see how much the party has really changed.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Feb '12 - 8:21pm

    mike cobley

    Time for a reality check – there is no doubt that in the old Liberal party there was always a thread of yearning for Gladstonian free trade notions, which historically can be seen as a kind of proto-free-market Toryism.

    There was very little of it in the Liberal Party at the time of merger with the SDP. It should be recalled that the history of the Liberal Party in the 20th century was of substantial chunks of it leaving to join the Conservative Party. This led to a Conservative Party which fulfilled the role of the “businessmen’s party”, while in the rest of Europe the Liberal parties moved that way, and small-c conservatism was taken up by Christain Democrat parties whose economics were more social democratic.

    There is a big difference between business now and business in the 19th century. Business in the 19th century was not dominated by big international corporations as it is now. Free trade then tended to be seen as defence of the little man against the strength of the aristocracy. It also operated in a world which for many purposes could still be considered infinite. It also depended on a certain supposition of British superiority, a casual assumption that Britain could not lose because it was naturally the “top nation”.

    However, one also finds that if one actually looks at what real 19th century Liberals said or did, there was a great deal of pragmatism about the role of the state. They did not have this shrill “the state is evil, politics is evil, the answer to all problems is to have a cash market economy to drive up quality” mentality that those who are trying to push the line “liberal = free market economy” have now.

    And it would seem, going by various comments and assertions made by NIck Clegg and David Laws and others before and after May 2010 that that thread has burgeoned forth into life once more.

    There was for many years a stock article which the Tory newspapers used to run at the time of the Liberal Assembly (which was the only time they’d acknowledge our existence). It was on the theme “the Liberal Party would flourish and gain our support if only it became a party whose main platform was extreme free market economics”. What seems to have happened is that a few rather naive people took them seriously. And such people were promoted by the right-wing press as the most obviously intelligent and skilled people in the Liberal Party.

    The reality is that extreme free market economics has taken the role which Trotskyism had in my youth – a simplistic ideology with simplistic answers to all problems which trendy people adopted because it made them look clever, and which could not be defeated in arguments because the answer of these people to all criticism was that whatever had been implemented in that way and had failed wasn’t pure enough, and nirvana was always just round whatever was the next corner.

    The ideology was always one with minimal support outside a few trendies in the social elite and a few sad cases lower down who liked the structure of a rigid political system and the comradeship of the movement.

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