Politics as an Article of Faith

For tribal politicians the primacy of one’s party is an article of faith but the 2019 election must give many loyal Lib Dem a dose of political agnosticism, if not atheism.  Even the most committed party member should be asking themselves what the party is for or if it still serves any purpose at all.

At the least it must be a mouthpiece for liberal ideals of openness, inclusivity and justice.  But it must be more than just a cry in the wilderness.   Politics need to deliver change, either directly in government or indirectly by influencing others.   At the moment the Liberal Democrats are capable of neither, nor do they look capable of reinventing themselves.

From 1945 onwards the old Liberal Party had little interest in direct political power nationally, instead seeing itself as a political think tank, churning out detailed policies to be adopted by others.

Only with the advent of the Alliance did the party once again take a serious interest in national power.  But when Blair adopted large parts of its constitutional agenda it was bereft of new liberal insights, while uniquely liberal ideas – such as a citizen’s income – were quietly abandoned in the name of political pragmatism.

By 1997, the party’s most prominent policy was to raise tax to help pay for education, a technocratic proposal.   Still it was a message that appealed to the campaigners, enabling them almost to double their Parliamentary representation despite a declining poll rating.  For this reason, the party assumed a pride in its campaigning  ability to deliver electoral success against the odds.

In fact, this remains a self-deception.  One has to look back to the 2001 election to find the party winning seats ‘against the head’ in rugby parlance and more often than not it failed to take advantage of polling advances.

So if the Liberal Democrats are neither a sub-charged political think tank, nor an enviable campaigning machine, what are they?

After thirty-five years of membership I have sadly concluded not only that the party is not fit for purpose, but it is most likely to impede the progress of others – a sort of political bed-blocker for liberal values.

The first question the leadership candidates should be required to answer is not how they might recover a handful more seats, but how they might contribute to the creation of a more liberal society in the face of the most sustained global assault on liberal values since the 1930s.

The candidates need to demonstrate convincingly how the Liberal Democrats might be more likely to deliver change than a Starmer-led Labour party, an insurgent liberal Conservative backlash or an entirely new political vehicle unburdened by a destructive legacy, a traumatised brand and a hopeless out-dated bureaucracy – even if these are still long odds bets.

Either way, Radix, the real McCoy of a think-tank, working cross-party with some truly original thinkers seems to me to be the best liberal (small ‘l’) chance for now.

One final thought on political allegiance as an article of faith (apologies for the unhappy parallel).:

There is a story of the Jews in Auschwitz who put God on trial one evening for allowing the horrendous acts of the Nazis.  They debated all night before agreeing that God was indeed guilty…. then they said the morning prayer.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I am not yet quite ready to abandon my faith.

This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in Radix.

* Ben Rich is Chief Executive of Radix, the radical centre think tank. From 1992-95 he was Lib Dem Deputy Policy Director and from 1997-2001 Vice Chair of the Federal Policy Committee. He was Tim Farron’s Leadership Campaign Director and his interim chief of staff from 2015-16 and senior adviser to the Lib Dem Business & Entrepreneurs Network until December 2019.

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28 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 27th Feb '20 - 12:36pm

    I assume (after looking at its website) “Radix” is another attempt to divert the Liberal Democrats into becoming part of a soggy meaningless centre-right mish-mash. I just say good luck to them in that but please leave us alone!

  • Whether or not Radix is the answer to our problems is not the big question here. More importantly, is Ben’s analysis broadly correct ? If I understand his argument, he is suggesting that not only have we failed to win power at a national level, but we have failed to influence the broader debate and to get our policies enacted by others. We have been deluded by a certain amount of success at a local level and in by elections into thinking that we know how to win and a big break through is just around the corner. In reality, we are poor at developing policies that move beyond social democratic platitudes. Isn’t that all fair comment ?

  • Radix ? Didn’t they used to advertise it as :

    “Muscle Soak Bath Soak has a 100% nature inspired fragrance. … A refreshing bubble bath soak which soothes your mind and makes you feel relaxed. For best results, pour the bath product under warm water before carefully stepping into the bath. Then rinse off leaving your skin feeling clean and fresh”.

    Just what the Lib Dems need.

  • David Becket 27th Feb '20 - 1:33pm

    In spite of the knocking of Radix i would argue that much of this article is spot on.
    “a hopeless out-dated bureaucracy” is particularly relevant.

    In particular the questions we should be asking potential leaders are sound. We will not get a chance at Spring Conference, instead we are given a dose of an ex leader, because that is how we have always done it.

    I would ask a further question, how are you going to change the culture of the party.

  • Ben,

    you write “…candidates need to demonstrate convincingly how the Liberal Democrats might be more likely to deliver change than a Starmer-led Labour party, an insurgent liberal Conservative backlash or an entirely new political vehicle unburdened by a destructive legacy, a traumatised brand and a hopeless out-dated bureaucracy – even if these are still long odds bets.”

    You don’t explain the basis for your assessment of the party as having a “destructive legacy, a traumatised brand and a hopeless out-dated bureaucracy “.

    Nor, interesting as it might be, is another conference on Monetary policy likely to do that much to deliver your stated goal of a “sustainable society where all citizens can live securely with dignity, are active participants in society and are free to pursue their own interpretation of the good life”.
    Think tanks can generate papers and run events, but it takes people organising in their communities and electing representatives to government to bring about real change. You still need political parties on the ground for that.

  • Paul Barker 27th Feb '20 - 2:07pm

    I really get why we are all so miserable right now. Last Spring a couple of “Windows of Opportunity” opened (or seemed to open) & we were much too slow to see that they had closed again. By the Autumn I was convinced that we would get around 11% & 10 to 15 Seats in the inevitable election, Im sorry that I didnt make more noise about that at the time.
    Our gloom now is the direct result of our misplaced Optimism in the Run-up to the Election.
    Looked at calmly we actually did OK, our Vote went up massively & the loss of our Leader was down to The SNP, not to our main opponents on a UK scale.
    In fact our low point was the Summer of 2017 & that was the delayed result of The Coalition.
    We have seen Two & a half Years of very slow recovery but it will take a lot more of that before we get our natural optimism back.

  • A couple of ways to fight back. On individual rights, the huge abuse of data by the govn (nowadays just about anyone can dig out your full name, DOB, NI number etc) indicates a need to put this data into the hands of the individual by having a lock on access that would exclude all but the police, IR etc from accessing unless given permission by the individual via an unlock code. So finance companies could only access govn databases with permission of the individual. Citizens rights without recourse to EU bodies are also in peril but given the hopeless state of the UK ombudsmen not sure what to do about it. And another area, moving the burden of tax from individuals on to companies, especially on things like the TV licence and council tax.

  • william francis 27th Feb '20 - 3:16pm

    Your article operates on the assumption that the only way to attain political power is to be in government.

    Ordinary Parliamentarian can influence legislation via private members bills, just look at the abortion liberalisation bill put forth by david steel in the 1960s or the legislative pressure the Liberal Party put on the wilson government in 1964-1966 with their slim majority.

  • The Liberal Party after 1945 was still concerned with getting some MPs elected in Parliament and having a role in national politics. It was the third national party fielding 322 candidates in 1970, 517 in February 1974, 619 in October 1974 and 577 in 1979.

    In the 1970’s the Liberal Party had elected councillors; 1059 in 1979, rising to 1455 in 1981 before the SDP was formed in June. The Liberal Democrat Party has also been successful at the local level, having 3265 councillors in 1990, 5078 in 1996, about 5305 in 2006, and about 2712 in 2019.

    Today, the Liberal Democrats have a role in national politics and still tries to get MPs elected, standing 611 candidates in the 2019 general election 116 more than both Green Parties.

    We need to become again a radical non-socialist alternative (and a radical non-class based alternative) to the Conservative Party and this needs to be the aim for our new leader who must reject the idea that we have to be some centralist party which supports the consensus.

    Why does Ben Rich think that the party has a “hopeless out-dated bureaucracy” and what does he thinks a modern non-dated bureaucracy looks like?

  • “0nly with the advent of the Alliance”.

    What breathtaking nonsense. The Liberal Party punched well above its weight before the Alliance, starting with the Leadership of Jo Grimond in 1956.

    When did you join the party, Mr Rich ?

  • Katharine Pindar 27th Feb '20 - 10:26pm

    “Even the most committed party member should be asking themselves what the party is for or if it still serves any purpose at all.’ I find that complete nonsense, Ben Rich, speaking as an activist now and after more than 50 years of membership. I was amazed to read about your own career as an activist, that you should lose faith like this.

    The Liberal Democrats constitute for me the only possible party to support in Great Britain, as a progressive campaigning party of the centre-left. Yes, we made a mess of the General Election campaign, through over-confidence and temporary loss of judgement. But we have still the solid basis of our belief, our values and our policies. I will go to York having faith not only in almost all our past leaders, including Tim Farron who I think could now take up an elder statesman role if he would, not only in most of our present MPs and some of our hard-working peers, but also in our committed membership, our councillors and our candidates and party staff and workers. There is strength and longevity in our party, and the possibility of greater things to come, viewing the appalling government we have now and the deficiencies of the Labour party. To borrow a Shakespearean phrase, A pox on your views here, Ben! Though thanks for the past.

  • Jane Graham Reed 28th Feb '20 - 7:55am

    Thank you for your article. I hold similar misgivings but for now will hang in there as an active member contributing as best I can.

  • The reality is that our country consists of people. Organisations consist of people. The Party continues because there are people who want it to continue. We all have our own world view.
    I remember canvassing in about 1970 and talking to someone who remembered members of the pre-1914 Liberal Government. He considered himself a stauch Liberal.
    The fact is that the Liberal/ Liberal Democrat Party has had a great influence on the national political scene.
    The successful work has been based on activism by members. This is what we need to focus on.

  • Further to the latest comments, this should be a space in which liberals (small l) can talk honestly and courteously to each other. I am sure we can treat it in this way.

    David, I joined the young liberals in 1982 and worked on Simon Hughes’ campaign and have been a member ever since. I think with respect you have missed my point: Jo Grimmond was a great man and there is no doubt that the party punched above its weight under his leadership but my point is we either have to be great ideas generators as he was, or making real electoral progress as we did under Paddy. In recent years we have done neither.

    Katharine, I will be in York too. I wish I could agree with you but 2019 wasn’t the aberration you suggest – we haven’t made significant electoral progress in a general election since 2005 – and unless we face up to that we cannot properly analyse what we are doing wrong.

    Thanks for you continued comments.

  • Ben Rich,

    Indeed the 2005 general election was our most successful one (since merger).

    For the 2010 general election we were no longer a radical party, having moved away from a lot of our policies. Also Cleggmania interfered with our targeting and had an influence on us losing some seats.

    For the 2015 general election we lost the trust of lots of voters and had supported policies which were either against the interests of our traditional supporters or against what our traditional voters through we supported. We had bad slogans and used push polls to get a much too optimistic view of what seats we could hold.

    For the 2017 and 2019 general elections we failed to set out how much life would be better for the left-behind if they voted for us. We didn’t have the policies to make it happen either.

    For the whole time we have rejected the liberal tradition of Keynes and the idea that it is the role of government to intervene in the economy to improve things for people, to reduce poverty, to reduce inequality and to ensure no one is left behind.

    I wonder if the leadership of the party changed its attitude to members and no longer trusted them and became more secretive with a bunker mentality.

    I note you haven’t answered by questions – Why do you think that the party has a “hopeless out-dated bureaucracy”? What do you think a modern non-dated bureaucracy looks like for a liberal party?

  • Katharine Pindar 28th Feb '20 - 2:48pm

    Ben Rich, I regard our 2019 GE campaign as an aberration because wiser heads in our party, notably Tim Farron and Vince Cable, advised both against the Revoke policy adopted by the Bournemouth Conference and the decision to call for a December election, instead of keeping Johnson teetering on his lack of a majority. I don’t know who advised Jo Swinson on these mistaken policies, since they have seemed to keep their heads down since, but they were unwise, and I believe in the case of the Revoke policy, undemocratic. I trust they will keep to a back seat now, and I hope Jo at York may acknowledge the hubris of the autumn and the fantastic expectations of up to 100 seats to be won.

    Prior to that we had not deviated from our principles, nor shown such lack of wisdom, although I am unable to comment on our tactics in the 2017 election or generally. But I am clear that now our party needs to adopt a strong, clear, platform, on which fighting poverty and inequality should be central. The failings of the Coalition government should make us the more determined to make up for past mistakes and embrace these needs. The new Marmot report which shows up the growth of health inequality in the last ten years can be a central focus now. From the point of view of party revival as well as national need, we should put these themes first immediately – or the Labour Party which can make no impact until April, will be speaking out and heard before us.

  • Ben makes some good points. As do many of the commentators.

    My fear is that there has been and will likely be no appetite to address the question of ‘what is the party for’ – a question that has obviously been in need of addressing for some years.

    The temptation has always been to believe that it’s all down to some tactical errors in campaigns; or that it’s because the media hate us; or it was just bad luck; or any other explanation that conveniently allows people to believe that we have a vital political role to play and all that’s needed is one more heave.

    It is right that winning elections is not the only way to drive change. Farage with UKIP and then the Brexit Party has changed this country fundamentally though only ever winning one seat. But we’re not doing that either.

    And neither is it about refining policies – because nobody is listening.

    The question is how does the party become once again politically relevant. That’s a complicated question that has many parts and will take an effort that is much bigger than comments on a blog to address. But first of all it takes the will to want to address it – and seriously. I very much doubt that such a will exists. And anyway, there’s always too much everyday tactical stuff to get done to have any time for anything quite so fundamental.

    So let’s instead discuss whether our balloons were quite the right colour during the campaign and believe that getting the shade a little bit better next time will sort it all out.

  • Peter Hirst 28th Feb '20 - 6:57pm

    The Liberal Democrats’ purpose is what its members make it. There are a group of policies/ values that neither of the two other Parties prioritise that make us unique. They are individual freedom, human rights, empowerment, community, democracy and the power of a regulated free press. That is a good enough reason for us to exist for me.

  • Electoral reform would help restore the Liberals to a more relevant position in British politics.

  • Joe ZL 28th Feb ’20 – 6:00pm:
    Farage with UKIP and then the Brexit Party has changed this country fundamentally though only ever winning one seat.

    Two seats. Both Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless had the integrity and respect for democracy to call by-elections when they defected from the Tories. Both were reelected. Pub quiz fact: Carswell’s victory was the biggest increase in the share of a vote for any party in any by-election in history.

  • Galen, Indeed it would, and people have been saying just that for years. Unfortunately, neither Labour nor the Conservatives will let it happen while they are in government.

  • Hopeless outdated bureaucracy

    1. A Board made up over forty individuals, largely representative of different parts of the party and identities, rather than skills and knowledge – hopelessly bloated and not qualified
    2. A Federal structure which reflects the world as we might wish it to be rather than how it is which gives huge power to the English party, an organisation with no transparency and whose officers mainly comprise people unable to make progress in any other section of the party, but who still hold most of the purse strings
    3. A policy-making process which operates almost wholly independently from political priorities and takes little account of professional messaging and communications
    4. A decision making process which requires two conferences a year, which is both expensive and ineffectual as well as unrepresentative of the party as a whole.
    5. A process for running general election campaigns which is opaque at best and at worse lacks clear leadership, decision-making or accountability i.e. as a result despite working in HQ during the 2019 campaign (and 2017 and 1992,1997,2001 and 2005) I cannot tell you who was really in charge – the leader, her office, the director of campaigns, the chair of the election campaign, the chief exec?

    I could go on and you may not agree with all these points but I don’t want you to think it was a glib or superficial line

  • And still the complaints roll into LD Voice about the GE policy of ‘status quo’, sorry ‘revoke’, at the General Election… I’m afraid that for any party serious about fighting poverty and inequality it was the only possible policy – since all other relationships with the EU hit the poorest and most vulnerable (in fact most of us) ever more harshly, as we are already seeing and will continue to see.
    Why can’t we just accept that Johnson presented the most calamitous decision ever taken voluntarily by this country as a positive, up-beat, patriotic, even fun thing, while we advocated the status quo in a serious almost apologetic way. Does anyone remember Neil Postman? The last election was chapter 9 of ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ on steroids.

  • Laurence Cox 29th Feb '20 - 2:52pm

    Ben,

    I have a good deal of sympathy for your comments on our outdated bureaucracy. For me as an ordinary member (although one who did spend a good deal of time at HQ during the 2017 campaign), the problem with the Federal Board is similar to the problem with the Federal Executive it replaced: I don’t have a clear understanding of what it does or why it has to do it. Unlike FPC or FCC whose roles are clear, FB seems to be a grab-bag of everything else that is not covered by another committee.

    The England problem in a Federal UK is one that we would have to face if ever we were in government. My own preference would be to remove all responsibilities from the State level for England and move them either upwards to Federal level (e.g. Candidate approval and selection) or downwards to the Regional level (e.g. English-only policies; there is no reason why the best policy for London should be imposed on, say, the North-East or vice versa). I did argue for this in my submission to the English Party Governance review, but it was not the direction that the review chose to follow.

    I agree with you about the two conferences each year. For those who are able to attend them this works satisfactorily, but they are still a small minority of the membership so the majority of the membership are cut out of the policy-making process. It would be very easy to go down the route of online voting, but this would disenfranchise the minority of our membership who still use paper ballots and we have to ensure that whatever we do we do not leave people behind. Even the decision to go to one-member, one-vote at conference can now be seen as making conference less rather than more representative.

  • Zoe ZL,

    I expect most members of the party know we exist to get members elected and so try to make society more liberal and try to implement our aims as set out in the preamble of the constitution.

    Ben Rich,

    I am not convinced what you describe is bureaucracy. It is the party’s democratic structure. I also asked you what bureaucracy you think the party should have. As I think you are talking about structure then please can you set out what structure you think the party should have?

    I don’t see the English Party as having huge power. If each English region was a state party then the English parts of the UK would have huge power in our structure. I expect lots of members don’t even know there is an English Party. (According to our website there are 35 members of the Federal Board.)

    I think our structures could be reformed. Especially the policy making process should be changed to ensure more members are involved and it is not mostly the same people.

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