The disconnect that many Lib Dems cannot see – or refuse to see

The word ‘tragedy’ is used in the literary world in a very specific sense: to denote a situation in which people can’t see what’s going on around them and how it’s destined to end in tears. I cannot help feeling we Liberal Democrats are in the middle of a tragedy we need to stop very soon before it’s too late.

Our autumn conference last month had a steady underlying seam of tribalism about it. The most outward sign was the motion to stand a candidate in every seat unless local members agree to stand aside. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about this motion; it’s what it says about the underlying mood that worries me – that we are the Lib Dems and we don’t need to do business with anyone else, thank you.

Leaving aside the similarity to the tone Brexiteers use, it denotes a disconnect between one of our core policies and the implications of it. And unless we recognise this disconnect, we risk pushing ourselves to extinction in a huff of indignation.

The Liberal Democrats – and the Liberal Party before it – have always stood for proportional representation. At times when voters have had no idea what else we stand for, they’ve known we want electoral reform. PR will inevitably mean hung parliaments. Hung parliaments will inevitably mean coalition governments. Coalition governments involve compromises in the interests of cooperation, but they create a more stable form of government where lurches to the extremes are far less likely.

Showing the ability to work with other parties is therefore not just an essential prerequisite of achieving PR, it’s an advertisement for it. So why are we so reluctant to embrace it? Why do we insist on preserving a disconnect between our longed-for voting reform and the obvious consequence of it?

The answers are easy at a superficial level but they don’t stand up to close analysis. “We were in coalition with the Conservatives and got burned.” “Many of us don’t see Labour as progressive.” “The Greens are economically too left-wing.” “How can we cooperate with the SNP and Plaid Cymru if we believe in a federal UK?” All valid (up to a point), but why are we forever focusing on our differences and not on where we have common ground? That is especially valid for Labour, Greens, SNP and Plaid, as we have the common interest of getting rid of this awful government.

Worse still, Lib Dems are running many councils thanks to a cooperative alliance with other parties, often the Greens and Labour. We boast that we run 26 councils as confirmation that we are doing good work in the community, yet many of these wouldn’t be possible without some form of support from another party. A tribalist approach means we’re arguing against what many of us are doing successfully locally!

Many tribalists in our party will take comfort from the defeat of the pro-PR motion at Labour’s conference, but that would be counterproductive. Labour’s members are well ahead of their leadership. The leadership is worried about Labour being panned as losers by the right-wing press if it embraces electoral reform, but without electoral reform Labour will forever be losers. Eventually Labour will see that and bite the PR bullet.

I am not trying to dilute liberalism, in fact cooperation with others will force us to really define what we mean by it. We need to assert why a liberal party is necessary in a modern-day political landscape, be proud of what we stand for, and then highlight the areas of overlap with others, so we cooperate from a position of strength.

We spent years trying to get away from two-party politics and around 2010 we seemed to be winning. Now we face the prospect that Britain’s sole liberal party could put itself out of existence because we’re unwilling to work strategically with other parties in the run-up to the next general election (even if ‘working with’ has still to be defined and may be very low-level). To lose the Liberal Democrats would be a tragedy in the journalistic sense, but it will be a tragedy in the literary sense if we don’t come to our senses now and realise that some form of cooperation with others is essential, both until we get rid of the ghastly first-past-the-post voting system, and after.

* Chris Bowers, a former director of the Environmental Transport Association and communications consultant to the European NGO umbrella Transport & Environment, oversaw the development and writing of the transport chapter of the 2019 review of the Liberal Democrats’ climate change policy. He is standing as a target seat candidate in the East Sussex County Council elections.

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55 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 18th Oct '21 - 3:43pm

    For all the talk of the need to get a progressive alliance to help oust the Tories, the reality in Scotland is that the Liberal Democrats are involved in 5 council administrations with the Tories, only 1 administration with Labour, and no administrations with the SNP. while I would like to believe that the Liberal Democrats would choose to work with Labour and the SNP rather than back the Tories if ever a future opportunity were to present itself, I fear that a repeat of the disaster of 2010 is more likely.

  • Neil James Sandison 18th Oct '21 - 3:50pm

    Chris Bowers is correct in his analysis .You cannot be pro-PR without supporting a multi-party democratic state . Which whilst you may encourage the electors to vote for your particular brand of politics in the ballot box it will lead to governance by coalition and those coalitions , compacts or arrangements will require all those who aspire to leadership of the country or council to agree a balanced budget acceptable by the majority of the members be it a council , authority or parliament ,At the end of the day the electors by the choices they make define the shape and direction of that governance . Unlike FPTP it is not an elected dictatorship of the minority but more accurately the wider population of voters . So lets get back to the direction and course Roy Jenkins and David Steel set us upon ,be proud we represent a very different form of politics not based on narrow tribalism but inclusive and outward looking for our country that embraces PR and co-operation in civic and political life .

  • John Marriott 18th Oct '21 - 4:12pm

    @Brad Barrows
    No disrespect, Brad; but I’m not that bothered about Scotland (sorry, also, to David Raw as well). Under PR, if they play their cards right, the Lib Dems can clearly profit from the niche they have carved for themselves.

    No, it’s the party’s future in England and Wales that concerns me. Let me explain one more time. In the breakdown of party sympathies, roughly 40% of voters would identify as ‘Conservative’ – with a large or small ‘c’ or even none at all. That leaves around 60% who are not conservative but are split between several parties, of which the Lib Dems can probably count on about 10% in a good year. Labour, or whatever it decides to call itself, accounts for about 25%, with the rest floating around, veering from left to right.

    Some diehards still reckon that the Lib Dems could replace Labour in the same way as Labour gradually replaced the old Liberal Party in the two decades before WW2. Mind you, at the moment, we appear to be returning to the kind of two party politics I can just remember from the 1950s and 1960s.

    As I have written several times, nothing will change until the Labour Party accepts that it cannot do it on its own. As Chris Bowers says, only by being willing to work with other parties, will the Lib Dems gain a place in the sun. The first condition of any deal with any other party has got to be a cast iron promise, if successful at the ballot box, to introduce a form of PR, if necessary, initially at least without a referendum. To be honest, at the moment, beggars can’t really be choosers.

  • John McHugo 18th Oct '21 - 4:24pm

    We should also be upfront in supporting tactical voting where appropriate. That is the future, so long as FPTP is there. It would hugely benefit us in constituencies in the so-called Orange Halo. It was because potential Lib Dem voters supported Labour in Putney that the Tories lost the seat. We must also have benefited from potential Labour or Green voters switching to us in places like Twickenham, St Albans, etc. Next time round Wimbledon, Esher and Walton, Cambridgeshire….

  • Michael Chandler 18th Oct '21 - 5:30pm

    A Progressive Alliance – or whatever you want to call a Stop The Tories coalition – needs more than one party to work. But the thing is that in recent elections Labour has not been interested in working with other political parties at all. They have adopted an attitude that it’s “Labour’s way or no way at all”.

    Part of this is down to the idea, which was prevalent when Corbyn was leader that only Labour truly holds the mantle of being a progressive social democrat party and that other political parties are just variations of the Tories. But it is also due to the festering grievance that many in the Labour Party feel towards the Liberal Democrats when they did not form a coalition government with them but with the Tories.

    The solution is not something that rests totally on the shoulders of the Liberal Democrats. It is Labour that must be encouraged to let go of its tribalist tendency. Although the way that the vote on PR at their conference went doesn’t give mush optimism for that

  • Brad Barrows 18th Oct '21 - 5:35pm

    @John Marriott
    I understand that Scotland is not your main concern – and that’s not a problem – but the reason for me quoting the Scottish situation is that we have PR for council elections…and the evidence is that the Liberal Democrats are far more likely to back the Tories than back Labour or the SNP to keep the Tories out of power.

  • Surely the point of the motion is to ensure that any deal is not one-sided (by providing a strong position to negotiate from) that it is agreed with local membership (inline with our localism beliefs) and that we don’t patronise the electorate?

    As Ed says, the electorate understand how the electoral system works and will notice who is in 1st and 2nd place. Standing down may also have the opposite effect that desired given that approximately 1/3 of Lib Dem voters prefer the Conservatives over Labour as a 2nd choice.

  • We are at risk of confusing two things. Wanting PR because it’s democratic and wanting PR because it will put an end to all powerful Conservative rule. People would still vote for the Tories under PR, as they do in Scotland, but what we’ve seen in Scotland is that they don’t run any councils alone. But if the public vote for a large block of Conservative councillors, then of course they should have a say in the council. As a general rule, I’d rather we were in coalitions with Labour than the Conservatives, but the public don’t always vote in such a way as to make that happen.

    Nevertheless, wanting an end to a Conservative government that has too much power because FPTP at Westminster allows it is another matter altogether.

    Much has been said on the pros and cons of a ‘progressive alliance’ of which there are many. I count myself as a supporter – with caveats. My main comment at this stage is that the concept is at risk of eating itself. Too many supporters have oversimplified the electoral arithmetic and assume that if everyone can just pull together we’ll be rid of the Tories (forever). They assume that simply standing down candidates is the way, and that everyone who didn’t vote Tory last time will fall into line, and hope that a decent chunk of those who voted Tory last time will be happy voting for whichever party is allowed to stand against them next time.

    More experienced campaigners know this isn’t realistic, so seek a more nuanced approach. Some pro-Progressive Alliance campaigners get angry about this, and instead of listening to those with more experience, they shout at them online, and think that shaming people who don’t agree with their approach will convince them to change their minds.

    The net result is a whole load of in-fighting amongst the ‘progressive alliance’ people. The exact opposite of the ‘non-aggression’ pact which actually worked far more effectively for Labour and the LibDems in the 90s. The Tories are the biggest winners of anti-Tory campaigners turning on each other.

    We need a much smarter approach. And for Labour to support PR.

  • Yes, we co-operate/collaborate on councils which end up with no overall control. Because that is what we eventually have to do – unless we want to stand aside completely and have no share in the mechanism of local government because we didn’t win an absolute majority. But that isn’t what anyone who voted for any candidate voted for. And yes, to be in favour of PR does also mean that the likely outcome will very often be some form of coalition/co-operation, within which we will play a responsible part. But our council or parliamentary candidates go to the electorate arguing for the maximum possible vote for the Liberal Democrats, because (plan A) we want to be in overall control and (plan B) the more votes and elected members we achieve, the larger the say we can have if some form of co-operation becomes necessary. We will never be able to trust other parties to deliver their voters to us, and we shouldn’t assume that ours will loyally go off and vote for some other candidate because we tell them to. And unless we are the majority party in a parliamentary coalition we will never be able to ensure the adoption of PR, no matter how many ‘cast-iron guarantees’ we may have received during negotiations.

  • “The most outward sign was the motion to stand a candidate in every seat unless local members agree to stand aside”

    I fail to see anything tribal in a motion that says what most members would naturally assume to be the case anyway, or why it should be indicative of a concerning underlying mood.

    Is the suggestion that we shouldn’t have had any motion on this, or that local members shouldn’t be consulted and have arrangements imposed from above?

    There are widely differing opinions on this with the Party, and they need to be resolved, but I hope nobody seriously suggests that local members shouldn’t have the final say.

  • There is a danger of ignoring the fact that in seats with no activity it is unlikely to make any difference whether we stand a candidate or not.

  • Phil Wainewright 18th Oct '21 - 6:59pm

    I do not understand why Liberal Democrats keep on beating themselves up over Labour’s refusal to participate in a Progressive Alliance or support PR. It’s not our fault.

  • I basically could not agree more with @Fiona

    I would actually go in the opposite direction to the article’s author – that a lot of what has been passed at Conferences in 2020 and 2021 has been the opposite of tribal. Shutting down attempts to bounce us into becoming a single-issue party on rejoining the EU was because most members understood we need to talk to a wider group of voters than just those who pass that Shibboleth; the federalism motions which by definition require consensus politics; the UBI policy which clearly aligns us with the Greens and many in Labour; and standing in every constituency is about our commitment to giving voters the right to choose and believing in a grown-up politics where we understand the freedom of all to stand for their principles then talk afterwards with respect.

    A Progressive Alliance doesn’t need us to stand down to work. It only seems to work in one-offs like by-elections. Unite to Remain delivered precisely nothing. But as has been pointed out working together in the 1990s was very productive for both Labour and the Lib Dems, the 2010 coalition was not negotiated in advance (like it or not, it functioned how most EU countries do their elections); and in Batley and Spen our team saved Labour’s bacon by standing, because there were two parties taking the debate to the Conservatives.

  • James Fowler 18th Oct '21 - 9:22pm

    Well said Fiona.

  • Tristan Ward 18th Oct '21 - 9:31pm

    The only common ground of relvance to this article that I have with Labour/Greens/SNP/ Plaid is a desire to get the Tories out of government. Where I part company from them is that they are not liberals: to that extent they are no different from the conservatives. I recomensed that those whose overwhelming priority is to get rid of the tories join the Labour Party, and those who want power at all cost join the the Tories. Both of these parties will be quite content to carry on governing without a care for Liberal Democracy. Those of us who care about Liberalism will just soldier on and if necessary die in the last ditch defending it.

  • Tristan Ward 18th Oct '21 - 9:47pm

    It seems to me that this whole conversation misses – again and again and again that Britain (and especially England) is not a place that thinks of itself as a social democrat nation – and certainly not a socialist one. The whole of history seems to me to be (rightly) rejecting socialism so that allying ourselves (either implicitly or explicitly with that seems to be a terrible mistake. (In my life time the Labour Party has only achieved sustained success when Tony Blair MP = I’m Tory plan B.)

    The real threat\political battle ground seems to me to be powers vs ecology. To me capitalism is part of the solution as well as part of the problem. We need to take over/extinguish the greens to mKe real progress: Labour is the problem, not the solution.

  • Christine Headley 18th Oct '21 - 11:32pm

    I was in a seat where we were stood down for the Greens in 2019. Most seats like ours are by definition weak, but by standing down we are made weaker still. Our voice is not heard at hustings. It will be more difficult to find candidates for council elections. It isn’t tribalism to stand a candidate – it is more tribalistic, and assumes we know who our second-choice tribe is, not to. While we might support Labour in a two-party contest, a proportion of our voters will go Tory, and we thus may help them win seats. Standing down denies choice to the voters, who are the most important people. After the voters have spoken, we should get down to making deals with other parties.
    Having been stood down, too, I find any suggestion that a local party should be forced to stand down without their consent totally illiberal. The amendment the OP doesn’t like merely makes sure that local parties agree to it, which is surely the level at which the decision should be taken.

  • I do not see the conference decision to “stand a candidate in every seat unless local members agree to stand aside” as a turn to tribalism – far from it.

    The previous situation was that local parties were required to field a candidate, and would have one imposed from the “Parachute List” if they failed to comply. The only exceptions were not standing against an incumbent Speaker, and the nationally agreed “progressive alliance” list at the last election which excluded Labour (but funnily enough helped Labour in some constituencies as we stood down ostensibly in favour of the Greens.)

    Of course another way around it is to “accidentally” spoil your nomination papers at the last minute, but I have never heard of that actually happening at a parliamentary election!

    Local parties who lost deposits may legitimately ask where the money is coming from if we are being asked to waste £500 that could be better spent on electing local councillors. Now we have the flexibility to decide for ourselves.

  • Christopher Moore 19th Oct '21 - 7:42am

    The Lib Dems are not very “tribal”. After all we are in coalition at local level with the other major parties and Greens. You point that out yourself.

    Likewise, if you have any awareness of the internal culture of Labour, Conservative, SNP, Green, you will know that those parties are far more “tribal” than the Lib Dems. Any strategy has to take into account that reality.

    We respect local parties; constituencies are not the play things of the national leadership: thankfully, given the lack of strategic thinking exhibited at the last election with the psephologically illiterate Remain Alliance.

    It’s worth remembering that this failed because it marked out Lib Dems as a blindly one issue party, and that alienated much of our previous support, which was either Euro-sceptical or which accepted the Referendum result.

    There are similar strategic flaws to the psephologically naive progressive alliance strategy.

  • rural liberal 19th Oct '21 - 9:00am

    but what do we do with the third of the LibDem voters (more according to some polls) who have the Tories as their second preference to the LibDems?

    I simply won’t vote Liberal if there’s any danger of my vote being used to shore up the Labour Party.

  • Brad Barrows 19th Oct '21 - 9:31am

    @rural Liberal
    This is perhaps the most significant post so far as it encapsulates the issue perfectly: the Liberal Democrats will never manage to grow until the party gives a clear undertaking as to how it would behave in any future ‘hung parliament situation. Simply saying it will ‘talk to both major parties and do the best deal’, or ‘talk with the larger party first’ is not going to be enough to persuade many voters that voting Liberal Democrat is a risk worth taking. Rural Liberal makes clear that their vote will not be given to the Liberal Democrats “if there’s any danger of my vote being used to shore up the Labour Party.” My position is the complete reverse of that: after experiencing the feelings of gut wrenching sick when I realised that the Liberal Democrats were going to back the Tories in 2010, I will never vote Liberal Democrat again unless I believe the party will not back the Tories if a hung parliament emerges.

  • Denis Loretto| 19th Oct '21 - 10:56am

    A key point is defining what a progressive alliance is. There is little appetite in any of the parties for any arrangement to stand down candidates in selected constituencies but some form of action short of that must surely be feasible. Indeed recent by-elections show a move towards voters themselves reading the runes and casting their votes tactically. Can we not find a way to encourage this?

  • It seems there are some here who would not contemplate sharing power with either Conservative or Labour party’s, admittedly there would have to be negotiations between whichever party held the better chance of forming a government in the event of a hung parliament, but would it not be a dereliction of duty not to try to reach an amicable resolution with the other party if only for the sake of our country, let alone our party, provided of course, that the Lib Dems extract the best terms and resolve to stick to them! Surely the party should wish to impose some influence on the governance of our country if the chance arose, or why bother to excist at all?

  • Brad Barrows 19th Oct '21 - 12:43pm

    @Barry Lofty
    A small party always has a choice in a hung parliament situation. It does not have to join a coalition to have huge influence and a minority government can be successful if it builds alliances on an issue by issue basis. I believe the Liberal Democrats should state clearly, and in advance of the next general election, that the only circumstances it would consider supporting a Tory government would be if electoral reform was part of the deal. It may be that this stance will also have to be taken with Labour to keep voters like rural liberal (see comment above) supporting the party, in which the party position would be one of ‘no electoral reform, no deal…period’. Whatever we decide, the disaster of 2010 can not be repeated.

  • John Marriott 19th Oct '21 - 12:56pm

    @Brad Barrows
    If you don’t mind my saying, I think that YOUR response to ‘rural Liberal’ “encapsulates the issue perfectly”:as well. To be brutally frank, I reckon that BOTH of your positions are wrong.

    The moral of what I am about to write is “Never say never”. After 26 years as a councillor, who had always been in opposition, I found myself in 2013 as part of what was called the ‘Administration Group’ on the Lincolnshire County Council. This was only the second time since its foundation in 1973 that the electorate had failed to return a majority Conservative controlled council. The first time was in 1993, when Labour and the Lib Dems managed to put an administration together, although the Tories still had more councillors than any other party. The major achievement of the years ‘93 to ‘97 was the establishment of the University of Lincoln.

    In 2013 it was UKIP that bit into many Tory held seats, making the group briefly the official opposition. As they were a few seats short of a majority, the Tories enlisted us four Lib Dems and three Independents to give them a majority. I have to say that, over the next four years, we delivered services despite being used by the Coalition government as a human shield to deflect the flak from austerity. We approached our work in a grown up way and managed to retain such things as library services, by going into partnership with the charitable sector. At the end of the day, most people have little time for posturing, especially at local government level. There is, under the present emasculated set up, little wiggle room for doctrinaire politics or grandstanding in local government.

  • Brad Barrows 19th Oct '21 - 1:30pm

    @John Marriott
    Interesting to read your view based on your experience. Of course, local government is different from national government, but I would still question if you would not have been able to extract the same concessions from a minority administration from the ‘opposition benches’.

  • John Marriott 19th Oct '21 - 2:26pm

    @Brad Barrows
    Words like ‘concessions’ annoy me. This is not war, war by any other name. It’s about jaw, jaw and it involves compromise. I don’t know whether or not you have ever been a councillor. I spent 30 years as one, as I have a habit of reminding LDV contributors. I don’t count ‘victories’ or ‘defeats’. I DO count progress. To be brutally honest, I always found it easier to come up with a deal with Tories than ever I did with Labour, who were just bloody hard work! But of course, as you say, it’s only LOCAL government after all, not tye Premier League!

    Talking of the Premier League, I’ll say it again, if the opposition parties had left their egos outside the negotiating room in the Autumn of 2019, we would not only not have PM Johnson at the dispatch box; but we might have had a ‘Norway Plus’ deal with the EU as well. You can bang on about how awful the 2010-2015 Coalition government was. I’ll keep banging on about how the opposition parties’ failure to get their act together landed us with an 80 seat Tory majority, the worst Covid figures in Western Europe and everything else that has come our way recently.

  • Barry Lofty 19th Oct '21 - 2:45pm

    I hope I will be permitted to second John Marriott’s comments and apologise for not including local government in my earlier post, of course cooperation is needed at all levels of governance when it is required, perhaps even more so when it relates to local matters.

  • I don’t think there was anything fundamentally wrong with the motion at the recent conference to stand, except where the local party agrees. However, I do think it is fair to say that some members advocating the motion, were doing so hoping that we’d never stand down, ever and acting as if the purpose of the motion was to prevent any alliance at any level.

    As such, the motion as passed was presumed to be a bit of an ‘up yours’ to our members, members of other parties, and the general public who would like more cooperation. That impression lost us some goodwill amongst those who are keen on an alliance or tactical voting.

    Maintaining goodwill is essential for both a non-aggression pact and any localised alliance. That means realistic expectations. Not just about whether or not candidates should stand down, but over what party leaders can reasonably say on national tv that won’t scare off other voters that are needed too. Labour activists in particular need to understand that to win seats from the Tories means persuading people who voted Tory last time to change their minds.

  • Christopher Moore 19th Oct '21 - 3:10pm

    In 1997, tacit cooperation with Labour was a major positive for the LDs.

    In 1992 and 2017 and 2019, a supposed association with Labour was one of the reasons our support melted away in the last few days of the GE.

    The main difference is that the Tories were terminally unpopular in 1997; not so in 92, 17 and 19.

    Currently, the Tories are not very unpopular……

  • Nigel Quinton 19th Oct '21 - 3:20pm

    Well said Fiona.

  • John Marriott 19th Oct '21 - 5:54pm

    @Michael Meadowcroft
    My wife has said for some time that we are entering what she calls a ‘post political era’ and I tend to agree. It used to be so simple. The old certainties, Buggins’ turns, the configuration of the House of Commons, the official opposition, black and white, them and us..do you get the picture? That’s how it used to be as I was growing up (I’m about as old as you) that’s how it was, until the Liberals tried to muscle back in and succeeded in making their voice heard above the din, usually in by elections starting with Rochdale in 1958. The product of the marriage between them and the SDP, the ‘mould breaking’ Alliance, strove to replace Labour, because the electorate was still wedded to a two party system. They struggled to understand pluralism and a voting system that largely delivered it in the form of coalitions.

    We still have a voting system that rewards disproportionately the party that wins the most votes in each constituency with more seats than it deserves in the name of ‘strong and stable government’. People used to fall for that; but not any more. For those who claim to govern us it’s still largely about ‘bread and circuses’. However, many people don’t buy that any more.

    To be honest, most people seem content to lead their lives in a politically free atmosphere. How do we convince them that politics do matter? Don’t ask the Tories to reform the system. They just shapeshift to stay in control. It really is up to those who genuinely believe that it doesn’t have to be like this to get together, work together and win together. I wonder, given what my wife has said, whether we might be too late.

  • Tristan Ward 19th Oct '21 - 6:19pm

    @Brad Burrows

    Totally agree that PR is a ninnwgitiable condition of a future coalition with the Tories.

    But why not also with Lbaour? They are just as untrustworthy on this- see Blair’s record and their current party policy – and it is not in their party interest to agree PR. Just like the Tories, they have to be forced.

    Without PR we lose the big prize and take all the collateral damage of being in coalition.

  • Neil Sandison 19th Oct '21 - 7:08pm

    Sad to see Michael Meadowcroft still fighting the tribal battles of the 1980s pre merger . We have all moved on . indeed the public demands we move on ,There is more talk amongst the public of parties colaborating and recognising what we have in common to solve problems rather than splitting hairs on minor differences . The Climate Emergency is real and requires co-operation . The pandemic shone a light on inequality and poor social care , and a less wasteful and more thrifty circular economics is how industry will prosper in the future . So the purists might have to swallow their inflated pride but be confident that a new liberalism has emerged rising from the ashes of past errors and short sightedness.

  • Chris Moore 19th Oct '21 - 8:34pm

    Policy co-operation pre- and post-election is one thing; psephologically naive “progressive” electoral alliances is another.

    At the last election we sacrificed liberalism on the altar of refusal to move on from the Referendum. We were seen as an extreme one-issue party, fighting an already lost battle.

    The vast majority of liberal-minded voters went to other parties. We need to offer a compelling liberal vision to win back those voters, not kid ourselves that electoral arrangements can somehow magic up handfuls of seats.

  • It isn’t necessarily tribalism to oppose electoral pacts rather it is based on the Lib Dem’s position in the party system. The argument is:

    We are not the Labour Party, we are traditionally of the centre and believe in working across party boundaries. We are values based not class interest based.

    As a result we have a particular appeal to moderate Tory voters that could be lost as a result of a formal progressive alliance.

    There are counter arguments to the above which I have also made but they need to made better. Calling people tribal won’t work.

  • Peter Davies 19th Oct '21 - 9:18pm

    There could still be three years before the next election. Let’s not waste them trying to work out how how to help other parties. We need to build our core support across the country to a position where anyone cares whether we stand or not.

  • @BradBarrows the reason why the Scottish Lib Dems don’t presently have coalitions with the SNP is simply because of numbers.

    In 2007, we were in coalition in Fife with the SNP (with virtualy equal numbers) and produced what was probably the most effective administration in certainly Fife Council’s history since 1996, and probably even as far back as the old Fife County Council pre-1974. Similarly, we were also in coalition with the SNP in Aberdeen, East Lothian, Edinburgh, Perth & Kinross and Renfrewshire.

    The problem we face is that Scottish politics is so polarised between Yes/No to independence that the old left/right or class boundaries almost don’t apply. And @johnmarriott if you’re “not that bothered about Scotland” given that it currently provides just over 1/3 of the total Parliamentary Party in the Commons, then maybe you should be a bit more bothered?

  • Brad Barrows 20th Oct '21 - 9:06am

    @Keith Legg
    I’m afraid “the reason why Scottish Lib Dems don’t presently have coalitions with the SNP is simply because of numbers” is not supported by the evidence. For example, in East Dumbartonshire, where the SNP had 7, Conservatives 6 and Liberal Democrat 6 (with 3 others), the Liberal Democrats found themselves with a straight choice and joined with the Conservatives. In Aberdeenshire, Angus and Argyll and Bute, the SNP and Conservative group were almost the same in each council but the Liberal Democrats chose to join in coalitions with the Conservatives and assorted independents. In Dundee with the SNP were 1 councillor short of a majority and the Liberal Democrats with 2 councillors, we find that the Liberal Democrats are in opposition with the Conservatives and Labour and the council is instead run by a coalition between the SNP and 2 independent councillors. Yes the Liberal Democrats have joined with the SNP in the past but, in the current political landscape, the Liberal Democrats are regularly choosing to align with the Conservatives.

  • John Marriott 20th Oct '21 - 9:45am

    @Keith Legg
    The reason that I am not “bothered about Scotland” is because, as far as a voting system is concerned, it’s light years ahead of us in England, where I choose to live (albeit in the Tory fiefdom of Lincolnshire, where, in many respects, the 20th century has hardly begun).

    You can believe me or not, but I really am not bothered which party or parties are in power, whether it’s at Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff or in any council chamber for that matter as long as they collectively represent at least 50% of the votes cast.

  • @Michael Meadowcroft ““Tribalism” is a pejorative word for what is in fact simply a pride and confidence in one’s political party and its vision of of a very different society.” – That kind of confidence and vision is great – a very good thing. But I don’t think I’d call it tribalism. To my mind, tribalism is more like when you take attitude of ‘That other lot are evil. everything they do is wrong‘. At its worse, that kind of tribalism toxifies politics and leads people to think it’s OK to dehumanise their opponents. Sadly, it’s been endemic for decades in Labour, and to a lesser extent in the Tories too.

    I think one of the ironies of this article is that Chris Bowers decries tribalism – and yet the whole article seems to be premised on the unspoken idea that the Tories are uniquely the evil enemy that we have to get rid of – in other words, the article implicitly pushes exactly the kind of tribalism that we rightly criticise Labour and the Tories for. The reality of course is that the Tories are simply one of several political parties with whom we disagree on many issues.

    Standing in every seat isn’t tribalism – it’s simply standing up for your values and making sure people have a chance to vote for them. On the other hand, demonizing and setting up a them-and-us attitude towards a particular other party is not only tribalism, but to my mind is exactly what we should be trying to avoid if we want a healthy, pluralistic, politics.

  • Brad Barrows @ Keith Legg “……. I’m afraid “the reason why Scottish Lib Dems don’t presently have coalitions with the SNP is simply because of numbers is not supported by the evidence”.

    Brad forgot to include Scottish Borders in his list where Lib Dems were in Coalition with the Conservatives between 2007 and 2017………. and it’s interesting to note that what had been a Liberal/Lib Dem parliamentary seat for over fifty years between 1965 and 2015 has been a third place since then (a slightly increased vote share to 8% last time).

  • This article conflates two ideas. One is to work together with other parties before an election, the other is to form a coalition (or other arrangement) following an election. It is not a requirement to do both. I’d argue that a coalition will ONLY be effective if the various component parties have been tested against each other at an election – the election provides evidence of the various parties’ levels of public support. Denying the public a choice at an election will weaken any post-election coalition, simply because the participants in a post-election coalition will lack a clear democratic mandate.
    Parties don’t get stronger by avoiding the electorate’s scrutiny; instead they lose their purpose. That’s the real “tragedy” here – by talking about stitch-ups and deals, we’re communicating a lack of confidence in our own ideas, which the voters will hear and act upon.

  • Keith Sharp 21st Oct '21 - 6:48am

    We need electoral reform first and foremost to revive belief and trust in our democracy and civil society. Chris is right that we cannot achieve reform on our own; and that it inherently requires cooperation rather than ‘winner takes all’ adversarialism.

    (I was fascinated to hear, at an LDs for Electoral Reform Scottish/Welsh conf fringe meeting, Darren Hughes of the Electoral Reform Society point out that, despire winning an overall majority of seats even under AMS, NZ’s Jacinda Adherne invited reps from other parties into her government – clearly, a proportional system breeds the kind of collaboration Chris is calling for).

    Regarding where we are, I am optimistic enough to think that as we are still just about at mid-parliamentary stage, this is the time to assert our own identity and distinctive beliefs. The 2019 GE debacle in terms of seats won did nevertheless tend to obscure a big rise (compared to 2017) in our popular vote share – and we do need to project that, as many comments notably Michael Meadowcroft’s state. Distinctiveness now need not preclude collaboration closer to the election; and to negotiate you need to have some demonstrable strengths of your own.

    As to what shape cooperation/collaboration should take: that does of course depend on other parties as well as us, but the Cook/Maclennan Blair/Ashdown approach of the nineties is surely a good lesson of recent history to work from.

  • Christopher Moore 21st Oct '21 - 7:11am

    It clearly needs to be said again: unless the Tories are terminally unpopular, as in 1997, suggestions of co-operation with Labour is an effective Tory strategy to reduce our vote in Tory-Lib marginals. This happened in 2019, 2017, 1992 etcetera.

    This lesson needs to be taken on board!

  • Keith Sharp 21st Oct ’21 – 6:48am:
    I was fascinated to hear, at an LDs for Electoral Reform Scottish/Welsh conf fringe meeting, Darren Hughes of the Electoral Reform Society point out that, despite winning an overall majority of seats even under AMS, NZ’s Jacinda Adherne invited reps from other parties into her government – clearly, a proportional system breeds the kind of collaboration Chris is calling for).

    Not clear at all. Jacinda Ardern has other considerations, not least a shortage of experienced and competent MPs to appoint as ministers. Chris Hipkins MP (dubbed “the Minister for Everything”) is currently Minister of Education, Minister for COVID-19 Response, Minister for the Public Service, and Leader of the House. New Zealand is an atypical case. There are many examples where PR breeds unstable government or no government at all: Bulgaria, for example, is now facing its third General Election this year after the previous two were inconclusive and no government could be formed.

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Oct '21 - 10:47am

    @Jeff
    “There are many examples where PR breeds unstable government or no government at all: Bulgaria, for example, is now facing its third General Election this year after the previous two were inconclusive and no government could be formed.”

    So does that mean you believe the FPTP system which can result in a government representing the opinions of a minority of voters is OK? Isn’t it really a kind of dictatorship?

  • @Nonconformistradical: Calling FPTP a kind of dictatorship seems to me like a gross distortion. Despite the imperfections of FPTP, the UK is a democracy in just about very meaningful sense: We have free speech, we can publicly criticise the Government both in speech and in writing, we have free access to a huge range of data on what the Government is doing (and that data is produced by impartial civil servants – it’s not doctored in the way that happens in countries like – say – Russia), we have regular elections at which almost anyone can stand as a candidate, and the votes are counted accurately and fairly. And in the end, we can vote the Government out, and we know that if the Government loses an election, they will peacefully accept a transfer of power. All those are the hallmarks of a democracy, not a dictatorship.

  • John Marriott 21st Oct '21 - 2:06pm

    @nonconformistradical
    You make a good point in trying to find out what ‘Jeff’ himself actually believes in. I am impressed by his ability to regurgitate facts, figures and links and to present them in a visually attractive form. He’s clearly done his homework on many issues.

    So, is he a fan of PR or not? I will be interested to see if he engages with you. I have tried on a couple of occasions to nail him down on issues, without any appropriate response.

  • Alex Macfie 22nd Oct '21 - 7:33am

    Michael Meadowcroft

    “much more difficult to retain wealthy seats won in exceptional circumstances from the Conservatives and which inexorbly revert to class loyalty”

    I think you are a bit out of date here. Class loyalty has considerably decreased in importance recently. This is shown by the fall of the Red Wall — traditional working-class seats that remained firmly Labour in the Thatcher era now falling to the Tories. Similarly the Lib Dems have made many formerly safe Tory seats in the so-called Blue Wall much more marginal (a notable example is Dominic Raab’s Esher & Walton). This and the result in Chesham & Amersham shows that the educated middle-class, once reliably Tory supporting, are no longer so.

  • Alex Macfie 22nd Oct '21 - 7:37am

    Jeff: Actually NZ is the rule; countries like Bulgaria are the exception, generally caused by issues specific to the country’s politics.
    The largest Parliamentary democracy that uses FPTP is India, and is hardly a beacon of that system’s success. It has a far-right government elected on a minority of the national popular vote (37.4%) and is notorious for its unstable politics.

  • Peter Hirst 23rd Oct '21 - 5:43pm

    If politics is the art of the possible then Labour has lost the plot. We are not far behind. Local parties will need to feel they have the support of the centre when they go into negotiations with other Parties, something that is necessary under FPTP. They should be given a free reign to do what they judge is best for liberal democracy, regardless of the effect on their immediate electoral fortunes.

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