Tough Liberal love

Without doubt, this was a tough election, and I wasn’t even in a lead campaigning role, let alone running. (I thought about the latter, and was approved; but I then campaigned in my home constituency of Sheffield Hallam.)

Gutted about our loss of Nick Clegg, I took to the blogs and comments on Liberal Democrat Voice over the past week to see how our national results were perceived across the party. Despite some celebration, they also demonstrate that there is much discontent, with rallying cries for radical centrism to “so long, liberals” alike. Evidently, tough Liberal love is in order.

It would make sense for us to take stock of the core challenges as the leadership bids begin. The new leadership and conference will determine the direction of the party: are we to continue the strategy of placing the Lib Dems on an axis of “value politics”, or return to decisions about left, right or centre? But besides direction, there are two other key themes which I think need urgent debate, too.


There is anger among many at the way Tim was allegedly pressured to resign, from those unelected Lords, no less, who represent the very party that’s in favour of Lords reform.

But more fundamentally, as Liberal Democrats we need to redefine what we mean by our commitment to democracy, both internally and externally. For example, we were against a second independence referendum in Scotland, which was absolutely the right call, and helped get us three additional MPs. But we were in favour of a second referendum on Brexit, without much evidence that the mood had changed, and it turned out to be not that appealing to the electorate.

Most political parties and ideologies are somehow contradictory: it’s what should make them attractive to the mainstream. But framing our Brexit approach as about democracy above all else opened us up to another easy line of attack, aside from incoherence. When Andrew Neil in an otherwise bizarrely angry interview called us “populists who aren’t popular” (or something to that effect), he had a point. The 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote was a loss. So as a party, we need to debate what being a democrat means for us, for our internal governance, and for the country.


There is also frustration that Tim’s resignation (wrongly) suggests we’re precisely not the party for freedom of thought.

The issue here seems to be that parts of the party (and much of the way we’ve spoken of our recent electoral successes) promotes what Mark Lilla has called “identity liberalism”. He’s claimed — controversially — that it lost Hilary Clinton the American presidency, and that Democrats there should instead move towards a “post-identity liberalism”.

We are not only in an era of Trump; in Britain we have our second female Prime Minister who is, for the second time, Conservative. I think we need to ask whether we are presenting ourselves and our fight for personal freedoms and fairness — often through personal representation of, or attachment to, minority  and currently or historically marginalised identities — in a way that is actually resonating with the British electorate at large.

I had my misgivings about Tim’s leadership, but as a gay man I would far rather a leader who stood up for rights and private conscience over one who claimed to know, embody — or worse approve of! — some generalised “gay” identity.  Could we achieve more through an issues-based, over identity-focussed approach to our political position? It’s another question that I feel needs to be put to conference this year.

* Sean Williams is a Lib Dem member in the Sheffield Hallam constituency

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  • The issues of identity stem from the coalition decisions: the Lib Dems supported PR, but eventually settled for an AV referendum without a whimper. The tuition fees issue goes without saying. There’s also an issue of support: the lib dems got fewer votes this time despite gaining seats. It could be a worrying trend if it continues and could suggest a party on decline. If the lib dems don’t find a way to make themselves distinctly and vociferously different from other parties, it’s possible that the worst for the lib dems has yet to happen.

  • Identity issues do not arise in a vacuum. They come about precisely because the groups “identified” are targeted by other groups for condemnation, abuse, and marginalization. The people who agitate against “identity politics” are saying nothing more or less than that marginalized groups should shut up and that abusing them and depriving them of rights should be tolerated. How is that “freedom of thought”? How is that liberal?

  • Richard Underhill 19th Jun '17 - 8:19pm

    Although no longer an MP Nick Clegg was interviewed on Channel4 News to give a response to IDS and the first day of Brexit negotiations in Brussels.
    Cathy Newman took the opportunity to ask him about the tower block fire and a “flippant” remark attributed to David Cameron that if more social housing is built “they will only vote Labour” and therefore it should not be done. Nick Clegg said that “it was not in the DNA” of most Tories he had met in government, but following the fire the government should realise that substantially more social housing should be built across the country. (Tim Farron would be in his element). with the tories was proceeding slowly, had the LIb Dems been approached by the Tories? Nick Clegg said “I am not now an MP” and declined to answer, which was accepted.
    Mathematically we have 2 more MPs than the DUP and a substantially different policy agenda, but the political risks are enormous, so the price would need to be very high.

  • Richard Underhill 19th Jun '17 - 8:21pm

    Sorry, Tory DUP deal proceeding slowly

  • David Pocock 19th Jun '17 - 8:37pm

    @David-1 I could not disagree more. Identity politics really should be a last minute tactic when a group is being seriously oppressed. There just isnt really a need for it in 21st century UK imo.

    The net result is it just divides the people and causes division and discord and to top it off it really does not solve any problems. Worse still is that political and socio-political entities start to cultivate the division for their own aims, further perpetuating the problems.

    What can be a more liberal position than to reject it and work to create a society where peoples talants can fully develop and lead the individual to wherever they wish to go? Be blind to such things and just run a meritocracy?

  • Bruce Milton 19th Jun '17 - 9:05pm

    All points are all highly valid.
    All I ask for is for A VISION.
    During election i felt we were not obvious enough and terrified to say what i hoped everybody was wanting to hear who has had time to reflect on there EU decisions.
    Events as terrible as they were should have played to our strengths.
    Tim Farron was inept at dealing with what i do believe was a vindictive press, then this is an obstacle to over come.

    If we are proud of being British Europeans we should not duck the so do you respect the result type questions.
    – Of course you can respect a vote based on information that was available at the time, the vision of LibDem surely is to lead British values in the EU helping to deliver change that will unite the UK and bring positive change to the EU.
    – Of course the EU needs us more than we need them an obvious reason why within the EU we should be able to build alliances to support positive change.
    – Freedom of movement a positive business strategy that supports the economy which as many other countries are coming to agree could be adapted to Freedom of work and eleviate immigration fears.
    How much mis-trust in politicians did the campaign embed in the electorate?
    How many LibDem policies did not but could of re-enforced our key differential in the campaign a means so that;
    I am a UK plc shareholder and wether I voted Remain or Leave I want a say on any EU deal or No deal.
    We are safer together, healthier together, educated better together, wealthier together.

  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Jun '17 - 11:07pm

    Problem is though that when a real, meaty issue came up I thought that the response in the campaign was really poor. Theresa May got skewered on social care – problem being that at the very least she wasn’t wrong.

    Yes, I know a lot of people don’t like it, but given that those now older have serious property wealth (albeit unevenly spread) there is an entirely valid question about the use of that or IHT reform to fund care. Yes, there are arguments surrounding that, but they are arguments to be had – not just something to obliterate a tough debate.

    I continually hear that the LDP is the ‘grown-up’ party that rejects lazy populism and cheap, easy answers. Theresa May’s thinking was precisely the rejection of populism someone will need to come up with on the ageing population. And the response – Theresa May Estate Agent.

    The flipside of course being the LDP property inheritance insurance salesman.

    I have no problem with the thinking in the article – but I just don’t see much appetite for such an approach.

  • Bernard Aris 19th Jun '17 - 11:25pm

    I’m totally against a return to the old “Left-Right” paradigma in which we end up being the Progressive, Leftish Center. These days (in the Netherlands and France at least), fiery right-wing populists like Wilders and Le Pen, and loudmouth leftwing populists like Mélenchon and the Dutch “Socialist Party”
    *) have a very similar agenda in social- economic terms: defend vested working class interests against all newcomers: foreigners and self-employed;
    *) and are defensive about what they call the “National Identity” being watered down or thrown away.
    So getting between those two is being squeezed between Tweddldee and Tweedle Dumb. The classic Left-Right paradigma has lost its relevance and usefulness.

    “Values” policy is more usefull to relate present policies to great achievements of (in our case) Social Liberals; Dutch social liberals launched a law (arond 1900) with government-regulated but formally private corporations building good-quality social housing; whole neighborhoods in Amsterdam show how beautifull and warm the “Amsterdam School” housing and buildings being built by those corporations could be.
    Now part of the Dutch social housing problem is that there aren’t enough “Middle segment” houses for rent or sale for people living in social housing, but because of careers able to afford better. So D66 is stimulating mid-segment housing to free up the lower segment, in line with our party (and political current/movement) tradition.

    And Values politics is about Human Rights, John Locke, J.S. Mill, Isaiah Berlin; that is better , more relevant munition against racists, jihadists, and pie-in-the-sky materialist promisers like Corbyn.

  • Steve Spear 20th Jun '17 - 8:54am

    I would add to Democracy the need for effective and widespread Devolution which would include the right to set taxation. The problem is that our arrangements for local governance are not fit for the current purpose let alone any expansion of responsibility. As a start there is a need to look at the geography of local government where Counties remain the key upper tier for much of the country. The attached blog is very localised but makes the point. Once we can agree to review the boundaries then we can move to the key issue of how we elect the Executive and those who hold them to account.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Jun '17 - 9:59am

    On BBC TV Newsnight on 19/6/2017 a well educated and well informed journalist interviewed Keir Starmer and tried to understand Labour’s policy on Brexit. This was partially about whether Starmer could deliver what Corbyn is studiously vague about. Frankly, as with the EU referendum, what chance has the ordinary voter got of understanding the policy if they do not have a master’s degree in economics? Starmer wants to park the issue of the customs union until later in the negotiations, but did not answer specific questions about what Labour would do if they were in government now.
    I continue to think that pressure from business on the government (and on Labour a similar pressure on jobs) will eventually bring people to their senses, which is why the EU27 negotiators wanted the UK to have a strong and stable government which could face down dissidents in their own party. Unlikely now.

  • Bruce Milton: “If we are proud of being British Europeans we should not duck the so do you respect the result type questions.’
    If I believe the EU Referendum to be an illegitimate electoral device foisted upon the country by a Prime Minister trying to sort out conflicts within his party with the result being used to get the parliament of a representative democracy to vote for stuff it didn’t believe in, I’m not going to “respect the result” any more than I respect the Daily Mail. It was the wrong answer to the wrong question on the wrong bit of paper one day in 2016. I wouldn’t respect the result of a referendum held when the EU negotiations are deemed to have finished either.

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Jun '17 - 11:21am

    Geoff Reid 20th Jun ’17 – 10:27am
    “I believe the EU Referendum to be an illegitimate electoral device foisted upon the country by a Prime Minister”

    Whilst I share the contempt for Cameron, I think there’s a wishful-thinking narrative developing on the losing side of the referendum campaign, recasting the whole thing as having been made up for Cameron’s internal party purposes and pitching the rest of us into an argument we never wanted and (by implication) therefore weren’t prepared for; a debate indeed that none of us ever believed should be settled by a referendum.


    There has in fact been considerable popular hostility to British membership of the EU throughout its membership and a significant campaign for a referendum on leaving.

    UKIP, despite its failures as a parliamentary force, took increasing shares of the votes, especially in European elections – the very fact of its abject collapse since the referendum suggests to me that far from being attracted by its barely subliminal racism and 1950s nostalgia, most of the people who voted for it were actually doing so because of its signature policy: leaving the EU.

    The Liberal Democrats have explicitly supported an in/out referendum in principle for years (despite weaselly wording that has enabled them always to say “but not right now”).

    Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority, including most of the rump of Lib Dem MPs, in favour of the legislation setting up the referendum.

    This wasn’t one man’s whim or self-serving inspiration – for sure, it was a sign of Cameron’s weakness that he ultimately held the referendum, not of strength. But he was giving in to a long-lasting and rather popular campaign, and ultimately the whole political establishment went along with it.

    There is a principled case to be made against ever holding referendums on anything; but few people have made it in recent years and certainly not the Liberal Democrat party.

  • Although I did not support Nick Clegg when he was DPM, I have long since forgiven him – and wept when he lost his seat. Also deeply distressed when Tim Farron resigned. Then Jo Swinsom declined to stand up. Thank God that Vince Cable is standing! I do not want to see Norman Lamb, and in particular Davey, as leader!

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Jun '17 - 10:31am


    The issues of identity stem from the coalition decisions: the Lib Dems supported PR, but eventually settled for an AV referendum without a whimper. The tuition fees issue goes without saying.

    The issue is to what extent could the Conservatives have been forced to go further away from their own policies and towards those of the LibDems. In reality, not much, since the only way the LibDems could try and force it would be to pull out of the coalition, leading to an early general election in which they were bound to be the biggest losers.

    Had the coalition not been formed what would have happened is what we see now: a minority Conservative government relying on the DUP. A Labour-LibDem coalition was not viable because it would not have had a majority, and Labour didn’t really want it anyway: Labour much preferred seeing the LibDems go into coalition so they could be destroyed and the two-party system restored. If the LibDems are bad people for not getting more from the Tories, how else could they have got more? It would have required Labour being willing to co-operate with the LibDems, offering support when they did try to stand up against the Tories. But Labour did nothing like this.

    Outsiders may think the LibDems just gave in to the Tories, but within the Conservative Party it isn’t seen like that at all, rather internal discussion had a lot of moaning about how much the LibDems were stopping the Tories doing what they really wanted to do.

    All of this needed to be made clear to the public. It wasn’t, and I blame Nick Clegg for that. Sorry, but in that way he wrecked the party, and I shed no tears for him over losing his seat. Did he shed any tears over the many LibDems whose political career his poor leadership ended? No. At some times he even seemed to rejoice in it, because he thought it was part of the move of the party to the economic right that he wanted to see.

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