Why the Liberal Democrats? Part 1 in an occasional series

Several of my political posts may seem like they’re attacking the party I belong to, the Liberal Democrats (especially those posts that have been reposted and ‘improved’ over on Labour ‘Liberal’ Conspiracy). This is the prerogative of members in the Lib Dems – get two Lib Dems into a room together and you’ll have three opinions, and unlike the other parties, who put great stock in the appearance of unity and in the ‘party line’, Lib Dem policy is created by the membership, in public, and public debate is part of the culture of the party.

But having said that, since I started this blog a few months ago I’ve never explained in any sort of coherent way exactly why I support the Lib Dems, and why I think you should.

As this may be an election year (it would probably be suicidal for Brown to call one, but he’s done enough bizarre things in the last couple of years that it wouldn’t surprise me) I’m going to do a series of short posts whenever the mood takes me on why you should vote Liberal Democrat. I’m assuming when writing these that the ‘you’ reading this are eligible to vote in the UK, an undecided voter open to persuasion, and with political views at least within eyesight of the mainstream. If you believe that elections can change nothing and we need a violent proletarian revolution, or conversely if you believe that the main thing wrong with the country is that there are too many brown-skinned people in it, then the Lib Dems probably aren’t for you (and if you’re in the latter of those groups, please stop reading my blog now, thanks). Given that, each of these posts will be an ‘assuming all else is equal’ argument

The first of these arguments is that Liberal Democrat elected representatives work harder. There are very few Lib Dem ‘safe seats’, and Liberal Democrats, unlike members of the Big Two parties, can only keep their positions by working hard. There’s also the fact that no-one goes into Liberal Democrat politics to seek power – it would be an absolutely insane thing to do – with very few exceptions Lib Dem elected representatives went into politics out of a desire to help people or to advance a political philosophy, not for personal gain.

A couple of examples (out of many) of Lib Dem representatives going further to help me than I would have expected. These both involve my MP, but I could tell similar stories about my local councillors and MEP:

When I first moved here, I was not a member of the party, but had voted for them in every election since I was eligible to vote (except one council election where I voted Green). I had, however, never had a Liberal Democrat representing me.

I have opinions, as you may have noticed, and one of the things I do on a regular basis is to write to my MP expressing outrage at whatever outrageous thing has outraged me that week. My previous MP (Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Manchester Blackley) had never bothered to respond to anything I’d written to him. I’d thought that this was because of my intemperate writing style, til I saw on writetothem that he had a 0% response rate to constituents at the time (this has now improved to around 50%, a few years later).

So when I wrote to John Leech, the MP for the area I moved to after I got married, a little under three years ago, about some abhorrent bill that was going through Parliament, I didn’t expect any reply from him, either. In fact, I didn’t even need one – I’d looked at his voting record (on the excellent website theyworkforyou and knew he was almost certain to vote the way I wanted him to, and the letter was as much as anything a way of letting him know the issue was important to at least one constituent. So I was pleasantly surprised to get back a form letter along the lines of “Dear Mr Hickey, I agree with you that the Widows and Orphans (Torture and Murder) Bill currently going through Parliament is very wrong, and wish to reiterate that I am in full agreement with Liberal Democrat policy, which says that torture of widows and orphans is something to be avoided wherever possible, and murdering them very naughty indeed. As such, I shall be voting against the bill”.

That basic acknowledgement was more than I’d expected, and I was satisfied with that, but then two weeks later an envelope came through the door containing a huge wodge of documents – it was copies of a set of correspondence between Leech and the minister responsible, chasing him up on all sorts of fine points about the bill in question. Having an MP who was putting that level of attention both into the policies he was voting on and into keeping constituents who had expressed an interest informed was what changed me from being a passive voter to joining the party and becoming active in the local party – he has a slim majority and I want to do all I can to keep him in.

A couple of years later, I wrote to him again (having written to him, of course, several times in the interim – although not that often, because I was fairly sure he was doing his job properly). A Lib Dem front bench spokesperson had made what I considered to be an astoundingly moronic and illiberal statement about a possible future policy. This is nothing new – every party has at least one front bencher per week say something stupid (it may even be that I have said stupid things myself upon occasion) but this statement hit a couple of my buttons, and I fired off an angry email – “Absolute disgrace, as a representative of the same party how can you stand by and listen to this nonsense, rhubarb rhubarb” – just because that’s the kind of thing I do. I got an email back asking for my phone number.

He then ‘phoned me up a few days later, and spent an hour talking over the policy position that was being spoken about (and which he’d helped come up with) in great detail, explaining how the spokesperson had misspoken (a relatively trivial error of the kind we all make when speaking extemporaneously, but which had changed the meaning of the sentence quite significantly), talking about the nuances of the policy in question, and persuading me that what was actually being proposed was, while imperfect (and he acknowledged the imperfections as well, as political necessities), a reasonable response to the situation in question, and one I could accept, if not wholeheartedly support.

Remember, for the first of these stories I was someone who Mr Leech had never heard of, and who wasn’t even yet a registered voter in his constituency. The second time, I was someone who’d met him for two minutes a couple of times who he might be vaguely aware of as a Focus-deliverer and person who sent stroppy emails. Neither time was I anyone ‘important’.

And I don’t think John Leech is exceptional as a Lib Dem MP in this regard – Lib Dem representatives at every level go out of their way to work for their constituents, in a way that members of the other two parties don’t. If you want to be sure that when you actually need your MP to take up a case for you, or when you need the council to sort out the pavement in front of your house, or any of the other myriad reasons you could have for needing your local representative to do something for you, they’ll actually bother to help, then consider voting Lib Dem. Because Lib Dems work harder.

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6 Responses to Why the Liberal Democrats? Part 1 in an occasional series

  1. Anthony says:

    I actually think this goes deeper than just ‘working harder’. The vast majority of Lib Dems believe things work better when people get involved in improving them, debating them, complaining about them, proding the levers of power and generally causing a fuss – politics is about participation after all – it’s not just a vote once every four (or five) years.
    This keeps politicians and bureaucrats responsive, and fosters experimentation and debate. We all learn something, even if only how to hone our arguments. So it doesn’t surprise me that a Lib Dem MP went out of his way to engage in debate with someone and respond to their queries.

    This is my view about why, as a general rule, Lib Dems often work harder than politicians from other parties. Obviously there are exceptions both ways, but we’re about the process.

  2. Dave Page says:

    One of my favourite stories from Lib Dem activism is my first time out canvassing in Chorlton for Paul Ankers’ local election campaign. In two adjacent houses, I met two former lifelong Labour voters who’d switched to supporting the Liberal Democrats – one because of our principled position on the Iraq war, and one because John Leech got the double yellow lines repainted at the end of the street within a fortnight, when the resident had been on at the council for six months!

  3. Jennie says:

    I’m with Anthony on this: because we recognise the value of open and honest debates, we want to have them all the time, and so when someone wants to have one with us, we leap at the opportunity.

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  5. donpaskini says:

    Hi Andrew,

    It’s not a general rule that Lib Dems work harder than representatives of other parties. There are some very good councillors and MPs, and some not so good ones in terms of keeping in touch with the people they represent, but this is true across parties. (There probably is a correlation between responsiveness and how politically competitive an area is, but even then, some of the best councillors represent very “safe” areas).

    I note, for example, that John Leech was ranked 223rd amongst MPs for responsiveness by WriteToThem in 2007. Take the city of Oxford – Andrew Smith is ranked 78th (well above average), whereas Evan Harris is ranked 634th. The logic of your argument here is that people in Oxford who want help from their representatives should vote Labour, not Lib Dem.

  6. I’m sure there are Lib Dem representatives who are below average or even poor – just as there are for every other party. I’m merely stating that in my experience (and those of others I’ve talked to) Lib Dems are far more responsive than members of other parties.
    I’m also not sure to what extent the WriteToThem figures are more than a rough guide. For example, I’d have clicked the link saying that John Leech responded after getting a form letter, but clearly a longer, detailed reply or a personal phone call is much more useful. There’s also the question of how active the representative is in the community in other ways – John Leech spent a couple of hours yesterday with a gang of us getting signatures on a petition to keep open some local schools for disabled children. That kind of activity is to my mind worth a lot…

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