“Boom boom, guys! Liberalism is happy, healthy, and alive!”
That seems to be the message coming from the party leadership, which should tell you everything you need to know.
There is a problem with the Liberal Democrats, and it’s a problem which has got worse and worse, to the point that I don’t know if the party can be saved, though I hope to God that it can. And the problem is this — many people in the Lib Dems seem to have accidentally received the Labour Party constitution in their membership pack, rather than the Lib Dem constitution, and to be acting accordingly.
For those who don’t know, the Lib Dem constitution says “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”, and then goes on to explain how that will be done, with things like “Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries; we are committed to fight poverty, oppression, hunger, ignorance, disease and aggression wherever they occur and to promote the free movement of ideas, people, goods and services. Setting aside national sovereignty when necessary, we will work with other countries towards an equitable and peaceful international order and a durable system of common security. Within the European Community we affirm the values of federalism and integration and work for unity based on these principles.”
That sort of thing.
The Labour Party constitution, on the other hand, says
“1. This organisation shall be known as ‘The Labour Party’ (hereinafter referred to as ‘the party’).
2. Its purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party”
It’s just a tautology. The purpose of its existence is so it can continue to exist, not to support a particular set of aims.
And the problem is, many — not all, but possibly most — activists in the Lib Dems, and a majority of our Parliamentarians, see our purpose the same way.
It comes down to a simple fact: systems behave according to the incentives they have. And in the Lib Dems it was decided, in the 1997 General Election, that our incentives would be based on targeting — winning seats, either in Parliament or in councils, rather than persuading people of liberal values and trying to get liberal policies implemented, by whatever means.
And to make it clear, that *was* a change in tactics. The Lib Dems and their predecessors in the Liberal Party (I’m less sure about the SDP as I’m not so aware of that party’s history) had always operated since at least the 1940s first and foremost as a party of radical ideas, and those radical ideas had been adopted, later, by other parties. The NHS, the welfare state, legalising abortion, legalising homosexuality — these were all Liberal ideas which were later made law, despite the lack of Parliamentary representation.
Which is not to say that representation in Parliament or on councils is a *bad* thing, of course — just that it’s not the *only* way of effecting political change, and it’s also only useful *as* a means of effecting political change.
But in 1997 came Rennardism, and the ruthless allocation of resources to individual constituencies where those resources would make the most electoral sense. As a single-election strategy, this was a good idea (though possibly not *as* responsible for the massive Lib Dem gains that year as it’s credited for — this was, after all, a year when people engaged in tactical voting on a massive scale in the hope of getting out what seemed then to be likely to be the most venal and corrupt Tory government of our lifetime (but which in retrospect looks like a near-utopian example of good governance compared to what we’re experiencing now). But targeting did, at least have some positive effect. Twenty-one years ago.
But, with the benefit of hindsight, that seems like the moment when most of the party machinery took a wrong turn, one which it has still not turned away from. From that point on, the party (at least the party HQ and most of its executive) became, not an organisation which exists to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity, but instead an organisation which exists to organise and maintain in Parliament a Liberal Democrat Party.
And so now we have disgraces like the party’s leader speaking in support of Gordon Brown in his calls for “tighter controls on immigration” (I did warn people about this before Vince Cable was made leader by acclamation). This goes directly against the parts of the party constitution I quoted above, but on the other hand it *does* appeal to exactly the kind of people who want a non-ideological (by which they mean conforming to the implicit ideologies that they have) “new centre party”. We have the party’s immigration policy working group being chaired by someone who spends his time on Twitter trolling Lib Dem Immigrants and mocking anyone who wants a motion that actually promotes free movement.
And we have, time and again, pushback from councilors and Parliamentarians about any attempt to get liberal policy passed, with complaints that it would make it harder for them to continue to get elected. The most awful example of that was in 2016, when we came up with a Brexit policy that, again, goes against everything in the party’s constitution, and which removed our ability to actually campaign against Brexit and distinguish ourselves from the other parties, because Norman Lamb and Greg Mulholland were worried about losing their seats (and Mulholland went on to lose his anyway).
This is *not*, I hasten to add, a problem with the membership. The membership vote for liberal policy when it’s put in front of them. As a result we still, amazingly, have policies that are far to the left of Labour (though you wouldn’t believe it from hearing our leadership speak). Rather it’s a problem with the party’s organisational structure, and the people who’ve taken control of it.
Because the party functions, not as a political party that exists to promote a type of society that it wants to see, but as a pyramid scheme. You deliver leaflets until you’ve recruited ten leaflet deliverers who’ll deliver leaflets with your face on them, at which point you become a councilor. When your ten leaflet-deliverers have each also recruited ten leaflet deliverers and get promoted to councilor, you become an MP. No liberalism required.
And the rhetoric of these people is also pyramid-scheme style mixtures of magical thinking, promises of future rewards, and healthy doses of guilt for not having achieved unreachable goals, mixed in with management-speak bullshytt.
So now, when the limits of that approach become painfully apparent, after the leadership got so good at steering right into the middle of the road that we ended up getting smashed by speeding lorries coming from both directions, the party is in a far, far worse state than the old Liberal Party was in the 1960s. We have the right values, but leaders who don’t believe in them. We have the right policy, but get told to shut up about it in case it scares racists. There are large areas of the country that have been left with no liberal activity, as activists have worked neighbouring wards or constituencies, meaning no future activists have come up, and that when people in those areas do join the party they have no local party to work with.
And most annoyingly, almost all the MPs we had who didn’t fit this description lost their seats in 2015, largely as a result of the actions of those who do.
While the Lib Dem party has some of the finest thinkers I know, some of the most principled progressive activists I’ve ever come across, a set of policies that would make the world a much better place, and even more than all of that a guiding philosophy which I happen to think is as close to absolutely right as one can get in politics, all of this is going to waste as the party prioritises “local champions” (who may happen to share the same values as UKIP, but they really *care* about potholes) on councils and nationally spends all its time worrying about placating five swing voters in Nottingham who won’t vote for us if we state a single principle.
Paradoxically, I think that Lib Dem electoral success can only come if, in the short term, we start to work towards goals that have no immediate electoral reward. For a start, we need to have a 650-seat/9456-ward strategy. There needs to be *some* Lib Dem activity in every single ward in the country. One notable thing that’s been seen in recent council by-elections is over and over again Lib Dems have taken seats where we didn’t even stand a candidate in previous elections. People will support Lib Dems when given the opportunity.
But it’s also important to realise that *not everyone will support us, and that is OK*. Over and again in discussions about Brexit, I have run into people saying “but we can’t be just a party for the forty-eight percent, we need to be for the other fifty-two percent as well!”
Well, currently, we’re a party for the eight percent, which is what we’re getting in the polls and have been consistently for several years now. Maybe try actually appealing to somebody, rather than think you can get everyone’s votes if you’re inoffensive enough.
But neither of these things will happen without a change in the party’s culture. We need more ideas, and more discussion of ideas. And by this I *don’t* mean big thick policy-wonk documents put out by think-tanks. And nor do I mean party policy which reads like it’s draft legislation. I mean discussion of radical liberal solutions to the problems in front of us. I mean changing the terms of the debate. Instead of pushing for “Soft Brexit”, push for the old Liberal goal of a united federal Europe. Instead of talking about “firm but fair” immigration policies, talk about the freedom to move where you like without arbitrary restrictions. Instead of tweaking universal credit, talk about bringing in basic income.
We need to get out there and make the case for liberalism, while also making the case for the party. If done properly, that will eventually yield electoral results — but even if it doesn’t, it may well lead to other parties taking on our policies and implementing them. Which for those of us who are more focused on ensuring no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance, and conformity than we are on furthering our own careers and maybe getting a knighthood should be the actual point.
Remember, UKIP *never* got a single MP by any means other than defections from another party, yet their entire policy platform has been taken on wholesale by the Tories and Labour, and our own policy on the EU and immigration is currently closer to theirs than to our own constitution. Why? Because they didn’t compromise, and they kept pushing a clear message, and got enough people to support them that they were a threat to the jobs of MPs under first past the post, even if they weren’t going to win those seats themselves. The fact that their policy platform is pure evil to the extent it’s coherent at all, which it mostly isn’t, didn’t matter. UKIP won.
There is no reason why if we picked a handful of solidly liberal principles, ones that were simple to explain, and *did not compromise on them*, we couldn’t do the same.
But for this to work, we will also have to fight the party machine, because the party machine is dedicated to self-preservation above liberal principle.
I’m not at all sure that the party *can* be saved at this point — the people with power in the party are so utterly determined that the way they have done things for the last twenty years is the only way things can ever be done that they will do everything they can now to oppose making the Liberal Democrats back into a party that actually matters. Most of them appear to be hoping against hope that the mythical New Centrist Party with Chuka and Woke Soubz will happen and they can all indulge in their eighties nostalgia and engage in Alliance cosplay, and various signs and portents within the party are leading me to think that some people in party HQ are setting up their own parallel organisations and parties-within-a-party, capturing as much of the party’s functionality as they can so that when and if this New Brand (for it will be a brand, not a party in any real sense) forms they can go off to be Proper Centrists Like Macron and not have to worry about that pesky liberalism stuff (and you can guarantee that any future New Centrist Party will keep the pyramid scheme elements but ditch the member-led policy-making, except maybe for the odd Twitter contest for a new way to give supermarkets tax breaks).
But if it’s possible to save the party, I think we should. The Lib Dems as they exist now are a horribly flawed vehicle for liberalism — and even if they suddenly became focused on the priorities I think they should have, they would still be very flawed, because that’s the nature of organisations that are made up of humans, especially organisations that are working within the ultra-flawed world of politics. But, flawed as it is, the party is the only one that really represents a significant strand of thought in British politics — a strand of thought that prioritises freedom over conformity, and which seeks to allow everyone to become the version of themselves they most want to be, and to free everyone from oppression. If the party dies, or if it stops having even a nominal connection to liberalism (in the sense in which the party has traditionally meant it, not as a synonym for centrism), we will have lost something unutterably precious.
This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?