After its electoral catastrophe followed by a surge of mostly younger members, the Liberal Democrats are struggling to create a new future. The immediate focus is on selecting a new party leader. I’m not going to comment on that further today. I think it is more constructive to think about the sort of party the Liberal Democrats should become. It has something like a clean slate to work with – which makes it an excellent moment to put the past into perspective and move on.
As ever it is easier to see what should be left behind than the shape of the future. Let’s start with “Centrism”. The party’s outgoing leader, Nick Clegg, was fond of saying that the party was “anchored to the centre ground of British politics”. The meant that the party was pitching for voters convinced by neither the left nor the right. Centrism is not an ideological anchor, though, it is an electoral tactic. It is arguably a necessary one in order to break through in Britain’s electoral system, though its deployment this year as the basis for the party’s national campaign seems to have had little impact. The party actually needed to mobilise voters of the left and right to vote tactically – so it was wide of the mark. Centrism may return, but defining yourself in reference to others is not a good place to start.
The next idea worth mentioning is Community Politics. This was an idea developed by Liberals before they merged with the SDP to form the Lib Dems in 1988. This is a very locally based form of politics, which involved the party inserting itself into local communities, and encouraging these communities to take more responsibility for their own affairs. It showed the practical power of liberal values: openness, readiness to talk with others of different views, and self-help, rather than waiting for the government to sort your problems out. When it worked it could draw in a wide diversity of people, and establish the party at the centre of a local community. It was how the party managed to extablish its local government base.
But there are two problems with it. First is that few people have the patience for it. Local communities are weakening in our more mobile and connected world. Certainly where I live there is nothing to work with. Local communities invoke nostalgia, and coming together in a crisis, but not the everyday practice of politics. Doubtless there are exceptions – and we should not accept the weakening of local communities as inevitable and irreversible – but it is much harder to practice it these days. The second problem is deeper – it sits ill with national politics. The party’s spell in national coalition devastated its local government base. There is a widespread view nowadays that for community politicians a party label is a disadvantage. You have more credibility as an independent.
The next idea to leave behind is Orange Bookery. What is it? You probably won’t get much idea from reading the Orange Book itself, published ten years ago, if you can find I copy. It drew a wide variety of contributors from many strands of thinking. It came to stand for what could be called Westminster liberalism. The sort of liberal ideas popular amongst the elites in Westminster – a lighter touch from government, and the empowerment of individuals through private choice in public markets. There is strong emphasis on education to give all people an equal start. This strand of thinking (close to my own) never really took hold amongst grass roots activists, but it heavily influenced the sort of people who were able to win parliamentary selections, and hence become MPs – it dominated the party’s national leadership. These included Mr Clegg. They were heavily criticised. For some they were simply too right-wing; others felt they were too distant from activists; yet others felt that they were corrupted by being paid-up members of the Westminster political class – at ease amongst civil servants and lobbyists.
For Orange Bookers the entry into coalition with the Conservatives was a triumph. They could work with the more reasonable Tories easily enough. Entering coalition was for them the ultimate political goal, as the best way of putting their thinking into practice. The disaster inflicted on the party in the election was a severe blow. This strand of the party is likely to lose its prominence. Though I share a lots of its instincts, it was not really on board for the sort of reshaping of the country’s economics and politics that I think is now called for.
And then come the Social Liberals. Who are they? They are in fact a rather diverse group of people, united mainly by their distrust of Orange Bookers – but who had not got involved in Community Politics either. They draw from both the party’s Liberal and SDP wings. The coalition helped consolidate the group, leading to the formation of the Social Liberal Forum (SLF). It would a mistake to infer ideological coherence on this group. There is a strong left-wing strand, with more emphasis on government action, taxation and benefits than you will see from Orange Bookers. But what seems to dominate its thinking is a sort of conservatism – notwithstanding ritual calls for radical new ideas. Pretty much any suggested reform of public services or benefits is opposed. “We want change, but not this change,” seems to be the motto. Some show a nostalgia for pre-Thatcher Britain, which I find rather bizarre. There are younger and fresher members of the SLF too – but for me it is too tainted with the narrow conservatism of older members.
And this is above all what the party needs to leave behind. The sort of liberalism the party stands for is optimistic and inclusive. It appeals to younger people, and draws its main energy from them. And the party retains its appeal amongst the young. True, the party was way behind Labour and the Greens in attracting younger voters – but the party fared no worse here than amongst older voters. The rather youthful profile of new members shows that is values remain resonant. Labour remains heavily attached social control and conformity, and the Greens seem tempted by these ideas too. The Conservatives and Ukip are too interested in socially conservative older voters. There is a chance of building a strong appeal, based on younger people, that then extends across all age groups.
What I want to see is a generational shift in the party. Us oldies have an important role to play – but our first job is to persuade our younger colleagues that our ideas have validity. It will mean that many old ways – Community Politics, Orange Bookery, and social Liberalism – will pass into history. But fresher ideas will emerge to replace them.