Community politics, Orange Book, Social Liberalism. Time for the Lib Dems to move on.

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.

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8 thoughts on “Community politics, Orange Book, Social Liberalism. Time for the Lib Dems to move on.”

  1. I agree with most of what you say. However, there is still a role for community politics in poorer areas of the country, such as the ward I represented as a councillor for 12 years. In these areas voluntary and community groups play an important role in bringing people together and providing opportunities for people to engage in activities they may not be able to afford otherwise. They can also attract in external funding to these places, where it is much needed. It’s good for Lib Dems to continue to be involved with these.

    In general I think we need to learn from the success of the Conservatives – i.e. to be much more analytical of the complexities of how modern society works and the make up of the general population in every respect. We should then think about what would improve the lives of people from each segment and area and come up with liberal, affordable and consistent approaches to achieving these. Of course, the Conservatives have a lot more money than we do to throw at this work but within the party there must be a wealth of experience of people from all parts of society that could be engaged in this analysis.

    1. Thanks Julia. I agree that we shouldn’t dismiss community politics out of hand. Actually where it can still be practised it can do a lot of good. But it can’t be the key to national success.

      And I agree that we need to understand the voters better. Politics works in layers. First you need to build your core support, and then work on persuading people that don’t sign up to all of the core package. You have to do both – but there is a lot of muddle between them. What you are suggesting is particularly needed for the second group. – but it is always healthy to try and understand how your ideas might help those outside your core support.

  2. Lets just rename the party the New Neoliberals and have done with it. Whilst you’re there expel all the heretics and burn their sandals. The reason our great party survived and came back all those years ago was we were always a broad coalition – first the Liberals – Whigs, Radicals and Peelites, then the Alliance – SDP, Liberals and the moderate alliancistes in the middle. Today it’s OB’s and SLF. Create a narrow party and you create a narrow offering which is where were at 7%. Better idea to try Tony Blair’s Big Tent idea and tolerate each other.

    1. Yes the party needs to be a broad church, and always has been. And the mutual toleration is there too – it just doesn’t get beyond toleration in many cases. I think that’s taken as read. Tony Blair may have operated a broad church, but he also applied a fairly clear set of ideas – his “third way”. The Lib Dems need something like that kind of overarching vision to draw people to it.

  3. I’d agree with much of this but not the part about community politics. If the Lib Dems are to recover it has to be as a grass roots campaigning party that makes a real differences to the lives of real people in their local communities – working to give them greater power and control of their own lives, challenging inequality, discrimination and prejudice wherever we see it and improving access to housing, education, healthcare and economic opportunity. It’s what the Lib Dems (and forerunners) have always been best at and, encouragingly, it appears to be what drives both current leadership contenders… In terms of how that translates electorally – it’s fairly simple – people are more likely to vote for a party that has improved their lives and supported their community. Obviously that needs to be underpinned by effective national campaigns and policies as well – but those also need to be focused on protecting and championing real people.

    1. Community politics is a great idea – and if you can make it work, it really shows liberalism at its best. I wouldn’t want to stop anybody trying it. But I can’t see it having any traction in the semi-suburban part of London where I live. But maybe it is untypical.

  4. Matthew

    Interesting blog and I would agree with you regarding local politics, that is where the heart of politics should be in my humble opinion.

    However where I would differ from you is that Social Liberalism is the way ahead, certainly here in Scotland. The Social Liberalism of Charles Kennedy gave the party it’s greatest recent success with over 60 MPs and that I suspect was down to his social liberal beliefs and his ability to engage people on the street.

    I am new to the party so do not pretend that I know a huge amount about the party, I am a former SNP member but have joined because I consider myself to be a social liberal and feel that those values are the way ahead. I would never have joined if Nick Clegg had remained leader and totally support Tim Farron in his leadership bid.

    For me Liberalism is about equality, honesty, decency. It is about federalism to the lowest possible level, it’s about electoral reform to ensure that every vote counts. It’s about understanding that the state has a role to play in protecting those with the least while facilitating an environment of empowerment where people can help themselves, a belief that people given the right conditions can and will succeed themselves.

    Next year the Scottish Parliament Elections will be the first real test for the Liberal Democrats following a disastrous general election and right now it is not looking like any lessons have been learned here in Scotland. The Scottish Liberal Democrats are still promoting the idea that Smith and the Scotland Act are devo max or modern federalism, niether of which are true, but it is doing this to possibly the most politically educated part of the UK at this time.

    The Liberal Democrats have to stand up for federalism for the four countries within the United Kingdom. The party has to campaign on electoral reform , has to be seen to stand up for the most vulnerable while fighting to bring about a sustem where they can emposer themselves. My view may seem simplistic and I don’t pretend to have all of the answers or deapth of knowledge of other party members but I do know that no shift away from the centre will not allow the party to recover, here in Scotland anyway.

    I also wouldn’t write off the older members of the party, new members are vital, I’m a middle aged one, but the idealism of youth will never replace the experience of life and we should encourage the younger members to think out the box, to challenge the ways of doing things but we should also take on board the hard lessons of life that many of us have experienced.

    Thanks

    Bruce

    1. Welcome to the party Bruce, and thank you for your interesting comment. My main worry about the Social Liberalism of Charles Kennedy’s era is that it leads away from fresh thinking and into undeliverable promises. But the economic liberalism of Nick Clegg has also had its day. My main enthusiasm is for new ideas to replace both these ways of thinking in due course – and we are only at the early stages of that. I’m most interested in your comments on Scotland. So much of the country’s politics turns on developments there, and English politicians overlook it at their peril. All the national parties need to push policies that will resonate with voters there. The signs so far though are not too good!

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