My heating engineer is voting for Ukip, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the reactionary insurgent English political party. This party has hit the zeitgeist, even here in cosmopolitan London. Political activists from other parties seem to have no idea how to handle this. This should give us pause, especially in the Liberal Democrats. The party needs to rediscover its anti-establishment roots.
The typical reaction to Ukip from political insiders is annoyance. This party breaks almost every rule of political correctness. My Facebook account is bombarded by posts pointing out the various unsavoury views held by Ukip candidates, and denouncing them a as a bunch of idiots. All this is true but irrelevant.
The perception by many voters is that the country is run by a political establishment that makes life easy for themselves and their friends. They are not interested in listening to what the public wants. My engineer says that it has always been that way, and nothing is changing. Voting for Ukip is the only way he can see of mounting an effective protest. Besides, some of their policies, like a vote on the EU, strike a chord. This feeling is especially strong amongst the white working class. This group accounts for a lower proportion of the population here in London, so maybe Ukip will do less well here. But the disillusion with politics is not confined to white working class people. Last weekend an Indian-born gentleman told me that he expected bad behaviour from Indian politicians, but he had expected better from British ones.
Meanwhile the professional politicos, and their army of hangers-on, whether or not politically affiliated, attack Ukip as if they were normal politicians. They criticise their candidates and their policies. But they do not address the disillusion from which Ukip support springs. Indeed, the more they protest, the more disillusioned voters appreciate that voting for Ukip will annoy the establishment.
This is hard for a Lib Dem. In one sense Ukip’s rise shouldn’t bother us too much. Lib Dem core voters are the least likely to defect to Ukip, since they are anti-liberal. Indeed the Lib Dem strategy of talking up Ukip for the European elections later this month is quite a sound one – as this election depends on rallying the core vote. But we used to be able to pick up the disillusioned too. We were the party locked out of the establishment, with the least stake in it, and whose mission was to shake it up. The party leader Nick Clegg conveyed this message forcefully in the General Election campaign of 2010.
But coalition government changed all that. Now the party is part of the establishment, and they seem to relish it. And the record on political reform is weak. The voting system is the same; the House of Lords is still there; the balance of powers between the local and the central does not appear to have changed radically. A U-turn on student tuition fees shows that Labour and Conservative politicians aren’t the only ones that break promises. Lib Dems might argue this unfair: there is only so much they can do when both Labour and the Conservatives won more votes and parliamentary seats. The riposte to that, though, is: just what is the point of the Lib Dems then?
The answer to that is that lasting political change tends to happen slowly. Revolutions can happen, but they always disappoint. The Lib Dems have in fact forced some significant changes while in government, and blocked a number of illiberal moves. Even my heating engineer admits that you can’t expect people to campaign to get elected and then to refuse a share of power. So what do the Lib Dems do? I think they need to focus on three things.
First they need to consolidate their core. This means liberal internationalists, who seek a fair distribution of society’s wealth, and limits to state power. This may be rather vaguely defined, but there are clear values around which the party can rally. Without this core, nothing else is possible. The party compromises on key issues, such as Europe or human rights, at its peril.
But it is a minority pursuit. Most people aren’t liberal or internationalist by instinct. They prefer the values of identity and keeping everybody else at bay. So the second thing is that Lib Dems must keep reaching out people beyond their core. The relationship here is inevitably more transactional: specific issues and promises. The long term aim should be to listen and to build trust.
If that sounds wishy-washy it shouldn’t. It has a name and it is called Community Politics. Some Lib Dems practice it very effectively, look at Sutton in London. Most sitting Lib Dem MPs try something along these lines. For all that the implications seem to escape most modern political insiders, including younger Lib Dems. They prefer social media and clever communication strategies. Community politics is about looking people in the eye, and helping them when you can, but also explaining that you can’t compromise your core beliefs. It’s not about clever graphics, it’s about human engagement.
But a strong core and community politics is not enough for the party to progress. The party needs to convince voters that it feels their pain, and advocate real changes to the political system. In the past the party has thought too much in terms of national political reforms, and especially the electoral system. But to voters this sounds like juggling the same old rules in favour of the party, rather than promoting fundamental change. Most are sure to think that the disastrous AV referendum in 2011 should put that matter to rest for the time being.
Instead the party should focus its attention more on devolving power from Whitehall to a local level. The Coalition trumpeted localism, but lacked a clear vision of what was required. Many in the political establishment are against it, in practice, if not in theory. But there is a prospect of building up alliances across political parties. “Power to the People” is a corny slogan, but something like it needs to be the rallying cry. It has to hurt. It means confronting thorny issues like local taxation and finance, and it needs to mean job losses in Westminster ministries. It also means allowing groups of local authorities to combine to take on more responsibilities. STV for local elections should also be part of the mix, but the main deal should be about power.
Rally a liberal core. Reach out through community politics. Advocate radical devolution of power from Westminster. These will do nothing to fend of Ukip in 2014 – but in the long run they could show the voters that the Lib Dems really are different.