Last Friday the leader of the British Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, launched his plan for remaking his party into a broader liberal movement. Having been away, my reaction to this event has been slow. But before we launch into the party conference next weekend, here are my first thoughts.
Vince’s main idea is to create a supporters’ scheme which costs nothing to join. To give people extra incentive to sign up to this (and be bombarded with requests for help and donations, etc.) he suggests that these registered supporters have a vote to help choose party leaders – and a suggestion that non-MPs may be allowed to stand for the leadership. He also wants to make it easier for new members to become candidates for parliament – currently they must have a full year of membership. Vince said that the party needed to open itself up to become a movement for political moderation.
First reactions in my Facebook feed were very negative. If there’s one thing that annoys the more vocal people in this community it is referring to Lib Dems as “moderates”, or worse, aiming at the political centre. The party has being going through difficult times after its support collapsed in 2010 when it joined the Conservatives in coalition government. What has kept those of us who remain going, and motivated those who have joined since, is passion for its liberal and internationalist values, not moderation, and not being Mr In-Between. But political leaders know that they must do more than merely represent their supporters; they must broaden their movement’s appeal to people who do not currently support it actively. There are many people out there who are appalled by the idealistic extremism that is infecting both Labour and the Conservatives. Doubtless the use of the word “moderate” was based on at least some market research, though the party cannot afford much.
Apart from suspicion of the word “moderate”, members are wary of involving large numbers of newcomers with little experience or stake in the party. The Labour Party were the first down this route, when they opened up their leadership contest in 2015 to the public for just a £3 fee. In one sense this was enormously successful: hundreds of thousands were drawn in, and many became full-fledged members. The party how has about 600,000 members when the next three in size (the Conservatives, the Scottish Nationalists and the Lib Dems) have not much more than 100,000 each. But this influx of members helped a manifestly unsuitable candidate (Jeremy Corbyn) become elected to the leadership, and has been exploited to drive the party to left. I need to be careful here. Mr Corbyn has been badly underestimated by mainstream politicians and media, and the lurch to the left has involved some welcome fresh thinking. It may not turn out as bad as many outsiders, including me, are predicting. But what is unquestionable is that the process has been very uncomfortable for many of the people who had devoted their lives to the party before the influx changed things. And that’s what many Lib Dems fear will happen to their party if these changes actually succeed in drawing lots of new new people in. It’s all very well saying that these new supporters should share the party’s current values, but how do you ensure that this is the case?
What gives weight to this is the thought that the party might be able to draw in defectors from other parties, including MPs and big-hitters. Unhelpfully, former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair piped up on Friday too, expressing his fears over the turn that politics in Britain has taken. People won’t be slow to make the connection that “moderates” and “centre ground” include people like him. And to many of us, it is people like him who got the country into this mess in the first place, by pushing a series of ideas (often referred to as “neoliberalism”) that have created a whole class of left-behind people that are stoking up the anger.
But the party’s position is quite desperate, if it wants to live up to its ambitions to make it to the political big time (i.e. achieve power), rather than being an ideological fringe, like the Green Party. It is stuck at between 5-10% in national opinion polls (though at the upper end of the range at the moment) and has too few MPs (at 12) to have serious political clout. Andrew Rawnsley sums this up very well. And yet, as Mr Rawnsley also points out, the opportunity is palpable. The ideological fringes in both the major parties are making the running. And there are examples of successful mass movements led from the centre (he points to Barack Obama, Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau in Canada, whose party has been advising Mr Cable). If the Lib Dems can’t do this all by themselves, it is hard to see it working without them. The party has nearly as many members as the Conservatives, and the organisational nous and cooperative culture that a brand new party would lack (one reason that the party has seen off Britain’s most successful new party of recent times: Ukip).
There are moments in life when you have to be courageous, and take big risks in order to get what you want. This is one such moment for the Lib Dems. All the risks pointed out by the plan’s critics have a basis in fact – but they can all be managed. The plan is not nearly enough by itself, but the point is to capitalise on opportunities as they arise. As such I am giving my support to it, though I have reservations about some of the plan. The secret weapon of liberalism is that it can be ideological and moderate at the same time, because it celebrates inclusion. Inclusion is what political moderation is all about.
To me, though, there remains a hole at the heart of this exercise, which will also afflict any new parties created out of fragments of Labour and the Conservatives. We know what they stand against, but what’s the plan? How do they propose to help the left-behind, and start to heal the rifts that are all too apparent in our not-so United Kingdom? At the heart of this has to be a new approach to economics. At the moment Labour understands this better than the Lib Dems, but they are ruining their good ideas by proposing to over-centralise power and supporting the deep conservatism of trade unions. But at least they realise that the cosy consensus that dominates the centre of British political establishment has to be challenged. And that is radical rather than moderate. Once liberals start to champion an agenda for radical economic reform, everything is possible.