The Times operates a pay wall for its online content. I have been paying £10 a month to access it. So it was a bit upsetting when my email provider decided their newsletters were junk (while being happy with The Guardian and Financial Times). It was rather more upsetting that it took me over a month to notice. Still, I missed regular articles from some of my favourite columnists, especially Matthew Parris. I also regularly read Danny Finkelstein and David Aaronovitch. I sometimes read Melanie Phillips, who, rather alarmingly, I seem to be agreeing with more and more. You may note a distinctly conservative taste for somebody who tends to the left – but I have always believed that you should expose yourself to challenging views. In any case all three of these are liberals in the traditional sense, although that is a bit of a stretch for Ms Phillips.
I have been catching up, with especial interest on the response to the Lib Dems’ astonishing victory in the Chesham & Amersham by-election. Those from Mr Parris and Lord Finkelstein were especially striking. Both acknowledge that the result must give the Conservative leadership pause for thought, but suggest that the deeper questions posed by the result are for the Lib Dems. Lord Finkelstein’s view is made clear in the article’s title: There is no Point to the Liberal Democrats. Some context is helpful here. Like me, Lord Finkelstein’s first political commitment was to join the Social Democratic Party (SDP) when it was formed in 1981. Doubtless also like me he had been inclined to be Conservative beforehand, but he was a bit younger (born in 1962 to my 1958). Unlike me, he opposed the SDP’s merger with the Liberal Party in 1987 to form what eventually would be known as the Liberal Democrats. He limped on with the “continuing SDP” with former SDP leader David Owen until he joined the Conservatives in 1990, who made him a peer in 2013. This suggests that like Lord Owen, he has always had a loathing for the Liberals and its successor party, as the little people in British politics, though he hides it a bit better. (Lord Owen always finds some clever reason to oppose anything the Lib Dems support, most notably in the 2011 referendum on electoral reform). Still Lord Finkelstein’s arguments bear hearing out, however painful they are to read for somebody that has given so many years of their life to the party.
The essence of Lord Finkelstein’s argument is as follows:
Here are the problems of the Liberal Democrats. They don’t stand for anything, they don’t stand for anybody, they can’t win and even if they could it would be utterly pointless.Danny Finkelstein, The Times 22 June 2021
He goes on to say that they are worse than pointless, as they are getting in the way of establishing a coherent opposition to the Conservative Party. Lib Dems like me may protest the party does stand for a clear set of liberal, internationalist and environmentalist values, and that this has become more coherent since the loose coalition assembled by former leaders Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy has fallen apart. He would counter that those same views are also held by many members of the Labour Party, and even the Conservatives, and are not distinctive. More seriously it is clear that local government does not exist in Lord Finkelstein’s world – which is revealing. But the Lib Dems aspire to being more than being a party of local councillors. He is onto something when he points out that the party collapsed when it went into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, its only exercise of real power. This makes it understandable that the party rules out coalition with the Conservatives. But that kills the party’s leverage, and poses the question of why members shouldn’t just join the Labour Party.
Ouch! There are many moments when I have wondered whether my support for the Lib Dems has been futile. I have made a lot of friends (and the party is how I met my wife) – and it has been one of the best ways to meet like-minded people. But I don’t join it as a social club. Sometimes I am simply left with the impact the party has had on other parties by competing with them. It is true that the spectacular by-election victories the party has scored from Orpington in the year of Lord Finkelstein’s birth to this one have led nowhere in the following general elections. But they have often had a big political impact, usually on the Conservatives. Other parties were simply in no position to deliver these shocks. The complacency of Conservatives prior to the latest Chesham & Amersham was quite astonishing, to read some of the things that their supporters had been writing beforehand.
And are we really in the way of forming a coherent opposition to the Tories? And should we really join Labour? I might ask why, if Lord Finkelstein thinks that the Conservatives so badly need such an opposition, and that if joining Labour is the only way to achieve it, why hasn’t he? I joined the SDP as soon as I realised that I wanted it to succeed. My reasons for not wanting to join Labour are probably pretty similar to his; my blood runs cold at the thought of it. I do not want to be a foot soldier in something distinctly ugly (and I would say the same for joining the Conservatives). The alternative for me to being part of the Lib Dems is leaving politics altogether. The reason that Labour can’t form an electorally convincing alternative to the Conservatives (coherence is easier…) lies mainly within that party, and not because it is missing a few more liberal members and activists. Sometimes competition works better than collaboration, even in politics. Would Tony Blair’s New Labour have happened without the SDP split?
Mr Parris’s article Tories need to start caring about the blue wall is ultimately more compelling, though almost as searing in its opinion of the Lib Dems. The article’s main focus is on the Conservatives, and how the current leadership is taking for granted a whole stratum of liberal conservative voters, of which he is one, and which is prominent in Chesham & Amersham. These are repelled by Boris Johnson’s party, and are ripe for the taking. Can the Lib Dems do this outside a fevered by election? Mr Parris is sceptical:
Liberal Democracy has a wonky wheel that, time and again when hard choices loom, wobbles them off the highway and into the ditch of localism, neighbourhood grumbles, government intervention and “whatever’s your gripe is ours too”
Beyond its orange bird, Lib-Demmery has a big yellow streak. Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws took the leap into real politics in coalition. But their party seems to have disowned that brave compromise. Are they ready for adult politics again? If they can learn to show steel, to say no to someone, something, anything, then Sarah Green, the new MP for Chesham & Amersham, may approach the next election with a fighting chance. If not, this will be one more by-election we shout about, then forget.Matthew Parris, The Times 19 June 2021
I often disagree with Matthew Parris, but I think he has it this time. The party has changed since the days of anything-goes in the 2000s. But has it changed enough? How should the party present itself to the electorate, and how can it show that it is interested in adult politics again?
In my previous article I suggested that the by-election showed what the point of the Liberal Democrats was. It was to appeal to Conservative voters whom Labour and the Greens cannot reach, while holding to its liberal values. That means it must champion the centre ground of politics. Lib Dem activists bristle when it is suggested that theirs is a party of the centre, as it implies the party is rootless and defined by the ground that parties of left and right happen to inhabit. But while the core values of the party are not defined by the political centre, core values do not win elections – you have to broaden your appeal. Taking the centre is how the party must do this, and that is how they pulled off this coup. If they are to turn this one-off event into something more substantial, then the party has to stick to this line.
What does that mean, in practice? It means going back to the traditional values of public service that Mr Johnson’s followers (and many in the Labour Party) dismiss as elitist: fair play and tolerance; truth rather than grandstanding; saying sorry every so often. It also means being clear that international cooperation has a big role to play in solving many of the country’s problems – from trade to taxing companies to global security – in contrast to the Tory preference for tub-thumping and “buccaneering”. That’s the easy bit. The party needs to stand up for effective public service, without getting hung up on public ownership, but combining this with a degree of fiscal prudence. This means two things which will be hard. First is not to suggest that spending more public money is the solution to every problem: which means challenging Labour every so often when they do just that. And it means admitting that an ageing population and stronger public services mean higher taxes on everybody, and not just some soft underbelly of rich people and taxes. All these positions may be open to respectable challenge, but this is the approach that will earn credibility amongst centre-ground voters. Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party may adopt similar positions in the end, but the Lib Dems can do so with more credibility amongst Conservative voters.
And the party needs to be honest about where they want all this to go. That is taking part in a coalition government, if the coalition as a whole follows largely centrist principles. The party can rule out a coalition with the Conservatives under Boris Johnson, but not necessarily under another leader. But the most likely option is government with a Labour Party that has taken some steps towards a centrist programme itself.
Will the Lib Dems be able to pull this off, and win 30 to 40 seats at the next election? I understand the scepticism of people like Matthew Parris. But I am hoping he is wrong.