UK Liberal Democrats have suffered a second devastating blow just over a year after the 2015 near-wipe-out.  Early on Friday afternoon, I listened to Tim Farron giving his reaction and setting some of his thoughts about where our Party is and what we should do next.  It was a good speech containing some analysis of underlying changes and some ideas about next steps for LibDems. 

It wasn’t a thorough analysis and it didn’t amount to a strategy, but that wasn’t Friday’s job.  The challenge now is to understand what happened and to set out a clear strategy for what we do next. 

This short essay offers a starting point from a social liberal perspective. 

First and above all, we have to recognise that the future has to be a struggle for hearts and minds, not just for votes.  The referendum was a blue-on-blue battle because Conservatives have already won the battle to frame the questions: about immigration, economics, welfare and English nativism.  The campaign took for granted core Tory values about the nation’s goals and then argued about how to deliver them – unsurprisingly, the more simple, raw view of those values won. 

For Lib Dems, our share of the blame comes because, over decades, we concentrated our energies on winning locally on street-level issues and saw squeezing third parties as a key strategy.  In many places, we forgot or just put on the back burner the core argument of the community politics strategy: local campaigning should be about gaining the right to be heard and to persuade on the big issues and ideas as well as fixing the potholes and providing competent administration of the status quo. 

That vacuum was made worse by the fact of coalition with the Tories and even more by how that coalition was managed.  At least, however, the big ideas were there in the background and could be discerned in some of the battles we fought within the coalition.  And Nick Clegg’s resignation speech was a powerful reminder of the liberal values that hadn’t been heard or seen by most people in the preceding years as was Tim’s speech today.  To misquote Dickens, nothing in politics became Nick so much as his leaving of it.  And Tim has been speaking up for liberalism during his leadership.   

The greatest indictment for losing the fight against Tory prejudices, however, must be made against Labour.  The Blairite coalition of voters was put together by accepting key Tory prejudices and pretending that they could better deliver on them than the Tories themselves.  They gave away core left principles on social justice, internationalism, migration and Englishness for the sake of office. 

We need a movement for liberalism and liberal ideas which goes far beyond the everyday concerns of an ordinary party.  There’s little point in ever more technical ways of getting out the vote if those voters don’t understand or accept what we aim to achieve with success in achieving office.  Justin Trudeau appealed to voters in a country where people shared his liberal vision and attitudes and even his opponents knew that they had to fight on that territory.  In England, we have lost that battle over many years.  A successful liberal government can only be based on a country with liberal values at its heart.   

That means campaigning on liberal issues at every level and using the respect we earn locally to build support for a liberal vision based on social justice, human dignity and respect for others.  It also means turning our party into a debate about how to achieve those things, arguing ideas and policies through with liberals throughout the country and with everybody else.  It is not about tailoring manifestos to existing prejudices, avoiding difficult issues on doorsteps and “getting out the vote”. 

The big ideas of 21st century liberalism start with the recognition that our planet’s security is fragile. On economics, we need to recognise that modern capitalism uses its power to distort markets, manipulate consumers and create gross and disfiguring inequality.  We recognise Adam Smith’s assertion that market economics need to be based on public morality and Keynes’s view that states have a crucial role in regulating markets.  We need to return to Beveridge’s vision of defeating the modern giants that stand in the way of enabling everyone to have a decent life.  The goal of health policy is to create a healthy society not just to treat illness and that means recognising that good health is about employment, environment, decent housing and the sense of controlling one’s own life.  Learning is a lifelong process that enables us to make the best of ourselves.  And, above all, there is the certainty that every person’s life is equally precious, whether they live in Clacton or Calcutta, Syria or Southend. 

Most importantly, the development of our ideas needs to start from understanding what’s wrong and what should be done to create right.  Too often, we start with the existing powers of an existing Department of State and devote our time to working out the tweaks needed to make it more efficient. 

Tim Farron is also right to say that the experience of working with key people in other parties during the referendum should form a good basis for future co-operation.  That will be easiest with the Greens and perhaps Plaid Cymru.  He is right in saying that Corbyn’s betrayal of his own voters over the EU means that he isn’t a leader with whom we can work, even if he had the support of his own MPs.  The greatest losers from Brexit will be the people, many of them traditional Labour voters, who will lose jobs, income and hope because Brexit will hit them hardest. 

The SLF will be working to help Tim and others to build the case for new and progressive alliances which represent liberal values and fight for social justice.  We also recognise that those alliances will include some liberal Tories who have no future in the parties of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.  

I don’t know whether we can do any sort of deal with a Labour Party with all its different elements or whether we have to default to a Grimond view of realignment of the left based on new parties. That would require a political earthquake – but that sounds like a good goal for social liberals!  And, the hollowness of existing structures often isn’t seen until they collapse. 

Gordon Lishman (Acting Chair, Social Liberal Forum)



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  • Excellent post. This is an excellent opportunity to engage people with our values. It is also incidentally a good time to debate our democracy. We need to align ourselves with ordinary people who don’t have much time for politics. The referendum has given people a sense of freedom. Let us build on that. Campaigning to reenter the eu is good and even better is to say why. It is a lot to do with trust. Who do you trust to defend our rights and freedoms. We need a written constitution so at least a further referendum will not be such a free for all.
  • Hi Joe, it’s a good essay and a good post. So when do we start? Can we wait for a hero to step forward or should we be heroic ourselves? Brainstorm and form a young liberal group that established politicians from the centre left and right will want to join? I’ve set up this group with that express aim: I hope that you can inform me of another similar minded group or that you and others will join this one. I may also see you at the protest beforehand: Thanks for your post, Matt
  • Gordon Lishman’s article resonates with me on a number of different levels and I have always thought that the local campaigning strategy was essentially shallow when it concentrated on parking and potholes without any reference to how this chimed with our view of a good liberal society.

    I was horrified that Nick Clegg wanted to go into coalition with the Conservatives although I had by then left the party. I regard that decision as almost as fateful as Cameron’s offer of a referendum on Europe.

    My concern then is how to create a more liberal, just and fair society rather than how to elect a LibDem government. To do this will mean to find the issues that really resonate with the vast majority of people who have lost out as a result of the neo-liberal revolution that as Lishman points out has become the only game in town.

    However I believe it can be done although it may need to be done through a new political party that is prepared to work with others. I was surprised that Lishman did not include Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP in his short list of partners. I would call the new party the UK Reform Party and the broader grouping, the Coalition for Democratic Reform and Renewal.

    My key issues would be taxation and representation. It should be easy to show how both these areas have been taken over by the rich and well connected. It should be easy to show how the vast majority of people would benefit from taxation and democratic reform. If there was one clear message from the awful referendum debate, it was that large sections of the electorate felt they had no skin in the game as the Americans say.

    It should be simple to make the case for correcting the imbalances inherent in our economic system.
    London vs the rest, the gender gap, the class based educational gap, manufacturing vs finance, capital vs labour, pensioners vs workers (and the rest), growth vs the environment … and so on.

    There is already a huge body of literature that describes these issues and offers some ways forward, but it needs a group of energetic and committed people to take these messages to the very people who feel they have been neglected by the traditional political parties. I am looking for a courageous politician to stand up and point out that the vast majority of young people voted Remain, and to call for an immediate election where their future will be the key issue rather than the Brexit which was only ever a proxy for so many other frustrations and concerns.
  • Although I have great sympathy with this analysis,it seems to me that the overwhelming lesson of the EU referendum is that we need to do some listening to other views. That is the only way we will earn the right to be heard on the doorstep. Let us not go down the Labour Party route of dismissing the views of others as prejudice, which just shuts down the debate at the first base.
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    Gordon Lishman writes a Social Liberal response to the EU Referendum
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    Gordon Lishman writes a Social Liberal response to the EU Referendum