an abridged version of an August 2013 Liberator Article
A senior Liberal Democrat, when recently asked about their view of the prospects for the Party is rumoured to have replied, “The Valley of Death”, evoking thoughts of the Crimean War. That was an accurate assessment born out of the formation of the Coalition in 2010. The causalities, in terms of membership losses however, have been greatly in excess of the 800 British cavalrymen at the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854.
Indeed, the Party President Tim Farron in an interview with The House magazine earlier this year warned that the Party was in a “critical state” and that Liberal Democrats “shouldn’t assume our survival is guaranteed”.
The Party Leadership’s response has been to adopt very strict seat-targeting – a sort of Rennardism cubed, you might say. This is an attempt to devise a realistic ‘damage limitation’ exercise.
The problem is the basic premise of this strategy. It’s a top-down approach consistent with the bunker mentality that has prompted so many activists to withdraw or resign from the Party. The premise behind the exercise is diametrically opposed to what was previously one of the Party’s unique selling points, namely: maximising inter-party collaboration and encouraging maximum public participation. That was what lay behind localism – pavement politics, community activism – that made for a broader-based local government presence that heralded the Party’s revival.
The Liberal Democrats should be the party that seeks to contradict or, at least, minimise Robert Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy (which states that the elite groups seek to protect their own power rather than advance the will of the organization/electorate they are supposed to serve). Indeed, that’s what Cameron and Clegg signed up to at the start of the Coalition when they promised to hold Primaries to select candidates in at least 200 seats for the next General Election. It turned out to be mere rhetoric – Coalition parties should have stuck to their original instincts and been ahead of the game. It is this essentially macho approach that the recent Morrissey Report on process and culture in the Party, criticized.
The Liberal Democrats should be among those at the forefront of devising remedies to the alienation of political parties from the electorate. Our long-standing commitment to internationalism, including a vision for Europe, coupled with its equally longstanding commitments to industrial co-ownership and asset taxes such as Land Value Taxation – all now seemingly deposited in the trashcan of history- could and should have informed its policies. Only a return to the mind-set that inspired the thinking behind those ideas, will the Lib Dems contrive a “Florence Nightingale” type set of remedies that brought much needed reforms to medical care after the Crimean War. The Lib Dems, and other political parties for that matter, will need more than sticking plasters to rejuvenate and refurbish themselves.
As it is, Clegg’s admonition is that the Lib Dems are at a crossroads and must opt for either government or opposition. It is a false antithesis in a democracy because we are likely to be in both roles from time to time depending on election outcomes. By focusing on coalition, we dilute the very essence of what it is we stand for independently of the other parties. All Lib Dem activists believe that we can and should be a party of government, and activists know that the one thing you must be consistent about is your basic mission. The Liberal Democrat’s mission is essentially the preamble to its constitution, that we “…exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, … in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity”. But supporting Osbornomics wholesale is at odds with such a mission: there’s little fair about tax cuts for the rich or freezing increases to welfare payments.
Part of making politics more sophisticated is admitting that when your party is in power as a junior partner in a coalition government, that it may have to support things that as a party it doesn’t corporately agree with to gain influence on less palatable elements of the bigger partner’s agenda and to implement at least part of its own. This is an opportunity missed by Clegg – he’s never made it clear what the Liberal Democrat contribution to the Tories’ economic strategy is. There has never been any convincing explanation about why the leadership signed up to it, having campaigned for an alternative approach just weeks before, during the 2010 General Election.
The Party’s corporate strategy is therefore misaligned to its stated mission (and as history has taught us, probably means we will fail in our mission). The strategy is instead aligned to the leadership’s value set, which is rooted more in elitist, than social, liberalism. The Party may well be at a crossroads, but it is not a choice between opposition and government, it is between these two missions. And elitist liberalism should be kept where it rightly belongs – on the Right,.
Co-Chair, Social Liberal Forum.