By Paul Hindley
The Liberal Democrats have a new leader, congratulations Jo Swinson. Jo takes over the party at a crucial time in British politics. In a matter of months, the situation of the party has been transformed. It has over 700 new councillors and for the first time in over a century defeated Labour and the Conservatives in a nation-wide election. The party has gone from polling in single figures to polling in the late teens and early 20s, even topping an occasional opinion poll.
British politics is in flux. For the first time in British political history, both Labour and the Conservatives are simultaneously having existential crises. This is coupled with the Brexit crisis which continues to undermine our country, its standing in the world and our economy. The Liberal Democrats are faced with the opportunity of a political lifetime; the first realistic opportunity to break the mould of British politics since the 1980s.
We Liberal Democrats must seize this opportunity to become the biggest progressive party in British politics and replace Labour. Most Remain voters are on the left of politics. If we want to consolidate our position with Remain voters, then we must adopt more centre-left economic and social policies. In the European Election, for example, 15% of paid-up Labour Party members voted for the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats are a radical social liberal party, not a conservative-lite party.
If we are to seize this opportunity, we must embrace a clear centre-left identity. Yes, the party has won over many progressive voters with our opposition to Brexit, but what is there to keep these voters once Brexit is no longer a major issue? Britain is still a country which is riven by social hardship from precarious employment, to stagnant wage growth, to squeezed living standards and millions using food banks. We have to acknowledge the role that the austerity economics of the Coalition Government had in making these problems worse. To this end, the Liberal Democrats must be unequivocal in their opposition to austerity and their support for Keynesian economics, as well as reversing the cuts to welfare spending and local government.
Beyond this the party needs to embrace clear radical policies that will advance social justice and will help to keep and win over further left-leaning Remain voters. These should include support for a universal basic income, as well as a universal inheritance. We should support policies to increase workplace democracy by giving employees greater rights to establish worker cooperatives. We need to continue our policy of increasing funding for the NHS and the education system. At a time when our planet is facing a climate emergency, we must be in the vanguard of advancing green politics and combating climate change. Now is the hour for radical political reform not just of the voting system, but of where power lies within the United Kingdom. We should seriously consider supporting a written constitution and a vision to federalise power to the nations and regions of our great country.
There are some basic steps that we can take right now as a party. We need to do more to make the social case for our membership of the European Union. This includes defending the workers’ rights protections that come from the EU, as well as the regional development funding which is vital to the poorest parts of Britain. We also must make the big picture case that the EU is first and foremost a project to ensure peace between the nations of Europe, which had only known war for most of the last two millennia.
An alliance between Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage would endanger many of the liberal and progressive values that we have taken for granted for many years. The extreme right is on the rise in multiple countries; Britain must resist the rise of the populist alt-right. Only an “Open Society Alliance” can achieve this; the Liberal Democrats must work with other progressive Remainer parties to forge a new movement which is pro-European, pro-electoral reform, green and anti-austerity.
If you take anything away from this blog article it should be this; after our policy of wanting to Stop Brexit, our next most important policy is wanting to end benefit sanctions. Liberalism is not just for fortunate middle class people, it is for everyone. Benefit sanctions are Draconian and leave the poorest and most vulnerable people in our country destitute and reliant on food banks. They are authoritarian and are the enemy of social justice. It is already Liberal Democrat policy to scrap them. This policy (alongside our opposition to Brexit) should feature in every one of our campaigns and be on every Focus leaflet.
The time is ripe for a political realignment with the emergence of a new radical centre-left party. Only the Liberal Democrats are in a position to achieve this. The party must embrace its radical social liberal history as well as new progressive big ideas. Liberal Democrats must strive not only to end Brexit, but also to end poverty and powerlessness within British society. This is the perfect recipe to reach out to the majority of Remain supporters.
Jo Swinson clearly has big ambitions for the party. The Liberal Democrats must seize this moment to become the political embodiment of progressive liberal Britain. We must become Britain’s leading progressive party. Our opposition to Brexit and social injustice demands nothing less.