Dear Liberal Democrats

In the second of a series of letters to progressive political parties, the Compass chair encourages the Lib Dems to pick a side, and show why they are needed.

Neal Lawson
23 May 2016

Tim Farron, By Keith Edkins - own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.Dear Liberal Democrats,

This is one a series of letters to the progressive parties. I know you didn’t ask me to write but hope you will read it with the same emotion as it was written, a spirit of generosity, hope, realism and just a bit of frustration. 

So, it’s one year on from the election and where are you? Recent results were mixed. In some councils you won back seats but in London and Wales little headway was made. Maybe bottoming out is a success – I can see that. But I can also see the potential for you to grow and be a huge part of the political and electoral force a progressive Britain needs. What is the strategy to do that?

Let me start from the fundamentals. Liberalism matters. To be liberal is to be open, to cherish freedom and start politics from the only place we can – from us as people in all our wonderful diversity. Of course liberalism can go one of two ways – you can be a neoliberal and worship the market or you can be a social liberal and recognize that we only make sense as individuals within a social context. For me it’s the role of the social liberals that is crucial to the future of progressive politics. Indeed is there any real difference between social liberalism and liberal socialism? Someone once wrote that socialism is organized liberalism. I concur.  

Of course some would like to dismiss you completely. They think you committed the unforgivable sin of going into coalition with the Tories and have no place in a progressive future. There are two reasons why they are wrong. First, on entirely pragmatic grounds other progressives need you to do well in 2020. In a number of seats, especially in the south west, only you can defeat the Tories. Some would rather see the Tories win than work with you. Shame on them. Absolute certainty in the singular and unique role of any one party is the politics of the past. The only way we meet the complexity of the 21st century is with an equally complex and yes liberal response. Yes we are members of different and proud tribes – but we must all be open tribes, willing to learn and work with each other.  Otherwise there is only one result – Tory hegemony. 

But second, the nation should have much more sympathy for your plight and give some guarded thanks to the fact that you actually entered into a coalition – as we now see what unfettered Toryism looks like. Back in 2010 the nation voted for a coalition or minority government. Labour was too tired and too lost to work with you. It stepped away from power. The choice was a stable government via a coalition or vote by vote rule until, is was presumed by everyone, the Tory war chest would see them through to an outright win within months. And as a centre party cruelly denied the seats your votes warranted what were you supposed to do when the fleeting chance for influence happened? Some Lib Dems understandably too didn’t want to do a deal with the Tories and left or went into internal opposition.

Your record in government was mixed but the people’s verdict wasn’t. Like smaller coalition partners the world over – you got smashed. All of this is clear. But the verdict on you has to be more mixed, you deserve some credit (scrapping ID cards, same sex marriage, tax reform and more) and some blame. 

But what have you done in the last 12 months? I don’t follow every twist and turn of your party, I look on an as sympathetic and interested outsider. But I cannot recall one article or one speech that has really stood out and tried to get to grips with the scale of your defeat or the role of liberalism in the 21st century. I admire your ability to lick your wounds and just get on with ‘operation fight back’. But has there been a big debate, an inquest and a series of lessons learnt?

Of course column inches let alone broadcast coverage is tough for the nations joint-fourth biggest party based on seats. But even so! Tim Farron, whose heart I think beats to the left, has been virtually absent from the national stage. I’m sure it not for want of trying. But if Caroline Lucas can make some waves surely he can say something to gain interest? But then what is the strategy? Over the first part of last summer he was pitching to the left of Labour. Then came the Corbyn Surge and he started pitching to the right of Labour hoping for defections that never came. Are you a party of the centre-left or centre-right?

And this is the key point. It seems you remain stubbornly equidistant, like hired guns who will side with anyone if the price is right. But you must surely have a preference? How can it be otherwise for the party of Gladstone, Keynes, Beveridge, Grimond, Williams and Kennedy? I understand that on some important issues like civil liberties, some Tories are more progressive than many people in Labour. This is to be lamented and changed. And of course if Labour refuses again to form an alliance with you there will be no choice if no clear winner emerges in 2020. But you must tell the nation what you would prefer before they vote for you. Otherwise no one from the left will lend you their vote. It means you have to stop being everything to everyone. But the game is up for any party that mixes its messages in an age of social media. And the prize of setting out a clear vision and set of polices for a social liberal future could be huge. The days of the remote state and free market are receding fast. Your deep commitment to a good Europe and sustainability flow with the tide of history too. When I attend your conference and events I feel at home, we want broadly the same things. Let’s work on that sentiment.

Look, believe me, I know all the problems of Labour. But the party is starting to shift on key issues. An Opposition led Constitutional Convention would let all progressive parties work together to shape a new democracy. Labour is edging faster to support proportional representation with strong support from John McDonnell and growing support in the unions. Labour and Liberal Democrats are working hard to keep Britain in Europe. We all want much more social justice and sustainability. Of course in 30 years time you might have counted enough cracked paving stones to get a foothold back in local politics. But who can now wait that long? 

in 30 years time you might have counted enough cracked paving stones to get a foothold back in local politics"

So come on, define the new liberalism for our new times and commit yourself now to help build a progressive alliance with Labour in its new guise, the Greens and the SNP based on a joint mandate to ditch our wretched and unjust electoral system and a commitment to an economy that works for everyone. The prize of a progressive century lies ahead of us. A strong social liberalism is key to that future – but you are going to have to be brave to make it happen. But I’m unsure there is an option. Good luck. Compass is here to help. We are with you.

My best, always


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