Why the new Lib Dem leader needs to offer more than just the ‘sugar rush’ of Brexit opposition

Both Jo Swinson and Ed Davey have approached the leadership election offering restoration, not transformation. But the need for transformation and social liberalism has never been greater.

Neal Lawson
22 July 2019, 10.47am
Ed Davey and Jo Swinson will find out on 22nd July which of them is to become Lib Dem party leader
PA Images

While Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt slogged it out in the limelight, Jo Swinson and Ed Davey seemed to have been in the twilight. In part because they fight to lead only the fourth biggest group in parliament and in part because there really doesn’t seem to be too much between them.

A leadership election is a moment to redefine a party in the eyes of the public. Where are the Liberal Democrats and where should they be as one of the two takes over?

All politics is local. Vince lives down the road from me and he’s popped in a couple of times for tea and a chat. When he took up the leadership my advice was to be bold and redefine liberalism in the 21st century, to put freedom at the heart of everything – but the freedom of the social liberal, the creed that knows that while we are all individuals, it is only through society that we know ourselves and can make the most of lives and each other.

My advice clearly did not strike a chord.

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Vince bumbled along. The Party became ever more strident in its rejection of the referendum, but for a long time Brexit was felt to be a done deal. It was an issue of how not whether. But over time, and as Parliament failed to enact in any form the result of the 2016 referendum, the feeling that Brexit could be stopped grew.

The stance resembled a massive game of ‘prisoners dilemma’. Would compromise around a really soft Brexit – surely the most accurate interpretation of a 52/48 vote – be the best route? After all, there is no majority in the House for a second referendum, and May’s deal, or No Deal, are both worse.

But instead, the chosen polarisation (and Labour’s dithering) has resulted in a sudden and dramatic upturn in the polls for the Lib Dems.

Ironically, the issue Lib Dems most object to, Brexit, is the issue that has catapulted them back into the political frame. Via the dubious slogan ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ they have found a role. Such a stance is dangerous, polarising and populist – politics as crude denouncement of others. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, if by ‘work’, you believe that the ends can justify means.

So what, in all this, are the Lib Dems big aspirations? Stopping Brexit looks a tough ask without a Parliamentary majority for a second vote. Of course a general election might change that – but could hand a working majority to Johnson. We shall see.

But what about beyond Brexit? Even in their wildest dreams the Lib Dems can’t think they will win a majority or even minority government status. So their job is to support a Labour or Tory government – whether formally through another coalition or through some minority support deal, such as a confidence and supply arrangement. Which way would they go? We don’t know.

So here some sympathy for the Lib Dems must be expressed by progressives. First because in most of the seats where they are currently in second place, they challenge the Tories – and its therefore better they win. They need the political space to do this. And second, back in 2010 Labour didn’t even entertain talking to them about forming a coalition – Labour simply walked into the wilderness of Opposition. Of course Labour lefties love nothing better than to batter the Lib Dems for the coalition – but could it have been worse without them stopping the wildest excesses of Osbornism? Purity is noble but impotent.

The worry in all this is that the Lib Dems haven’t stopped and learnt from that difficult period, and worse still, haven’t adjusted to these new times. True, they could and should have done things tactically differently in coalition. But the big point is surely that the Lib Dems currently feel like a politics for restoration not transformation. If only things could go to how they were in the days of Clegg, Cameron, even Blair! As if that era hadn’t helped create this era.

In fact, for the Lib Dems (and for all of us) the financial crash, plus climate change, plus the networked society, changes everything forever. This is an epochal moment in which the case for a social liberalism has never been more urgent. The geo-political threat of Trump, Putin and the rest of the populists has never been greater –and ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ is a slogan that simply eases their path. Surveillance capitalism and the surveillance state put our liberties at greater risk than ever. The days of the free market and the bureaucratic state are over, or at least they could and should be. The time for civil society, citizenship and social entrepreneurs has never been more ripe. This is Lib Dem ground. But where is the big analysis, the books, the speeches, the offer? The Orange Book was a dead end. But where now? These are times not for incrementalism, not for safety first, and not for restoration, but for transformation.

From political near-death, any sign of life must feel like the ultimate relief. But nothing is really holding the Lib Dems up other than a temporary sugar rush offered by Brexit, that will disappear as soon as Brexit is decided. Instead of just a blip, the Party could be part of a vital long term realignment of British politics, because the need for social liberalism has never been greater. But it has to do a whole lot better than this leadership contest infers.

The new leader, whether it is Ed or Jo, will come with few external expectations. That’s no bad thing. There is a space, but not much time to establish a much bolder and more ambition task for the party – to redefine social liberalism in the 21st century. The Party should take it.

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