In defence of liberal democracy

VoteYesterday’s Independent newspaper appropriated this title for its unprecedented editorial backing something that is clearly impossible. The Independent abandoned its traditional, and commendable, stance of remaining independent. It threw its support behind a second Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. The editorial added the caveat that it would like a second coalition to be more liberal and less conservative. Which is precisely why it is supporting the impossible. Whatever happens later today, we know that the Conservatives have swung to the right and the Liberal Democrats will be fewer in number come Friday morning. So the chances of a second Con-Lib coalition – if such a beast were to come into existence – being more liberal and less conservative are precisely zero.

Whether such a coalition is arthimetically possible and necessary to form a government we are yet to discover. Whether it is desirable for the parties or the country is quite another matter. But that is a discussion for another day.

While some newspapers have predictably supported Labour, rather more have been vociferous in support of the Conservatives – with or without supplementary advice to their readers on tactically voting for the Liberal Democrats. The atmosphere has been poisoned by partisan ravings against the Labour party and the SNP, mostly driven by the plutocratically-owned right wing press. Actual news has taken a backseat to opinion and rampant editorialising as wealthy non-doms and tax exiles seek the continuation of a congenial and overly hospitable regime. It is fairly clear that this is part of the explanation for the Independent abandoning its traditional neutrality. The tone of the editorial was everso slightly sheepish. Writing under instruction.

Unlike the members of our national press this blog isn’t going to advocate that its readers vote for a particular party. Who am I to tell you what to think? But I will advocate for getting out and voting. Liberal democracy needs you. It is conceivable that a high turnout, in and of itself, may prove an important factor in shaping the post-election debate amid claim and counterclaim about who has the most legitimate to claim forming a government. So I hope everyone who can participate does participate.

It’s not my place to tell you who to vote for. But it is no secret that I will vote Liberal Democrat. I have done so ever since the party came into existence. And for the Alliance before that. But I don’t do so tribally or with blind loyalty. I know what I believe and, traditionally, the Liberal Democrats are the party that aligns most closely with that. That is still the case, just about. Most of the positive developments that occured under the 2010-2015 coalition government can be traced to the influence of the Liberal Democrats. But – and it is a big but – the horrors perpetrated by the coalition will remain forever etched on the memory.

I was very struck by a comment made yesterday by Nick Tyrone: “liberalism isn’t something that can be taken for granted anymore”. That is a key point. And if anyone is going to defend liberalism then it is the Liberal Democrats, however imperfect they might be. It isn’t going to come from anywhere else. All the other major parties are by nature authoritarian. A key task is to strengthen the resolve of the Liberal Democrats to remain true to party’s core principles: to avoid the very real risk that this liberal commitment is watered down to make the party more attractive coalition fodder.

Very few of the possible post-election scenarios – be it for minority goverment or coalition – are particularly appealing. There is a sense of foreboding. It is clear that there is a very real possibility of some nasty post-election arguments over the legitimacy or otherwise of any government centred on the Labour party. The attempts by the Conservatives to magic new constititional conventions out of thin air in order to increase the probability that they will be able to cling on to power should be roundly deprecated.  These shenanigans show a contempt for the democratic process and the will of the people. In the long run, in order to sustain the vitality of the foundational institutions of our society, the results of the election and constitutional conventions need to be respected. Clearly there are areas of ambiguity as we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. You’d like to think that these issues will be dealt with in ways that sustain and strengthen the institutions of democracy rather than in ways that are driven by narrow party advantage. But even as I type that I know that it sounds vaguely absurd.

Now, more than ever, we need statesmanship, not small politics.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

7 replies »

  1. I’m sort of the anti-Alex.
    After a lifetime of voting LibDem, I won’t be this time around.
    I’ve ranted about the reasons in numerous comments here before.

    But I’ll sum it up this way:
    It has become clear to me that the majority of the LibDem leadership wish they were the FDP (from Germany) and that isn’t the “Alliance” I started out with. To my mind, distinctively British liberalism doesn’t mean “more Manchester liberal than ever…”

  2. I can perfectly understand how one might arrive at the view that enough is enough. I have got close to throwing in the towel several times.

    I wait to see what will happen after the election. If the LDs don’t do too well, and particularly if they end up back in opposition, we can expect a period of reflection and renewal. And the FDP aspirant tendency – which I agree is very clearly there – may find that it is no longer in the ascendent. On the other hand, if there is an acceleration of that direction of travel then I suspect that it could trigger a broader realignment. One thing that is yet to be determined is not just the number of LD MPs that survive, but which MPs. The balance of views in the party could have a very different feel, depending on who is still standing on Friday.

    • Pretty shocking results (for everyone who isn’t a Tory supporter…)
      I think there will be quite a bit of realigning all around.

    • That’s true. But his intervention strikes me as a bit odd. It just seems like kicking Clegg when he’s down and out, to no great purpose.

      I’m all for an inquisition into what went wrong. But I’m not sure how much of it needs to be conducted through the newspapers. And we don’t want to be too hasty. All we get at this stage is a lot of told-you-so/they should have listened to me/the result vindicates my concerns type pieces.

      I guess I could write one of those – given that I’m sure I could put together a reading list of old blogposts on here that demonstrates that I’d made many of the same points over the last five years. But I’m not sure I’ve got the heart. I take no pleasure in it. It’s very sad.

      And if, for the sake of argument, the main driver of the result is voters switching to vote Tory for fear of a Lab-SNP coalition then it is largely out of the control of the Lib Dems. So it doesn’t tell us a huge amount about failures of past Lib Dem strategy or about approproiate future directions.

      • I’d imagine that many of us feel emotionally gutted by the results, especially given the expectations that the polls set up. I’d sort of agree that the newspapers aren’t the place for anything, but on the other hand we live in a blog and Facebook world. Some of the discussion has to be online.

        For me the crucial and useful part of David Steel’s piece is that he refuses to line up with the “Coalition was the best possible negotiated agreement that the LibDems could have gotten.” I’ve been saying that for a long time, but I’m just a faceless name on the internet – and so many supporters of the leadership just refuse to engage with the idea that there were alternative possibilities. That feels important because if you decide that this form of Coalition was inevitable and that voters always punish the little party, then this result becomes inevitable – and the best that can be hoped for is a build up to a new repeat. Which doesn’t seem worthwhile.

        I also welcome his point that the LibDems have not historically been an FDP-style centre-right party, no matter how much the leadership would prefer that. For me this is the key battle to come – will the LibDems be a radical party – and in Britain that has to be at least partially in conflict with the policy agenda of the Tory party (as it stands) or slip into some kind of post-Thatcherite libertarian economics? This also touches on the crucial issue of the EU – it’s very easy to imagine a “libertarian” LibDem party that quickly becomes anti-EU…

        At some level, that’s a question for party members to resolve democratically – what do they want the party to be? And since I gave up my party membership the day the Coalition was formed, it is possibly none of my business. But as an interested observer, I’d really like the party to think it through – and pay attention to these identity questions.

        What I see in the newspapers as Labour starts its own post-mortem, and I’ve seen in a number of “Liberal” blogs is a concentration on “pragmatism” and also an assumption that since the Tories won, being more like the Tories is the way forward. I think the conversation about “what do we stand for” needs to be deeper than that. I’d suggest for the LibDems this is even more crucial than for other parties, because being “in the centre” it is very easy to become obsessed with “pragmatism” and “being in the right place to hold the balance of power” – but I suspect that if a small party doesn’t have “a soul” it doesn’t have a long term future.

        As for Scotland – well, it explains Labour-Tory marginals to some degree, but I’m not sure it explains LibDem-Tory marginals that well. I hope we’ll get some more evidence on that. There’s a lot of talk about “Shy Tories” but it appears that the big miscalculation by the pollsters was the turnout balance between young and old. The English young were not energised by this election – and the older (more Tory) vote turned out more reliably…

        • Plenty that I agree with here. Certainly emphasizing pragmatism without a firm grip on what the party stands for is a road to nowhere. Steel’s corrective on the FDP point was welcome. I guess my point in my previous comment wasn’t so much disagreeing with much of what Steel said as wondering why he chose to say it then.