Liberalism redux

peaceIt’s conceivable that I am just about the last Liberal Democrat blogger to post something in the aftermath of the General Election horror show. Plenty has been said. There is no doubt plenty more to say. I thought I’d add something to the mix.

A little of the comment that has emerged so far has been predictable. Those who lean to the left feel vindicated: Cleggite entryism is the root of the party’s problems, as they’ve been saying all along. Those who lean to the right feel vindicated: the mistake was to attempt to differentiate from the Conservatives and the record of the coalition government. Perhaps the most notable contribution of this type was the early response to the election result from the Social Liberal Forum, which emerged with almost indecent haste as the election result became clear. But so far we’ve not had too much of that sort of stuff.

There have been plenty of thoughtful contributions touching on what went wrong and what might happen now. Much of the material I’ve found most interesting has appeared on individual blogs rather than on group blogs or in the MSM. Just like the old days!

If you’ve not been following the blogs then I’d suggest having a look at posts – listed in roughly the order I read them – by Jennie, Alix, Neil, Nick B, Nick T, David B, Stephen, and Mark.* There are no doubt plenty of others that I’ve not caught up with yet, and some of my blogging colleagues listed above link to further commentary. David H has had interesting things to say about “three things to do now” to find the way back, even if I don’t agree with several of his proposed prohibitions. I found Daisy’s post reflecting on her experiences of canvassing across a range of different constituencies particularly interesting. You got the distinct impression that some voters were making decisions on the basis of considerations that had little or nothing to do with the Liberal Democrats or their track record in government, even where there was a Lib Dem incumbent. If that’s the case then there’s little the Liberal Democrats could say or do that would make a difference.

Perhaps the least surprising developments in the light of the General Election outcome have been Nick Clegg’s resignation and the subsequent leadership contest shaping up between Tim Farron and Norman Lamb. The likelihood of that particular head-to-head has been foretold for many months, if not years. The surprise is more that, as it transpired, Tim and Norman were just about the only plausible candidates available, given that the parliamentary party has been devastated.

More surprising has been the surge in party membership following the closing of the polls. As I write the 10,000th new member has just joined the party. While welcome, this is decidedly unexpected. Some of these new members have provided their own explanation for why they have joined (eg. here), but the precise reasons for this membership surge will no doubt be debated for some while to come.

Nick Clegg’s resignation speech surely tipped the balance for some, possibly many. Over the years I have not been a great fan of Nick’s conference speeches. I often found they contained plenty to disagree with, as he sought to triangulate and not upset his Coalition partners too much. And I often found them a bit clunky. But I have to say that his resignation speech not only felt more genuine but genuinely moving. It was indisputably liberal. And that liberalism was expressed eloquently. Nick was right to sound the alarm. We live in dangerous times. We cannot take the survival of liberalism for granted. It needs to be both nurtured and championed.

Critics (eg here) will question whether the Liberal Democrats’ support for a raft of authoritarian Tory policies in coalition means that the party has forfeited the right to claim to be the keepers of the liberal flame. There is something to that point: it merits reflection, approached with a degree of humility. But that is addressing the past. There is a more important and pressing point for the present. If the Liberal Democrats will not now stand firm for liberalism then who will?

Human rights concept.Because, as Nick Clegg noted, now is the time. It would appear that the Tories are to press ahead with indecent speed on an array of policies that fly in the face of liberal sensibilities. The aspiration to bring forward, in the first hundred days of the new Parliament, a proposal to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a yet-to-be-specified British Bill of Rights is simply the most egregious. We can expect other such abominations as the revived Snoopers’ Charter and substantial cuts to the benefit payments supporting the most vulnerable to follow in short order.

Looking to Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition to actually oppose these measures is likely to prove fruitless. Labour’s liberal credentials are, at the very least, somewhat tarnished. A sterner critic than I might say they are non-existent. But more importantly the party is going to be preoccupied – looking inward as it is embroiled in another contest for the party leadership. A search for someone to lead them out of the wilderness. It would be foolish to expect that Labour is going to provide effective leadership in opposition, in the short term at least.

The Liberal Democrats in the Commons and, equally importantly, in the Lords must come to the fore in defending the foundations of liberty as they come under assault from the newly emboldened blue hordes. In doing so they must seek alliances with fellow travellers. Some of the changes the Tories are proposing are of profound significance. They will inflict both acute damage in the short term and structural damage in the long term, and could be so difficult to reverse. Party differences need to be put aside if that offers the opportunity to defeat them.

It is great that so many new people have joined the party. But they may be asking what this party is that they’ve joined. We rightly point to the preamble – a document which, while too wordy for campaigning, I find genuinely inspiring every time I read it. But what is the essence of the matter?

We could argue that while liberalism is undoubtedly under threat this is, on the contrary, a perfect time for its resurgence. The Labour party has become unanchored from its roots in the working class interest and struggles to re-establish stable links with other social groups in a way that gives it a new foundation. But liberalism has always been about championing ideas and values, rather than drawing its strength from an alignment with the interests of particular segments of society. In that respect it is as relevant today as it was when its core principles were first articulated. Those core principles are resilient in the face of the sorts of social and economic change that has cut the Labour party off at the knees. What liberals have to say is as relevant today as it was ten, twenty, a hundred years ago.

As Nick B notes, at the root of liberalism is a concern for power. And it is about seeking to achieve equality for all – equality of opportunity. It is about challenging entrenched power wherever it is found – whether the state, the church, private sector monopolies, or unaccountable European bureaucrats. Entrenched and unchecked power is problematic because it means that the voices of some count for more than the voices of others – that society is ordered for the benefit of the few and not for all. Entrenched power is problematic because it erects obstacles to each and every person achieving their potential; obstacles to allowing each and every person to live their life autonomously and authentically. It is only by removing those obstacles will we achieve a genuinely free and open society.

It is a noble aspiration, and an urgent mission.

The Liberal Democrat slogan for the General Election was “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society”. Somewhere along the line the subtitle “Opportunity for all” was appended. In many respects this slogan suffered from all the afflictions of modern politics. On its own it is pretty meaningless. However, if we take the subtitle seriously and think through its implications the notion of “opportunity for all” is in fact both profound and pregnant with possibility.

At one level it is about technical adjustments to school funding so that the pupil premium is available to help disadvantaged children. This is not to be sniffed at. But at another level it invites us to ask questions about whether we should be satisfied with such a policy as a response to falling or static social mobility. If we are serious about opportunity for all then is not a more fundamental transformation required – something that addresses entrenched inequalities and the perpetuation of structural advantages?

Liberalism was, is, and hopefully always will be a radical vision for society. But it is more about the process than the destination. Liberalism is a restless energy. A restless energy to overcome the forces pushing for privilege and partiality. A restless energy directed at preserving a plural society.

Its immediate challenge is to harness the goodwill and enthusiasm generated over the last few days and channel it towards concrete actions in pursuit of those goals.



* Though he’s no longer a Liberal Democrat member, I would also say James is always worth reading (here and here) – he’s a cracking political blogger when he feels the urge.

Images: fotolia.com under license.

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4 replies »

  1. Thanks for this.
    A lot to agree with here.
    As I said in my comment on the previous piece, I think the EU referendum is going to be vitally important and it’s a key opportunity for the LibDems to (a) choose their identity and (b) make a mark. All the signs are that it’s going to be brought forward…

    • I think the party absolutely cannot spend too much time looking inward – or at least it can’t afford to neglect the task of opposition. It was good to see Tim Farron today stating very clearly the illiberal nature of the Govt’s anti-terror proposals. And I think you’re right that the European debate is going to crank into action sooner rather than later.

  2. I think once before I have mentioned that you are the Party’s new Conrad.

    • Bill, that’s very generous. I still haven’t recovered from last time you metioned it. 🙂