A Path Forward For The Liberal Democrats

Daisy Cooper, newly elected MP for St. Albans, on the campaign trail. (Image originally from The New Statesman and obtained from Google Images.)

The utter trainwreck that was the year 2019 in British politics, especially for those of us of the persuasion that the United Kingdom ought not to leave the European Union, can best be summed up in a feeling: melancholy.

We are melancholy for many reasons: never before in history, surveilling the wider landscape of the world, have liberal ideals appeared not only so in retreat, but in utter flight from the twin horrors of socialism and the far right; never before in the history of the United Kingdom has a movement that had so much momentum proven the efficacy and momentum of democracy in action while also flat out ignoring a close rival and all those who dared oppose it; and never before has it appeared so starkly that the cards are stacked so determinedly against us liberals that there is little, if any, hope for the future of our movement.

Of the defeats of the Liberal Democrats on Election Night 2019, there were many: not making bigger inroads in an environment where there was a clear appetite for solutions which preached moderation and progress at the same time, the loss of extremely talented individuals and parliamentarians in Finchley and Golders’ Green and in the Cities of London and Westminster, the continued retreat of liberalism in its heartlands on the fringes of Scotland and in Wales, and not least the defeat of Jo Swinson in her own seat of East Dunbartonshire. However, while this is a time for critical appraisal and reflection, of the strategy of the Liberal Democrats, of the entirety of “Remain” in all of its various forms, it is also a time to plot what’s next for political liberalism in the United Kingdom. For the purposes of argument, I will propose 7 clear ways that the political forces of liberalism can recover across the whole of the United Kingdom.

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The following are the seven ways I see that are the best, and most effective, at promoting a comeback of political liberalism in the United Kingdom. While there are multiple vehicles which claim the mantle of the liberalism practiced by Palmerston and Gladstone, Steel and Ashdown and Campbell, Lloyd George and Asquith, the only one which effectively espouses all of the ideals of liberalism as presently constituted (progressive social policy, internationalism, a commitment to free markets, a commitment to being responsible stewards of all we’ve given, and a commitment to grow and press forward with growing) is the Liberal Democrats. Hence, why there are those who may claim that One Nation Conservatism is an adherent to that tradition, or that other liberal vehicles like the fringe Liberal Party (really only a factor in certain wards in Liverpool) practice that tradition, they will not be covered here.

First, I would like to note that much thought went into these particular ideas for how the Liberal Democrats could improve their political fortunes and viability throughout the UK. These were ideas that have genuinely taken these 10 days to create and mold. I didn’t want to come across as bitter or trite and in my position, as someone who is invested in the ideals of political and intellectual liberalism, I feel that producing this particular piece earlier would’ve caused me to appear so.

Second, I would also like to note that these ideas are not sure-fire ways to restore the Lib Dems as a legitimate group that has legitimate aspirations to govern the UK. Perhaps it is the case that liberalism as an intellectual and political force is spent, at least in the Anglophone world. However bitter and pessimistic I was at times during the course of the campaign leading up to the 2019 general election and as bitter as I was that Friday, I realize that any committed practitioner or purveyor of an idea must be willing to stick by that idea. When it comes to an ideal which combines most radically and most completely the ideals of progress and freedom, I’m afraid there’s no middle ground which I can bargain with. I am committed to these ideals and I will defend them until the point at which I either pass naturally or become a martyr for them.

So, now for seven items which constitute a path forward for the Liberal Democrats……..

  1. Continue The Focus On Local Governance

This item is actually particularly straightforward as things go, if only because it constitutes something that has already been a focus for the Liberal Democrats. When I urge the Lib Dems and their leadership to continue their focus on local government, I mean it as a committed proponent of breaking duopolies. Whether this theory could be borne out or not, I’m not sure, but working to provide the best governance for people and working to make people comfortable with leadership and government by liberals is an important trust builder. Does this item have particular national significance where politics are less about things like waste collection or taxes levied at the local level? Not particularly. However, there are certainly people who vote based on local issues as the recent success of the Ashfield Independents in beating Labour in their traditional heartland of Ashfield shows.

Therefore, in order for political liberalism to continue its slow path back from the outer realms, it must embrace local governance as a vehicle. Working to provide the best possible services for people and the most efficient and representative government is something which might, in due time, result in increased confidence in liberalism and might sway voters.

Now, note that liberalism has always been an ideology focused on the macro levels of society, somewhat out of necessity and somewhat by chance. Liberalism has never been about and does not appear to be about to become, an ideology focused on every little choice a person makes. We choose to focus on society as a whole and on macro-structures like the national government, the economy, and the biosphere because we’ve always felt that our biggest changes could be affected structurally. However, we were, in some ways, wrong. We must choose to affect big change at the smallest levels so that we have the ability to point to their success as proof of concept. Progress is not a supernova, it is a controlled burn of sorts, and working from the bottom to the top will provide more opportunities for greater, positive change.

2. Pinpoint A Young, Vibrant Leader

Chronologically, this item should’ve come first. After all, the leadership race for the Liberal Democrats will kick off in the new year, but there’s still time until the 2020 local elections. However, this one is only the second most important in terms of long-term viability. It is not true that a leader makes or breaks a party, at least not established ones like the Liberal Democrats. Though, it must be said, that this bit is incredibly important because breaking out of the present malaise requires a young, vibrant voice that resonates with all corners of British politics. While it might be nice to have a leader who is just universally beloved in our echo chamber, that won’t do for a party that seeks to compete on a national level.

What this means, in essence, is that the Liberals cannot, under any circumstances, look to older members of this party to lead it. While in ordinary times a Norman Lamb, newly retired, or an Ed Davey might make perfect sense for Leader, these are not ordinary times. The stink of the Coalition is just about over for the Lib Dems. This means more chances to re-focus our energies on building the base, which I’ll discuss later, but it also means a chance to re-define ourselves, with some vigour, for the future.

So what should the next Liberal Democrat leader look like? Since I’ve defined what it shouldn’t, it must be stated quite clearly: an MP first elected in the post-2015 era who can win over both the social liberal/social democratic and economic liberal/Orange Book wings of the party. I will state quite clearly here that it is imperative that this person not be of the #FBPE bent. While all of us, or most of us, of the liberal persuasion believe in the greatness of the European Union, we cannot have as a figurehead someone so utterly radical and narrowly focused who simply re-hashes the referendum. As my good friend @thepig993 and I have discussed multiple times, though I would hardly call ourselves experts, we both agree that close ties with the EU should be something we discuss, but we must wait a while to make our argument for Britain to rejoin.

Therefore, for as much as I think every single Lib Dem MP in the 2017–2019 Parliament was great in their own way, let me say that I am glad that Tom Brake, former MP for Carshalton and Wallington, cannot run for leader. Another thing that I must note the liberals need for their next leader is someone who is a personality in their own right, someone who is articulate and relatively controversy-free. Luckily, any of the MPs first elected in either 2017 or 2019 fit this bill quite well, but for the purposes of the Lib Dems future fortunes, I think they would be only slightly better off with either Layla Moran, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon or Jamie Stone, MP for Caithness, Sutherland, and Easter Ross, as leader.

Again, I reiterate a leader cannot make or break a party, but it can certainly dim an already dim star.

3. Make The Local Government Connection

This point could’ve been named something much different, however, I don’t think I could’ve made the point so succinctly. What I mean by this point is that the Liberal Democrats must choose to work on making the leap from kings of local government to national government. They must work to elect MPs from areas where they control local government.

Significant effort was made on this point at GE 2019, with Liberal Democrats coming close seconds in Winchester, Eastleigh, and Cheltenham with a potential national swing against the Tories in 2024 potentially delivering seats like Wantage, Yeovil, and Cities of London and Westminster among others.

The effort expounded was tremendous in terms of the sheer scope of what they attempted to accomplish, but they must also work in other areas across Lancashire, the South of England, and in Scotland to deliver outcomes we find agreeable. Focusing on seats like The Cotswolds, Harrogate and Knaresborough, and Mole Valley, and Tory seats in London like Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham, and Wimbledon, could deliver them not only more seats, but more effective voices in the Commons who can more readily share and spread our message.

Hence, the answer to picking up more seats lies where it often does in the Devil. In order to continue pressing forward and creating a brighter future, it means leaning into areas the Liberal Democrats were close in last time around and working to expand our efforts. Certain seats are like overripe peaches at this point, only minor swings are needed to swing them, but others will require effort. Effort the Liberal Democrats desperately need to make.

4. Working With Friends, Going After Foes

I am no fan of the Labour Party. For many reasons. However, there is a certain helpfulness they serve in all of this. Some MPs keep out the Tories and others are genuine voices for progressive governance in the United Kingdom. These sorts of voices, I must say, the Lib Dems should not go after and nor should they work to topple. However, voices of the Momentum movement, anti-Semites, and those who do not use their platform for the betterment of society, but instead as a soapbox for their own personal ambitions, should be given the equivalent of “the shaft”.

The Liberal Dems genuinely stand at a crossroads at this point in their history. Their choice is to either distinguish friend from foe and work with the Greens and Plaid Cymru and other groups to get progressives and liberals elected or else they can continue allowing a coalition of the deaf to reason and dumb to reality to continue being the only viable options for governing the United Kingdom.

Some voices on both the left and in the Lib Dems themselves have spoken of non-aggression pacts with Labour. “Why tie a hand behind your own back?” I have to ask. There is not a singularly good notion that can come out of a policy regime of coordination and collusion. Simply put, the Liberal Democrats would do better to contest 632 constituencies than they would to be a lapdog for either main party.

Though, I am proposing neither extreme. What I am saying is that working with the Greens and Plaid to effectively compete and channel support for the progressive, open, liberal movement that the Lib Dems speak for is the way to go. Choices will have to be made. Not all of them will be popular in any party, of course, but under the present realities of First Past the Post, I’m afraid that this is what we have to work with.

5. Master the Fringes and Soften the Interior

This point also functions as an extension of how to win more of those who espouse liberalism into the House of Commons. Here, the onus is on the Liberal Democrats to reach into the bag and work to effectively and concisely spread our message to what is traditionally known as the Celtic Fringe. These areas are traditionally the heartlands of liberalism in the UK and in order to continue on as an effective fighting force, the Lib Dems must again commit to making these areas a key part of the strategy they use in elections. It also means committing to fighting campaigns and waging the good fight in areas on the fringe that traditionally vote for other parties like the SNP or Plaid Cymru.

I would like to note that in 1997, 2001, and 2005, the Liberal Dems ran effective campaigns and performed well, especially on the western periphery. They won areas like Skye, western Wales, and in Cornwall and Devon, areas that it would be nearly unthinkable for Lib Dem candidates to win nowadays. While some of this is due to shifting political currents, I would also posit that this is due to genuine apathy among liberals, taking areas on the fringe for granted, when recent election results do not bear this line of thinking at all.

Take as an example the constituency of Orkney and Shetland. The Liberals, in some form or another, have held this seat consistently since the general election of 1950 when future Liberal leader Jo Grimond defeat Unionist Basil Neven-Spence. Since then, it has been a rare sight to see the Lib Dems with much less than a 10 point majority here. However, since the Coalition days, current Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael has seen his majority go from over 9,000 (51.3%) in 2010 to a mere 817 (3.6%) in 2015 back up to 4,563 (19.6%) in 2017 and finally to just 2,507 (11.3%) in 2019. While this seat is still “safe” in hand for the Lib Dems, it cannot be overstated that for a seat that regularly saw the Liberals the only game in town that these sorts of majorities, casting aside 2010, are something that should be considered unacceptable.

Moving forward for the Liberal Democrats also means moving backward in some ways, in this case, by reclaiming their place on the periphery of the UK. It means not treating areas they’ve traditionally held as either too far gone or too safe. It is clear this apathy is not working for the party, and in order to see a new liberal renaissance, working to reclaim the past is something we are always attempting to do.

6. Holding Government To Tack On Our Core Issues

I defined what I thought liberalism stood for in today’s world early on in this piece. The five threads which define the policies that liberalism builds itself on can be broadly defined as progressive social policy, internationalism, a commitment to free markets, a commitment to being responsible stewards of all we’ve given, and a commitment to grow and press forward with growing.

This sort of liberalism can acknowledge several notable things. First, this liberalism can note when it’s been wrong and where it is wrong. Second, it does not resist advances simply because they are advances. Third, it does not reject the world for what it is: it invites the world in and sees the world as a vehicle by which it can perfect and be perfected. As an ideology, as an intellectual creed, liberalism must hold onto all of these things. It’s also the seminal creed that can define the Liberal Democrats’ future.

In order for the party to thrive once again, we must recognize where they’ve been wrong. They must also realize that every time we are wrong is an opportunity to grow and advance. Here, they must also realize that being active participants in the Opposition at Westminster is of vital importance when it comes to the future of the party. They must hold the Government to account when they talk about restoring Britain’s place in the world, probing them on things such as education, policing, the trade deals they claim are right around the corner, and of course, foreign affairs.

What is tremendously vital to a path forward for the Lib Dems is forging a criticism that distinctly does not work towards the faux revolution of the posh proletariat or towards the “sovereign” Britain that is a fantasy in every single sense of the word in the modern-day. Instead, they must press ahead with criticism of the Government and of the Labour Party which holds them to their word in trying to promote a greater, more prosperous Britain. They must press ahead with criticism of the Government and the Labour Party which exposes them for what they are when it comes to working to open Britain to the world.

Simply, the Liberal Democrats must be effective beacons of Opposition when they are in opposition and effective governers when they potentially govern the United Kingdom in the future.

7. Rebuilding The Base

Here, encased in a small point, might be the most difficult and simultaneously easiest task for the Liberal Democrats as a function of looking toward the future. There must be a party here which works which also has a base of support for the trials and tribulations ahead. In 2019 and 2017, that base has largely been the highly educated who worked to stop the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. A noble base, and one the Lib Dems must work to keep, but they cannot be the only group which votes for the Liberal Democrats if they’re to be viable and potentially Government one day.

The approach that I favor is one that has worked for other progressive parties, to try to work from the bottom up. Reclaiming the student vote, or at the very least the student non-Labour and non-Green vote is something that the party must prioritize in order to carry on into the far future. They must see the benefit of convincing the young of liberal ideals: of an open nation which chases progress and still works to preserve what we’ve been given.

They must also see the benefit of appealing to those of lower socioeconomic status than the traditional Lib Dem voter. One helpful part of seeing the world turned on its head is that it is increasingly hard for certain segments of society to see themselves as hardcore voters/supporters of one party or another. Working to convince voters of their liberal ideals and that they alone promise a way out of the malaise of the globalist age, by making them viable in the globalist age, is one way to capture lower-class voters. Continuing their support of an open, international Britain which likes the competition of the market is a way to keep middle and upper-class voters. Supporting university students by promising to scrap tuition fees and incentivizing hard work at university with meaningful careers is a way to keep the student vote.

Simply, a path for the Lib Dems which sees them into the future is also a strategy that sees them work to gain the votes of everyone. A vote for the Lib Dems must become a vote for the benefit of all Britons, not just certain Britons.

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So, what can we conclude from this? First, that the rocky malaise that saw the Lib Dems inexplicably net lose seats but gain votes is something which is fixable. It will require hard work on behalf of all of those affiliated with the party. Advocate, activist, member, associate, party HQ worker, MP, and voter, whether the Lib Dems to have a successful future will be on the backs of whether these people are willing to put in the effort.

It cannot be the case that the future of liberalism in Britain is something that resembles the fate of the centre in the United States. If only because the tradition is just much too proud for it. Whether the future of liberalism is something that resembles a beacon or a broad base of support that reaches across class lines and geographic boundaries, however, is something that remains firmly up in the air.

With a commitment to renewing ourselves to its purpose and to it as an ideological beacon and not just as an abstraction, the future of liberalism remains bright. For the Liberal Democrats, there is certainly cause for despair, however, there is cause for hope as well. There is a route back to relevance and a route to being able to achieve the goals that they have wanted for years, decades, and for the better part of a century.

Let this be the liberal mantra as we move into the 2020s: no goal or dream is impossible to achieve if we dedicate ourselves to it and fight for it.

Our star is rising again, it’s up to us to shoot for it yet again.

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