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Liberalism at the crossroads in UK politics

November 10, 2017 3:01 PM
By Chris Bowers and Paul Pettinger in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

Liberal Democrat PolicyOne of the biggest hits the party took during the coalition years was not so much being associated with the Conservatives (though that was toxic enough) but losing so much of our identity. And if we want to have a future as a party, we have to get that identity back.

Our coalition years slogan 'Stronger economy, fairer society' was fine up to a point, but it didn't provide us with much distinctiveness. Associated messaging that framed us as having more head than Labour and more heart than the Conservatives effectively defined us in relation to Labour and the Conservatives. It did not emphasis what we stood for and make clear what a vote for the Lib Dems meant. By the time of the 2015 seven-leaders TV debate, most people could have formulated in a few words what six of the seven parties stood for, but they might well have struggled with us.

In trying to re-establish our identity, there are two things that are essential. Firstly, we need to set out what radical liberalism means in today's political context. When we've done that, we need to frame our policies in a way that both generates a sense of what the Liberal Democrats stand for that the general public can assimilate, and allows scope within that framing for the formation of shared agendas with parties of similar outlooks.

As a first step towards getting the ball rolling, Paul Pettinger and I have written a paper The Place for Radical Liberalism in the 21st Century. It's a short paper - just nine pages - because what's important is to set out the bare bones of what we need to achieve; the flesh can come later.

The term 'radical liberalism' may frighten some members, but while there is room for disagreement about what it embraces and what it doesn't, there should be no doubt that without a radical offering, liberalism will struggle for a place in British politics. We have seen that the safe and soggy centre ground is not safe and so soggy that we can sink into the quagmire.

What will frighten even more members is the idea of formulating our policies to allow for shared agendas with other parties. This is indeed territory fraught with difficulty, because being willing to work with any other party could frighten off some voters who might otherwise support us.

But think of it like this. The real obstacle to the pursuit of liberalism is our awful electoral system, and there's no way we're going to get PR from the Conservatives. We can't be sure what we'll get from Labour, but in the paper we explain why there's a much greater chance of achieving it through working with other progressives in centre-left parties, and why, if we believe in PR which will inevitably bring hung parliaments, we have to establish the principle of inter-party cooperation alongside our clear identity.

The point we make is that the Lib Dems will have to take the plunge and be seen as part of the broad progressive centre-left. As the Lib Dem councillor and political scientist Nick Barlow has explained, where the main parties of the left and right are not close together and cannot form governments with each other, most liberal parties must 'pick a side' between left and right. Liberal parties that stick to the centre in these conditions tend to get heavily squeezed. We believe we have reached the moment when we have to choose.

Do read the paper, and if you like the broad thrust of it, please spread the word.

* Chris Bowers was a two-term councillor on Lewes District Council and a co-editor of "The Alternative" which explored the idea of a progressive alliance. Paul Pettinger is a Lib Dem activist of 25 years and currently a Westminster Borough member. He serves on the Council of the Social Liberal Forum, sits on the Council of the Electoral Reform Society and has recently joined the Management Board of Compass.