What Future for Liberalism?

Today has been an interesting day, with a regional review of the recent General Election campaign (from a Liberal Democrat perspective) and then listening to a Radio 4 programme describing a “thirty year itch”.

The theory behind the latter was that a consensus is broadly established in British politics which lasts for about 30 years, then something happens to change that consensus into a new one.

After World War II, the consensus became one of nationalised industry and services for the common good. In the late 60s / early 70s that started to break down, because of fears of abuse of the power of trades unions. Out of that emerged Thatcher who built a new consensus – unchallenged by Blair and Brown – around the infallibility of markets. Now that consensus is seen as having failed – the Brexit vote being one sign, the rise of Corbyn during the general election campaign being another, that the country is rejecting this unrestrained capitalism and the consequent rampant and growing inequalities.

Earlier in the day, during the review, I found myself repeatedly thinking about the importance of a clear definition of what it means to be a Liberal Democrat – something which became clear to me during the election campaign. The party’s messaging seems to have become muddled in recent years. The 2015 campaign became, essentially, we’re not as bad as the other two options. The general feeling for the 2017 campaign seems to be that the party ended up with a similar message after finding a largely disinterested reception of its Brexit message and being outflanked on its NHS and education offers. This is not a clear, wholesome, engaging message.

Having knocked on many doors and spoken with many people over recent months, I’m left with the feeling that the British public are really thinking “none of the above”. They don’t like the callousness of the Conservatives. They perceive Labour under Corbyn as economically dangerous. They found the Liberal Democrats confusing. Some felt the Coalition was still tainting the party – others saw how the party had restrained the Conservatives. No one party or leader was seen as credible and human. There’s a general feeling that all politicians (including this new one) are liars and out only for themselves. People voted for who they thought was going to do the least damage. There was no clear answer, which is why we now have a hung parliament.

The Liberal Democrats concentrated on Brexit, when it seems that a good part of the electorate has moved on. While lots of people are worried about the implications of Brexit, bigger numbers are really worried about uncertainty and being left behind, trapped in poverty or poor life chances, which is why calls for a further referendum didn’t resonate particularly widely.

If Brexit starts to unravel, as it may well do, the country would like the right to change its mind. However the more pressing issues were wanting to feel safe and have hope for the future – safety defined both in terms of security in the face of terrorist attacks as well as being able to access good quality health and social care in a timely manner; hope defined in terms of providing good educational opportunities but also having work fairly recognised and not exploited by an increasingly distant moneyed class. Hope can be framed in terms of fairness, safety less so. In those terms, any economic argument reduces in importance – hence Corbyn’s relative success in throwing huge “magic money tree” promises out and gaining some votes as a result.

I joined the Liberal Democrats after the May 2015 general election because I felt the liberal values that underpinned our society were under threat. At the time I defined those values mainly in terms of civil liberties – the importance of standing up for human rights, and protecting the individual against the powerful. Increasingly I see the latter argument as having economic implications too.

Some of the Brexit vote will have been driven because people felt powerless in the face of large bureaucratic organisations, both governmental and business. They still do. When the state insists on subjecting those with progressive or terminal illnesses to repeated medical assessments with the threat of withdrawing necessary benefits – that’s seen as unfair. When big business takes over utilities, then ramps the prices up while giving huge pay rises to its executives but not improving service – that’s seen as unfair. By ensuring that individuals’ votes count more fairly, electoral reform also falls under this umbrella – as does more encompassing constitutional reform.

Corbyn’s solution appears to be largely renationalisation and enlarging the state, which simply replaces one oligarchy with another. It doesn’t address the core problem of unaccountability. The Conservatives are trying to work out how to protect vested interests while how to address the numerous social issues the last 30 years of unrestrained capitalism have wrought – the capitalism they thought was going to resolve the accountability issues of the 1970s. The thinking behind the “30 year itch” programme is that, because Corbyn currently seems to be winning and the Conservatives failing, the new consensus may end up looking remarkably like the post-war consensus, which started to crumble in the 1960s. This cycle may be doomed to endlessly repeat.

To capture the consensus in a febrile and volatile political atmosphere, and break this cycle, the Liberal Democrats must come up with a core message that can be clearly articulated which addresses these social concerns. Failing to do so will continue to leave millions disenfranchised, and will leave us stuck in this endless, broken loop. A good core message could easily (and quickly) capture a significant chunk of the British public who already support liberal values but don’t currently see any good reason to vote for the party. It must define its own ground, and not be defined in terms of the other two parties.

As a start, I suggest what I’ve written above – protecting the individual against the powerful. It should drive our policies against both authoritarian government and unaccountable markets. It has foreign policy implications, in terms of both defence and foreign aid. You can place policies around crime and security into it too. And it captures what I think, in essence, people out there are feeling – vulnerable, at risk of being exploited, feeling unprotected with nowhere to turn and with a government that is now incapable of protecting them – think Grenfell.

Interestingly, I think that the party’s actual policies already fit into this model. The manifesto seemed to be broadly welcomed by the few who’d actually read it. But the vast majority of people aren’t that interested in the detail of politics. As Charlie Kennedy supposedly said, people aren’t interested in politics as long as their bins get emptied. The vast majority of people need soundbites, clear messages, a positive meme associated with the party. Once they have that, in the current “none of the above” atmosphere, the Lib Dems can start to build themselves as an effective and credible force. These things can happen remarkably quickly, as both Macron in France and Trudeau in Canada show.

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2 comments

  1. […]  What future for Liberalism  by Helen Belcher on Challenging Journeys, Phase 2. We have the policies, says Helen. We just […]

  2. Sarah Ayers · · Reply

    Hi Helen

    I always voted for Greg Mulholland because I saw him as a good MP not because he was a Liberal. (We’ve got a Labour chap now) But you make some very persuasive points here. I think you are absolutely spot on with the “none of the above” analysis.

    I read you posts with interest and an awareness that I really haven’t thought through my political stance at all.

    Keep them coming. x

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