All Liberal Democracy is divided into three parts (or, some thoughts on the party’s past, present and future)

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So, to follow on from yesterday’s post about the party’s broken policy structures, I want to use this post to set out a general theory of how the Liberal Democrats work (or don’t work) and why the party is still finding it hard to dig itself out of the opinion hole it’s been in since 2010 despite a plethora of well-meaning strategies, reviews and promises since then.

The first thing that needs to be understood here is that the Liberal Democrats are a very rare party internationally. Yes, there are plenty of liberal parties worldwide, but very few of them are as wide-ranging ideologically as the Liberal Democrats are. In most countries, the beginning of the twentieth century and the arrival of social democratic parties onto the electoral scene saw liberalism split into two different forms which for ease of use we’ll term as left-liberalism and right-liberalism. While both forms of liberalism generally agree on the importance of ensuring individual freedom as an important end of politics, they have a strong disagreement on the methods needed to ensure that freedom, and what that freedom looks like. In Britain, the two forms are more often known as economic liberalism (for right-liberalism) and social liberalism (for left-liberalism) but I find that both those descriptions are somewhat misleading as both forms tend to agree on the importance of individual freedom in the social sphere, and both have strong but distinct economic viewpoints. For me, the key distinction between the two tends to be visible in their understanding of the relationship between the state and the economy, particularly as it relates to the individual. Right-liberals, while not being full-on libertarians, tend to regard the state as the bigger (but not sole) threat to overall individual freedom and that it can be best be countered and made accountable by policies and approaches that will give the individual more economic freedom. Left-liberals, by contrast, tend to regard misapplied and unaccountable power in the economy as the bigger threat to an individual’s freedom and potential and advocate the use of a representative and accountable state to challenge and break up unaccountable powers within the economy.

In most countries, once this division within liberalism became exposed, liberalism itself divided as a consequence and the two types of liberalism went their separate ways. (This is somewhat of a simplification as there are always trends within trends, and factions within factions, but the left-right distinction broadly applies) So, in some countries we see two distinct liberal parties of left and right, in others just one, but clearly of left or right and in others there is no explicitly liberal party but there are strong liberal movements and factions within the left and right parties. In Britain though, and for a number of reasons, despite a number of temporary splits and divisions, the Liberal Party remained a home for both left and right liberals. Even if all liberals were not part of the party, the party was open to all liberals.

One major reason for this was the electoral system with single member plurality elections encouraging the development of parties with a broad appeal and discouraging competition within ideologies. Consider that the other main British parties are coalitions of forces that would most likely be separate parties in other countries under other electoral systems and that one of the few comparable broad appeal liberal parties elsewhere in the world is the Liberal Party of Canada, a country that also uses a single member plurality electoral system.

However, even with the pressure of the electoral system keeping left and right liberals together required another grouping to act as a glue that holds the left and right branches of liberalism together — or, if you want a different analogy, to be the person who stands between the two and stops them getting into a fight. For ease of description we’ll call this group the centrists, though as a grouping they’re a lot less formalised and ideologically homogeneous than the left and right liberals. Within this grouping you’ll find a range of people from those who believe that they have the ideological key to bring both left and right together, those who are vaguely kind of socially liberal but more interested in policy wonkery, and those who really wouldn’t know an ideology if it slapped them in the face but do love pointing at potholes and being a local champion. Over the years a lot of these types of people found themselves attracted to the Liberal Party, and then a lot more were drawn into the Social Democrats until they were all thrown together into the Liberal Democrats.

So we end up with the situation where, in terms of organising the party and pushing forward policies, we can consider the Liberal Democrats as being made up of three parts: left-liberals, centrists and right-liberals. While these divisions aren’t on anything like the organised basis they might be in other parties, they do exist and are a key factor in how the party operates. In order to understand why these divisions are important, there are two key factors to understand: first, that neither of the left or right liberals is even vaguely close to having a majority of the party membership, or even the active membership (those that vote in internal elections, go to conference, run local parties etc); and second, that the centrists really don’t like to make a fuss and would rather head down the path of least resistance.

The first factor is important because not only does it mean that neither left or right can ever “win” a battle for control of the party, neither of them can get any of their ideas through and into policy without appealing to the centrists. The second part reinforces the first as it means that neither side can get through any policy that seems too radical, divisive or challenging because well, that’s all a bit controversial, isn’t it? My residents only really care about getting their potholes filled in, so why can’t we all just get together and agree what’s best without arguing about it? This is the same force acting on a large scale that I talked about with the policy process yesterday — the grand ideas of left and right effectively cancel each other out in a clash of controversies, and the vacuum they leave behind is filled by the sensible centrists who have a long list of policy tweaks all ready to go.

In essence, the Liberal Democrats aren’t just occupying the sort of space that could be taken up by two (left liberal and right liberal) parties in a different political system, they’re also in a third space, that of the effectively non-ideological, consensual and office-seeking centre party. The period before the coalition (and before the crash) was one where those three different tendencies could generally work in harmony as they were in a system where consensus was a popular strategy and there was enough (but not too much) liberalism of both kinds in the other two main parties to make the Liberal Democrat versions of it appealing enough and distinctive enough to liberal-minded voters to get their support, at least tactically.

The situation since then has caused two major problems for the party. First, the political system has fragmented and polarised, meaning there’s no apparent place for consensus politics, especially in their managerial incarnation which we’ve been seeing in action for most of the time since the 1990s. Secondly, the coalition’s effect on the party is often misunderstood as it wasn’t about left or right liberalism becoming triumphant but rather the assumptions of the centrists triumphing over both, especially the notion that it wasn’t the nature of the policy you got passed in government that was important but rather the amount of it. (See, for example, the much-stated claim that 75% of the 2010 Lib Dem manifesto was implemented in government — it’s entirely possible to do that and not make any major changes when 75% or more of your manifesto is a list of tweaks to existing policy rather than anything new) This attitude has sunk deep into the party, and so at a time when the electorate are looking for parties that are bold and radical with easily-communicable visions, a party whose main appeal seems to be based on multiple-point plans by which they’ll manage everything a bit better than the others is not catching their attention.

In the same vein, the idea that the Liberal Democrats are somehow ‘bed-blocking’ the formation of the new centrist party that Britain supposedly craves led by Whichever Former Labservative Frontbencher Is The Flavour Of The Month (this week, it’s David Miliband, apparently) is a bit of a nonsense as they’re going to have the same problem of trying to answer ‘well, what do you stand for?’ with ‘well, it’s a bit more complicated than that’ and thinking that will somehow lead to electoral triumph.

So what is the solution to the current Liberal Democrat problems? I’m afraid you’ve read 1,500 words only for me to say that I have no idea what it might be. It could be that in the long run it might make sense for the three parts to go their separate ways. Maybe the sensible centrists should head off to team up with the Labour and Tory rebels to form the Party of Moderate Progress Within The Bounds Of A Soft Brexit while left and right liberals can form their own parties or movements and become niche parties attempting to influence the wider debate and/or getting bogged down in their own internecine squabbles. Or maybe it’s best for the three to remain clinging together, waiting for the political weather to change while staking a claim to hold the centre in anticipation of the people returning there at some point in the future. Either way could be valid, but without some kind of catalyst to bring about the circumstances for the first to happen, I suspect we’re more likely to be sitting it out and hoping for the storm to pass.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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