There are times when no longer being a prolific blogger can save you future embarrassment. In particular, I’m thinking of just about anything I would have written about the future of British politics between last year’s election and the point this year when it dawned on us all that Covid-19 was not going to be a “phew, we dodged that bullet” moment. It could have made all sorts of proposals for the future, all of which would now look very quaint and dated like someone in 1939 describing which northern French beaches would be great holiday destinations the next summer.
This piece follows on from my quick take on some of the reasons we as a party did so badly in the general election.
The Liberal Democrats and the 2019 election: what went wrong
Looking back to the general election, and offering a theory of what went wrong for the Liberal Democrats.
The thing about writing “what should the Liberal Democrats do now?” posts is that I’ve already done it several times, and I haven’t even managed to do one for every crisis and/or disaster that’s befallen the party in recent years. Much of what I wrote about the party’s issues in 2015 is still relevant, sadly. It would be easy here to just follow on in that vein and build on the points I raised as problems with the last election because yes, we do need to be more radical and yes, we do need to consistently push the message of liberalism.
But the situation we’re in now means we need more than that.
Covid-19 and all the changes associated with it are ending the world as we knew it and we have no idea what is going to replace it. The political, economic and social landscape we’ve got used to is being churned up in unprecedented ways, Locally, nationally and globally, the way we do things is going to be changed in a way that’s only happened a few times — and for those of us in the west under 75, not in our lifetimes.
So, policies like universal basic income that were seemingly well off the table just a few months ago have now become entirely politically possible and plausible as a result of this, but it’s a mistake to think of any post-crisis politics as being purely about policies. It’s exciting that long-cherished pipe dreams might now seem to be attainable, but we can’t assume that post-crisis politics is going to be just like the old politics.
There may have been a shift towards some liberal policies, but what concerns me is whether the reaction to this crisis is going to be a shift away from liberal institutions, and those values that underpin liberal democracy. Hungary has effectively suspended democracy in favour of one-man rule, and who knows what other authoritarian power grabs might use this as a cover? Even before we wonder if Trump’s current provocations against the WHO might be a catalyst for bringing down the whole of the post-1945 international system is restarting democracy and openness going to be easier or harder than restarting economies at the same time?
That’s why I titled this post as “is there a future for the Liberal Democrats?” because to ask the question “what is the future for the Liberal Democrats?” would be to presuppose a lot of things about the future that we just can’t be sure of yet. It’s easy to assume that post-Coronavirus politics is going to be just the same as it was before but with a bit more hand-washing and a bit more imperative to protect health budgets, but it seems to be that this crisis has revealed a lot of issues with our current system and exposed it to a greater level of challenge than anything else in our lifetimes.
I saw a joke the other week, near the start of lockdown: “We hope you’re enjoying your free trial of living in an apocalypse. If you don’t want to upgrade to the full version, please begin cutting your carbon emissions to zero.” This has been the test run of what happens when our system encounters a crisis, and we’re not doing well. How do we expect we’re going to do when the really big one comes around? That’s going to lead to much bigger disruption than “most people need to stay mostly at home for a few months” and we haven’t even begun to really understand what those disruptions are going to be, let alone how we’re going to persuade people to make them. The next few decades have the potential to make the 2000s and 2010s seem like the calm before the storm.
The issue for the Liberal Democrats is that I see too many people assuming that the end of this will see a reversion back to the political norm. (It’s possibly the same politics-as-modern-nostalgia mindset that thought stopping Brexit would mean everything going back to early 2015 again) I’ve even seen people arguing that post-Coronavirus will be the perfect time for a party of “centrist moderation” to have its moment, because there are some bad political ideas that simply will not die no matter how many times the electorate give them a thorough killing.
The very shape of our society — the economics, the institutions, the politics, the culture — is up for grabs in the next few years and there is a desperate need for people to be a voice and an argument for a liberal and radical future. The fight is not just against poverty, ignorance and conformity, but for sustainability and resilience, and for a society and a system that has the capacity to deliver these things for everyone. There are two questions that stem from this:
First, are the Liberal Democrats interested in being part of that fight for a radical vision of the future, and not just harking back to what has gone before?
Second, are the Liberal Democrats necessary to that fight? Does our reluctance to sell, or even have, a radical vision mean we can’t take up that role? What shape does a movement for a liberal future need to take and is the party capable of taking that shape, or should it cede the ground to something new that can lead that fight instead?
There’s a lot more to talk and write and think about where we go from here, but we’ve got a lot of time to do all that right now, and we need to be thinking now about the future we’re fighting for.