Why Liberal Democrats need to understand and embrace factions

I’m posting this in the interregnum between the latest Lib Dem leadership contest ending and the result of it being declared. So for the first time in what feels like a significant portion of forever, we’ve got a moment of relative peace when what I’m going to write isn’t an intervention to sway your vote or triumphant gloating/sour grapes losing (delete as appropriate when the result comes in).

The problem with the Liberal Democrats is that the party doesn’t know how to have an argument with itself.

This may sound somewhat odd coming at the end of a leadership contest, but that contest followed the same unwritten rules as every other Liberal Democrat leadership contest or internal debate. Everything comes with a side order of “we’re all liberals” or “we’re all part of the Liberal Democrat family” and there’s a taboo against anyone being too confrontational, challenging or partisan in their campaigning. Some of the biggest arguments I’ve seen during this contest haven’t been about the candidates and their proposals but rather people complaining about the tone and style of other members because they’re too confrontational (and even “too political”). There’s an air of relentless positivity at times, which exhortations that whoever wins we all must instantly rally around the new leader and quite often a sense that for some this is a job interview as much as it is a political contest.

One of my abiding memories of the Liberal Democrats is being at a conference a decade or more ago when a motion about faith schools was on the agenda, setting up a conference battle between those who think they’re a good thing, and those who want to abolish them. Well, it would have been a battle between them, except someone put in an amendment that was a compromise between the two positions (something on the lines of “we might not like them, but let’s not offend the Daily Mail, OK?”) and if that wasn’t enough for you, someone else then put together what was described as an “alternative compromise amendment” because if you’re going to make a choice, why not make it between two compromises? It’s even better if you can focus on the minutiae of differences between those compromise positions rather than arguing over the bigger principles.

Any party that wants to be larger than a fraction is always going to have an issue of dealing with a variety of views. People will sign up for the core beliefs or principles of a party, but those core values can take people to lots of different places. Liberalism is not unique in having lots of different ways of being expressed in practice, other parties also contain multitudes of different strands of thought within a set of common values, beliefs or principles. Especially in electoral systems like ours, parties have to be able to draw together coalitions of members, supporters and voters in order to succeed, but they also have to have strategies for how they’re going to manage the inevitable clashes between the different elements of that coalition.

Leaving aside the bigger question of building and managing coalitions of voters to look purely at internal matters, there’s a wide spectrum of ways a party can choose to manage its internal differences. At one end, there’s a unitary position of insisting the party has no internal differences or just pretending they’re not there, while at the other end there’s a hyper-factionalism where the party itself is little more than an empty shell for different groups within it to fight over. There are many different stops between those two extremes and every party has its own way of managing those levels of internal discord, I just don’t believe that the Liberal Democrats have found a very good way of doing it.

The party has a morbid fear of factions. This likely stems from the way it was created out of a merger between two other parties, and the desire at that point in the late 80s to move on from the fractious period of the merger by forgetting whatever the differences between Liberal and Social Democrat were in favour of promoting the Liberal Democrats as a single force. This was perhaps easier to do than it seemed at the time because there were as many divisions within the two parties as there were between them and in some cases the question of whether someone would join one party or the other was decided for them by which of the two was most active where they lived. However, intra-party splits had bedevilled the Alliance and there was a determination for the new party that inter-party divisions weren’t going to have the same effect.

While this was a laudable aim at the time, it’s now thirty years later and things have moved on, politics have changed and members of the party stubbornly refuse to all think in exactly the same way about everything. A couple of years ago, I set out one idea of how the party is internally organised with groups of right-liberals, centrists and left-liberals as the main blocs:

If you don’t like the idea of blocs, James Baillie offers the idea of the party as a series of lanes in blog posts here and here. He also puts the party into several more groups than my three, but the main point I want to make here is not which groups the party is made up of, or how many of them there are, but rather just to point out the basic assumption behind any theory like this: there are different groups within the party and they are in competition with each other. The problem is that most will accept the first part of that statement — there are many groups within the party — but many will not accept the second part: that these groups are in competition with each other.

In some ways, it’s a standard political irregular verb: we are united, your party has internal divisions, they are just the host location for a faction fight. For a lot of Liberal Democrats, factions are something that happens in other parties, and so there shouldn’t be any factions in the party, because all factionalism is bad. Because the party doesn’t have factions, it’s therefore superior at making decisions without things being made murky by internal politics.

You might notice that this is the same argument people use to propose that we should get rid of all political parties. Parties and ideologies and whips and everything else just get in the way of people getting together to make the best and right decisions. If we got rid of parties, there’d be no secret agendas and everyone would be free to choose the best people for the job, which is something for which objective criteria definitely exist.

What this misses is that factions perform the same function in a party’s internal democracy, that parties perform in the nation’s political system. They provide a heuristic function in helping the individual interpret and understand the wider system. Expecting an individual voter or party member to put in all the effort of understanding everything about a political system or a party’s working is expecting people to put in a lot of effort for little reward. A party or factional label is a shortcut to assist people in the process of making a decision. So, just a party can recommend a candidate or a policy to its voters because they have a shared set of values and an understanding of what’s important, so too can a faction explain its members how best to understand and influence the internal workings of a party to achieve a common end.

Indeed, I would make a further argument from that: the Liberal Democrats have a poor quality of internal democracy because there are no well-organised factions acting as intermediaries between the membership and the internal elected bodies. If they’re even aware that they exist, most members have no real idea what the internal party bodies do because no one is explaining it to them in practical terms that make sense to them. Too many internal election manifestos are merely CVs, listing the various committees someone has sat on and the roles they have performed, and not explaining what the consequence would be of electing them beyond giving them another position to add to the list. For comparison, imagine an MP or councillor standing for election on a manifesto that doesn’t state the successes they’ve had or the policies they want to push, but does expect the voters to have detailed opinions about the role of members of select committees or audit panels. Organized factions provide the ability for groups of party members to work together for a common goal within the party, and to provide the long-term structures that ensure that members are involved and informed about the process. Parties enable people to come together in the wider political system, factions provide the same function within parties and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with their existence.

Factions provide a way for a broad church party — like the one the Liberal Democrats aspire to be — to organise and co-ordinate the many different voices and perspectives within that broad church by understanding that they provide a framework for internal competition. In the same way Liberal Democrats want to see a pluralistic political system that gives opportunities to many different perspectives to be heard, the party’s internal politics need to enable and empower the different strands of liberalism that exist within the party. That doesn’t mean throwing open the doors to anybody — anyone joining the party, whatever their faction, needs to be in broad agreement with the preamble to the party constitution and not be a bigot — but it does mean recognising that there are different paths to the same goal and we should be open in admitting that, not hiding away from that reality.

We can still all be liberals but for the “Lib Dem family” to function, we need to stop hiding our divisions and disagreements. We have a problem of fetishising the importance of consensus and avoiding big internal arguments, but we need to move past that and be more willing to challenge, debate and have the arguments when they’re necessary. Pretending divisions aren’t there is harming the party, not helping it, and sometimes you need the catharsis of a proper argument and a real competition of ideas before you can reach consensus.

UPDATE: In response to some questions I had about this, I’ve posted a follow-up with a few more thoughts on factions in practice in Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

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

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