Friday, 14 January 2011

What are the Liberal Democrats actually for?

I'm deeply sympathetic to the Liberal Democrats. My father is one, I was raised as one and many of my friends are members of the party. As a social and economic liberal, certain analyses might suggest that the Liberal Democrats are my natural political home. So it is not out of hostility that I pose the question in the title. Rather, my mulling over the OE&S by-election result led me to realise that the Liberal Democrats don't appear to have a genuine third position as party, and that the aims of each wing might be better served by merging with the majority party of that wing.

To address the first point. In discussions with others and in my own quite extensive writing about the nature of the Liberal Democrats, one thing that is almost taken as read is that the Liberal Democrats are really a party of two distinct halves: the right-leaning economic Liberals and the left-leaning Social Democrats. Even if the labels don't draw exact parallels with the two predecessor parties, they remain relatively accurate. One complaint from a Liberal Democrat councillor rather sums this up: "We are a party of largely social liberals being led by largely economic liberals" - or Orange Bookers. The idea that Clegg represents a different wing of his party to the bulk of its membership has interesting implications for coalition politics that I have discussed elsewhere. But the existence of this cleavage raises the question of why the Liberal Democrats need to exist as a third party at all.

The original Liberal Party had pretty clear reasons for continuing to exist after being supplanted by Labour in the earlier Twentieth Century. It bore with it the great name and great figures of a once great party. It continued to enjoy political patronage from the Bonham-Carters and the rest of the wealthy Liberal aristocracy. After the war and at least up to (if not including) the Jo Grimond era, the party also espoused a genuine political third position: liberalism, distinct as it was then from the cosy post-war corporatist consensus of the two main parties. Although small, it continued to doggedly fight on representing the ideology it represented. However, as the Twentieth Century advanced several misfortunes befell it.

The first of these was Margaret Thatcher. Although Heath had made an early and rather ill-fated start to bring the Conservatives out of the patrician Macmillan style, it was Margaret Thatcher who pulled it off. With her economic liberalism and aggressive pitch to aspirational voters of the lower and middle classes, she moved the already monolithic Conservative Party onto traditional Liberal territory with great success. Aided greatly by luck and her not-inconsiderable political skill she embedded economic liberalism into the Conservative marrow, and the small Liberals were in no position to seriously challenge her. Compounding this misfortune was the emergence of the Social Democratic Party. When debating their withdrawal from an increasingly hard-left Labour Party, some of the SDP defectors considered whether or not to cross straight to the Liberals. The reason they didn't was quite simple: "We weren't liberals." However, sheer electoral necessity soon led to the SDP forming a close working arrangement with the Liberals, further weakening the right-leaning economic liberals who had already seen much of their territory occupied by Thatcherism. That wing did not go away, however.

After the parties eventually merged, this left a party that was largely cobbled together out of political necessity, with no unified and distinct vision for the country's future. Additionally, the party began to attract and to chase protest votes, providing a further impediment to the production of a Liberal Democrat 'ideology'. Not only was this problematic for the party, but it raises the spectre that each wing of the Liberal Democrats might be served better by the party's dissolution.

After all, if you take away cheerleading for electoral reform (a position at least in part the product of the Liberal Democrats being the third party) and the pursuit of protest votes, how has the existence of the Liberal Democrats helped each of their disparate wings? For the social democrats, they originally left Labour because it was far too hard-left. In a post-New Labour environment there seems reason not to return to the Labour fold. After all, if Labour still has a hard left, authoritarian streak it must be in no small part because centre-left liberals are attracted to the Liberal Democrats, who when not in coalition (most of the time) contribute nothing to government. If the social democrats rejoined Labour and started attracting others like them to the party they could soften its authoritarian edge, widen its appeal and make it more electable.

The liberal right faces the same conundrum. The Conservative Party already contains social and economic liberals (myself included), and economic liberalism is certainly at the heart of the modern Conservative Party. The support of the like of Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, David Laws et al has been instrumental in allowing David Cameron to outmanoeuvre his own hard right wing. Many of them would be comfortably at home on the liberal wing of the Conservative Party, but when they're not in coalition (again, most of the time) both their talents and their balancing influence are wasted in futile third-party opposition.

With the exception perhaps of PR, I can't see much benefit for either the social democrats or the liberals in banding together in a schizophrenic third-party project instead of exerting a softening and balancing influence on the internal compositions of the two main parties.

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