Why I have joined the Liberal Democrats

In a recent, beautifully-written analysis of the current state of the Labour Party, Maurice Glasman has lamented the possible end of Labour as a national party of government. Tracing the rich social and cultural bonds that tied to party to its working-class base, Glasman observes how these bonds have weakened now to breaking point over the recent Brexit vote. Whilst nostalgic for this receding past, Glasman remains optimistic that these bonds can be renewed and the traditional soul of Labour revived.

The reality seems far less promising. Patterns of work and trade union membership that were the life-blood of Labour have been changing significantly over the past twenty years, weakening the sense of working-class political solidarity to which Glasman looks back. As the Labour Party’s traditional working-class foundations have eroded, its membership is increasingly made up of middle-class graduates more attuned to on-line protest than local community activism. Alongside this, fundamental internal tensions within Labour have fatally undermined its credibility and even an expected crushing defeat at the next general election offers little prospect that a coherent and united party will rise from the ashes.

As we see deepening political divisions and the rise of right-wing populism, it is more important than ever that we have a centre-left force in British politics that is able to make a credible and coherent case for government that is committed to both economic competence and social justice. With Labour no longer in a position to do this, I have decided to join the Liberal Democrats.

It is clear that the Liberal Democrats are not without their own challenges. The scale of the Lib Dems electoral collapse in the last general election was far more dramatic than any projections for Labour’s defeat at the next. Building from this weakened electoral base also means re-building trust with an electorate disillusioned with the Party’s coalition with the Conservatives.

But despite these challenges, I believe that the Liberal Democrats provide a strong platform for building a centre-left politics in rapidly changing times. The Party’s mission of seeking to create a society that balances fundamental values of liberty, equality and community recognises that sound politics is not about the rigid implementation of political dogma but the struggle to find practical ways of realising our (sometimes conflicting) values. Its strong history of building on local community politics makes it well-suited to recognising the importance of place and belonging as people struggle with the challenges of globalisation. Whilst acknowledging the valuable contribution that trade unions make to society, its lack of dependence on union funding also protects it from political currents in parts of the trade union movement that have contributed to Labour becoming increasingly out of touch with the public. Its emphasis on respectful, deliberative debate is vital at a time when democratic values are under threat and offers an attractive alternative to the increasingly toxic atmosphere that has prevailed in Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

In joining the Party, I am at odds with some of its recent past. The coalition with the Conservatives was, in my view, a mistake not to be repeated. A Party that positions itself on the centre-left of British politics cannot easily work as a junior partner with the Conservatives without compromising too deeply on its core principles. I also believe that the increase in student tuition fees was a mistake – and even had the dubious pleasure of being ‘kettled’ by the Metropolitan Police whilst attending one demonstration against it.  The costs of this policy through unpaid loans, and its effects in turning higher education into an unstable market-place, will become increasingly clear over time, and it is likely to need revision as we think again about the role and funding of university and technical education in Britain in the wake of Brexit.

Looking to the future, though, the Party has the capacity to offer bold policy ideas to address the major challenges that our country will have to face in coming years. The Conservatives’ desire to be seen as the default, competent party of government is too often tied in its political DNA to a reluctance to bring forward radical proposals – other than those which follow a free-market ideological dogmatism. But as the current state of our NHS shows, we are no longer at a point where slow, incremental solutions are likely to be enough. By contrast, the Liberal Democrats can draw on a longer history of radical policy innovation from Lloyd George to Beveridge to inspire ambitious thinking about how we fund and deliver the strongest possible welfare, education, health and social care provision for the twenty-first century.

We are at a time in our political life when our country desperately needs a positive vision of its future around which it can unite, and in which everyone can feel they have a valuable part to play. I believe that the history and values of the Liberal Democrats provide a strong foundation for this and am excited to join in this process.

 

Gordon Lynch

The sacred will of the people

 

It has felt, of late, as if British society stands on the edge of a precipice. The current divisions running through our country seem more profound than anything I have known in my adult life. What is most frightening is the way in which basic elements of our democracy – Parliament, the judiciary and open debate – are seen no longer as anchors for a decent shared life but contingent on their support for a particular kind of Brexit. Anything is in jeopardy if it does not bend to ‘the will of the people’.

I have written before about how deeply-charged conflicts arise over that which people take to be sacred. The notion of the ‘will of the people’ has come to take on such a sacred significance for many, an unquestionable moral demand that no person or institution should resist. Anything that stands against this popular will, and its vision of a free, proud and autonomous nation, becomes, by definition, a moral threat. MPs who raise searching questions, or judges who make inconvenient rulings, come to be seen as lacking in any moral legitimacy. They are stains to be cleansed for the sake of the public good.

In such emotionally-charged times, it is important to understand both the good and the dangerous. At its best, this deep moral investment in the ‘will of the people’ represents a fundamental yearning for a society in which people feel some connection with a greater story and community for their lives. We live at a time in which such connections have become significantly weakened. Old patterns of belonging, whether to communities, political parties, trade unions or churches have become the experience of a minority. Mobility, insecurity, isolation and change have taken their place. The proportion of single-person households has grown. Even the haven of belonging found in supporting a football team feels increasingly compromised by the commercialisation of the game, with the young millionaires performing on the Premiership stage seeming ever more remote from the lives of the fans who watch them.

It is hardly surprising, then, that people would be drawn to an idea of society that offers a sense of belonging too rarely found elsewhere, or that the EU (for which few even on the Remain side appeared to have any real love) had come to symbolise a fundamental sense of alienation. An awareness of these deep disconnections, and the struggle of daily life, may be dulled for those who enjoy the pleasures of a comfortable and cosmopolitan life. But for those who do not, the moment of Brexit has become a talisman for a renewed sense of power and belonging.

This desire for a society in which people feel part of their communities and more in control of their lives is not something to be feared but welcomed. The powerful emotions released by this need not be destructive but can, like other periods of sacred ferment, lead to a renewing of a sense of our social bonds.

There is danger here as well, though. This energy can stimulate new ways of thinking about what it means to be a purposeful society and to work together for a shared good. But its powerful emotional current can equally be manipulated by demagogues who have no apparent vision beyond exploiting it for their own power. To this end, they will lie and distort, stoke up anger at imagined enemies and set themselves up as protectors of a popular will which is at threat of being snuffed out by the dark forces working against it. This is the rhetoric of Nigel Farage, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. It offers no hope, just an endless tearing down.

We need to find ways of speaking to this powerful sentiment for belonging, for meaning and for purpose, to offer ideas of a collective future that are realistic about the challenges we face but optimistic about our ability to work together in facing them. If we cannot do that, and if that articulation is left to the demogogues, racists and xenophobes, then our political life may be entering one of its darkest times for many decades.

 

Gordon Lynch