By Ellie Sharman
First things first – we’re Lib Dems. We love everyone. We want everyone to join our party, because we think it’s the best thing in the world. And it is, it is, but what that does not mean is that we should fall into the Labour-Conservative trap of seeking to ‘widen electoral appeal’ at any cost. Ed Miliband’s latest stance on immigration is an interesting example of this strategy: he’s appealing to a locus of support that’s very far from Labour’s roots, or indeed most of its members’ ideology, and he’s going to do very well out of it. Does that mean we should seek to emulate him? Quite the contrary.
We are very obviously not a populist party. The ‘tough decisions’ line doesn’t need spewing out again, but I think we can all accept that our government members have voted for things that would previously have amazed us all. And we can support or oppose those things as we like; the point is that we’re not here to cater to the majority. If we were, our poll results would probably make far more cheerful reading. A caveat, at this stage: I do not mean that we ought not to respect the will of the people. We’re not fascists. But the will of the people is often for big government and harsh law, which impinges upon the freedom of others, and which we do not ever need to support.
Such a rejection of populism brings us to the vital point. There are a few remaining in the party who would seek to re-establish our decaying connections with the (largely statist) left in the UK, particularly before the next election, and it’s this that we need to be sceptical of. As a party, it’s true that we’re a broad church – where else could you find Keynesian welfarism alongside free-market libertarianism? – but there are limits to pluralism in this realm. Extending our grassroots support any further to the left has two main risks to be wary of: firstly, we lose all the coherence of ideology and unity of thought that our leadership has engendered during this executive (even if the party body hasn’t always agreed with Clegg et al., there’s no denying that we’ve faced radical redefinition as a party); secondly, we return to our disprized status as the party of the protest vote.
This second point is, on balance, the most important. We have spent years being the home of the politically disillusioned: not because we ourselves stood for anything especially radical, but simply because we were there and we weren’t called Labour or the Conservatives. There are a lot of reasons that we shouldn’t aim to return to that position. For a start, UKIP have pretty much grabbed it in our absence; our departure from mainstream politics would find its end in electoral oblivion, because our niche has been filled by someone new. There’s also the fact that, frankly, we are stronger than that. We have a cohesive political philosophy, we have achievable policies across the full range of state activity, and we certainly know what we stand for. We are more than just a protest vote. Appealing to the social democrats might seem like a good idea now, and it might win us some much-needed support, but it’d be deceiving both those voters and ourselves to maintain that we’re the party for them. There are also votes to be gained from retaining our liberal principles and our integrity: let’s seek those before we return to being Labour-lite.