No left turns, please

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.

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4 thoughts on “No left turns, please

  1. Yeah, because moving to the LEFT is the problem we have…

    We are abandoning our social liberal principles in exchange for David Laws & co.

  2. It seems odd to talk about remaining true to our identity on one hand, then about not appealing to social democrats on the other. You seem to forget that our party is infact made up of both social democrats AND liberals.

  3. A very good post. I think the point about protest votes can be made even more strongly. During the years 1997 – 2010 the LDs did very well picking up protest votes on the left from those who felt they didn’t want to support the government, either because of the Iraq war or some other reason. The key point then was that we weren’t in government and Labour was. Now that the situation has been reversed, why do we think that the LDs will be able to win votes off the Labour party, which, from the pleasant prospect of the opposition benches, can oppose as it pleases (even those things it committed to in its manifesto, such as AV and Lords reform? I can’t see a reason why a disillusioned left-of-centre voter is going to prefer the LDs over Labour simply because we have also been a bit left-wing. In just the same way, why would you vote Tory if your top issue is getting out of the EU? That’s what UKIP is for.

    This is not an argument for a purely ‘classical liberal’ set of policies (that is a separate debate). It is an argument to stress that tacking to the left is no longer an option, as that territory is already occupied by a credible, well-resourced and (crucially) non-governing party.

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