A brief reply to Simon Jenkins’ Guardian op-ed.

In a Guardian op-ed published on 16 December, Simon Jenkins called on the Liberal Democrats to disband and for its members to merge with the two larger parties. Jenkins sets out three reasons for this:

  1. To dilute the influence of Momentum activists within Labour circles
  2. Restrain the Conservative Party as they begin another term in office
  3. Unite the centre-left.

Whilst I share Jenkins’ frustrations at the splintering of the centre-left vote last week, there are a number of reasons why I think his conclusion is wrong. I shall set out each of these below.

First, Jenkins writes only of the national picture. In local government, the Liberal Democrats have an influential role and strong presence in holding councils of all colours, majorities, minorities and coalitions, to account. The Liberal Democrats can reach significant portions of the United Kingdom that Labour simply has no hope in and I am sure the reverse is true as well.

One further electoral reality Jenkins did not mention was the continued shift of Labour’s core support, not just from the North to the South, but from towns and rural areas to the big cities. What use was Labour’s promise of free bus passes for under twenty-fives when only two buses a day ran through my home village in Gloucestershire? A real change for commuters in London, Manchester and Birmingham I am sure, but a half-baked gesture of support for the rest of the country’s young people, even with the offer of free-wifi thrown in. 

With longstanding support in rural areas, the Liberal Democrats are better placed to understand and respond to these issues.

Second, the internal culture of Labour and the Liberal Democrats is fundamentally dissimilar. This I know from experience, having spent nine years as a Labour activist from 2010-2019 and three national elections and an annual conference wearing a Lib Dem rosette. 

So what do I mean by internal culture? The Liberal Democrats pride themselves on a policy of one-member, one-vote (OMOV) in leadership elections and on the conference floor. Policy debate on the main stage and at conference fringes is well-mannered, purposeful and measured.

The conferences are different because Labour and the Liberal Democrats were built for a different purpose. This is no bad thing.

Unlike Labour, the Liberal Democrats do not elect delegates to represent the needs of ordinary members at conferences. Rather, individual members apply directly for a ticket, giving them greater independence. For the 2017 Labour conference, I was sent as a constituency representative for Young Labour members. In this role, I felt pigeonholed and pressured to attend Young Labour events, debates and votes. By no means did I feel free to be something other than an apparent spokesperson for all young people from the constituency. This was not the fault of the constituency party that sent me, but the entire design of Labour’s conference system.

In short, the Labour Party is too big. I understand the need to appear ‘broad church’ and build lasting internal coalitions, but the layout of Labour’s internal institutions make coalition building near impossible. Let’s be honest, Peter Mandelson and Jon Lansman will never both be satisfied. Why add more to the mix? 

To illustrate Labour’s size problem, let’s examine its policy making process. The National Policy Forum, as of 2018, consists of 204 elected members. In contrast, the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee is made up of thirty-one. Both aim to represent all sections of the membership and the country. Even for a team of thirty-one, forming a manifesto can be a challenge. But 204, it is just a nightmare. Such large numbers encourage conflict. This is not the same as debate.

By no means do I claim Lib Dem internal structures to be the absolute ideal. But the pressure on factions inside Labour ‘broad church’ to put on a face of unity at conference, impedes open and frank debate and actually facilitates the general proliferation of further factionalism. These conditions were well exposed during the attempted coup of 2016, where the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) was at clear odds with the majority of Labour members. Since Thursday, these factions have re-emerged as strong as ever, with blame for Corbyn’s leadership or the party’s Brexit position as the new fault lines.

Third, Jenkins’ view reflects a certain complacency within Labour circles that the party deserves support and will always exist. Between the parties of the centre-left, Labour stood out as the only one unwilling to stand candidates aside for a Plaid, Green or Lib Dem alternative. As an outsider to Labour’s strategy planning, it seemed as if the party was hoping to simply repeat 2017, but in the hope the ‘Never Johnson’s’ would come flocking to their side, thus boosting the ‘go it alone’ and ‘final push’ attitude at the top. I don’t pretend this to be an exhaustive summary of Labour’s operation, but this refusal even to engage in talks with other parties represented a change in Corbyn’s outlook. And anyway, what of the ‘kinder, gentler politics’ he espoused only two years earlier? To add to the frustration, these kind of cross-party talks, with Labour included, are not uncommon in local government.

Jenkins is right to highlight the sorry state of a divided centre-left as the reasons for Thursday’s results. With Johnson’s new government promising to revisit changes to constituency boundaries, this may only get worse. This time, the ‘remain alliance’ failed. But to sacrifice democratic diversity is not the answer. Serious, well-intentioned and long-term cooperation is.

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