Shutting down the Lib Dems is not the answer. Let’s work together.

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.

The Lib Dem Leadership Post-Brexit

On Thursday night, two devastating political realities emerged for the Liberal Democrats. First, we had lost our leader, Jo Swinson, far too early. In office for just 144 days, Jo’s premiership was dominated by the unexpected: defections, prorogation, membership surges and finally, a Brexit election. The second reality is that Britain will leave the European Union in just over one month.

Of course there will be time to assess the pros and cons of our unusually presidential campaign and our ambition to put forward a ‘Liberal Democrat candidate for prime minister’. Under Sal Brinton and Ed Davey’s joint interim leadership, this moment of reflection is sure to be full and frank.

But what is clear, from my time campaigning in Sheffield, Cheltenham, Worcestershire and East Dunbartonshire is that, as with every election, the party membership is the passionate, committed and disciplined driver of our liberal movement. It is the Liberal Democrat’s strongest asset.

But as we look into a post-Brexit future, what kind of leadership can we expect over the course of the next parliament?

After the 2015 general election, the Lib Dems were widely derided for returning eight white male Members of Parliament to the House. (Another cruel feature of our First-Past-The-Post electoral system). And yet today, nearly two thirds of our MPs are women and eight were first elected after the coalition.

At the spring conference in York earlier this year, Vince Cable’s proposed leadership reforms were defeated at vote. Part of the package was to give non-MPs the chance to run for the top job. Alongside a new supporters scheme, the thinking behind this proposal was to transform the party into a broader political movement, encouraging new talent to emerge from beyond Westminster. In light of Jo’s defeat, some elements of this package could well be reconsidered at the next conference in March. By then however, the party will have already elected a new leader. 

With many of our MPs having relatively little parliamentary experience and time to establish a strong reputation in the party, Jo has no obvious successor. As deputy, Ed Davey clearly has some advantage over other potential candidates. But as a fellow member of the coalition government, Ed risks receiving the same criticism aimed at Jo these past six weeks for her voting record on welfare and austerity. 

Of course we mustn’t underestimate the immense burden that comes with leading our party. But I hope a wide and diverse field of candidates put themselves forward.

The primary challenge for whoever takes over in the new year is to redefine our purpose in a post-Brexit Britain. The 2016 referendum helped reshape our role in British politics and move on from five years of coalition. But should we make the wrong choices in the months ahead, our prior determination to ‘own’ the Remain brand could seriously backfire. We must find a way to move beyond the slogans of ‘bollocks to Brexit’ and ‘stop Brexit’ we embraced so strongly just a few months ago.

At heart, we are the natural party for pro-Europeans. This will not and should not change. But in wiping out the centre-ground, Thursday’s election is evidence that our existence at the front of the British politics is by no means guaranteed. 

In the run up to the election, I had been critical of the lack of a strong narrative behind our campaign. What tied our policies together? What story could we as Liberal Democrats tell about our country’s future and people’s role in it? But all of this is sure to form part of our election review. Now is not the time to go into detail. 

The next few months are critical for Britain and British liberalism. We may become the party of the (UK) union. We may well roll back on our refusal to change the party’s core structure. We know this country needs strong and rational liberal voices as we approach a new political, economic and cultural era.

But we need to convince this country that it still needs the Liberal Democrats.

We can. We must. We will.