It’s one of the questions that most often bounces around the media and Twittersphere regarding my party. It’s often diagnosed as the cause of all the party’s ills that after Coalition it can’t establish its place and purpose in the British political system until it understands what it believes in. One of the most frequently attributed causes of stagnation is that x% of the public don’t know what the party stands for.
Often this is pitched as the Lib Dems themselves not understanding what they believe in. This is inaccurate. Indeed it is downright illogical, people don’t tend to become active members of a political party if they don’t have a firm grasp of their own beliefs. Rather I’d attribute the problem to there being three (necessarily broad) only semi-compatible groups of beliefs within the party, not itself unusual, but it has a leadership that supports none of them.
The first strain of thought is what may be referred to as the old liberals. Generally middle aged and older they are the ones who believe in what they consider the truly radical liberalism that has its roots in the Grimond and Thorpe era, particularly the original Community Politics and the ‘Red Guard’ period of the Young Liberals. It forms the core of the left-wing of the party, championing such causes as industrial democracy and being frequently associated with CND. It expresses itself through such means as the SLF and the Liberator, and traditionally made up the ‘anti-establishment establishment’ by having many long-standing members on the various party committees while instinctively opposing the party leadership.
The second strain tends to come from the younger elements of the party. Their thinking may be summarised as a more idealistic version of the Coalition Era party (Orange Booker is the more traditional term, but I think that has flaws). It has its power base in Liberal Reform and the Young Liberals and are mostly members who joined in the Clegg years and immediately after who are most comfortable with the concept of being in national government. They advocate free trade and certain deregulatory policies such as green belt reform, and are vehemently opposed to what they perceive as paternalism that encroaches on personal liberties, such as minimum alcohol pricing.
The third is the newest addition to the membership, the pro-Europeans. These are the #FBPE types, invigorated by the referendum. They are the most politically inexperienced, and possibly naïve. Their commitment to liberalism itself is less in-depth and considered than the other two strains. Their primary political goal is keeping the UK in the EU, and their default methods are significantly less traditional than the other two groups; protests, street stalls, rallies, rather than a commitment to electoral advancement. To them what comes after Brexit is a concern for another day.
The problem arises in that the Cable leadership doesn’t seem committed to any of these three. It is clear where previous leader’s support has come from, Clegg from the second group, while Farron’s leadership bid spoke the language of the first group, and he then proceeded to build and rely on the third. Cable meanwhile is not advocating any real ideological cause, his ‘momentum for moderates’ does not particularly build on any of these traditions and its end purpose is unclear. His pitch is to exist only as a receptacle for the disgruntled, who are to be attracted due to inoffensive policies such as the immigration paper adopted this Conference, and through institutional reform. But for what reason? Where does belief fit in here? Indeed if you’re purposefully opening the party up to entryism is there even a place for our own beliefs? It doesn’t really represent any sort of vision for the country or government, but rather internal reform for its own sake which will somehow lead to us acquiring power.
The thing is that the leadership doesn’t seem to understand the same lesson that has perplexed Labour moderates: simply promising power doesn’t work. The promise of acquiring power may act as a carrot to ensure the membership’s compliance for some period of time, but that will eventually expire, as even the Cameronite wing of the supposedly power-obsessed Conservatives learnt. When the prospect of acquiring power seems distant, or even laughable, it won’t even be enough to win you initial support and I doubt Cable could have won a membership vote.
This is because ideology is the fuel that powers activists, campaigners, candidates, and to some extent voters (even if their understanding is more simplified). As Weber described it the political activist ‘nourishes his inner balance and self-feeling by the consciousness that his life has meaning in the service of a cause’. Nowhere is this more true than for the third party which can seldom promise power. Those political leaders able to motivate their troops and voters are those that can in a coherent ideological narrative diagnose society’s ills, proclaim a program for change, and urge them to do their all to achieve this; for all his faults this is Corbyn’s greatest power. Yet it’s something we’re increasingly ignoring in favour of a return to the look left, then right approach that failed us so catastrophically in the 2015 campaign.
Until this is understood and we have a leader who attempts to pull together some ideologically coherent plan from these strains of thought the party will never be able to give voters an answer to that question of ‘what do the Lib Dems believe in?’