Friday, 3 August 2012

Where now for social liberals?

In His recent Shifting Grounds article, Professor Richard Grayson of Liberal Left, the grouping of Lib Dems opposed to the coalition, pinpoints exactly how and why the Liberal Democrats have lost their way.  There is, he argues, a small elite of individuals in the Lib Dem ranks who want them to become a centre-right party of small-state liberalism. I would argue that it is probably a larger grouping that isn’t confined to an elite, but this brand of pseudo-conservatism is certainly driving the Lib Dems in the Coalition.  He points to the overbearing influence of individuals like David Laws, libertarians who see less government as the answer to most problems.

By asking the question, ‘how many  of the Coalition’s state-slashing policies are helping to disperse power and build capability in our citizens?’, Richard gets to the heart of what Liberalism is all about, as well as highlighting just how Liberalism - or at least the social liberalism that I associate with – has been absent from the Coalition’s Programme. Perversely, Nick Clegg summed up the crux of the argument in a speech in 2010: ‘It is not the size of the state – it’s what the state does that matters’.

If only Clegg’s actions in government had been as Liberal as his words.

Whilst I admire the attempts of Richard and his Liberal Left colleagues to fight the Social Liberal corner, I remain unconvinced of their ability to bring about the change of direction needed. Other than a light smattering of press coverage, I see no evidence of significant impact. Crucially, their Advisory Board and Executive Committee lacks parliamentarians and boasts no MPs.  Liberal Left cannot hope to change the course of Lib Dems in Parliament without this support.

The sad reality is that the Liberal Democrats no longer offers a comfortable home for social liberals. Consequently, members and voters are deserting the party – in droves.  An article in last Sunday’s Independent suggests that one in five Lib Dems resigned from the party last year, with the worst loss of membership in those constituencies represented by Government ministers. In Scotland, Lib Dem membership is down by over a quarter.

They shouldn’t have expected anything less. The feeble and irritating defence from a ‘Lib Dem spokesman’ was to acknowledge the difficulties caused by their decision to ‘put the interests of the country before party’, and to pay tribute to the ‘real liberals’ who’ve stuck it out, the ‘heroes of Liberalism’. The ‘heroes of Liberalism’?? Are they serious? Can they really be that dismissive of losing 20 percent of their membership base?

There are now a lot of Liberals who find themselves disenfranchised, disillusioned and despondent. The question is, are they just going to pack up and go home, or are they going to mobilise and try to present a truly Liberal alternative to the Coalition? More importantly, who can rally them, and through what mechanism? Can anyone succeed where Liberal Left is struggling? Time, as always, will tell.

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