Liberal Democrats – Stuck in the Past but perhaps not far enough?

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Liberal and LibDem Leaders from the Past – Source: Author

“He’s taking us back to the 1980’s” was a criticism I heard time and time again about Corbyn the man and his policies. Yet in the quagmire of mudslinging that occurs between Government and the opposition there was a party, quietly sat in the middle, bumbling along as always hoping desperately that no one would realise it wasn’t just Corbyn harking back to the turbulence of the 1980’s but the shrivelled party of eight Liberal Democrats. Of course, that has since risen to 12, but the notion that one day the heights of the SDP merger will return without a change of course or rebranding still appears to grip the membership and leadership.

Now it’s important to analyse why the ancestral party to that which governed for decades under the leadership of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George has not been able to recapture the place in politics so many claim is rightfully theirs?

This mystery lies in the concept of the ‘centre ground of British politics’, which pundits from Andrew Neil across the spectrum to Owen Jones have all raised themselves to inspect. This mysterious political idea is that, if a party captures the centre ground it will soon capture the keys to Number 10. Indeed, I buy into this idea, though with one major caveat: the centre ground isn’t just about political centrism on a left – right scale. Nor is it focussed on economics, the British people have withstood a vast swathe of economic policies, some under the same party as the change from Cameron to Johnson evidences. No, this ‘centre’ lies directly within British history, culture and the party which best communicates a clear vision. It is moreover the centre of attention that is truly the ‘centre of British politics’ it is my belief that the Liberal’s whether democrat or otherwise are those best placed to capture this political stardust, but only if they’re willing to take a risk to reach out and capture it.

To do so will not be easy for many in the LibDems, it will require stepping out of the Liberal Democrat bubble to examine hundreds of years of history that many aren’t aware of. It will force the party to reflect on what it offers to those beyond its heavy Remain-leaning, university educated base and discussing matters like planning reforms or other issues most people don’t have the time to examine in depth. If the party is to go beyond 12 or 30 seats, it must ask itself why should someone from Newtown, Hartlepool, Glasgow or Reading vote LibDems?  

To history though, as I brought that up first. The Liberal party was formed from the Whigs and Peelites and provided the main opposition to the Conservative Party in the 19th and early 20th century. The Party focussed on reforming the British state, slowly introducing voter enfranchisement, opposition to the classist structure of the aristocracy, legalising of the Trade Unions, ending the purchase of military commissions and passing the Elementary Act to guarantee a basic education to every child. All these achievements effectively building the very democracy we currently enjoy and ripping apart the land-owning aristocracy to strive for a more equal society – though there’s still work to do on that front. These feats were communicated in large part by William Gladstone a man who captured the ‘centre’ of both attention and politics partially due to the spectacle that was his bitter rivalry with Disraeli (Conservative Prime Minister and Chancellor) but also because his personality captured attention, thousands would come to see him speak primarily because they knew what he stood for. His clear vision for a more equal Britain even earned him the ire of Queen Victoria and that’s what all Liberals should aim to do – provoke a reaction.

Moving on from Gladstone’s impressive feats, David Lloyd George revolutionised how our nation worked by enacting sweeping reform and establishing the Welfare state. Even proposing the first ever ‘People’s Budget’ in 1909 which placed unprecedented taxes on the rich to, in part pay for the introduction of health insurance, unemployment benefit and the first ever pensions. He did so working alongside Churchill – although don’t let a Conservative hear you say that Churchill was a Liberal and a reformer at that. The Liberal party had redistributed wealth for the first time in British history away from the elites toward the common man and they achieved this in part because they’d adopted a new identity – the ‘New Liberals’ and pushed for bold policies that aligned with the concerns that real people had, this led to them securing 397 seats in the 1906 election, ripping away 246 seats from a reactionary Conservative majority (Sound familiar?). Once again by communicating a clear vision, capturing a post Victorian cultural sentiment for change and building on their past reputation as the great reformers the Liberal party were once again able to capture the centre ground and as such seized power.

That leads me back to today, in a world of a Labour party lost in the woods and a Conservative party drifting off to the right – both culturally and politically. This is the Liberal Democrats’ opportunity to rebrand and refocus. They need to look beyond the 1980’s or the 60 seats they had then and strive for something greater. To offer the British people a bold plan for the future, not simply opposing planning reforms or dealing with micro issues, it’s time for them to clearly outline a plan for the future that encompasses modern concerns and propose forward thinking solutions like a Negative income tax, an automation tax, facilitating jobs for all those seeking them, a real education for all and building Britain into a global power that seeks to improve not just our nation but all nations. They must – if they are to seize the mythical ‘centre ground’ put forward a 21st century ‘People’s budget’ as part of a reformed re-united Liberal Party. A united party that showcases its proud history and achievements, offers a culture of openness and acceptance and provides that clear vision for a greater Britain that the nation is currently lacking.    

So, to those that say the Liberal Democrats are “out of the game”, I’d reply they’re certainly down and certainly lost, but not out? Not if they rise to meet the current challenges as Gladstone, Lloyd George, Churchill and Asquith rose to theirs.   

Ed: West England Bylines welcomes articles from all political parties which reflect the progressive, inclusive ethos of the Bylines Network.

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