Radical Liberalism in the 21 Century

‘The place for Radical Liberalism in the 21 Century’ is a paper published by Compass and co-authored by two Lib Dems: Paul Pettinger, a former city councillor who has also worked in Lib Dem HQ; and Chris Bowers who is a district councillor and author of ‘Nick Clegg: the biography and Elections for Sale?’

The conversation that this paper provokes is timely given that the Lib Dems are languishing in the polls despite calling for the most sensible outcome to the Brexit situation, a second referendum. Even party members seem divided over the cause of this low poll rating. A daily read of the comments left on LibDemVoice bears testimony to this. Some members, like me, blame Nick Clegg for not differentiating the party enough during the coalition. Others blame it on the current polarisation between Labour and Tory and the lack of a Lib Dem media presence.

Is an approach predicated on radical liberalism the answer?  I interviewed Paul Pettinger and started by asking him what his reason was for writing the paper.

“We think the Progressive Alliance provides the Party with a great opportunity to rebuild and the best opportunity for liberals to sustain influence over the long term. Chris Bowers and I have shared our paper with Vince Cable and the Federal Board’s Strategy Review but they are just two audiences. Our main target are Party members across the country. Progressive Alliance campaigners are part of a long and successful tradition in British politics. The high points for progressive success in the twentieth century – 1906, 1945 and 1997 – all owe a degree of their success to cross party working cooperation. However, these instances were also top down affairs.

The Progressive Alliance – in contrast – seeks to be an open, transparent and bottom up campaign in support of progressives sharing ideas, forging links and better coordinating, for the mutual benefit and society. It seeks to influence and empower progressive leaders but, first and foremost, to campaign amongst and achieve consent from progressives more broadly.”

Many Lib Dems are resistant to the idea of a Progressive Alliance and this paper alludes to that by referring to Lib Dem MPs who face a dilemma due to their support from the ‘soft Tories’. Paul explains that we should take hope and firstly, because alliance of progressives have been shown to work.

He says, “Part of the reason we lost so many seats to the Cons in 2015 – and how Cameron managed to achieve a majority – was because most of our seats had been won with us leading a broadly progressive bloc of voters to victory (and usually ahead of the Tories). The Clegg leadership spent five years during coalition in search of a different and essentially pro-coalition bloc of voters to sustain itself and failed. Among the reasons why include their centrist positioning leaving us open to getting even more aggressively squeezed by other parties and because the voters they sought backing from simply don’t exist in sufficient numbers. Many centrist and very many pro-coalition voters aren’t liberal.”

In an analysis put forward by Pack and Howarth in their 2015 ‘The 20% strategy: Building a core vote for the Liberal Democrats’ , British voters of a broadly liberal outlook were found to cluster around the centre to centre-left (slightly more to the centre left than the centre in fact). Paul explains that this should have major implications for the party. “It’s one reason why working with the Tories is so politically dangerous for us and why fellow progressives in other parties should be natural allies.”

Back in September 2016 – when the Progressive Alliance was still not much more than a concept – Lib Dem Voice asked members ‘Do you think that Labour, SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats should work together to oppose the Conservative government in a type of progressive alliance?’. Lib Dem members were cautious about the nature of cross-party working but 54.5% of respondents said ‘yes’.

According to Paul, the Progressive Alliance since then has ballooned and, from just a narrow Lib Dem perspective, has helped in amassing a coalition of voters big enough to win the crucial Richmond by-election (Labour polled fewer votes than they had local party members).

Another success occurred last June. Paul points out that the “Progressive Alliance campaigners helped us avoid the banana skin of our then Leader losing his seat (the Green’s stood down and their 2015 vote alone was more than twice that of Tim Farron’s 2017 majority), while Layla Moran’s campaign in Oxford West and Abingdon has credited the Progressive Alliance as having helped get us over the winning line there (where we enjoyed a very impressive 9.1% swing in our favour). These successes help demonstrate that, from just a tactical point of view, the concept works”.

He points to how the party suffers “very badly” from having so few MPs.” It means we get overlooked by journalists and struggle to get our messages heard. If we invest in the PA then it can play an important role in helping us break this cycle. It can help us get the kind of the swings we require to achieve an encouraging increase in the number of our MPs at the next Election, so boosting our credibility and voice from having a stronger contingent in the Commons.”

“Outside of Scotland the very large majority of our target seats are fights versus the Tories that are open to us again leading an anti-Conservative challenge. Also, beyond a few seats where we need to overturn quite small majorities, the swing we require to make gains increases quite quickly. Seats that enjoyed the most active local Progressive Alliance campaigns in 2017 saw noticeably bigger swings away from the Cons to the main progressive challenger – the most active local Progressive Alliance campaign in a Lib Dem target seat was in fact in Oxford West and Abingdon. Were I a PPC in one of the large majority of our target seats I would be very keen to work with the Progressive Alliance. It can help us reconnect with many of the progressive voters that we have become estranged from in key seats and, in so doing, help us get more first places next time.”

Since the 2016 Lib Dem Voice survey, PA campaigners have generated a lot more goodwill within the Party, drawn some strong opinions and a great deal of interest. The reality is that the Progressive Alliance is still an emerging project that presents progressives with much opportunity and is something Liberal Democrats can embrace and contribute in helping shape. The Progressive Alliance is not about tactics, but a long term project about enacting ideas. The focus on tactics in 2017 was merely from necessity at the calling of a snap General Election but Lib Dem members who wish to see the party win on its’ own efforts will be hard to win over.

Paul is pragmatic on this point, “The Party does suffer with having our own tribalists. Pro-Progressive Alliance Lib Dems should encourage tribalists to recognise the potential that the Progressive Alliance presents for the tribe they are seeking to serve. We should also listen to Party members who hold anxieties and concerns about such cross party working. A key stone of the Progressive Alliance is proportional representation and creating a more pluralistic and deliberative democracy. This speaks to us continuing to be open, transparent and willing to make accommodation. There should be no establishment stitch ups that leave chunks of the party disenfranchised, as happened during the Clegg leadership. We need to be better liberals”.

With the local elections looming I asked Paul what his prediction was for the party’s success. “I don’t think we should expect breakthroughs in this year’s local elections as many of the wards are in strongly Labour leaning areas, though think we can expect to make progress where we are the main challenger to the Conservatives. However, we must acknowledge the reality that we remain massively tarnished from the coalition era. Voters made up their minds on the Coalition long ago and we have tested to destruction what the electorate think. Regardless of whether we love the coalition era or not, it objectively does not provide our Party with a legacy and voter base to sustain us having more than a peripheral impact on national politics.”

It has been three years since the coalition ended but voters are still punishing the party. I wondered when, if ever, the party would be back to competing on a level playing field. Paul thinks it’s down to toxification, “I think it is highly regrettable that as a party we have not been better at analysing what is holding us back and what we should let go. Labour has detoxified itself from the second Iraq war. The Conservatives quickly moved on from the poll tax, and the ‘nasty party’ eventually learned to hug a hoodie. Yet we seems paralysed and incapable of moving on from the coalition era, despite our Coalition record having failed almost every electoral test.”

In a further analysis Paul reckons that a paradox exists. “Many fellow Lib Dems focus on our achievements in Government but, overall, Coalition Government policy and actions were often at odds with long standing Lib Dem positions. We failed to achieve meaningful constitutional reform, and we trashed our own credibility by reneging on long standing stances. The Coalition was always a very risky endeavour for us that, from a Lib Dem perspective, was terribly poorly pursued. Rather than choosing to maintain distance and distinctiveness, the then leadership decided that to gain from coalition we needed to own its record, despite Lib Dems only providing a small faction of the Government’s MPs. This was reckless and utterly illogical. To many former voters we didn’t appear to be making necessary compromises, but of having become compromised. The extra cynicism that we helped engender by breaking trust and promises, combined with the stagnant economics that the Coalition pursued, helped create the conditions for Brexit.”

What can the party do going forward especially as members still remain divided over our time in coalition? Paul thinks that Lib Dems often dismiss criticism of the Coalition because many of the criticisms have been delivered as partisan attacks by people hostile to the Party. “Some seem to have invested so much in the Coalition that they have difficulty facing what has been lost. In a Party that claims to be led by evidence and reason this is a sad state for us to be in, and a great one for our opponents.”

Paul explains that we need to accept lessons from our history and those of other liberal parties around the world around the difficulty of ever making equidistance work. “The Progressive Alliance is certainly one way that we – both pro and anti Coalition Lib Dems – can start a new chapter. It can help us rebuild credibility with many of the liberal voters who have deserted us, gain seats, achieve proportional representation and help create a society that is more inclusive, sustainable and diverse.”

“During Jo Grimond’s leadership we experienced a period of intellectual creativity which stood the party in good stead over the years that followed. Some are trying to recreate this spirit, but sometimes also in quite superficial ways. We currently have things like the stage managed Your Liberal Britain purporting to be the Party’s activist wing, when it operates outside of the Party’s traditional democratic structures, and Paddy Ashdown helping award a prize for radical policies at Conference, when Conference is our sovereign decision making body. Some activities smacks of people trying to assert control over the Party (and often by people who helped steer us to disaster in the first place), when members should be asserting their authority and allowing a 100 flowers to bloom. One way members can do this is by joining a group like the Social Liberal Forum.

I asked Paul how the party can carve out a persuasive political space for Radical Liberalism when we have Boris Johnson setting out a vision for a ‘Liberal Brexit’, which is an oxymoron in itself.

“Liberals have dropped the ball by allowing Brexiters to successfully present themselves as agents of change and a vehicle to better empower and meet needs of many people. We need to become a party of change again. We need to forge compelling narratives (we didn’t really have one at the last General Election beyond Brexit) and should have more things to say that address many of the causes of Brexit. This must include recognizing a failure of central government to ensure enough home building and to better distribute opportunity and the proceeds of economic growth. Brexit has highlighted how many Brits hold as part of their national identity a sense of superiority and dominance over people they perceive as different to them. I think we should take a leaf out of our Canadian sister party’s book. They have spent decades taking integration seriously and affirming an outward looking Canadian identity that embraces diversity. Without airbrushing the UK’s past, Brits should tell better stories about what it means to be British. One way we can achieve such ambitious cultural change is by working with other progressives.”



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