The coming squabble over the centre ground


When I was editor of Liberal Democrat News, during the Ashdown era, I became fascinated watching the real divisions inside the Lib Dem party.

Year after year, it always seemed the same. There were highly successful, local government elections run by the teams who would eventually transform Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and other places. By 1994, you could travel from London to Land’s End on land administered by the Lib Dems. Then every so often, there were rather less successful and less radical European elections, run by different teams with little or no reference to what party was doing at local level.

I wondered at the time that whether we might just swap manifestos over so that the European elections would be fought on local government campaign terms – including some clear narratives and radical objectives.

I’ve come to realise since that this division is the fundamental one between Liberals and Social Democrats. I am a Liberal and always will be; I’m not sure that I am a Social Democrat.

I thought of this when I was asked on Twitter a few days ago when I still stood by what I had written in the Guardian some days after the defection of the independent group now known as Change UK. It sums up my dilemma.

To be fair to myself, I never intended my own party should somehow disband to lose their identity when they joined the new tech group in Parliament. I did want was some mechanism, first, keep up the momentum and second, to avoid a fratricidal electoral battle between these two centre groupings.

It also seems to me now that it is the social democrat wing of the Lib Dems that has emphasised the ‘Exit from Brexit’. A liberal response might perhaps have been, for example, a commitment to democracy (if we win, you win, as the party’s campaigners used to say). And vice versa.

That is what happened. My fear is that the brilliant Lib Dem local government campaigners – with a commitment to localism and devolution – now hand over to the Euro campaigners, and that winning radicalism will get lost again.

The dangers emerging is that, by apparently ignoring the referendum result, we may be creating the exact set of conditions which may make some kind of Farage breakthrough possible. That could hold back the radical centre for some years to come, just when we needed so urgently.

So yes, I do stand by what I wrote. It is one of the ironies of politics that you tend to fight most bitterly with those who agree with the most – with your rivals rather than your opponents. When I joined the Lib Dems, it was not to project my rage onto their rivals for the centre vote.

It may be that our problem in the centre ground of politics is that we never properly defined it. We are not ‘outer-directed’ conservatives defending the private sector. Nor are we ‘subsistence-driven’ socialists representing the public sector. Liberals have yet to identified themselves properly as ‘inner-directeds’ committed to the third, voluntary sector. From the 1960s, they provided a voice for the counterculture, without ever quite claiming it. The non-socialist left, as Jo Grimond used to put it.

Liberal parties have always been alliances between radicals and whigs. The Lib Dems still is. But across Europe, whigs are being rejected by voters, whose reaction to anything that is neither hot nor cold is – to misquote the Bible – to spew it out of their mouths. That poses a challenge to anyone who aspires to the centre ground.

But it doesn’t matter which of the various aspiring parties of the centre ground understands this and articulates it. The real opponent is Farage and he is in full flow.

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  1. Aileen Hingston says

    LibDems, and other parties, need to stand on a positive manifesto. What has always worried me about ‘people’s vote’ is that it is just a procedural step (with an unclear question). If there were a second referendum and a version of Leave wins again – and it might well – what else do the parties have to say? Any party should be able to say ‘this is what we want to achieve for you; we will work to achieve it in or out of the EU; we happen to think that we can achieve it better [in] [out] of the EU, but we can get there either way’. Not hearing that much. Maybe that is what Corbyn was trying to say at his launch?

    • Stephen Gwynne says

      It is a good point but I think it is clear to most Leavers that the Peoples Vote lobby simply want a return to the status quo. Remain and reform might be their mantra but any Reform Plan or a strategy to execute the Reform Plan involves changing the EU Treaties which requires the full cooperation of the EU27. We already know from experience that the EU 27 and the EU Commission are only willing to offer minute concessions which in the main are already written into the EU Treaties.

      If the objective was to create more localism and devolution for example, this would either require greater national autonomy or greater national subsidiarity with either requiring fairly radical adjustments to EU marketisation and competition rules. These are more easily achieved through national autonomy, setting aside the requirement for a democratic mandate, but to achieve these adjustments through greater national subsidiarity seems a virtually impossible task. The obvious downside to the national subsidiarity approach is that if it fails, then the status quo leaves us in a cul-de-sac with the only escape being leaving the EU Treaties. Similarly, years of negotiating and lobbying for the required changes to marketisation and competition rules means being stuck in the status quo.

      The inconvenient truth about EU membership is that it is not a viable platform from which to achieve radical changes at the national level. It is foremost a platform to integrate and harmonise national policy which requires conformity and so requires sacrificing autonomy.

      This fact underlies the disengeniousness of ChUK and highlights how their branding is simply a front for the status quo. Their allegiance is with EU Corporatism, not EU localism and EU regionalism, with a few right communitarian policies thrown in for good measure. Policies which do not require reforming the EU Treaties.

  2. Peter Underwood says

    “The real opponent is Farage and he is in full flow.”

    And whose fault is this? Evil prevails when good people do nothing and the Tories have been doing nothing for 3 years!

  3. Stephen Gwynne says

    These days it is difficult to discern where the radical centre actually lies and seems to depend on the matrix being used. Is it the intersection between public and private and so describes a mixed economy, is it the intersection between liberal values and conservative values, in which case the LibDems and ChUK don’t occupy the centre ground at all or in a much more complicated way, is it the intersection between liberal and conservative values on the horizontal and the intersection of cosmopolitan and communitarian values on the vertical.

    Certainly in my mind, both the LibDems and ChUk are plainly on the right in terms of the economy with its consensus support for EU free trade that verges on the Neoliberal, they are plainly on the left regarding EU social liberalism. Regarding the public/private continuum, both are ostensibly on the right, again in relation to their consensus or at least implied support for EU privatisation and EU marketisation as embedded in the EU Treaties.

    Personally I don’t see where the LibDems and ChUK occupy any centre ground whatsoever. They don’t support national autonomy so that pretty much dooms localism and regionalism since without sufficient national autonomy then it is impossible to realise sufficient localism and regionalism, except through much greater national subsidiarity. I see no clear mandate for EU membership on the basis of radical national subsidiarity on the part of either LibDems or ChUK.

    In view of the fact that the LibDems don’t occupy the centre ground at all on the basis of any metric, it is unclear why Farage is considered an opponent other than to preserve EU social liberalism since on the face of it, Farage is just as much on the right economically as the LibDems. The only difference economically is the scale, European free trade or global free trade with accompanying free trade agreements.

    In this respect the only actual opposition is between social liberalism and social conservatism which is abit confusing considering LibDem policies of localism and regionalism. In what way are the LibDems going to ensure that localism and regionalism are not associated with existing local and regional identities in order to ensure social liberalism.

    I highlight all this because a forceful opposition to Farage is also to place the LibDems in opposition to communitarianism, social conservatism, national autonomy, national sufficiency and the possibility of a greater role for the state and the public sector in enabling the necessary transformations to achieve a sustainable and sufficient future for Britain.

    It doesn’t appear that LibDems actually supports very much other than the EU and a highly competitive social market economy and EU social liberalism, both of which interplay to increase the ecological impacts of the EU system. As such, yesterday was the EU’s overshoot day which marks the date by which humanity would have exhausted nature’s annual budget if all people lived like EU residents. In other words, the EU free trade system, like the US free trade system and the Chinese free trade system, is the main contributory cause of climate and ecological breakdown. That is to say, frictionless EU trade increases the social and ecological impacts of international trade.

    I find this far more worrying that the social conservatism of the Brexit Party, a party that demands the necessary national autonomy by which we could realistically realise localism and regionalism.

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Stephen, I agree about the ignored ecological impact of global free trade.

      The reality is that such an impact is lower if we trade mainly within the single market rather than further afield. Ecological concerns should therefore make us more willing to be part of the EU than not.

      This argument also holds if we want to start making ecological issues part of the conditions of free trade agreements. The EU has more clout with China and the US than would a lone Britain. Therefore more likely, if they wished, to succeed in building environmental standards into trade agreements. The US and China will likely tell the UK alone to go whistle if it tried any of that.

      The ‘overshoot. you mention is hardly an EU alone problem. The UK has the lowest remaining natural capital of any major country – we’ve destroyed it all.

      Overall, it seems hardly likely to me that the Brexiteers’ of a buccaneering free trade UK trading with everyone across the globe while ignoring that which is on its doorstep is a particularly environmentally friendly approach. The only saving grace is that it has near zero chance of materializing.

  4. nigel hunter says

    Yes, Farage is on top, Labour following yes the Tories sat on their hands doing nothing increasing the anger .Agreed, in or out of the EU we have to give the country a positive future.We cannot do it on our own. Farage has had a long time to hone his act. He knows that people ‘of different parties have differences which he can exploit to his advantage .Yes the wings of the Lib Dems need to speak with one voice and’ unite others . Farage is wanting the original vote to be recognised. He will arrange his future plans on the EU result.

  5. Vern Hughes says

    At some point, centrists in the UK are going to have to make some decisions. Do you want to uphold the Brexit referendum result or do you want to overturn it? Do you want to join with non-statist communitarians in other parties to create a new centrist populism or do you want to rail against populism as the enemy?

    A centrist politics that is against Big Government and for devolution and localism will be for getting out of European statism. For goodness sake, just get on with it.

    A centrist politics that seeks to wind back both state and market and uphold civil society will be for convergence with the localist, communitarian components of populism. It isn’t that difficult to separate the racist and non-racist parts of contemporary populism. Reject the racist elements and team up with the non-racist elements in a new electoral configuration that can marginalise the Tories and Labour.

    For goodness sake, stop dithering and get on with it.

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Vern, I’m not sure I buy into the either/or formulation you put forward. Devolution, communitarianism, localism, etc – all this can, and must, exist within an overarching nation state (see Switzerland, Germany, Canada, etc). Similarly, there is no reason why such localism cannot exist within a Europe of collaborative nation states. There is no reason to place Europe and the Nation State and localism all in opposition. They all need each other if one can find a good symbiotic relationship.

      Trouble is we haven’t found it yet. And placing each idea in opposition to the other doesn’t help when they could all be useful components of the same jigsaw.

  6. Peter Arnold says

    David, I recognise the dilemma you outline. Read my “A Liberal Manifesto” for the practical and radical detail. We need Radical Liberalism in the UK, not vaguely decent people struggling to make themselves heard!

  7. Gordon Lishman says

    It’s an argument that has its attractions, but the thread is undermined on matters of fact.

    The underlying problems are the corrupting influence of first past the post, the failure of the Liberal Democrats (former Liberals and former Social Democrats alike) to develop a convincing narrative and, perhaps, the corruption of power itself, first locally and then nationally.

    The deeply flawed strategy in relation to European Parliament elections sprang from the logic of local campaigning, developed into a successful strategy for winning Parliamentary seats. The argument started from: win in a local ward; take all the seats in a ward, then a town; take over control of a local authority, including counties which cover a number of authorities and constituencies. Part of that process is building up one or more local heroes. You can do all these things by effective local campaigning and, as well as running things more efficiently and effectively, you can do some liberal things. But it can be counter-productive to talk too openly about big liberal ideas that might not be helpful and some of those campaigners preferred their Party to keep quiet on those issues.

    The next stage is to build your local hero as a potential MP and then to build out to create clusters and regions of support to elect more local heroes. That’s why, in Isaiah Berlin’s phrase, we have elected more hedgehogs than foxes.

    The painful fact is that the people who led that process (with a great deal of success until 1996 (local) and 2005 (Parliamentary) argued that it was a mistake to talk too much about issues that voters might not like – and that included anything to do with the EU. I used to argue in the Liberal Democrats’ National Executive that we should fight European elections on EU issues and the core case for European engagement. I said explicitly that failure to do so could lead even to a referendum and withdrawal. Chris Rennard once opened his Executive presentation on European Parliament election strategy saying “I know that Gordon is going to accuse me of depriving his children and grand-children of jobs”. Chris was right, not only in predicting my behaviour, but also in his diagnosis that breaking into Parliament with a significant group of MPs required us to concentrate on using those elections as part of a national and regional campaign strategy which didn’t talk about Europe.

    They were, more often than not, supported by leading local campaigners who had a similar interest in winning and, more difficult, holding on to what they had won.

    The decline in interest in big ideas wasn’t Paddy’s fault, but the logic of the strategy under his leadership and that of his Liberal and SDP predecessors and his successors was to become big by pretending to be a conventional Party operating in a conventional way. In particular, we saw the withering of the idea of creating “a movement campaigning both inside and outside the institutions of the political establishment” which was integral to the original community politics strategy. In fact, the underlying philosophy of UK social liberalism has been more influential in terms of the style and beliefs of our Party than those of Croslandite social democracy. The logic of the Liberal/Liberal Democrat strategy simply complemented the SDP’s belief (now mirrored by Change UK) that “success” in British politics would be based on accepting the constraints of existing structures and habits – winning on style rather than content and becoming a conventional contender rather than an insurgent movement. The Coalition was the natural result of that strategy.

    Campaigning against Brexit takes us back to a more insurgent movement. I see little evidence that it is matched by a similar insurgent approach to conventional politics. That’s a great pity, because that insurgent approach is now the flavour of our politics and there is a crying need for a Party which can lead the fight for basic liberal democracy and radical social liberalism.

    • David Boyle says

      Thanks so much for such a thoguhtful response, Gordon. I think you were spot on back then. the question is whether you are right now. My fear is that, by denying a vaguely democratic result, then Lib Dems have given breathing space for Farage,,,

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