Radix Big Tent is a cross-party think tank, including board members and fellows from across the political spectrum. As Tim Farron’s former Chief of Staff in the aftermath of the 2015 General Election, I got involved in Radix to ensure a policy platform for radical ideas which, I believed, would appeal to ‘liberals’ in all three main Westminster parties.
I continue to support the Liberal Democrats – I can’t help myself – but I believe that all our politicians need to be braver and bolder in addressing the huge domestic and international challenges we face. And, as a Liberal Democrat, I am most disappointed when my own party falls short in this regard. That is why I agreed to put my name – alongside thirty others – to this letter which appears on today’s Guardian website.
We were inspired to do so by Paddy Ashdown’s speech to the 1996 Autumn conference in which he said “My fear is this: that we shall see an election, and maybe a change of government – but we shall not see a change of direction. We shall still be starved of clear vision, a commitment to change, the courage to face up to what must be done.”
For now, Liberal Democrat strategists seem to have determined that the party should focus on shadowing Labour, relying on Conservative failures to sweep to victory. Any mention of the environment, human rights or, God forbid, Europe, is frowned upon as giving disaffected Conservative voters in key target seats reasons not to switch.
I believe this strategy to be flawed electorally, but even if I didn’t, it would remain flawed morally and intellectually.
It is flawed electorally because, as both the party’s national opinion poll and the Mid-Bedfordshire by-election show, it doesn’t offer a positive reason to support the Lib Dems in the face of a gathering Labour wave. Why vote for the impersonation when you can have the real thing?
It is further flawed electorally because it fails to provide the basis for recruiting and motivating the activists and donors and media supporters on whom all parties rely, to pay for leaflets, push them through doors and drive voters to the polls. Why bother with a party that cannot win when it offers nothing different from the main Opposition?
Not only does it risk the Labour party coming from behind to take out the Liberal Democrats in many of those seats to which the party returned to second place in 2019, but it further risks handing such seats to the Conservatives by splitting the opposition vote. Not being the Conservatives is not enough.
But this website is not concerned with one party’s flawed electoral strategy, but the intellectual and moral case for offering a distinctive radical vision.
Climate change is an existential risk to our planet, yet the current Government sees a softening of the UK’s international commitments as a way to draw a red line between itself and a fearful Opposition. Unless a strong political case is made for prioritising climate change an incoming government will have no mandate to act.
Our democracy is at risk with the international growth of authoritarian regimes and the undermining of UK institutions. In opposition, Labour has consistently dabbled with reforming the current political system, only to back off when that system delivers that party victory. Who will keep them honest at this moment of particular peril?
Not to mention Britain’s approach to the EU. Lib Dem Party strategists argue than any substantive mention of the EU will be viewed as an unpopular attempt to re-litigate Brexit. But the case for re-entering the single market is an economic rather than political one, and unless one party or another is prepared to make this case in the forthcoming election it will be impossible to meet the economic challenges that Britain now faces. Furthermore, the 60+ percent of the UK public who now see the Brexit vote as a step in the wrong direction will be disenfranchised.
The official party response to the Guardian letter is that “It would be a comforting luxury to act as the most democratic thinktank in British politics and navel-gaze amongst ourselves.”
As the Chief Executive of a real think tank, I have no desire for the party to park its tanks on my lawn. Unless, however, the Liberal Democrats are prepared to offer a clear, alternative vision for the future of Britain, not just to that of the Conservatives but also of the Labour party, it is hard to see how they can hope to become once again a powerful and impactful political voice.