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The LibDems should think of some new ideas
The party of "No" has No Ideas
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I have an embarrassing confession to make.
Okay, don’t judge me but… I used to be a secret Liberal Democrat.
(Oh god what have I just said?)
Look, I know what you’re thinking.
But we all do crazy things in our younger years. I was in my early thirties. 2017 was a different time. And I can explain, I swear.
I joined the party at a particular low during the Brexit wars. It was just after Parliament voted to invoke Article 50, with the full support of the Labour leadership of the time.
Obviously, I was – and still am – a die-hard Remainer. So of course I was mad about it. But what tipped me over the edge1 was that the divorce process was being activated, without anyone having actually figured out what the plan is for after. It seemed like an utterly reckless act of national self-harm, as Parliament, which is supposed to be a safeguard against us doing anything stupid, had surrendered to the populists2.
So just as weird cults with weird beliefs, unorthodox practices and strange obsessions get to you when you’re at your lowest, I found myself furtively clicking on to the LibDems’ website. I was desperate to do something to reassert the values of liberal democracy, so joining the party that literally has "liberal” and “democrats” in the name felt like at least a step in the right direction.
And then just like most religious people, though the path to enlightenment was now ahead of me, I did… nothing.
I didn’t attend any meetings, talk to anyone from the party, or volunteer to help out in any way. I wasn’t even a loyal foot-soldier on social media, as I continued my usual schtick of sneering at everyone and hiding my sincere opinions behind a thick layer of sarcasm and detached irony. But at least they got my £5 every month3.
However, my faith wasn’t to last.
Last year the contradictions and hypocrisies became too much. And I finally filed my resignation with a party that mostly did not know that I existed.
Why? Because though I remain a committed liberal4, singing from the same hymn sheet as the party on values like equality, liberty, internationalism and so on, their representatives here on Earth leave something to be desired5.
I am, of course, talking about the absolutely relentless NIMBYism that sees the party’s MPs, councillors and candidates repeatedly take against building, well, basically anything.
Here’s a LibDem councillor opposing solar farms. Here’s an MP opposing building much needed reservoirs and houses. And here’s some more LibDem councillors opposing building 14,000 homes, partially on the site of a golf course.
Oh, and here’s the party leader, Ed Davey, rejecting the need for reforms to the planning system6.
Of course, NIMBYism isn’t just a disease that afflicts the Liberal Democrats. But the the party does appear to have a particularly severe case. In fact, it is a core reason why the LibDems are having a relatively successful time at the moment in pure electoral terms.
These perverse incentives were perhaps best demonstrated in the 2021 Chesham and Amersham by-election, where the party’s sensational victory was won on the back of a grim campaign to oppose both planning reform and HS27.
Part of my disillusion with the party then is explained by my own evolving politics and priorities. Brexit politics have ended in a cross-party consensus not to talk about it, and I’ve become an increasingly radicalised, lets-build-everything YIMBY.
So is it just a case of "It’s not you, it’s me”?
Perhaps, but I don’t think it is entirely me8.
This is because the problem is that, right now, I don’t really know what the LibDems are supposed to be for.
I’m obviously someone who for better or worse (ie: worse) pays more attention to politics than the vast majority of people. I’m broken inside enough to know what phrases like “Orange Book” and “Glee Club” refer to. I know what a “Lembit Öpik” is9.
But even I’d struggle to tell you what it is that the LibDems actually want to do. It feels like all the LibDems are is the party of “No”. No houses, no infrastructure, and no thinking about the future.
And that’s why I think the LibDems need to figure out what the hell they’re actually trying to do.
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Man on a mission
One of the most bizarre things that you often hear highly-engaged people say is “I don’t know what Keir Starmer stands for.”
I can forgive the general public when they say this, because Starmer has not yet faced a general election as leader and as strange as it might sound to us, he will still be ‘new’ to many people at the next election10.
But when I hear this from political types, I don’t take them seriously. Because if you’ve read this far into a nerdy political Substack post, then you are fully aware that Starmer has sketched out in broad contours what he sees as his ‘missions’ for the Labour Party once it gets into government.
You may not be able to recall the specifics, and you may wish that he’d go into more details on the ‘retail’ policy offer that will be in the manifesto, but it is clear (to varying levels of detail) what outcomes the Labour Party wants to achieve: Faster economic growth, a decarbonised grid by 2030, reduced crime, drag the NHS out the cycles of constant crisis, and reforms to childcare and education.
That’s why I think that most of the time complaining about not knowing what Starmer or Labour stands for is actually just a proxy for saying “I disagree with him”, “I wish he would do my thing instead”, or “I’m too scared to admit that Starmer is actually doing surprisingly well as Labour leader, and has set his party on course for a sizeable majority at the next election”.
But what also makes it a bizarre complaint about Labour is that, well, look at the competition.
On the one hand, there is an intellectually exhausted Conservative Party. On paper, Rishi has his own five priorities that he is trying to deliver. But in reality, every faction inside the party is already gearing up for a vicious civil war to be fought on the opposition benches.
Then on the other hand there is the Liberal Democrats who, though they are on the up in terms of electoral projections, feels as though they are intellectually adrift.
I'm hoping then that I’m not doing the same thing I’m criticising others for here. I don’t think I’m saying “I don’t know what they stand for” because I don’t like their current schtick. It’s because I genuinely can’t answer the question: What is the LibDems’ equivalent mission?
And I don’t think you can answer it either. Because there isn’t really one.
Searching for meaning
Call it whatever you like, but I think having a ‘mission’ is important.
At the most abstracted level, political parties are undergirded by shared values. Labour likes redistribution, the Tories like free markets. The LibDems are liberals who like equality, and human rights and so on. Great.
At the other end, going into elections parties come up with practical policies they would enact when in government: Build a hospital, privatise a utility, impose a fee on plastic bags, and so on.
The ‘mission’ then is the strategic bridge that connects the two: The bit where a party sets out its desired outcomes. A translation of the party’s foundational values into what the party actually wants to achieve. And it is important for both campaigning and governing, as it provides effectively a North Star to guide the party’s policies and positions – a yard stick against which it can decide whether a given policy serves its values and its long term goals.
Labour’s desire to decarbonise the grid is a good example of this. It takes the value of “concern about climate change” and turns it into a meaningful mission: “generate 100% of our energy from renewable sources”.
Now it has that frame, it can put together a manifesto and govern in service of the mission. In the case of the climate mission, this will be by enacting policies like the creation of a new publicly owned energy company, GB Energy, to drive the renewable rollout. The values drive the missions, which drive the policies. And voila, you have a coherent plan for government.
However, this is not just about governing. A clear mission serves a campaigning role too. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the LibDems’ most successful periods have coincided with times when the party has coalesced around a particular objective.
For example, the party’s biggest success in terms of seats was in 2005, when it won 62 constituencies as effectively the anti-Iraq War party.
And in more recent times, the party revived its fortunes from the nadir of 2015 by becoming the “Stop Brexit” party. It was a mission that took the party to second place in the 2019 European elections, leaving them behind only the Brexit Party (another party that had a very clear sense of purpose)11.
The only election that doesn’t fit this frame quite as well is 2010, when the party won 57 seats, down on 2005 but with its highest ever tally of actual votes. Whether this success was down to a “New Politics” mission, or voters’ perceptions of Nick Clegg’s raw animal-magnetism, I’ll let you argue in the comments.
The Party of O’Malleyism?
So in theory, my argument in this piece is that the LibDems and Ed Davey, the party leader, should figure out the party’s mission. To take it beyond its role as “the party of No”, and towards being a credible party that actually knows what changes it wants to see in Britain and the world.
If I were a normal pundit, it is in this final section that I would breezily conclude “Therefore, if they adopt all of my policy preferences, the party would be more electorally successful.”
And to be clear, I do think there is a strong, incredibly self-serving case that the party should adopt an O’Malleyist approach12.
There’s a certain logic to it. Ideologically, the LibDems are well positioned to be the party of techno-optimism and progress. They could be the party of actually building a better world, with no dogmatic adherence to either the free market or the public sector.
They could be the party that will help Labour decarbonise the energy system, the party of green growth and of European re-integration. They could be the party of open data, and the heroic liberators of the Postcode Address File. It’s certainly a posture that could suit Ed Davey, a former Energy and Climate Change Minister who did lots of good stuff along these lines while in office.
Once Labour gets into power, the LibDems can be the hard-headed party of Doing What Is Necessary. When the realities of actually governing forces Prime Minister Starmer to inevitably compromise, and reduce his climate or housing ambitions, or pull back from getting too close to Europe, the LibDems can be the party of “Yes”. They can hold Labour’s feet to the fire, for not being ambitious enough at building the future that we need.
And hell, I’ll even let the LibDems keep doing their electoral reform thing if they like, as I know they’re weird about that.
But as much as this would be a party that I would like, I also recognise that the LibDems are in essentially a monkeys-paw situation with the electorate. In the sense that the party is well positioned to win a bunch more seats at the next election, but these seats are nearly all leafy, affluent places, where ratcheting up the NIMBYism is a very effective wedge to drive votes. And the more the party actually makes a positive case for itself, the more potential voters it could inadvertently put off.
So it is conceivable that NIMBYism is something the party will want to lean into. Instead of being the O’Malleyist party of “Yes” they could double down on “No”, and become an ersatz Green Party, promoting ineffective pastoralism and economic stagnation.
It wouldn’t solve any problems. It wouldn’t help us mitigate climate change or the housing crisis. It wouldn’t be good for the economy. And it wouldn’t do much to advance the LibDem values of liberty and equality (or environmentalism, if you ask me). I’d absolutely hate it. But that wouldn’t be the point – it’s a path that could win the party a few more seats.
So perhaps taking my advice, and “thinking of some new ideas” would be a deeply terrible idea.
But I do still think there is a case for the party to define its mission – and indeed, to move closer towards being the party of “Yes”.
Sure, it might mean slightly fewer by-election sensations. It might mean slightly fewer ‘cheap’ votes as the party no longer positions itself as effectively an empty vessel for protest votes13.
But it would be good for the intellectual health of both the party and liberalism as an ideological project. It could make the party’s electoral coalition more resilient, as the party would be more than just an “other” box on a ballot paper. And it would mean that when people vote LibDem at the next election, they’re actually voting for a party that means something more than “No”.
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And share this with your friends. Especially your LibDem friends, if you can tear them away from Gallifrey Base.
(At least in myself-serving, self-flattering memories of the time.)
“Haha, I was right! This opinion aged well!” I congratulate myself, while surrounded by crumbling public services, a sclerotic economy, a cost of living crisis and a political culture that’s unwilling to admit what the real problem is.
From what I can recall, I’m not even a particularly loyal LibDem voter. Over the years like other mushy progressives I’ve drifted between the LibDems, Labour and Greens, mostly searching for an anti-Tory vote, or to send a message on climate. I dare-say I won’t be voting Green again any time soon though. And no prizes for guessing which way I’ll be voting next time.
Am I committed liberal? I guess I more place my politics somewhere in that haze of milquetoast progressivism that is a bit social-democratic, a bit liberal, a bit technocratic?
Also the fact that I needed to find an extra fiver a month to pay for Paramount+, so I could watch Star Trek: Strange New Worlds may have been a factor.
Honestly I don’t know where to begin with that article. He thinks the problem isn’t the planning system but… lack of skills? What a politically convenient explanation!
Before I continue, some throat clearing: I know and like a lot of LibDems. Some of my best friends are LibDems (you can tell as they keep banging on about electoral reform). As I say above, I agree with a lot of LibDem-adjacent values. And I’m hoping that my favourite LibDem Twitter pals, like Mark Pack (who writes an excellent newsletter and blog) won’t rage-block me if they read this.
I was once voxpopped by Lembit virtually outside my flat. He was filming at the bus stop for Iranian state-owned news channel Press TV, which he was apparently working for at the time. The line of questioning was essentially trying to draw some sort of parallel between Guy Fawkes and modern British foreign policy. So I decided to let him record me answering because I thought it’d be funny to work in a criticism of Iran to my answer. I suspect my contribution wasn’t used.
I hope you’re not sick of Starmer telling the story about his dad being a toolmaker, and about how his family had the phone cut-off because they couldn’t afford to pay the bill. (From the multiple tellings I’ve heard, he even inflects a slightly incredulous laugh at the same point in the phone bill story every time, like he’s amused himself as he tells it. What a pro.)
Nobody said the mission has to be successful!
It’s gone past me using the word ironically, and sailed right through embarrassment, and now I’m just unashamedly trying to meme it into being a thing.
Sadly I doubt many LibDem voters are actually ‘liberals’ in any meaningful sense.