Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Two factions are better than one

The Liberal Democrats were formed in 1988 by the merger of the Liberal Party and the newly-emerged Social Democratic Party. Whilst there was common-ground between the two, the SDP-Liberal Alliance which led to the Liberal Democrats was primarily caused by the electoral realities of the First Past The Post system, which meant that there was not room for two separate centre-ground parties.

The constitution of the Liberal Democrats commits us to introducing "a fair voting system for all elections", which we take to mean a proportionally representative system, such as the Single-Transferable Vote. It seems unlikely that the SDP-Liberal Alliance would have ever occurred under STV and once we achieve it it seems unlikely that our party will hold together for long after.

The current problem

The modern Liberal Democrats are a collection of individuals, all with differing views. There is a strong strand of social liberalism that runs through the vast bulk of our membership but there are huge disparities, not only in economic policy but in how different members view the relationship between the individual and the state.

We're forced together in this unnatural way due to our electoral system holding a cartel over the number of viable political parties there can be. The bulk of countries with proportional systems have between five and seven parties, whereas it's rare to see more than two or three in systems like ours. This means that rather than political parties remaining reasonably static and voters moving between them as beliefs change, we instead have political parties made-up of coalitions of loose factions who come to prominence as what's in vogue changes.


The biggest problem with this is that it alienates the public. It looks like simple dishonesty when a party changes from one strongly-held position to another, seemingly on a whim. They don't understand that our political parties are themselves alliances, albeit ones which fight the bulk of their battles behind closed doors. A prime example of this is tuition fees; ordinary people can't even begin to understand how the party leadership changed their position over tuition fees, going from wanting them scrapped at the 2005 general election to tripling them after the 2010 general election. They don't appreciate that Charles Kennedy was on one wing of the party whereas Nick Clegg is on the other. To them it looks like simple political opportunism and, whilst most Lib Dems hold a much more nuanced view of the situation, we have to accept personal responsibility for our failings.

How exactly have we failed though? We've failed because we aren't transparent about how things work within our party. We've failed because we try to paint a cosy picture of Lib Dem unity which is frankly a myth. We've failed because we talk about party policy as if it is representative of all our members and not just a simple majority of those who attend conference. And, if we ever want to be taken seriously by the disaffected majority and not simply serve as a future protest vote then we need to start being clearer and differentiating, not just from the other parties but within our own. This is not only the best choice electorally but it's also the only choice that reaches out beyond tribal politics.


We're not in a position where a electoral majority is a credible option. Despite this it is in the interests of those we represent to always try and have a say and the current best way to do this is to aim for coalition, both with the Tories and with Labour. Every additional MP we gain makes a coalition more likely as it becomes more difficult for the two traditional parties to form a majority on their own. We need to be take seats equally from both of the other parties though, otherwise our success against one side will simply help deliver a majority to the other.

Our current strategy is to sit at the centre and hope that Labour move too far to the left and that the Tories try and out-compete UKIP on the right. We cannot be complacent though and rely on the other main parties losing the next election. Yes, it's right that we should work from the middle but we need to squeeze out in both directions. How best do we achieve this? I think we can cover more ground by essentially operating as two parties side-by-side in one, a social democratic party alongside a party with a broad classical liberal appeal.

This would allow us to put forward strong centre-left candidates against Labour in the North, whilst simultaneously pushing to take more Conservative seats in the South. A party that tries to have a unified message can only occupy so much space on the political spectrum, especially one that talks heavily about liberalism but is restrained from expressing many strong economic views.


As a party locally we're often accused of simply telling people what they want to hear. Those who believe this fail to recognise that we're a broad church of liberalism and that most of our party refuses to toe the party line. This is a good thing, as liberals we acknowledge that our differences make us stronger. Being in government has been hard for us though, having an Orange Book leadership has lost us large swathes of our left-leaning supporters and at the same time we've not been economically liberal enough to avoid seeing us lose some of those classical liberals on the right that I personally value highly.

Acting like a "coalition" of parties would allow us to retain and keep motivated our activist base, who could feel at home in their section of the larger party, even when they were highly uncomfortable with positions taken by the leadership. We've already seen progress towards this with the formation of groups such as Liberal Reform, the Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Left.

Yes, there are risks

There could be in-fighting between different factions, we don't really want things to get nasty like they did between Brown and Blair but surely we're better than all that. What we'd really be doing is formalising the already ad-hoc arrangements that are in place. Perhaps we'd discover that underneath it all we didn't really like each other or we were incapable of getting along politely and cooperating but if that's really the case then do we really think paving over the cracks with faux unity will keep us together?

It could even lead to the party splitting-off before it's ready and this would be devastating. All of this is possible. I ask you though; what is the point of our party? Do we really want to rest perpetually in opposition, badly represented in the media and poorly thought of among the bulk of the general public, with the occasional glimmer of hope for a coalition when the other two parties become so unpopular that people will consider us? I would like us to form a broad, inclusive movement, to revel in our differences and to go forward and promote liberalism in all its forms.

Nothing great is ever achieved without risk. Going into coalition was the biggest risk we've taken in a long time. It's far from clear that electorally it'll pay off for us, we're likely to feel the consequences of it for decades to come and yet most of our activists are still glad we did it. Let's take the chance and do the right thing and start being honest with people.