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The other new party of the moderate liberal centre

August 16, 2017 12:26 PM
By Joe Otten in Liberal Democrat Voice

Joe OttenHardly a day goes by on my social media feeds without some form of the following conversation:

Commentator/political has been: What we really need is a new moderate centre party in the UK, standing up for all the internationalist, tolerant liberal values that Corbyn and May have abandoned.

Liberal Democrats: Helloooooo!!!!!

Every time somebody calls for a new centre party, a puppy dies, goes the tweet.

It is always more an observation than a plan. Starting from 0% and 0 MPs and councillors is always going to be harder than starting where we are. But I don't think the commentators and has beens are being obtuse. There are reasons they are not all saying we should join the Liberal Democrats, and I'd like to reflect on those reasons and what we can do about them. Do please all submit further articles expanding this theme.

1. Momentum

People like joining sides that are winning. That's not unreasonable. A large part of what made Corbyn possible both in winning the leadership and then in not losing the General Election as badly as people expected, was the realisation that it could be happening.

We don't just sit and wait for momentum, we build the fightback, and we get the other ingredients right:

2. Strength

There is a danger of appearing nice but ineffectual. It is an obvious attack line to choose against us. During the coalition, Labour changed tack to horrible and ineffectual, which is just as bad.

It is cobblers of course. Nobody who worked with Paul (now Lord) Scriven when he ran Sheffield Council would call him nice but ineffectual. He was a fearsome challenge and highly effective for it. And the actual record of coalition government was one of strength and stability provided by Liberal Democrats, with a firm hand on government decisions; in marked contrast with the chaos that followed. This is not the perception that it suited both Labour and the Tories to create: they understand the importance of appearing strong.

We don't do ourselves any favours here when we consistently adopt and emphasise policies which send the message 'nice and soft'. Good policies, for sure, on drugs, welfare and immigration, debatable policy on Trident, all adds up to an impression that the party doesn't believe tough choices are ever necessary. Maybe many of us don't even believe tough choices are ever necessary.

And one person's tough choice is another's sell out. See any debate on security and civil liberties. There are no easy answers, but we shouldn't make every issue a signal of how virtuous we are: some should signal more important and popular qualities than virtue.

3. Policy and strategy in the round

Labour during the Thatcher years had a reputation for weakness. Tony Blair overcame it not least by taking on his party's ideologues and winning. Maybe this was partly for show, but I think the perception was fair that in leading the Labour Party, Blair shifted it, and that was a positive story about him and his strength. (Clearly it didn't last but that is not relevant to my point.)

We seem to make a virtue of being led by committees that meet in secret to which our leader is accountable, and which have the power to manipulate conference to achieve almost any result they wish. We are institutionally set up to let ideologues run riot, to prevent leadership from happening, and so to prevent an understanding of policy and strategy in the round. (Policy and strategy are even separate committees.) This is not to denigrate the people involved, they are good liberals, but the structure is built on the assumption that a committee is the democratic and the effective answer to any problem.

And we should be the last people to consider some policy a sacred cow on the basis of a bare majority or a sham debate at a party conference. Our core values as liberals are not so cheaply bought. Yes, there may be some conflict between the absolute sovereignty of conference and our ability to work constructively with others. I favour working with our allies. I even voted Remain.

When the opportunity arises for a broader coalition of the tolerant liberal centre ground, we have to be ready to take the committees to the vets and put them to sleep; to challenge our conference when it behaves like a bubble. We have the strength to do that. We might then become the new party of the liberal centre that the country can see it needs.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017, is a councillor in Sheffield and is Tuesday editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.