Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Stuck in the Middle? On Being a Liberal

I'm sure every Lib Dem has heard it - the accusation that we just sit on the fence, that we don't have opinions of our own. I'm sure, too, that they've heard about how we pander to the left of right depending on who we're challenging - or depending on the political persuasion of the source of the accusation, of course!

Such is the way of British politics, ingrained in the old notions of left and right; of Socialism against Capitalism, of Public and State versus Private Enterprise, of Collective Redistribution versus Individual Accumulation.

Even as the differences between the two main parties have become less and less distinct over the years, so they play on their old values and vices in their portrayals of each other. And of course, there are still many differences of character and approach between the two parties - even if the end results are often similar.

As these differences are emphasised and caricatured, as a centre party we are vilified and taunted for being neither one thing nor another - or for being a pale imitation of either Labour or Conservatives or both. Charges we have often found it difficult to refute - charges which have sometimes been accepted for our own political purposes.

Part of this, of course, is down to the media's (almost) wholesale buy-in to the old two-party system of the 1900's. Part too, is (or has been) a problem with limited airtime to communicate our defining principles.

So here we are, clowns to the right of us, jokers to the left. Stuck between the Idealists on the Labour benches and the Ideologues on the Tory benches. Stuck in the middle with - well, with what? What do we offer, if not what the media would have the public believe?

I doubt that many Liberal Democrats would have much of a problem in defining what Liberalism meant to them - and I believe that those things identified as being key would be shared by those across the party. While there may be a contrast in approach between the Economically Liberal and Social Democratic "wings" of the party, the aim of a Liberal Society is what unites us.

But what of this Liberal Society and how does it differ from what the other parties offer? What is at the heart of Liberalism - how can we define our place in "centre ground" of British Politics?

Actually - that's the wrong question. We may be stuck in the middle in terms of the traditional view of left and right - but we aren't (or shouldn't) in terms of where we differ from the approaches of Thatcher-Blair-Cameron. The Liberal ground is not natural Labour or Conservative territory but where is it?

Well, a good place to start is with some definitions of Liberal. Here are a few, first, from Wikipedia:
Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis)[1] is a political ideology or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality.[2] Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally liberals support ideas such as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights and the free exercise of religion.

Difficult to disagree with that, you'd have thought, but Liberal Democrats have long sought constitutional reform, including a written constitution. Liberal Democrats have stood up for Human Rights and defended the Human Rights Act from the Tory Axe. Liberal Democrats are at the forefront of efforts to broaden the definition and application of liberty and equality whether it be in axing ID cards, moving ahead with equal Civil Marriage or ending the detention of the children of asylum seekers.

Next up, a definition from Dictionary.com:

lib·er·al

[lib-er-uhl, lib-ruhl] Show IPA
adjective
1.
favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.
2.
( often initial capital letter ) noting or pertaining to a political party advocating measures of progressive political reform.
3.
of, pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism.
4.
favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, especially as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.
5.
favoring or permitting freedom of action, especially with respect to matters of personal belief or expression: a liberal policy toward dissident artists and writers.
All of the above would no doubt form part of the definitions of the Liberalism of most, if not all Liberal Democrats - but it is the areas of 4 and 5 that we can make a difference in Government and mark out ground away from the Authoritarian tendencies of Labour and Tory alike.

A final definition, this time Dictionary.com's definition of Liberalism:

lib·er·al·ism

[lib-er-uh-liz-uhm, lib-ruh-] Show IPA
noun
1.
the quality or state of being liberal, as in behavior or attitude.
2.
a political or social philosophy advocating the freedom of the individual, parliamentary systems of government, nonviolent modification of political, social, or economic institutions to assure unrestricted development in all spheres of human endeavor, and governmental guarantees of individual rights and civil liberties.
3.
( sometimes initial capital letter ) the principles and practices of a liberal party in politics.
4.
a movement in modern Protestantism that emphasizes freedom from tradition and authority, the adjustment of religious beliefs to scientific conceptions, and the development of spiritual capacities.
Liberalism, to me, is pragmatic, socially conscious, economically literate, expansive in ambition, realistic in implementation. It is about being open-minded and adaptable, accepting of the evidence of actions and willing to change as circumstances dictate. It is about a philosophy not a dogma, a way of thinking through issues and proposing solutions not applying old remedies to new problems.

We need to, collectively, communicate these values as well as policies. Explain why we believe in certain courses of action, not just that we believe in them. At the next election the two main parties will again turn to the tit-for-tat, yah-boo politics of left v. right and, once again, seek to squeeze us out of the debate. We need to ensure we take unashamed ownership of the Liberal ground.

I've said before that I don't believe the next election is a foregone conclusion as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned but neither will it be easy. If we are reduced in numbers (and don't hold the balance of power in the new Parliament, whichever way that has fallen), then it could present the opportunity to (re)build with a much greater emphasis on the Liberal values that underpin our party and it's policies.

There is a Liberal constituency in the country which is ignored by the press and poorly catered to by conventional politics. There is a Liberal constituency which may not even self-define as such but which shares our values. There is a Liberal constituency - we need to connect with it, engage with it and empower it - and we need to start sooner rather than later.

Andrew

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