Call me sad, but when our party debates an issue, I find it exciting. Whatever your views about the merits of the internal structures of the Liberal Democrats, the party is full of good and intelligent people and debates often bring out the best of our membership. The UBI debate at the most recent party conference was a prime example – there were strong arguments from both principle and practicality on both sides, expressed eloquently, and it made me proud to be a Liberal Democrat.
I wrote a fortnight ago about the housing crisis, and our party’s embarrassing tendency to block developments, expecting to get the same rush. And sure enough, it received a predictable slew of disagreement from local councillors whose political careers are founded on being anti-development and pro-landowner. It also received praise from younger members of the party, who are angry about this issue and resent the party’s position on it.
But while reading through the responses on social media, I was seized not by the usual feeling of excitement at a genuine debate in the party, but by a realisation which made me heavy with dread. It seems to me that the Liberal Democrats are in fact fundamentally divided into two tribes, or two parties.
One is the party I consider myself part of. I will call it the “radical” party. It is a party profoundly unhappy with the current national settlement, and which views the country as beset with structural barriers which hold people back from their potential as individuals. Members join this party because they are convinced liberals, and are willing to forgo the frail, piecemeal, steady-as-she-goes outlooks of the main two parties, whose fundamental beliefs are rooted in authoritarian conservatism and socialism. They believe in national, ideological answers to national questions, and are liberals because the answers to those questions provide substantive freedom. Their answers may well be very different ideologically – this tribe includes the reformative left of the party, and also the classical liberal right of the party. But what unites them is their outlook and their approach to the question of politics as a whole.
The other, however, is a party of people who fundamentally view the country as broadly fine. They are generally unideological, sometimes even considering party politics distasteful or undignified. They consider that there are a few individual things which need changing – they might be appalled at our country’s direction in terms of Europe, for instance, or believe in political reform – but overall, they don’t want to rock the boat too much, particularly on the economy. They believe in the liberalism of process – fair consultation, community politics – and generally focus their efforts more at the local level, believing that efficient, community-inclusive administrations, which deal with potholes and uncollected bins quickly, are the true apotheoses of liberalism. I call this party the “moderate” party.
The differences are stark. The radical party is national, interested in substance and outcomes, and restless for fundamental change. The moderate party is hyperlocal, process-focussed, happy just to make incremental changes around the edges of existing systems, and willing to adopt moderate, almost conservative approaches if that is what the community wants. It is this latter view which accepts NIMBYism in the party and which is perfectly happy to gain political power by obstructing development. Moderates consider that this is the liberal thing to do because it is what their communities want, and communities should be empowered – no matter what they decide. Radicals abhor this, however, because even if the process is consultative and communal, the outcome is unambitious, illiberal and unexciting. Radicals consider that building houses is the liberal thing to do because it provides a more liberal substantive outcome, even if vocal parts of the community disagree with the policy.
Perhaps my characterisation is unfair. I am biased, after all, being a radical. Moderates may well think that radicals are unrealistic utopians, obsessed with highfalutin ideological discussions, out of touch with their communities, and obsessed with abstraction rather than winning elections. I include this potential account of radicals out of fairness to the moderates who will no doubt read this article. Needless to say, I entirely disagree with this description.
In any event, though, the chasm between the two parties has grown since the 2020 leadership election. Neither Moran nor Davey themselves embodied either approach. But each ‘party’ projected themselves onto one candidate, such that Moran, who spoke of radicalism and outflanking Labour, became the scion of the former party, while Davey, who spoke of a softly-softly approach towards moderate Conservatives, became the scion of the latter party.
The two party theory now infects all aspects of internal discourse. As a ‘radical’ myself, I can say that adherents to the radical party approach were quietly astonished that the Brecon and Radnorshire Liberal Democrats snubbed Jane Dodds, the Welsh Leader, for the Senedd selection there. Radicals are restless for a more assertive strategy in light of what they consider to be the total lack of energy coming from the leader’s office. And radicals are appalled at the continuing efforts by local parties to block housing and other development projects. I am sure that ‘moderates’ have similar concerns in the other direction.
The point of this article is not to say that one side is right and the other side is wrong. The point is instead to say that perhaps there is something fundamental at stake here; that perhaps there are two wholly contradictory world views which only occasionally coincide on standard Lib Dem articles of faith like electoral reform and internationalism.
To use the example of housing again, radicals often simply do not understand why moderates think that the views of homeowners, desperate to protect their own land value, should be able to exclude young people from the housing market. And moderates often simply do not understand why radicals are so thoroughly unenthused by community politics, and so obsessed with national media coverage and winning national elections on national issues.
This is not simply an abstract discussion. Members are leaving. I have seen a steady stream of young members (who would identify with the ‘radical’ tribe) leaving the party in frustration over our lethargy and conservatism of ambition, uninspired by our current steady-as-she-goes approach. Difficult questions loom, to which there may or may not be answers. Is there a place for the radical outlook in the Lib Dems, considering our target seats are overwhelmingly Conservative-facing, and situated in the wealthy shires and suburbs of the South? Are the differences in outlook too great to bring together – the moderates in fact being the natural political opponents of the radicals such that one party cannot hold both?
With the Lib Dems unlikely to matter much in the prevailing climate (nobody is interested in what the third party thinks during a global pandemic), perhaps it is time we tried to reconcile these two strands of thought in the party. Otherwise, more disillusionment beckons – and the party will be forever paralysed, stuck between advocating for two competing views of the world, oscillating back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Gracchus is a new columnist for The Torch, writing under a pseudonym. They hold a minor position within the Liberal Democrats.