Joseph Lee is a property professional. He stood as a Conservative candidate in this year’s local elections in the London Borough of Croydon.
Vince Cable’s attempt to lure pro-European Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats at their annual conference this week misses one crucial point: his party is never one that a true Conservative could feel comfortable in. As a former LibDem member, I should know.
Talk of a ‘new third party’ in British politics is hardly a recent addition to political debate. But ever since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the result of the EU referendum and Tony Blair’s uninvited return into British politics, speculation about it has reached fever pitch.
Inevitably, the LibDems – no doubt fearing new levels of irrelevance in such an eventuality – were always going to try and reclaim the initiative. And this is exactly what they tried to do athis week in the form of an invitation to pro-European Tories to jump ship and join them.
I can’t imagine that many Conservatives will be tempted by Cable’s curious offer. But the chance that some could be has compelled me to put pen to paper. Whatever similarities there are between the two parties (who of course did govern successfully together for five years), it would be a grave mistake to see even the right-wing of the party as a version of pro-European conservatism. Again, I should know – because, once upon a time, I was a Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate during ‘Clegg mania’ in 2010.
Here are just three things anyone tempted to jump ship needs to know:
- Fiscally conservative liberals are not Conservatives. It is true that the cCalition successfully hung together around shared concern for the national finances and – to a lesser extent – ambitions for public service reforms. But here end the similarities. Orange bookers may talk a similar talk around markets and enterprise, but underpinning this is either a motivation exponentially to fund an ever-growing state or slightly obscure ideologies of freedom for the sake of freedom. What we would regard as the wider tenants of conservatism – aspiration, families and personal responsibility – rarely get a mention.
- You won’t find many people like David Laws at local LibDem committee meetings. Many Conservatives admire thinkers like Laws – who brought real original thought into education reform. But you won’t find many like him at the average LibDem meeting. Rarely, at these gatherings, are you likely to have a detailed conversation about ambitious public service reform. You are far more likely to end up in a discussion around supporting a local teachers’ strike. Most LibDem members represent different factions of the left. Can you really see yourself at home in their company?
- In their DNA, the Lib Dems will always be a protest party. One of the things that I love about attending any meeting in which grassroots Conservatives are gathered is the healthy sense of pragmatism that runs through any conversation. Now, I’m not saying that we don’t all like a good old moan from time to time. But ultimately, despite the different wings of the party represented at almost any meeting, there is always a sense that the issues of the day are tricky; that there is not always one clearly identifiable solution, and that many considerations have to be weighed carefully by ministers and policy-makers. This reflects the fact that we see ourselves as a party of power, and that most Conservative party members have their own experiences of occupying positions of leadership, having to make tough decisions along the way.
This sentiment is almost entirely absent from LibDem conversations. Instead, a whole host of easy, often utopian answers are offered up, with little detail about how they could work in practise. With such certainty are they offered that the only valid reason for them not being implemented apparently is malign intent on the part of – often Conservative – decision makers. It’s not hard to determine the reason for this – the LibDems quite simply have little experience of stand-alone power. It’s easy to see why the coalition Government was so unpopular with the grass roots of the junior partner.
None of this is to say that there are not countless good and well-intentioned people in the party. But they are not ones that any Conservative would want to do business with on anything like a regular basis.
How then should we respond to Cable’s offer? Simply ignore it? I’d like to argue that we can do one better than that. We should turn it on its head, and reach out to the people who may have joined the Lib Dems – perhaps even over Brexit – but are already starting to sense that something doesn’t stack up.
In pockets of the country, particularly parts of South West London such as Sutton and Kingston, the Lib Dems have consistently convinced people that they are a slightly safer version of the Conservatives. What we need more than anything is for more people like me – who have not just voted for them but actually spent time in their ranks – to join the fight in deconstructing this narrative and ensuring that our party becomes the natural home for people who naturally but cautiously gravitate to our instincts.