A struggling newspaper or magazine will sometimes cling to life by becoming an internet-based publication. In a similar fashion, the Liberal Democrats have become a House of Lords based political party – or very nearly.
According to Rajeev Syal and Frances Perraudin in the Guardian, “the 101 Lib Dem lords currently make up 93% of the parliamentary party.” This proportion is likely to rise with the creation of new Lib Dem peers (or if by-elections further reduce the number of Lib Dem MPs).
The best known of the Lib Dem peers is Lord Ashdown, who has some interesting things to say about the future of his party. His comments are reported by Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt, also in the Guardian:
“Ashdown suggests the Lib Dems, Labour and the Greens, along with others interested in reform, should set up a convention to discuss a joint progressive agenda. He stressed Labour and the Lib Dems had to maintain their independence, and he was not in favour of electoral pacts on seats, or any kind of formal organisational cooperation.”
Instead, Ashdown wants to create a “framework before the European referendum where the progressive forces come together.”
He’s been down this road before – with New Labour in the run-up to the 1997 general election. After Tony Blair’s landslide victory there was a formal effort to reach a Lib-Lab understanding on constitutional reform, but after much to-ing and fro-ing it fizzled out.
Could this time be different? Ashdown certainly thinks so – and makes an interesting case:
“I think that there is now a real case for the rassemblement des forces progressif, as the French president François Mitterrand would have called it, except, and this is the difference, that last time this was attempted it was possible because of the power of Labour and above all the power of Tony Blair. Blair was the polarity around whom you had to gather to make that work. But the election has shown that we now live in a much more pluralist political climate and Labour no longer enjoys the same position on the left.”
On the other hand, one might question the relevance of such a project – both in general, given the intellectual exhaustion of the centre-left, and in particular regard to the Lib Dems, who have just spent five years as part of a centre-right coalition.
I’m not suggesting that the Lib Dems shouldn’t seek to re-position themselves, but they need to do so in a way that is both authentic and forward-looking. The reference to Mitterrand and his rassemblement des forces progressif, conjures up the power politics and tricksy manoeuvring of which the old rogue was such a master.
Experience should have taught the Lib Dems that they prosper as a party of protest not a party of power. Of course, Britain now has a number of protest parties, but in an age of anti-politics there’s plenty of room.
Furthermore, unlike UKIP, the Greens and the SNP, the Lib Dems have it in them to become the party of constructive anti-politics. By this I mean a party that says what the big parties can’t or won’t say, but does so sensibly, proposing serious alternatives to the status quo. Anti-politics – that is, politics that challenges the establishment – doesn’t have to be populist. It can be intellectual rather than emotional; optimistic not pessimistic.
Liberalism isn’t the only ideological basis for such a party; personally, I’d much rather see the ‘post-liberalism’ of Blue Labour, the Red Tories and the Good Right given a go. However, the Lib Dems are a liberal party and this is a liberal country – albeit one heartily sick of politics-as-usual.
For all of these reasons, I believe that the Liberal Democrats do have a valuable role to play, but to fulfil it they must put principle before power. Indeed, as true liberals and democrats, they could make a powerful point by quitting the unelected House of Lords.