It's time for the Liberal Democrats to be liberal againby Peter Kellner / July 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
Congratulations on your election as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Now you must decide what kind of party you want to lead. Naturally the disaster of the general election weighs heavily on your mind; but, on the principle that one should never let a crisis go to waste, it also liberates you to think radically about the purpose of the Lib Dems in the years to come.
I suggest you start with a long view. In the past ninety years, since Labour overtook the Liberals as Britain’s main progressive party, you can point to a small number of leading lights who have made a difference. In conventional terms, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy succeeded in breaking through in the House of Commons. Away from Parliament, William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes shaped Britain’s post-1945 economic and social settlement.
As an MP, your instinct, and that of your colleagues and party activists, will be to work out how to rebuild the Lib Dems in terms of elected councillors and parliamentarians – in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Strasbourg. This won’t be easy; and, as I suspect it may take ten years or more to achieve significant gains, you could be setting yourself up for failure.
I would propose an alternative strategy. Keynes and Beveridge were intellectual giants who thought big thoughts and said big things about our economy and society. Their influence was enormous and owed nothing to conventional politics. (Few people know that Beveridge was briefly MP for Berwick-on-Tweed – because this was probably the least important position he held in an illustrious career.)
One can add the post-war era when the Liberals had a dozen MPs or fewer, but still influenced politics by adopting views on Europe, taxation and social policy that led the way in making Britain a fairer, more open and more outward-looking country. For example, David Steel’s private members bill in the late 1960s legalised abortion: a humane and long-overdue reform.
My suggestion that you strive for influence rather than more normal electoral measures of success (and, yes, of course, it would be great to have both) is made not just because…