The challenge facing contemporary liberalism runs far deeper than the leader of the Liberal Democrats.
The challenge facing contemporary liberalism runs far deeper than the leader of the Liberal Democrats
This week the Liberal Democrats took the worst battering in my adult life, affecting even my own Parliamentary campaign in Hampstead and Kilburn. It is no secret that these blows to the head have left my party slightly dazed. Panic has even led to some voices calling for an outright cull.
But this will not fix the problem. The challenge facing contemporary liberalism runs far deeper than the question of our leader.
As borders open up, the liberalisation of markets has increased equality between nations, while increasing inequality within nations. The losers in this trade off are those who find themselves competing, not just with a national workforce, but with better trained competitors from abroad too.
The world has left Britain’s working class behind. Feeling betrayed, such people are supporting fringe and xenophobic alternatives en masse. This is a pattern that is repeating itself across Europe, and broadly across the world.
It is usually the case that those who are most passionately against the status quo are the most active at proselytising, and so it is that the political extremes have best exploited this mood for exclusionary politics. Liberals and all we stand for are – not entirely unjustifiably – held to blame.
It would be naive to think that a change in leadership, less than one year away from a general election, could influence such geopolitical tectonic plate shifts. Any effective revival of Liberalism must view 2015 as a stepping stone to a longer resurgence and building up of liberal ideology. The only realistic option will be to redefine Liberalism for the public.
We have little chance of revival if Liberalism appears to favour the undesirable status quo. No one is happy with the status quo. Not even us. Labour is responding to these same global pressures by shifting to the Left, and the Tories will shift further right to stave off UKIP. This leaves an open, liberal ground for us to fight, and be associated with regardless of short term losses.
A survey reported in the Economist found that the overwhelming majority of young voters are socially and economically liberal. The challenge is translating these sentiments to votes. Repeating our achievements in government is insufficient. Yes we will ensure Labour do not run wild with our finances, and that the Tories do not run rampant with our freedoms. But we must also stand on our own unique values.
We must define a liberal brand.
Campaign unapologetically on issues that, though they may not attract older conservative voters who have already consigned us to history, would resonate with newer, younger voters who desperately want a stake in our society.
At 38 per cent, Britain has the highest gap in any democracy between the elderly who do vote, and younger people who do not. If our youth feel unheard then we must robustly defend free speech as the core pillar of liberalism. If our young feel disenfranchised, then fight for constitutional reform – specifically an elected second chamber, the disestablishment of the Church of England and electoral reform so that the young feel that their voice counts once more.
Let us also liberalise our country’s archaic approach to drugs, starting with the decriminalisation of cannabis. Drug addiction is now widely accepted as a health issue, yet we continue to criminalise young addicts instead of helping them.
Today, we can transfer thousands of pounds over the internet, order our weeks shopping online, meet the love of our life through Facebook and start revolutions via Twitter, yet we cannot vote online. Let us champion the introduction of e-voting nationally. Imagine the allure of campaigning to allow people to vote on their smartphones. Older voters balk at what younger voters instinctively understand: this is the future.
Radical liberalism would never be happy with things as they are. One of the biggest mistakes of the EU debates between Clegg and Farage is how our stance painted us as a party of the status quo, and UKIP as the party of change. We must accept a referendum on the EU, and campaign on a ‘Yes to a Reformed EU’ ticket, not merely a ‘Yes’ ticket.
On immigration, liberalism must not remain mute on the question of integration and citizenship. Liberalism will lose all meaning if, as has come to be suspected, it means nothing more than tolerance of illiberalism among certain minority communities, and a polarisation among neighbourhoods along divisive identity politics.
This means empowering liberal reform voices that are taboo within their own contexts, so that individual autonomy is given preference over group-think. We must fight to create a progressive social glue, not be content with self-segregation that can retreat into lazy, static ethnic or religious blocs.
It also means actively challenging the xenophobic arguments of UKIP where we find them, passionately arguing for a liberal, centre ground in a reformed, integrated, less bureaucratic, economically liberalised Europe.
Adopting, and vehemently campaigning on such a strong liberal platform would excite and reengage our disaffected young. It would also undercut the structural advantage of the other parties, defining us as the party of change. To be radical, and meaningful again, Liberalism must actively seek to liberalise.
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