On Sunday 30th June, my membership of the Liberal Democrats was due for renewal. After 25 years in the party, I have decided not to renew. That decision has been taken more in sorrow than in anger, though I have been pretty angry at various points in the past few years. But over the last year, I have gradually come to the view that I can no longer support the party. By that I mean I can’t even vote for it in elections, and if somebody can’t even do that, how can they remain a member of a party?
Before I offer my reasons, I should just explain that through a peculiarity of the system of party membership, my membership is ‘lapsing’ which is subtly different to ‘resigning’. Anybody who wants the details can read the endnote,[i] but put simply, it means that I have paid a subscription for a year, but that that has now run out and I am not rejoining. But why lapse, and why not resign some time ago? After all, there have been plenty of issues over the past three years over which, on principle, I could have chosen to resign. My wife resigned when the party agreed to scrap the Sustainable Development Commission. My mother did so over tuition fees. Plenty of people who have given a life of commitment to the party (and/or its predecessors) have gone on other issues, or just out of outrage against the coalition in general.
It’s the economy
Had I resigned over particular issues, it would have been over the economic/fiscal policy and public spending. My history with the current leadership over these policies is quite long. It began in 2008 when I was one of those who opposed the leadership at party conference over a small part of the Make it Happen policy review. I have written at length in both the New Statesman and for Compass about what happened in that debate. Put simply, the debate was over whether or not, if savings could be found in public spending (and nobody doubted that they could be), then the money should be used for tax cuts (as the leadership wanted) or to fund alternative spending priorities (as the party had long argued). It was a fairly small issue, but for people like then MPs Paul Holmes and Evan Harris who proposed a challenge to the leadership, it was a crucial one about the direction of the party. Looking back, I see it as a dog-whistle debate on how to position the party in debates on the role of government. In the New Statesman and Compass pieces I argued that this could be seen as representing progress for a certain type of small-state centre-right liberalism, whose supporters have a simple (if problematic) media label of ‘Orange Bookers’, after the Orange Book of 2004.
We lost the debate, but out of that came the Social Liberal Forum (SLF) which initially positioned itself as a group which would try to take back the party from a leadership which was unrepresentative of the broad membership (SLF has acted more as a critical friend of the coalition since 2010, having supported its formation, although there are signs of change.). I was, in its early days, the chair of the SLF Executive, but gave that up due to being elected a Vice-Chair of the party’s Federal Policy Committee (FPC), which was both time-consuming and possibly a conflict of interest.
Jump forward to 2010 and the SLF had been successful at getting people elected to key party committees, and in having an impact on policy. In particular, behind the scenes we had decisively defeated a leadership attempt to drop our policy on scrapping tuition fees. So the pledge to scrap fees went into the manifesto, and we thought we had helped the leadership speak for it by not going public about how they had not supported it. I suppose we should have been fully aware that it would be dropped by leaders who did not support it as soon as they got a chance in coalition negotiations, but hindsight is easy and we trusted them.
One issue not at stake in internal negotiations on the manifesto was economic policy. I was part of the FPC sub-group which drafted the document and there was never any debate about an alternative course. Indeed, my most vivid memory of discussions with people like Vince Cable and Danny Alexander is that they thought it helpful to be saying similar things to Labour on the scale and timing of cuts (even if we were clearer than Labour on what the cuts could be). That meant we were critical of the Conservatives on their economic plans saying that they were too harsh, would damage the UK economy, and would hinder not help recovery.
Standing as a parliamentary candidate in 2010 for the second time in Hemel Hempstead (moving from a poor third to second place) the economy was the issue which came up most consistently during the campaign. Having been involved closely in drafting the manifesto, I had every confidence that the leadership meant what it said about the economy and that we would have no truck with Conservative plans. How different things were to turn out as Liberal Democrat ministers, supported by the party, did not simply do along with Conservative plans, but adopted a marginally harsher programme. How many candidates feel, I wonder, that they misled the electorate on this crucial issue?
A centre-left party being led from the centre-right
What now seems to be the case is that the natural tendency in the party leadership to opt for small-state centre-right policies was able to seek its fullest expression in the deal with the Conservatives, with contempt for what the party at said at the election, and based on some tenuous fears about the UK becoming Greece. But, the party endorsed this approach, wholeheartedly in fact, with massive majorities for the leadership in relevant committees and a special conference. That’s party democracy, but what does a party member do if they are unhappy about this? Well, leaving is one option and many have done, thousands in fact. However, I was surprised at my own sense of tribalism about the party. I felt, as I know others did, that I had joined the party long before people Nick Clegg and David Laws did (that’s not to do with age – they are both a little older than me), and that I was not prepared to leave it to be dominated by a type of liberalism which I felt to be a minority view within the party (though clearly one that had its place within a broad liberal party).
So, I spoke out publicly, mainly through newspaper articles, many of which were on the Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ pages. One paragraph in a piece in late June 2010 set out what was to become my line in later writing and in media interviews:
The Liberal Democrat leadership believed in “savage cuts” long before they entered government. Instead of arguing the case for a progressive enabling state, the coalition rests on a shared belief that the state is often the problem. Most of the public will not engage in arguments about the size of the state, but public sector workers (who did not cause the current crisis) will feel its effects. It now falls to Liberal Democrat leaders to persuade the public of the necessity of cuts for which they have no electoral mandate and VAT increases they opposed. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrats may soon realise that a centre-left party is being led from the centre-right.
I got a lot of criticism for expressing those views, but I do believe that party members have a right to speak out when they disagree with their party on fundamental issues. I then went on to argue that we should think about dialogue with those outside the Liberal Democrats with whom we shared views. In particular, that meant engaging with Labour in a spirit of dialogue with regard to its policy review. Out of that came a group called Liberal Left, which seeks to make it clear that the Liberal Democrats are a left-of-centre party and should work for a coalition of that nature.
How much difference have we made? Those of us who took part in dialogue with Labour incurred the wrath of right-wing members of the party who seem to think that we should only talk to Conservatives, because only that relationship has been sanctioned by a vote at a party conference. That is a curiously collectivist (one might even say Labourist) attitude which came largely from right-wing bloggers who many of us think just need to get out a bit more. So we ignored them, and were consoled by the fact that although many had left the party before Liberal Left was formed, others told us that because we had formed and because we were saying what we were saying, they would stay within the Liberal Democrats and join the battle. Liberal Left has done valuable work in that area and will continue to do so. For many party members, Linda Jack’s regular comments as chair of Liberal Left are the only thing which persuades them that the party is still a viable centre-left force.
The party compromised
Among far too many members though, I see an attitude which I struggle to understand and which ultimately makes me feel unable to support the party. Compromise in politics is important. I want to see coalitions in which both sides make compromises. That way, a broad range of views can be represented, there can be stable government, and we can learn from opponents. But what I cannot accept is that so long as one achieves something in government, a few small things, anything, then any compromise is acceptable when it comes to the big issues. That way lies Vichy France. Instead of achieving compromise, one becomes compromised.
What I see far too often is party members being fobbed off by the Conservatives. In some cases, that is just because some Conservatives are quite polite. In the early days of the coalition, I would hear party members saying that they came back from a conference attended by Michael Gove and that although he hadn’t agreed with what they had said, he had listened politely. Yes, of course he did. That’s what many Conservatives do. But then he went away and used Liberal Democrat MPs’ votes to launch an assault on many of the values which party members have long held dear. Just the same has applied to policy on the NHS where Liberal Democrats have been satisfied by minor compromises.
Then we have the ‘pupil premium’ heralded as a major Liberal Democrat gain in government. That policy has its origins in a pamphlet I co-wrote with Nick Clegg in 2002. But what we proposed, and what the party later developed and adopted, was meant to be money for disadvantaged children on top of existing budgets, not a replacement of funding which was being cut from budgets elsewhere. So yes, it has made a difference, but just in the way that whitewash does, and at what price and what has been given away in return? The price has been to surrender everything which the party told voters it would do on the central issue of the economy.
That willingness to be fobbed off with being told that they are making a difference, and that they are now playing a part in ‘grown-up’ politics means that the membership is likely to allow the leadership to get away with even more in future. Nick Clegg’s recent announcement that the next party manifesto would include more rigid prioritisation of policies is in danger of being taken as some kind of admission that previous manifestos were in some way not serious and that the way in which policy is made needs to change. That is nonsense. Every recent manifesto has been properly costed, and has stood up to intense scrutiny in the media for being so. The entire process involves facing up to what might be possible rather than simply desirable. Blood on the floor has been the result of every internal manifesto discussion in my experience of the manifesto-writing (which covers in different ways 2001, 2005 and 2010). All the policies included in the 2010 document of which Nick Clegg is now so critical were practical and possible – given the political desire to even try to implement them.
What did fail last time was communication. Nick Clegg disappointed on three grounds here. First, he gave the strong impression that he supported a manifesto policy (scrapping tuition fees) which he was always likely to drop in a coalition negotiation, certainly one with the Conservatives, even though it played a major part in the party’s electoral messages. Second, he and the party compounded that by signing a pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees in the next Parliament. Remember, it was that pledge, not the manifesto policy, which gained the party so much student support, and then it was acting against such a very specific pledge to the electorate which caused so much anger. Third, all this was made worse by the holier-than-thou ‘broken promises’ party election broadcast which tried to position the party as somehow the only people who would not break promises. Far from being policy-makers who did not face up to ‘grown-up’ politics, it was the leadership and the communications experts who did not seem able to think through the possible implications of such a broadcast. Did they really hold the party and its chances in such disregard at that point that they thought it had no chance of being involved in a coalition?
It’s possible that they did. For many years now I have also felt anger about an element of the elite of the party who treat much of the rank-and-file with contempt. Simon Titley, of Liberator magazine, recently articulated the problem eloquently in a blog at the end of June 2013. I first saw this problem during the latter stages of the Ashdown leadership, in the mid-1990s, and I know that many saw it well before that, so it is not new. But it has perhaps risen to new heights under the current leadership. As Titley writes:
Clegg … can no longer disguise his contempt for his own party. The problem is more acute with Clegg than his predecessors because he’s never assimilated. He joined the party only in 1997, became an MEP in 1999, an MP in 2005 and leader in 2007 – little wonder he’s never really understood the party’s culture. This problem is evident not only in the repeated slurs against activists but also the crass insensitivity on issues such as secret courts and immigration.
This approach has manifested itself most recently with Clegg’s attacks on those in the party who are criticising him, whom he sets up as ‘hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition’. As both Jonathan Calder and Gareth Epps have pointed out in their blogs (though I am sure that both will disagree with a lot else I have to say here), this is a curious criticism to make given that many critics of the leadership are those who have held power for many years in local councils but have now lost it because of the coalition. Indeed, many are more experienced in power than the party’s MPs. Nevertheless, it has become easier for the leadership to blame activists and the policy process for parts of the mess that the party is currently in, when in reality, those who supposedly understand the big picture of politics at a national level, who are supposedly skilled at dealing with the media, need to look at themselves.
So, communication and prioritisation certainly does need to be examined as part of the manifesto process, in order that the public does understand that there are certain policies on which the party will never compromise. However, for the leadership to try to blame their communication failings on the policy process is utterly wrong. It will result in the current leadership foisting on the party a very timid set of goals, promising small and delivering small, which are shaped more by a judgement of what other parties will allow rather than what the Liberal Democrats know to be right.
Such constant fudging will do nothing to lift the party from the electoral doldrums. It will do nothing to stop hardworking councillors losing their seats in large numbers. These are the people who built the party from nothing and were in the party when it was on 3% in the polls, long before some of the current leadership ever thought of joining. Doubtless, some of these ex-councillors will still be out delivering Focus leaflets long after ex-ministers who have lost their seats are doing the cushy boardroom or international jobs which will inevitably come their way.
Some might say that such ex-councillors are the true heart of the party, and that they should be supported. There is much in that, but one wonders why they haven’t done more to speak out on issues which directly affect local democracy, such as the centralising and dogmatic policy of council tax capping at below inflation. Meanwhile, for myself, I have become distant from the party and its councillors/ex-councillors since 2010. I told my local party in July 2010 that I would not seek re-selection as their parliamentary candidate, partly because I could not defend the coalition as they would need me to do, but also for personal reasons – it’s hard to be the parent I want to be and be out campaigning many evenings and much of the weekend all year round as required for a candidate in second place. I’ve been to the occasional conference in connection with Liberal Left, but otherwise done very little, and the sense of distance created means that I have looked at the party from outside. I have begun in my darkest moments to see it in ways which once horrified me when I met voters who said things such as ‘politicians are all the same once they get elected’.
I still believe that most politicians go into politics for the best of reasons, and that many have made a difference. But I cannot support the endless concessions on major issues, in return for trifling returns, which so many in the party seem to be able to do. Indeed, such an approach seems to have become the culture of the party. Putting such compromises into perspective, if we all went that way, and accepted that very little can be achieved because of the constraints on parties (even when in a single-party government) then the Labour government of 1997-2010 doesn’t actually look that bad compared to the current government. That should give Liberal Democrats pause for thought given that they argued that it did so much that was clearly either wrong or timid.
What’s the alternative to membership of the Liberal Democrats? Doesn’t it feel like I am giving up? No, to the second question. Bad things happen when good people do nothing. But for me, what feels like ‘doing nothing’ is staying in the party and accepting the unacceptable. There are plenty of ways to make a difference in the world without being in a political party. I already do a lot of those in my local area and more widely, though this is not the place to go into them. Meanwhile, Compass offers an obvious political home – indeed, I’ve been a member for some time already.
In terms of a wider alternative, I am clear that ultimately, only political parties can have a major sustained influence on policy. They set the budgets and legal frameworks for so much that can only be tackled by an approach which combines and coordinates many different aspects of public policy. Looking around, I shall vote either Labour or Green at the next election, and I don’t rule out joining another party at some point.
Labour under Ed Miliband has already changed significantly, though of course it still has some work to do on developing a full programme for government, based on the leader’s new direction rather than occasional instincts to take to the right on some issues. I will await the results of the policy review with interest, particularly to see how far it offers an alternative to neo-liberal economics. There is a huge groundswell of opinion against the current failed economic system, and plenty of practical alternatives on offer. As Paul Addison argued in his classic The Road to 1945 (1975), Attlee was first able to win and then to bring about major change because he seized the enthusiasm there was for ideas which had been developed over the previous two decades. Those ideas came, yes, from socialists, but also from those outside the Labour Party including Liberals and a new generation of Conservatives whom we now tend to think of under the label ‘One Nation’. Can Labour do that in 2015?
The Green Party also has an opportunity in the next few years to show that it can offer a rounded package of policies to tackle the huge problems of sustainability (or a lack of it) in current public policy. That said, there is a huge question as to whether there is any electoral space for the party in much of the country under the current electoral system.
Either way, the sad conclusion I have come to is that I have more faith in Labour and the Greens, than I do in the Liberal Democrats to put forward a package of policies which former Liberal Democrat voters can support. It is very much that – sad – to have reached the conclusions that I have about the Liberal Democrats. I do feel that if people like me who have been involved in the Liberal Democrats at many different levels for 25 years, have come to such views, as many have already done, then there are some serious problems for the party. I no longer know where the party’s real heart is and have serious doubts as to how far it could be effective in another coalition, with Labour even, let alone how far it could survive another with the Conservatives. However, I also feel a personal sense of liberation, at no longer having to feel that I need to have any sense of allegiance to the party, when I feel so utterly appalled by the way it has behaved since 2010.
I know that there are some people in the party who will be glad to see the back of any critic of the current leadership. By being willing to appear in the media (though I should say I have probably turned down more offers than I have taken up) as a Liberal Democrat ‘dissident’ criticising the leadership, I have probably allowed the media to suggest more internal dissent in the party than there has actually been. All I can say to people who haven’t liked this is: that’s the media and that’s politics – get used to the real world. But I would then wish them, and the rest of the party, a fond farewell with thanks for all the good times.
Prof. Richard Grayson was the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for his home town of Hemel Hempstead in 2002-10, fighting two general elections and moving into second place. He worked full-time for the party in 1999-2004 as its national Director of Policy. In 2008-10 he was a Vice-Chair of the party’s Federal Policy Committee. He is currently Head of History at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he has worked since 2004, specialising in Ireland and the First World War.
[i] The reason I can lapse is because of how I pay my membership. Liberal Democrat local parties are encouraged to persuade as many members as possible to pay by direct debit. That can help to ensure a steady income flow through the year, and it removes any need for the party to chase those who do not renew their membership. Non-renewal happens far more often with people who have to send a payment annually because such renewals rely on the member doing something. Quite often they don’t because they: a) forget; b) are no longer as enthused as they once were and just don’t bother; or c) disagree with the party so much that they decide not to re-commit. In all these cases, inertia encourages people not to renew, whereas with direct debits, inertia encourages people to remain because even if b) or c) above apply, they have to do something to resign. For years and years, I paid by direct debit. However, a year or so after the coalition was formed I decided to cancel my direct debit to Liberal Democrat News, which had just become a mouthpiece for the leadership. It had never been editorially independent of the party, and one would not expect it to be, but there was at least some debate on its pages prior to 2010. After that, debate steadily and the pages were filled with nauseating propaganda, often in favour of Conservative policies. So I wrote to Party HQ and cancelled my direct debit for the newspaper, but they cancelled the wrong one and closed the one for my membership. I had already paid enough for the year’s membership so my membership was still valid and it was only some months on, when I received a renewal notice through the post that I realised what had happened. I decided at that point that I would renew by cheque, joking with friends in the party that at least that way I had the option of lapsing my membership. That is how I got to being able to lapse.