by Michael Meadowcroft
In common with other European and North American countries, Britain is in thrall to a politically right wing mentality that is hardly being challenged to any rigorous extent by mainstream progressive forces. Day after day Conservative ministers and spokespersons - just like their Labour counterparts before them - are allowed to get away with outrageous statements that pander to populist opinion for the sake of votes.
Liberal Democrats in the country have great hopes of their colleagues in government and are keen to support them. There are, of course, many liberal initiatives in government, particularly in the area of civil rights, fiscal changes and some welfare improvements that are a direct consequence of our participation in the coalition. There are other changes, such as in immigration, policing structures and the by-passing of local government that are bleakly a consequence of an unregenerate conservatism. I am not referring to tuition fees where the policy for the next academic year is much better than the existing arrangement and only the election pledge was hugely impolitic.
The party can rightly expect its representatives in government to act to extend liberal values but its ability to do so is inevitably constrained by the weight of an illiberal ethos that increasingly prevails amongst the electorate. It is not a set of logical beliefs but rather kneejerk reactions that utter reactionary opinions and seek scapegoats and which believes in imaginary deterrents. If the party wants its Ministers to be able to enact liberal policies it has to campaign to promote liberal values and policies in the country. It must be a partnership between those persuading the electorate and the ministers persuading the government. I see little current sign of the former happening.
It hit me that the party was failing its parliamentary leadership when, during the first leaders' television debate, Nick Clegg was struggling to defend the liberal - and correct - policy of introducing, in effect, an amnesty for longstaying illegal immigrants. He was under attack from both Gordon Brown and David Cameron who sensed an issue on which Liberal Democrats were very much at odds with public opinion. Where, I wondered, was the party on the streets making the case for this sensitive and practical policy? Where were the Focus leaflets campaigning for broader liberal issues than the traditional local ward problems?
The current weakness of the party is alarming. The liberal cause is intellectually powerful and is desperately needed today. Why then is it so feebly presented? It is not only a consequence of the declining numbers of party members - though today even the Plymouth Brethren have more members than the Liberal Democrats - but rather the lack of intellectual and philosophical support from those members that do exist. There is no lack of campaigning and tactical support, though much of it is, I believe, deeply misconceived, but rather that few people in the high echelons of the party seem interested in anything else. It is symptomatic that, when I discovered that there was no publication on party values available at headquarters, and I did an update of a 2002 party paper, it had to be published in Leeds - and Cowley Street isn't interested in even having a stock of the booklet to promote and sell!
We are seeing the cumulative ill effects of the seat targeting strategy. It may well have delivered a number of extra seats at the 2001 and 2005 elections but it was at the high price of writing off vast tracts of the country where campaigning was not encouraged or even allowed. As a consequence, when, after the first leaders' debate at the last general election, the party's poll rating rose by nine points, we were unable to harvest it when, as in Leeds, only one seat out of eight was fully contested, and in the others only five wards out of twenty-nine were fought. It also means that, unlike in earlier times, the party does not encourage, or even find, younger candidates in difficult wards prepared to commit themselves to years of sacrifice to win their own area. It is embarrassing time after time to have to tell interested new contacts that there is no activity in their patch.
The political problem is more serious than ever today, but it is not a new phenomenon. In fact, I reckon that the one depressing fact that has characterised my fifty-odd years of liberal activism is probably the lack of confidence of Liberals in their own beliefs. Even more curiously, the more that Liberals were seen to be right, the more rapidly they retreated from pressing their case. Take the Iraq invasion as a vivid recent example. The Liberal Democrats had 100% of their MPs present in parliament for the key vote on 18 March 2003 and alone of the three parties every Liberal Democrat MP voted against the invasion. Even though the party had taken the definitive decision to oppose the war, it took wild horses to get Charles Kennedy to speak at the huge anti-war demonstration in Hyde Park.
It was a "brave" decision then, before, for instance, the later facts on the absence weapons of mass destruction were known, but the more the decision was proved to be right the more the party leadership and membership increasingly failed to bang the drum and to drive home the message that only the Liberal Democrats had opposed the war. Even today Iraq is very much on the political agenda, not least with two million Iraqis in exile and the Christian minority destroyed, but we are silent.
It is the same with European unity where we have abandoned the argument to the Euro sceptics and, worse, to the xenophobes. The Liberal Party was committed in its 1955 general election manifesto to Britain being part of the burgeoning European structures. It was brave then but, as the arguments for a federal Europe became clearer we have been less vocal and have hardly campaigned at all on the principles and values of European unity. We have had the longest period of peace in human history in western Europe and even though there is an acknowledged global economy and an accepted need to act in concert on climate change, it is the facile and nationalistic anti-European arguments which dominate the debate.
The same could be said on immigration, Trident replacement, penal policies, the revival of local government and on civil liberties issues on most of which the Liberal Democrats have stood alone but hardly leads the debate in the country. I'm inevitably indulging in generalisations, but it would be salutary to survey how many local parties have put leaflets out on any of these issues or who have organised public debates on them. The liberal case is going by default outside parliament and this is bound to make it more difficult to win it in parliament.
Dangers and futility
Quite apart from the importance of promoting the liberal case on each of these key issues, there is an even more urgent case for exposing the dangers and the futility of the prevailing ethos in society. At the heart of the present malaise in society is a basic selfishness that regards economic values as more important than human values. Allied to this is the associated antipathy to "society" and to concepts of community integrity. This has its roots in the encouragement of materialism that epitomised the thirteen years of Thatcherism between 1979 and 1992. Remember Sid and the advertisements for buying shares in privatised public utilities - which previously we had all owned? Remember the de-mutualisation of building societies with the bribe of a payout for members? Remember the sale of council houses which gave the new owners a 60% discount on the value of the property which could be cashed in after three brief years? Remember also John Major's inauguration of the National Lottery in 1994, with "it could be you"?
Is it any wonder that those who feel excluded from the opportunity to become better off financially become alienated from any concept of a human society that treasures the values of "love and friendship, art and music, and learning" as identified in a Liberal Party document of 1974. Years ago, whatever its faults and its naïvete on economic policy, Labour could be expected to be "sound" on social welfare and civil rights. Today this is far from the case. John Kampfner tellingly quotes Robin Cook as commenting, "Blair's dominant style is concessionary. He spots where the next attack on the left is going to come from and pre-empts it by making it himself." It is up to the Liberal Democrats to make the progressive case and they are largely shirking the challenge. There are few instinctive liberals amongst the electorate but there are many who can be persuaded if the case is well put.
Those thus alienated all too often blame others for their plight. They see "immigrants" as the cause; they blame "Europe" for oppressing them; they believe that "the government" with its austerity programme, is denying them jobs; and they argue that the government is soft on law and order, thus encouraging anti-social behaviour. None of this is true but it is dangerous nonsense and needs to be challenged. The decline of the BNP electorally does not mean that its views have also diminished. As Matthew Goodwin notes, in a recent book on the BNP, "There exists in British politics a sizeable amount of latent support for the extreme right which is far greater than is apparent at the polls. Put simply, extreme right parties have consistently failed to realise their potential."
All this brings me neatly to the recent riots. Violence, arson and looting are inexcusable and deserve careful commensurate penalties, but to liberals the reasons are clear. A feeling that there is little hope for future improvement, plus a materialistic society in which individuals are urged go and get what they can, which sees bankers and other failures generously rewarded, and which has less and less sense of the unity and the "commonwealth" of the community, is, alas, a tinder box waiting to be ignited.
How have liberals allowed this to happen? Are not we the party that understands the nature of the community? Apparently not. Almost without exception "community politics" has drifted into a populist parochial technique for winning wards. It no longer seeks to look at the community as a holistic identity with its own meeting place and, by drawing together schools, planning, social welfare, health policies, housing and the arts, and by underpinning a voluntary sector input into every activity - including job creation - creates a strong, secure and increasingly self-sufficient neighbourhood. It's a much more difficult and longer-term task than surveys on the location of potholes, but it is the foundation of real community politics.
The tyranny of "Focus," the drumming up of casework and the use of every passing gimmick are no substitute for the rigorous politics that are needed if we are to change the ethos of our society and are genuinely to support our ministers.