The party of William Gladstone, David Llyod George, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. That’s the not the party I see anymore. It’s not even the party of Nick Clegg, but that’s a point for later. I joined the Liberal Democrats in 2010 when I was 18 years old. It was the first election I could ever vote in and I remember me and all of my school friends were glued to the television coverage of that election, thinking that we were about to witness something historic and something that would change the UK’s political landscape forever.
Thing is we did. But it wasn’t in the way thought.
The Liberal Democrats, certainly in the time I’ve been alive and aware in any capacity of UK politics, have been a sensible, reasoned voice in the loud and shouty atmosphere of Westminster, offering evidence-based policy ideas, rather than simple ideological soundbites to appease those pesky extremist liberals. They’ve always been pro-European, pro-immigration, pro-business, pro-welfare, pro-drug reform and pro-electoral reform. These are all things I support and have done since I joined the party. And these are things that still make up what the Liberal Democrats stand for today. The problem is, however, that the party is broken. And unlike the fractures and divisions within Labour and the Conservatives, I don’t think it can be fixed.
I have always argued in favour of the coalition government and Nick Clegg’s brave decision to take the party into government for the first time in its history (since the 1988 merger of the SDP and Liberal parties). I have always maintained that the coalition is one of the most successful governments we’ve had in recent history. I have always argued against those claiming that Clegg ‘went into bed’ with the Tories, simply for a whiff of power. At the end of the day, the only way you can affect change is to be the driving force behind that change and the simple fact is you can only be that change in you’re in power.
And I still argue for the simple mathematical fact that there was literally no other alternative possible that would have delivered a stable government at a time when our country so desperately needed it. So to everyone who still spouts out nonsense claiming otherwise: you are wrong.
But. And it’s a big but. I had my eyes opened during the 2017 General Election, when I stood as the Liberal Democrat candidate in Yvette Cooper’s seat of Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. We let people down. And we let them down badly. It doesn’t matter that the Lib Dems prevented the Tories from inflicting the full force of their manifesto, nor does it matter that they were the force behind the introduction of same-sex marriage, shared parental leave and the increased personal threshold for income tax. What matters is that they are seen as the enablers of Tory austerity, the putter-uppers of tuition fees, and the breaker of promises.
People no longer trust the Liberal Democrats, and they haven’t yet owned the mistakes that were made (the bedroom tax springs to mind). I don’t think the party has yet fully realised the extent of that distrust, which is further demonstrated by its obsession with Brexit.
Yes, Brexit is the single biggest issue to be facing our country since the Second World War. Yes, Brexit in any form will be damaging to our country (just look at the government’s own economic forecasts). Yes, Brexit, ideally, should be halted. The problem is, that whilst the Liberal Democrats have been relentlessly unwavering in their commitment to ‘stopping Brexit’ in the face of the overwhelming evidence suggesting that it should be stopped, I feel that they’ve failed to listen to the genuine concerns people have about immigration, about the fishing industry, about the fact that the EU Commission is unelected, which ironically appears to stand in contradiction to the party’s commitment to devolution and the decentralisation of power.
Instead, they use language and arguments that suggest those who voted to leave are somehow racists, ill-educated, illiberal, or a combination of all three. The argument that to be a liberal is inseparable from being pro-European is a nonsense that the party must let go of. A friend of mine, who is as liberal a person as I’ve ever met, was forced to leave the party because they were left feeling unwelcome, simply because they voted to leave. The Liberal Democrats are yet to answer the concerns of leave voters and address them. I’m not suggesting that they should suddenly perform the biggest political U-turn in history, but they need to explain to people the benefits of immigration and EU membership, in a way that doesn’t simply dismiss their worries and concerns as being driven simply by the right-wing press.
As a liberal party, the Liberal Democrats have a tendency to often come across as being illiberal, unwilling to accept views that differ from the party line. I expressed concerns over the introduction of all women shortlists and was branded anti-women. Concerns over diversifying the party are met with nods of the head and notes in minutes but are seldom followed up with action. Concerns over the EU are dismissed and those who express them are told that they cannot be a Liberal Democrat.
As a liberal party, the Liberal Democrats should be the broadest church and coalition of opinion in British politics, but the truth of the matter is, at the moment, they’re as tribal as Labour and the Tories. Their obsession with overturning the result of the 2016 referendum, their lack of vision for anything beyond March 29th and their apparent failure to acknowledge, own and apologise for the mistakes made during the coalition years and left the Liberal Democrats drifting. People often ask, ‘what’s the point of the Liberal Democrats?’ and I don’t think the party itself has an answer.
If I were asked on the doorstep to justify some of the decisions made during the coalition, if I were asked to justify the party’s unwavering commitment to the EU, I’d find it very hard to provide answers. And it’s for that reason I intend to resign my membership of the party.
I want to be able to question things from the past, I want to be able to discuss Brexit with leave voters without needing to resort to rehearsed lines about the EU, some of which I just don’t accept. I want to be able to look at the Liberal Democrats with pride again, like I did when Nick Clegg put country above party and went into government.
Under Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats were all about a different way of doing politics, working with those with whom you often disagree for the greater good. The sad truth is, the country and UK politics wasn’t ready for that style of doing things. I hope in time it will be, and that whichever liberal party sits in the House of Commons will be the driving force behind it.