For months now the idea of a new “centre party” has been thrown around, and following the result of the general election, calls for such a thing are only likely to get louder. However, as nice as the idea sounds, I can’t see it ever getting off the ground for one simple reason, that in reality, a “centre party” means different things to different people.
Politics is more than just a straight line going from left to right; each part of the political spectrum contains its own nuances and strands of political thinking, and the centre is no different. A centre party in the U.K. could as easily be a party of tax and spend and I.D cards, as it could be a party of low tax and drug legalisation. For some a centre party would represent a combination of left-wing economics with a right-wing approach to social issues, for others it would represent the exact opposite.
There are even some who say they would like to see a new “centre party”, but in reality that doesn’t actually seem to be what they want at all. Often when asked “what’s wrong with the Lib Dems?”, advocates for a new party point to tuition fees, austerity and coalition government, seemingly forgetting that in both 2010 and 2015, some form of austerity and tuition fees is exactly what the centre ground represented. What these people actually seem to want is a new centre-left party, in the style of Ed Miliband, or perhaps even Jeremy Corbyn without the major flaws.
Could all these people come together to form one coherent, functioning party, that despite no infrastructure or local base sweeps to power at the next election? I think probably not. In reality too many people would be repulsed by the idea of sharing a party with George Osborne / Tony Blair / Nick Clegg, and the party would flop before it had even began.
One thing that seems certain after last night’s by-election results, Copeland in particular, is that on current trajectory, the country is heading for huge Conservative majority at the next general election.
It’s clear that, whilst Jeremy Corbyn is still leader, Labour will struggle to win a single vote from the Tories, whilst at the same time haemorrhaging votes elsewhere. This means that in many constituencies, the Conservatives only need to hold their share of the vote from 2015 in order to take them from Labour.
The only way such a large victory for the Conservatives can be stopped is, if not Labour, then another party stealing its voters. After last night, more than ever UKIP appear to be a spent force, and who can blame them when Theresa May’s hard Brexit, nationalist rhetoric gives them very little room to manouvre, however the Lib Dems on the other hand increased their vote share for a fifth by-election in a row, and it’s here that the opportunity to hault the Tory march arises.
The Lib Dems are perfectly positioned to chase relentlessly after liberal-Tory votes, and must do so successfully if decades of Conservative rule are to be avoided. This means embracing a more economically as well a socially liberal platform, as well as perhaps weakening opposition to both Trident and grammar schools. The idea may not sit comfortably with all Lib Dem members, but in reality it’s either this or resigning to years of almost unopposed Tory governments.
Many of May’s government’s actions since she took office should bring alarm to liberal-Tories, whether it be the “citizens of nowhere” speech, the determination to harm British business by needlessly ejecting the country from the Single Market, or the apparent desire to curb immigration at seemingly any cost. The Lib Dems are strong in these areas, however they must start framing their arguements from a centre-right as well as a centre-left position.
The whole time the Conservative left flank remains unscathed, the more and more their leadership will feel able to chase after the remaining UKIP vote, so therefore in order to restrain the government’s march to the right, it is imperative someone starts to make liberal Conservative voters look elsewhere. It cannot be Labour, and so it must be the Lib Dems.
It’s of no doubt that parliament getting a vote on Article 50 is a good thing, however, despite publicly welcoming this news, it now leaves Liberal Democrat MPs with a tricky decision to make.
Ever since June 23rd, the Lib Dems have been walking the tightrope between standing up for the 48% and appearing “undemocratic”, now there is (most likely) to be a vote on the beginning of the Brexit process, they must finally choose which side of the line they wish to fall on.
After much thought, I have come to the conclusion that the Lib Dems have only one choice, they must vote against the triggering of Article 50. Although their inclination as democrats may be to reluctantly vote for it, it seems more and more likely that this may be their only chance to put their anti-Brexit feelings on the record.
In many ways, I may have been felt more uneasy about this decision if it were likely to have an affect on the outcome, however, with a majority of both Conservative and Labour MPs surely likely to vote in favour, any Article 50 legislation is almost certain to pass. Regardless, those that still firmly believe the UK’s future is best served by remaining in the EU will be watching closely, and with the likes of Anna Soubry, Kenneth Clarke and Owen Smith all likely to vote against, many will wonder why the Lib Dems too could not be so bold if they choose to vote in favour. If the Lib Dems want to be the voice of the 48%, they must not only talk the talk but also walk the walk.
The only reason I can conclude it would ever be worth voting for Article 50 would be if the government were to concede to having a referendum on the terms of Brexit. However, as currently only the policy of the Lib Dems and the Greens, totalling a whole 9 parliamentary seats, the government is unlikely to be listening. Incidentally, I can’t help but feel this would have been a better policy on the Article 50 vote for Labour to adopt, as opposed to their demand for “access” to the single market* (*correct at the time of writing, it’s very hard to keep up with Labour’s policy on this / anything). With “access” being fairly meaningless (as anyone will tell you, North Korea has “access”), it’s a shame that Labour have decided that this is the best “opposition” they can come up with, although of course meaningless virtue-signalling is something of a speciality for the current Labour leadership.
Finally, although less significant nationally but none the less important for the party, it seems likely that voting in favour of Article 50 would see the thousands of new members who’ve joined the party post-referendum massively disheartened. With a crucial by-election in Richmond Park coming up, it’s vital that all party members are at best content, so as to keep the momentum gathered from Witney and council by-elections going, rather than falling into Labour-style infighting. As a party already with an unfortunate reputation for going back on past promises amongst large swathes of the electorate, now is definitely the time for the Lib Dems to stick to their guns.
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“They’re all the same” – a response heard time and time again when asking British people their views on U.K political parties. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this party conference season, “they’re all the same” is certainly no longer the case.
Whereas in the past we’ve been used to seeing the major political parties fight tooth and nail over the centre ground (by which I do not mean Theresa May’s warped definition) in order to try and win an all important parliamentary majority, we’re now in a position where the space between the two main political parties is as wide as it’s ever been, leaving the centre ground strangely uncontested.
The one party that has to refused to shun its centre ground roots is the Liberal Democrats, for whom the new political climate should be seen as a massive opportunity. For the first time in what seems like an age, it is down to the Liberal Democrats alone to represent all streams of liberal thinking; in the past, economic liberals may well have felt just as comfortable voting for David Cameron as they would have done voting for Nick Clegg, whilst social liberals (and indeed social democrats) would have felt at ease voting for Tony Blair or potentially even Ed Milliband. Now all of a sudden liberal representation within the two main parties has been all but banished, and liberal leaning voters from both sides will be looking for a new home. Tim Farron’s closing speech at this month’s party conference was a great pitch to these voters, and he’d do well to continue down this line.
And so when the next election comes the choice has never been so clear, if Democratic (potentially Revolutionary, we’ll wait and see) Socialism is your thing, the Labour Party is the one for you, if you’re more into your Christian Democracy (perhaps with a bit of Facism thrown in for good measure), then you’ve got the Conservatives on your side, and if you’re a liberal, well, the clue’s in the name, you can call the Liberal Democrats your home. British electorate, you’ve never had it so good.
In a political period where so little is certain, the one thing we can seemingly be sure of is that new Prime Minister Theresa May is desperately keen to distance herself ideologically from her predecessor David Cameron. Whilst many would argue that there is nothing that can be considered “compassionate” about a government that leaves thousands relying on food banks, if you thought the Cameron administration was bad then, in the immortal words of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
It is of no doubt that throughout his premiership David Cameron could often be accused of pandering to the right of his party, highlighted in particular by the disasterous EU Referendum, but, whilst Cameron pandered, May appears to have let them take (back) control. In the past weeks we have seen EU citizens living within the UK be treated as bargaining chips, talk of drastic cuts to the overseas aid budget, and most recently the introduction of an education policy described by Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron as causing the majority of young people to be “relegated to the second division at the age of 11“. For someone who rose to fame amongst Conservatives for urging the party to lose its “Nasty Party” image, Theresa May seems to be doing a pretty good job of making sure it sticks (although the current Labour shambles is running them close).
Despite the many glaring faults of the Cameron era, I look back at what good was achieved and wonder whether any of it would have been possible in this May-lead, post-Brexit world. Gay marriage is of course the first thing that springs to mind, followed by prison reform, year on year increases in overseas aid etc.. Even a strong economy, at the heart of Cameron’s brand of Compassionate Conservatism, seems no longer the focus of the Tories under May, as it appears increasingly likely that vital access to the EU’s single market will be dumped in favour of an even tighter grip on immigration. Following May’s first speech as Prime Minister on the steps of 10 Downing Street, there was talk in some circles of her returning the Conservatives to a less divisive, pre-Thatcher style of government, what I imagine they did not expect was for May instead to take her inspiration from the time of Enoch Powell. For all Cameron’s faults, it could at least be argued that his government’s mindset was firmly in the 21st century; an education policy of academisation may have been divisive, but at least it wasn’t straight out of the 1950s.
I ceased my support of the Conservatives earlier in the year when they refused to do more for refugees, but at least a few months ago it was on the agenda. Now it seems that our new Prime Minister has no interest in the respect / votes of the “liberal mainstream”, and would instead focus her attention on the Britain first brigade. Therefore it is with a not so heavy heart that I say R.I.P. Compassionate Conservatism (2005-2016), taken from us at least four years too soon.