The historical success of social and economic liberalism in Britain at least partially explains the languishing of the party which bore its name. The new Liberal Democrat leader must understand this paradox if he is to have any hope of bringing the party back from political wilderness
Back when a beleaguered Nick Clegg was still at the forefront of British politics, the then Liberal Democrat leader sought to assert the historical triumph of his party’s ideology. Contradicting a common presentation of 20th-century history, in which it is said the social debate was won by the political left and the economic debate by the political right, Clegg intimated to the press that he instead saw two victories for liberalism.
Prima facie this ought to have been something to hearten his party. But in fact the triumph of liberalism has been so dramatic that parties of all persuasions have come to reflect its values; much to the detriment of the Liberal Democrats.
When considering socio-political trends it is often difficult to disentangle lines of causation. Thus, it is unclear whether the mainstream political parties have come to reflect a growingly liberal electorate, or instead have accepted liberal values and then shaped a populace in their own image. One suspects both effects might have worked in tandem.
Whatever its causes, a notable narrowing of the political spectrum occurred in the 20th century, and has shown little sign of being meaningfully reversed. This trend encompassed the cultural progress of the 60s and was highlighted by the neo-liberalism of Margaret Thatcher. It also included the end of the Cold War, before two more modern developments.
The first was Tony Blair's embrace of the economic component of liberalism. Under the arch advocate of the ‘Third Way’, no longer was the Labour Party concerned with the overthrow of capitalism. Instead, it was a party seeking to mitigate the most damaging effects of the free market whilst harnessing its financial power to fund socially equalising public services.
Similarly, the current PM David Cameron, a man dubbed early in his career as “the heir to Blair”, took a leaf out of his predecessor’s playbook on route to returning the Conservatives to power. The Tories, so long considered the ‘nasty party’ of British politics were cajoled firmly towards the centre ground, eschewing some long-held views about society. The most obvious example of this during Cameron’s premiership was the passage of Same-Sex Marriage Act in 2013.
As its ideology became universally popular, the Liberal Democrat strategy during what was dubbed ‘The Orange Book’ era sought to stress the limited spheres of liberalism embraced by each of the party’s opponents. Through this, the Lib Dems sought to foster a unique liberal brand, proposing that only they could be reliably trusted to defend the ideology in all spheres of public life. As their recently departed leader said at the 2011 party conference:
“Our opponents try to divide us with their outdated labels of left and right. But we are not on the left and we are not on the right. We have our own label: Liberal. We are liberals and we own the freehold to the centre ground of British politics. Our politics is the politics of the radical centre.”
Regardless of Clegg’s sentiments however, the Lib Dems found their political patch to be rather overcrowded. They tried to assert themselves, but ultimately failed in their mission; one admittedly made more difficult by their presence in Britain’s first coalition government since the end of the Second World War. With liberal orthodoxy present to the left and right, the Lib Dems were unable to appease contrasting sections of support, and haemorrhaged votes in each direction.
The paradox of liberalism also sheds light on the current strategy of the party’s new leader. Tim Farron has openly courted disaffected Labour MPs and supporters who are sceptical of the party’s turn leftwards under new leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Farron’s rhetoric is not dissimilar to Clegg's. The party’s emerging commitment to social justice and economic credibility much mirrors the election tagline of ‘a stronger economy and fairer society’; insinuating that, if installed into a coalition, the Lib Dems would be the Tories’ (social) heart and Labour’s (economic) head.
Yet, the increasingly influential Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is evidently keen to seize the centre ground for the Tories, with policies considered socially just. Most eye-catching amongst Osborne’s latest budget was a commitment to a higher minimum wage of £9 an hour by 2020, branded the new national living wage.
If Clegg was right and the attitudes of the British public do indeed reflect two decisive victories for liberalism, Osborne-ism seems to recognise this, but Corbynomics is a stark departure from liberal economic orthodoxy, which will perhaps offer Farron’s Lib Dems an escape from the paradox.
However, it would be simplistic to assume that a drift to a more egalitarian form of liberalism will translate into an immediate and lasting comeback for the Liberal Democrats.
Firstly, as pithily put to their leader by Andrew Marr, the party now has a dismally small profile, with only 8 MPs in the House of Commons. The influence and reach of the Lib Dems is much reduced, as illustrated by the lack of a question for their new leader at the first PMQs of this Parliamentary session.
Moreover, though the political weather might have produced an escape route for the party, the Lib Dems must win back the trust of its more left-leaning potential voters – a group bitterly disappointed by the party’s decision to enter a coalition with the Conservatives. Many tempted by the Lib Dem cause might thus sit tight in the hope of a more moderate Labour Party in the coming years.
And, finally, this strategy assumes that Corbyn is mistaken to reject elements of the liberal consensus. If, as some observers of the paradox have suggested, the liberal moment is in remission, Farron might recapture some of the party’s ideological territory only to find that its values no longer correspond with those of the electorate.
In the age of multi-party liberal orthodoxy, the Liberal Democrats have been left to oscillate between two poles, alienating alternate sides of their support dependent on political weather largely not of their own making. Only time will tell whether this time they can ultimately evolve beyond the paradox.