Guest post: Lib Dems must rediscover our radical roots

Here’s a guest post from Paul Rainger on where next for the Liberal Democrats.

Paul RaingerLike me, you may be pondering where progressive politics in the UK goes from here. I’m optimistic that there is an exciting agenda radical out there waiting for a champion, if we are brave enough to step beyond politics as usual.

Recently I listened to Ed Davey on the radio talking about climate change. It was inspiring stuff. It reminded me why I joined the Liberal Democrats. It was Ed freed from the shackles of coalition, which of course was exactly the cause of the current problem.

There’s no point raking over those problems. But for me, the core mistake was simply not insisting on proportional representation as our price for coalition. We all knew from our European sister parties what happens to junior coalition partners without PR, and it was criminal to ignore it. We campaigned 100 years for the opportunity to introduce fair votes; let’s hope we never make the same mistake again, nor have to wait another 100 years for the next opportunity.

Like fighting for fair votes, I have always felt the Lib Dems are at our best when championing our radical roots and challenging the establishment or political status quo. David Boyle has hit the nail on the head, identifying that we have an urgent intellectual problem. We need the big ideas to stop campaigning on empty.

Many of us are rooted in community politics and environmental campaigning. Earlier this year I went to a reunion of 1980’s Young Liberals. Around the room many, like myself, were still in the Lib Dems of course, but others had joined the Greens, SNP and Plaid, and more had simply abandoned party politics. Which isn’t to say they had left politics, but like so many others in the large section of population who don’t vote, they were involved with issues and charities instead. They were turned off by the last decades of sterile ‘you’re all the same’ party politics only offering a Blarite ‘better management’ approach, after the old political visions of ‘this is the kind of society we want to create’ were discredited by the Thatcher/Foot era.

And yet, those themes of community and environmental action still united us. And neither have they gone away. As growing Lib Dem electoral success meant we became increasingly seen as just a third shade of grey of the political establishment, these themes carried on evolving without us.

I believe the kind of community activists who would have been delivering Focus leaflets and petitioning door to door demanding local action in the 1980s can today be found guerrilla gardening or in their local Transition group, etc. As disillusionment with the political process grew, these activists turned their backs on waiting for the political establishment to respond in favour of today’s mantra of ‘the power of doing stuff’. No more petitioning the council to act, just go out and do it yourself anyway and ask permission later if necessary. In Bristol this has even extended to DIY road signs and traffic calming in some areas. And of course the rise of the internet and crowdfunding has further extended the ability of people to raise funds for the more ambitious end of DIY community projects.

There is a whole agenda here that modern Lib Dem community politics could champion and implement policy frameworks for, to encourage and support these initiatives, particularly at council level, so that authorities became seen as enablers rather than blockers of action.

I also believe it is no coincidence that environmental concerns drive both many of these new action orientated community activists, and many of those who see our politicians as offering no answers and not worth voting for.

The challenge of climate change is almost perfectly made to show up the lack of our political ability to deal with it, and so switch people off the political process as a result. No party has really yet framed their policy response in the bold, stark and urgent terms needed. It’s not just about de-carbonising the economy, it’s also about the need to build a resilient country. From food security to energy security, we need a party to champion an emergency war-time scale of urgent response that prepares the UK.

And that includes being the party that challenges the mantra of economic growth too. We all know exponential economic growth on a finite planet is impossible, and yet we accept a broken 2,000 year old economic system based exactly on that. Perhaps we should ban the teaching of economics at university until they come up with some new theories based on reality! After all we wouldn’t let a physicist work in a nuclear plant with just Newtonian physics, or a surgeon operate on your heart with just leeches and forceps. But more seriously, the Lib Dems do a lot worse than effectively becoming the political arm of the New Economic Foundation. We could start by making the former editor of Lib Deb News, David Boyle, our Shadow Chancellor and putting policies in place to fully switch tax from income to pollution and to support the complimentary new economics of local currencies and timebanks etc.

Championing that new vision of society, the community activism of doing stuff, an emergency response to tackle climate change and develop a resilient country, and not just challenging out of date economic growth but championing positive policies for the new economic reality. Now that would be a radical start, and one in which we could find and make common cause with those in other parties as well as those currently disillusioned with the vested interests of business as usual.

Paul Rainger is a former Director of Campaigns for the Liberal Democrats.

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