Writing over in the New Statesman (a smart choice given what follows), Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable argues that there is great instability under the surface in British politics:
Looked at in one way there is stasis: the – supposed – return to two-party politics defined by tribal allegiances. A century-long ideological struggle between proponents of capitalism and socialism embedded in the Conservatives and Labour.
Seen from another angle, there is political ferment and radical uncertainty. The two traditional parties are riven by internal conflict; dissident MPs treat their party leadership with open contempt.
As he rightly highlights, this hasn’t so far resulted in success for any of the many new parties springing up. May’s local elections were a big damp squib for the new parties, but the number of such parties is a sign of the hunger for change in how British politics operates.
How can the Liberal Democrats benefit from this? Vince gives a nod in the direction of a slow and steady, seat by seat, recovery. But he shows much more interesting in something more dramatic:
The unsettling but exciting possibility that the ferment under the surface of politics might lead to an upheaval.
For that, he sets out a three-pronged approach: build an outward-looking movement, work with others and fizz with ideas.
Taking each in turn, that outward looking movement echoes the point Jim Williams and I made in our pamphlet, Reinventing the Liberal Democrats. In his piece Vince Cable draws a comparison with Momentum:
Momentum is a brilliantly successful example, whatever we might think of its politics. A better model still is the transformation of the Canadian Liberals from near-extinction to the majority party of government. Justin Trudeau was the result of a concerted effort to open up the Liberal Party to a wider support base through open primaries for the national leadership and MPs. This generated the energy to lift them from distant third to first.
I’ve written before about the lessons the Lib Dems can learn from Canada but note in particular Vince Cable’s reference to changing how the party operates. The next edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire is going to look into how such an opening up of the party to supporters might work. In particular, how there’s much more to it than the usual headline grabber of talking about who gets to vote in contests for leader or Parliamentary candidates.
Sign up for it here – and you’ll also find out about the accidental semi-secret registered supporters scheme the party has already created.
Turning to his second prong, Vince Cable writes:
A second step is to break down tribal taboos by working with other parties. That is happening over Brexit in parliament, with dissident Labour and Conservative figures joining us in the centre to defeat the government. On the ground, we have even seen limited co-operation on the ballot paper.
Following constructive support from the Greens for my parliamentary campaign to defeat the Conservatives in Twickenham, I encouraged my local party to experiment with an agreement between themselves and the Greens, based on a common set of values and policies. The shared campaigning and leaflets proved popular and helped both parties. The Lib Dems won a big majority on the council, and the Greens have their first local representation (four councillors). This approach may not work everywhere – the model is mainly relevant where we are challenging the Conservatives and depends on local initiative and national goodwill. But it is grown up politics.
I continue to be a sceptic about seat deals because the evidence is that inter-party cooperation best takes other forms. That shoudn’t rule out local variation where sensible. It should, though, mean that the debate is about much more than just that narrow perspective. There are many other ways to work with those who, whether on a single issue or more generally, share our objectives but aren’t in the same party as us.
As for new ideas:
The Lib Dems are fizzing with big ideas. In recent months we have proposed agenda-setting reforms on health (notably an earmarked tax for the NHS and social care), education (such as abolishing Ofsted), homelessness (including mandating end of life care for the terminally ill), and big tech (such as breaking up monopolies). In the coming weeks, I will set out radical plans to reform British capitalism and to increase housing supply.
Watch this space, as they say.
But first, give the party a national boost by helping in Lewisham East.