The Liberal Democrats need a liberal, not a centrist, core vote

At the heart of the strategy which David Howarth and I sketched out for the party in 2015, is a two-fold argument bolstered by the evidence in our pamphlet:

  1. That the Liberal Democrats suffer from having only a very small number of committed loyalists. This small core vote holds the party back, giving it only weak foundations on which to build.
  2. The solution is to be found in the sizable chunk of the electorate who shares the party’s values but doesn’t currently think of itself as Liberal Democrat.

There are many ways of fleshing out what those party values are (here’s my set, with varying lengths to suit your mood), but in the current political debates, it’s worth emphasising one particular aspect.

There are people who view themselves as centrist or moderate and would happily use that label who do share the party’s beliefs and we should appeal to. However, being centrist or moderate is not in itself the same as what being a Liberal Democrat means.

Indeed, as Nick Barlow’s excellent analysis highlights, those who describe themselves as centrist are often rather too authoritarian for Liberal Democrat tastes. By all means, we should try to win them over to what we believe – and insulting them is unlikely to be a good step in that direction.

But what we do need to win them over to believe something different, because Liberal Democracy is based on liberalism not authoritarianism.

That liberalism is enriched by other influences, and it’s why thinking we need to build a strong centre party is misplaced. We need to build a strong Liberal Democrat party.


10 responses to “The Liberal Democrats need a liberal, not a centrist, core vote”

  1. I detest the wishy washy term centralism. Unfortunately the word liberalism means very little to the general public, whereas the word radical can be explained as getting to the crux of the matter in hand, bypassing all irrelevant arguments put in the way. I suggest this better explains our position. It goes without saying we must always bear in mind our Party’s preamble.

  2. So Kath you do not see that Left or Right has any meaning to people outside of politics or is that just Centre. Surely if we add Left wing or Right wing then they take on a meaning which people outside of politics can understand where the policies of those people stand.
    The problem with “radical” is that it can also be used for effect by any political stance when they wish to brand a policy as being outstanding an outside of normal or a person who tends to hold different views.
    I think that Radical and Liberal or indeed Radical Democrats does not fit well in the mind of a voter that the party wants to attract. Of course Brexit is a Radical Policy.
    It is a centrist party like it or not, right of center to Left of centre and the present Brexit has seen the centre gap to be the widest ever with Labour gone to left and Tory to ERG and Ukip Right.

    So make hay whilst the Sun shines. Publish Party Policies on a leaflet comparing with Labour policies which are similar so that disaffected Labour voter are able to see clearly Like wise the good policies from Tories, what you cant find any??
    We need a light new approach and should be out there in Student Unions to debate with students of all persuasions and none. Need to put hands up but at the same time draw a comparison to both Tory and Labour Greater bombs
    There is clearly a need to get the facts on the Students fees out there and discussed fully even though they werent students at the time people blame Nick without any knowledge of what the politics were at the time and I feel that he can take the Lib Dems to the students especially with the Brexit staring people in the face.

    Lib Dems = Choice

  3. As a Party member for two year’s and a refugee from the ERG Ukip dominated right Conservative party, considering myself as somebody from the centre but, with social democratic views, feel it is vital to claim both the centre right and centre left ground because this is where elections are won.

  4. I believe there are multiple flavours of Liberal Democrat voter, each one of which can yield core votes, if we all respect, advertise, rally round and champion all of them as distinct pillars of Liberalism:

    Orange Book, free market advocates, who cannot stomach the lack of compassion espoused by the Tories.

    SDP originating supporters who want a socially responsible society that is not shackled to trade unionists and other far left special interest groups.

    Moderates/Centrists, who think most parties swing too far left, right, up, down etc and just want to have a bit of stability, less anger, and more attention to detail, facts, evidence and public service.

    Localists, who really don’t give a damn about national issues, but really care about their community.

    You may have noticed that none of these groups are labelled as “liberal”. This is because, in different ways, they all are. What I like most about the Lib Dems is the way in which we trust and respect opinions and allow open debate instead of enforcing a doctrine of mandatory thought control which seems so evident in other parties. Somehow, the Lib Dems have retained the ability to disagree without despising.

    I want us to show that we have multiple pillars of respect, and that shouty angry nastiness is alien to us, and that it is incompatible with reasonable public discussions.

    I want us to be the umbrella sheltering the polite, reasonable people who have not closed their minds.

    • “I want us to be the umbrella sheltering the polite, reasonable people who have not closed their minds.”

      That is spot on. It could almost be a slogan for us.

  5. The term ‘centrism’ (which I dislike) can be reconciled with – or more accurately folded into the term ‘Liberalism’. For the following reasons, extremism is intrinsically illiberal.

    Liberalism is fundamentally about individual freedom.

    The idea of ‘centrism’ really refers only to 1 axis. In this axis, ‘Right’ means absent or minimal state and ‘Left’ means maximal or total state.

    But individual freedoms and rights are subsumed in either a minimal State or a maximal State. Effecting state control of everything is obviously degrades freedom – and always ends up being Totalitarian (and also corrupt). The opposite leads either to loss of freedom with a Hobbesian anarchy – where might is right. Or, more typically, the State reduced to a security apparatus that protects the few. And is just as corrupt. Chile / Argentina on the one hand and USSR on the other.

    Apologies if this seems obvious – but the point was mooted. It is of relevance again given how extreme and how influential some of these tendencies now are within major parties.

    It is at this point that ‘centrism’ can be redefined from a term that implies just measuring equidistance between everybody else’s opinions, to anything embracing a private / public mix. This is a tighter and looser definition. It is tighter because it is a priori: I am not setting my opinion by averaging anyone else’s. It is looser by appealing to more people.

    So we can argue that ‘centrism’ is not woolly. A mix of public vs private and of regulation vs flexibility is a necessary condition for genuine individual freedom.

    In other words, extremism is intrinsically illiberal.

    Finally apologies for length and amateurism. I not a political philosopher, nor have I produced something that is exactly snappy enough for a leaflet.

  6. Wilf you have hit the nail on the head with your first line because no doubt in my mind exists, the two other parties are following an extreme path which as somebody from the centre/centre left finds, as you say illiberal.

  7. There is no need for people in the UK to share the American horror of the word “radicalism” and I disagree with my namesake: UK people do not generally associate it with terrorism. However, radicalism can point in any direction. John Redwood was a radical. So for that matter was Hitler. While there is an honourable UK tradition of “radical” on the left or progressive side of politics, that tradition is now largely forgotten.

    Yes, left and right are relevant, but only in respect of issues of rich and poor, or tax breaks versus redistribution. In that sense we are not in the middle, but on the moderate left. Equally important are open/closed issues such as civil rights or immigration. A third set of issues exist around the environment. Left and right do nothing to explain either of these sets of issues. People who can be angrily anti-immigration or anti-gays can be either for or against progressive taxation. If a wildlife-rich area is threatened by development which would bring profits and jobs, you can argue that supporting the development is a right or a left-wing position.

    It is desirable that many more people understand what “liberal” means, even if they can’t express it as an academic would. But it’s not necessary for that to happen, for us to start seeking a liberal core vote; and as we succeed, more liberal-thinking people will understand the word.

    To be in the centre on some issues may be right, but centrism as a political philosophy is vacuous and morally defective. Was it right to seek the middle ground on slavery? The truly influential politicians start well off the centre and pull the centre towards their positions.

  8. For a good discussion of what Liberalism means in the modern world I recommend the Economist at 175 essay: Reinventing Liberalism for the 21st Century. (Economist, September 15th – 21st, pages 45 to 54).

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