Lib Dems should give Chuka Umunna’s new idea a cautious welcome

Back in the early days of The Independent Group, I took some of their rhetoric at face value and speculated that they could morph into something very different from a traditional political party:

The key point, however, is simply this: election law provides a powerful way for candidates to cooperate at election time without having all to be in the same political party .

An umbrella of the like-minded is a very plausible route to take.

That sort of loose coalition is common in the politics of some other countries, where alliances are formed which don’t require parties to merge or complete agreement on policy platforms either. That though is not the route which The Independent Group took.

Now, however, given the major setbacks in its attempts to become a traditional political party, Chuka Umunna (he who adopted a Lib Dem slogan when he was still in Labour) has been speculating about another non-traditional-party way forward:

Mr Umunna made clear that the chastening experience of scoring just 3.4 per cent in the European ballot – and dipping as low as 1 per cent in later opinion polls – bolstered his belief that the fledgling Change UK did not have the infrastructure and resourcing to compete in elections at this stage. Instead, his vision for the grouping was as a movement to support centrist pro-European progressive politics in a similar way that Momentum fuels Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, or grassroots Leave campaigns power the Brexit Party.

“The centre-ground needs an eco-system that can compete with what has emerged around the populist Left and populist Right,” he said. “Corbyn and Farage have come about with the aid of movements, think-tanks, social media networks and other organisations helping to power their politics. We need the same coming together to support the centre ground.” [The Independent]

Done right (and given the Change UK experience, that’s no minor caveat), that sort of approach could be very beneficial for the Liberal Democrats.

As I’ve argued before, the Liberal Democrat suffer from the absence of such an eco-system of friendly but not official organisations around it, in the way that the network of right-wing think tanks or the trade union movement benefit the Conservatives and Labour respectively.

That’s also why keen though I am to persuade people to join the Liberal Democrats, it’s counter-productive to take a stance of ‘if you agree with us, join us or otherwise sod off’. Hence the benefits of a registered supporters scheme, for example.

Which is why if such a movement as Umunna talks about is created, the Liberal Democrats should view it as an opportunity to engage with a wider network of people and organisations, rather than retreat into our bunkers muttering, ‘well, if they were really liberals, they’d just join us, wouldn’t they?’.

We need that wider eco-system too, and the best way to help shape it into one that we’re comfortable with and is supportive of us is by engaging with.


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