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.

19 responses to “Lib Dems should give Chuka Umunna’s new idea a cautious welcome”

  1. I remember when I joined over 35 years ago we had to bear in mind that the Liberal party (as we were then) was part of the Liberal Movement, which included community groups, pressure groups, the peace, green and women’s movements and some trade unions, and many to be found in other political parties.

  2. But the latest remarks by Ed Davey suggest he is an old school politician in that he doesn’t want cooperation except on his terms. I voted LibDem last time in the SouthWest believing not only that they stood for Remain but also a more collaborative style of politics. Clearly I was wrong. For future elections I will vote Green if Davey is in charge.

    • Chris, what makes you think that the Greens are more collaborative than the Lib Dems? Sian Berry’s interview on Today (R4) recently emphasised the reverse

    • That;s certainly not what he said at the Hustings I attended. He was talking about a Government of National Unity to end Brexit. Sometimes the press might not be reporting quite what he said, (now WHY might they do that I wonder?)

  3. I agree totally with your remarks on ‘Chuka Umunna’s idea’, but would contend that when I joined the Young Liberals 50 years ago this year, co-operation in the centre ground was a given. This was, of course, before the birth of the Ecology Party, as it then was, and of Mr Umunna himself. I hope both candidates can embrace this return to a more inclusive form of political discourse, rather than reverting to several bald men squabbling over a comb.

  4. Maybe we should consider starting some think tanks ourselves. Let individual members and MPs do so. (If that happens already in the Lib Dem’s forgive my ignorance I’m a new member)

  5. We used to be ‘The Greens’ decades ago.We should build alliances around ecology groups.and community groups etc. Brexit/remain fighting will end. We must move on to boring everyday things like building houses supporting people building up institutions etc

  6. If we want to save the UK from Brexit and the world from the climate crisis, we all need to work together, because divided we will fall. Unity is one of the most beautiful principles, it has always been the thing I’ve loved most about the EU. When people’s energies join together, you get cooperation, you get synergy, you get friendship, you get strength. Divisiveness creates only weakness and destruction.

    We should also consider that many of the new votes for Lib Dems and Greens come from Remainers, who are all desperately lobbying for an alliance of Remain parties capable of stopping the rising British right-wing which, quite frankly, terrifies me the more I read about it.

    When I saw Sean Berry’s interview I emailed her to remind her of all this. I don’t want to see either Lib Dems or Greens or ChUKs bad-mouthing each other! I didn’t go on marches, deliver hundreds of leaflets, spend hours on social media fighting to reverse Brexit just so politicians can squabble over a bone. We have two elephants in the room to contend with – Brexit and the climate crisis – and I think we’re all in agreement on that. Note that Boris Johnson and Farage are climate sceptics or Clexits like their mate Trump. Let’s not miss the wood for the trees!


  7. I was an older teenager when the Bow Group was founded in 1951, and was very attracted to many of the opinions it publicised. It was radical – far too much so for most of the staid Conservative establishment – and liberal in all but name. In those days, when the Conservatives included such moderates as Macleod, Butler, Heath and many others, the Bow Group was an obvious home for many reform minded liberals, for whom the 1950s Liberal party seemed to be a lost cause. It was really only Jo Grimond who persuaded me be throw in my lot with the Liberals instead.

    I have long felt that the Lib-Dems badly need an equivalent to the Bow Group today. There are lots of good ideas floating around in the party, but not nearly enough detailed thinking of how to give them practical effect, and what should have priority. Or, if there is, I see few signs of it. We should warmly embrace Chuka Umunna’s suggestion. Not only would it give greater focus to the party’s aims and ambitions, but even more importantly it should attract the more radical minded, but not hard left, of the younger generation (roughly 15 to 35) to the Lib-Dems at a time when their political affiliations are still relatively fluid.

    As a postscript, over 50 years ago the Young Liberals were very active and enthusiastic, but they became more extreme in their thinking than the party chiefs cared for. (Peter Hain was one of them – he organised the Liberals in an election in Islington from my house.) They were pejoratively called “Young Turks”, and eventually disbanded, as they were thought to be giving the party a bad name. Care should be taken to avoid a repetition of that, without dampening radical thinking at all.

  8. Please, please, please let’s work for co-operation of like minded people and groups. Not much is achieved by one or two people but a whole lot can change with co-operation without having to sign up. Long time LD councillor and committed LD

  9. I’d much rather we supported alliances and worked with groups rather than trying to absorb into the party . I’m being brutal, but CU is a toxic brand and is associated with failure. We need fresh new exciting candidates that can help the party moving forward. Work with CU..? Yes but keep at arms length. As for think tanks etc, the next few years will see these groups have a spotlight shone on them. Keep with / quote respected independent ones. Questionable dodgy funded ones again arms length.

  10. I would rather support Ed Davey than see the Party go into another coalition with the Conservatives which under Clegg almost destroyed the Lib Dems. They are far better standing on their own two feet but need to move on from the Orange Booker days onto a more Social Liberal path and I am not sure if, judging by some of the comments on Lib Dem Voice, they have got there yet. Disappointing about the Greens as when it comes to the environment, pollution and recycling they do far less than all the other parties and take little interest in environmental activity at a local level.

  11. As a Liberal Democrat member I believe we should work in collaboration with other like minded parties and individuals. I was somewhat disappointed with Ed Davey’s statement and that of Sian Berry.

  12. Ed and Jo are identical in their view of the post election scene(Jon Forbes). and there is clearly no reason now, following the Euro election results, why we shouldn’t unashamedly campaign as a future government. With Labour and Conservatives withering, they are only being kept alive by the coverage in the media, which is probably a function of the fact that the two front benches are so married and connected to senior people in the press and broadcast world.,
    Thankfully many voters are at last waking up to the fact that for years they have been conned, but they need help to hold their nerve and vote away from their tribal habits.

  13. We need of course to work with members of other parties and those of none who share our visions. As regards the Green agenda why can’t the Lib Dems come up with some simple headline grabbing policies on dealing with climate change ? Why not steal Corbyn’s solar panel plan – installing them on a million Council/Housing association properties ? Car battery charging points near all pubic buildings ? A major push to have battery storage linked to solar panel installations on Commercial and domestic properties to create less centralised, more self-sufficient energy supplies etc etc….

  14. Chris Callen needs to come back and say whether its personalty or Party policy that concerns him. Where does he get his information from? I think his view may be very important in dealing with Fake News properly.

  15. As a member for 45 years of the Lib Dems (and former Liberal Party), and former district and then county councillor, I totally agree with Phil Stone. We are a ‘green party’, we need to show that more clearly with policies such as the one he suggests. Simple headline slogans for such policies as ‘bollocks to Brexit’ would make it quite clear what the Lib Dems stand for.

  16. Politicians who choose to remain outside of the party structures become difficult partners as they want all the benefits that a partnership offers without any sense of collective responsibility. Very few UK MPs have survived for long as Independents and I don’t see this changing anytime. If those 6 (or 11) MPs want to survive as MPs beyond the next election, they will need to join/re-join an established political party.

  17. Given First Past the Post co-operation means not standing everywhere or in multi member wards having a joint list. In the 2017 Parliamentary election in Oxford West and Abingdon the Green candidate withdrew and Layla Moran was elected with a tiny majority. In South Oxfordshire District Council.in 2019 the Liberal Democrats and Greens had a non-aggression pact, won 15 Tory seats and now run the Council. Similar agreements elsewhere had similar results.
    In the Euro-election the de Hondt system is not preferential, so if we had had a single joint lists for Remain, we would have won more MEPs.

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