Why I have joined the Liberal Democrats

A good thing to be said for a currently unpopular party.

(Picture courtesy of Conservative Home)

Last week I did the oddest thing -- I joined the Liberal Democrats.

At least I cannot easily be accused of crude political opportunism.

There cannot have been many who joined the party last week, or any recent week. It is not as if I am attracted by their popularity.

Indeed, the decision is a strange one in a number of ways. I am opposed to the Alternative Vote proposal, as I simply do not believe third or fourth preferences are of equal value to a first preference. I do not accept assigning powers to European Union institutions is necessarily a liberal or a democratic exercise. Liberal Democrat MPs were inexcusably wrong to break a clear pledge not to increase tuition fees. And the Deputy Prime Minister is at best an uninspiring figure. On these issues, and many more, I will not be a partisan party member. In fact, I expect to be thrown out of the party in a week.

However, there is one very good ongoing reason to support the Liberal Democrats, and it is provided by Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home. Montgomerie, a staunch Tory, has been tracking the effect of the presence of Liberal Democrats in the Conservative government: see his posts hereand here. Montgomerie is right in his analysis: the current government is significantly more liberal than an entirely Conservative administration would otherwise be.

Politics is about power. The Labour opposition is impotent. In government they were illiberal and often brutal. There is only one political force that is having an actual liberal effect in our polity as it is presently constituted, and it is the Liberal Democrats. It may not be as strong a power as it should be. The Liberal Democrats may do well to leave the coalition and force a minority Conservative administration to gain concessions on a vote-by-vote basis. But Montgomerie's "concession-o-meter" shows why anyone who wants policy to be more liberal than it otherwise would be should support the effect the Liberal Democrats are having on Coalition government.

What the Liberal Democrats are doing in practice may not be popular, but it certainly should be commended by any liberal person.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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