David Cameron speaks at the British curry awards at Battersea Evolution on November 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Liberals are well served by the Conservative Party

With each week, the party is giving more power and responsibility to individuals to shape their own destiny - the essence of liberalism.

Which political party in Britain should you vote for if you are a liberal? Especially after the last week, it seems the Conservative Party is your best choice. The Conservative Chancellor announced a radical policy in the Budget that retirees will now have greater freedom on how they take their pension, liberated from being shackled to a pitiful annuity. Labour, bewildered, is still working out whether it supports this policy, whether it can trust people to manage their money properly.

The Conservatives also press ahead with the progressive raising of the personal tax allowance, which Lord Saatchi has campaigned for for over a decade, to lift millions of low-paid workers out of tax. And this Saturday, thousands of same-sex couples will be celebrating, as they now have the right to marry thanks to legislation introduced by this Conservative-led government.

These are just a handful of examples of the granting of greater power and responsibility to individuals and institutions to shape their own destiny, the essence of liberalism. In recent years, the Conservatives have advocated several liberal policies: a referendum on membership of the EU, giving headteachers more say on who they recruit and how much they pay, allowing nurseries the flexibility to prioritise quality over quantity of staff, and enabling a wider range of organisations – including private and voluntary ones - to tender for the delivery of services including in the NHS. But both the Liberal Democrats and Labour have opposed all of these.

This is not mere cross-dressing or some tectonic political shift. The Conservative Party has in fact had a long-term relationship with liberalism: economic, social and political. Lord Liverpool’s administration in the 1820s pursued ambitious economic liberal reforms: custom duties were relaxed, monopolies limited and restrictions on exports abandoned, an agenda that cumulated in the repeal of the Corn Laws under Sir Robert Peel in 1846. Slavery was abolished by the Tory William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury introduced the Factory Acts, granting basic rights to workers in tough conditions. Under the premiership of Benjamin Disraeli, the vote was extended to millions of skilled working class men. In 1928, the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin passed legislation that gave all women the vote.

For most of the 20th century, Conservatives became the champions of freedom as socialism advanced and the old Liberal Party declined. In fact, some factions from the latter gradually merged with the Conservatives. Until 1968, the National Liberal Party allied with Tories at a constituency level, with joint candidates such as Michael Heseltine. The Liberal Unionist Party, a break-away group that opposed Irish Home Rule, was first in a coalition with the Tories, then their leader Joseph Chamberlain finally agreed to join the Conservatives formally in 1912. Nick Clegg talks very rarely, and only briefly, about Chamberlain; touchy subject, seemingly.

Now, it is of course true that all three main political parties have liberals in their ranks and leadership team. British policymaking has been greatly enriched as a result of this sprawl. But political parties are coalitions themselves: liberals have to negotiate with others in their party who have different philosophical affiliations, and they may find themselves on the losing side in the internal battles over policy and vision. This seems to be happening too often in the Liberal Democrats and Labour at the moment.

Big challenges confront us: an ageing population, climate change and a race with emerging economies to produce highly skilled workforces. The pressures on the state will be unsustainably high, particularly when Britain has to remain a low-tax, competitive economy. We will need a strong dosage of economically liberal ideas to meet these challenges: for example, alternative ways of financing crucial public services such as education and healthcare, including greater contestability in commissioning, loans-based financing and social investment. The Tories to date have been most engaged and enthusiastic about these sort of ideas. Only they, at the moment, seem to have the appetite to pursue the economic liberal agenda we desperately need in the decades ahead.

Yes, liberals in the Conservative Party have to fight their own battles. And their liberalism must be tempered too by conservatism, a philosophy that rightly roots individuals in relationships and social custom. On some policy areas, liberal conservatives have lost: on immigration, for instance, where the party pursues a UKIP-lite message, all caps and clampdowns, endangering national and cultural enrichment.

Liberals are well served by the Conservative Party. For the moment. The liberal parliamentarians, policymakers and activists within it must keep fighting. For a brighter future for the Conservatives lies not in being a refuge for those angry and disappointed with change, but as a home for hopeful younger generations who increasingly identify as liberals.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.