Since the coalition government, the Liberal Democrats have been a haunted party. We have struggled to truly rebuild a national base, and a Brexit obsessed agenda has failed to capture the hearts and minds of the 48%. There are smears of hope however: more by-elections at a local level are seeing Liberal Democrats returned and party membership is on a big up. But, at a time where our country is in crisis, this is simply not enough.
The Liberal Democrats are a party descended from two noble traditions. The first is the spirit of moderate and decent politics which saw the creation of the Social Democratic Party. I might not be on the left of the party, but the gang of five’s actions represent a kind of rational politics which seems lost on today’s politicians. This ability to debate within a party and not be confined by it is something which current Labour moderates would do well to learn from. The second, and one perhaps more relevant today, is that noble British tradition of Liberalism – a tradition which stood for free trade, universal rights, decent healthcare, housing, and a fair welfare state; a tradition of Gladstone and Lloyd George, even of Beverage, a tradition which set the foundation of modern Britain, and indeed the modern West.
The Liberal Democrats, then, are not a party that should be cowering on the sidelines of British politics. We are not a party which should allow ourselves to be haunted by past coalitions. We are not a party which should define themselves on one issue. We are a party which should, and must, stand proudly on those noble traditions of democracy and liberalism.
As I write this piece, Theresa May sits at the head of a shambolic government. A government in which ministers fight openly like children in the House of Commons, in which Brexiteers and Remainers openly declare war on each other, in which the power play is so obvious even a six year old could spot it. But these must not be the only issues we focus on. Rather than focusing on political drama, important as it is to this country, let us not forget other issues which plague our nation. This is also a government which is pursuing one of the most socially obnoxious and cruel agendas of modern times. Disabled citizens of our country are denied decency by a cruel Universal Credit benefit system, junior doctors voices on the NHS are ignored with an unforgivable ignorance, and children are denied innocence when forced to visit food banks with desperate parents. Focusing on Brexit has only allowed the Conservatives to ignore these areas.
And what for Labour? Yes, it is true, they have captured many hearts and minds on issues of poverty, the NHS, and education. The last election was a testament to this – an election that should have been decided on Brexit, was turned upside down by a Labour campaign that addressed issues the Tories would rather us forget. Our Brexit obsessed campaign needlessly gave the Labour Party a free run on these issues. But the last election was also an example of a dogmatic Labour Party, with a nasty campaign mechanism at its core in the form of Momentum. It was an example of a Labour Party that purged democratic debate within itself. It was an example of a Labour Party which offered few new solutions to current problems, but rather sought to harp back to a harmful mixture of big promises, big taxes, and anti-wealth rhetoric.
We must not let the left, and the frankly populist left under Corbyn, take ownership of healthcare, education or welfare policies. Liberals must look to our traditions, to offer fair and decent solutions on these issues. We must reject the moral authority the left try to project, and build a uniting and open policy agenda which advocates fiscally responsible and socially compassionate policies. We must lift people out of taxation at the bottom end, empower small and medium businesses to grow and employ, encourage community leadership on local issues through greater devolution, defend individuals rights and human dignity, hand more healthcare powers to doctors and local people, secure education budgets and reform schooling to reflect a broad education not just an academic one. These are liberal ideas, rooted in freedom, liberty, justice and equality of opportunity. We must take the fight to Labour and the Tories – we must show people that we are more responsible than Labour, more compassionate than the Conservatives. We must show that a third way is possible.
Liberal Democrats have clung onto Europe as a source of revival, as something with which we can use to stand out against the other parties. We have done so at a great risk of becoming a crazed one issue party antidote to UKIP. But rather than jostling for new territory in politics and risking our political identity, it is time to proudly beat the drum for who we are, look to our Liberal tradition and innovate. It is time to show people what we stand for. To fight for the most vulnerable, to give power back to people and to give voice to the moderate centre.
Let us be confident. Let us move beyond Brexit and the shadows of 2015. Let us take a radical programme for economic and social reform to the centre ground. In doing so, let us reignite the flames of British liberalism and offer Britain the hope the Tories have stripped away, and the change that Labour cannot deliver.