Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Green Option?

I can’t understand why a liberal would join the Tories or Labour, but the Greens seem to be a different matter.  A number of Liberal Democrats have joined the Greens since May 2010, for reasons that most fellow-liberals won’t find unsympathetic.  In their own words (more or less), here are some examples:  Alexis Rowell (sometime Camden cllr), Clive Smith (Worcestershire cllr),  Alan Weeks (Hampshire cllr),  Robert Vint (Totnes cllr).  (I should also mention Martin Ford – formerly Lib Dem, now Green Party councillor – and others from Aberdeenshire, although that sorry business predates the Coalition).

The distinction that I’ve heard over the years between ‘practical but sullied’ Liberal Democrats, contrasted with ‘idealistic but unrealistic’ Greens seems over-simplistic.  There has been a constant exchange of activists backwards and forwards between the Green Party and the Liberals/Lib Dems, for many different reasons. (This dates back to the Ecology Party of the early 1970s, the ‘Green Voice’ initiative of the late1980s etc etc). Shared attitudes go beyond the environment, to cover social questions, and an interest in bottom-up, participatory public life. (Conrad Russell’s chapter on Green Liberalism in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism encapsulates much of this.)  These similarities are why Green leaders tend see it as a strategic imperative to attack the Liberal Democrats.  Similarly, the admirable Green Liberal Democrats have struggled to find a distinctive role within our party precisely because their message is so uncontroversial for most members.

My observation of the Green Party during the last 15 years, in a city where they are part of the political landscape, and for two years administered the local authority with the Liberal Democrats, is that Greens are diverse ideologically, but can be roughly categorised into three strands: (1) a small number of highly committed environmentalists; (2) ‘angry leftists’ using the party as their latest vehicle; and (3) environmentally-aware community-minded people, some of whom I’d be happy to see in my party.*  Nationally, the Green Party is less ideologically coherent than the Liberal Democrats, with all sorts of more or less articulated strands reflected by a churn in members. The ‘angry leftists’ are organised nationally, while the few liberals (as far as I can see) are not, and perhaps by temperament are less suited to factional struggle.  (After all, sound liberals are often not even that good at factional struggle within the Liberal Democrats.)   Green Party organisation across the country is patchy, so liberals will encounter varied local groups, more or less congenial, but it’s no surprise that the direction of travel for members/activists at the moment is one way.   However, there doesn’t yet seem to be any sort of critical mass of movement among activists or councillors.** So while individual liberals may find a political home in the Green Party, I’ll be surprised if it becomes an alternative pole for liberal politics.    


* Admittedly members of the third strand sometimes seem rather smug and sanctimonious, and their lifestyles could often match their rhetoric more closely, but the latter is the case for some favourite liberals, too…

**Voters may be another matter.  In the perennial search for a Nice Leftish Party, ‘consumer lefty’ voters now seem more sympathetic to the Greens than to the Liberal Democrats.  This demographic might not to be an asset to any party organisationally or intellectually, but their votes can be very useful, as in the London Mayoral election (although Scottish and Irish experience shows us that Green electoral fortunes can go down as well as up).   But this blog isn’t really about them.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Liberals and civil society 1

James Hargrave, a sometime council candidate from Suffolk, left the Liberal Democrats in January 2012, his resignation letter raised tuition fees, ‘free schools’, and benefits – an all too familiar trio of concerns. 

His blog also details his involvement with the new civil society entity (an Industrial and Provident Society) which now runs the county library service in Suffolk.  This emerged from the campaign to prevent library closures or privatisation, and seems a really interesting, promising, bottom-up, participatory way to provide (not ‘deliver’) public services.  As James puts it:

‘The way libraries are now run in Suffolk may not be what everyone wanted but it has been my view for some time that the IPS offers the best future for Suffolk’s libraries. With a Board able to negotiate as good a deal as possible in funding and independence from some of the more annoying aspects of County Council control the IPS has an opportunity to make the most of the funding available.

My experience as a school governor has shown me the benefits that local autonomy can offer. The relationship with the council becomes more of working together and simply having a cheque book means schools can buy what they need without all the bureaucracy of a large organisation.’

This seems a very appealing project (in accord with the best traditions of British liberalism), which I’ll follow with interest.

There is a wider issue here, too.  Political liberalism has long gone hand in hand with wider civic participation.  (Interestingly, Liberal Party members in the 1980s were much more likely than their SDP counterparts to be involved in other civil society groups).  Almost all the Lib Dem activists I know are also involved in other activities: perhaps this has something to do with the liberal instinct that there are numerous worthwhile facets to life, which can’t be reduced to class conflict or religion or anything else, even liberalism itself.    

But there is also the fact that participation in civil society projects can often provide a much more satisfying sense of agency – of control over one’s own life and immediate environment, often in very small but very tangible ways – than can party politics.  When party activity revolves around winning elections, there is the danger that this ends up passing agency on (to councillors, council officers, Deputy Prime Ministers etc), rather than spreading it around.  And we all know the frustrations that can lead to. 

I’m sure that James Hargrave is one of very many former Liberal Democrat campaigners whose energies are now directed more towards civil society, and the party’s response can’t lie only in the field of policies.


On 19 March LibDemVoice has published my article on Liberals Together, which prompted comments from various current and former members of the Liberal Democrats, and a blog post from Oranjepan.  S/he put the question of party membership in a much broader perspective, wisely concluding:

‘Political parties are cultural institutions which embody and uphold the values of civilisation - they form a vital link in the chain of social engagement, and without the participation they afford everyone becomes a loser.’

By the way, if anyone would like to contribute a guest post to this blog, please
get in touch.


Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Party like it's 1988

I just read the short pamphlet ‘Merger or Renewal?’, by Michael Meadowcroft, from January 1988. (Available to download here). It’s well worth thinking about this period because (without seeking to apportion any blame), a tremendous amount of liberal energy was dissipated by the merger and associated drama, and a lot of good liberals (activists and supporters) drifted away from the Liberal Democrats and the Liberal Party altogether.*

A couple of observations struck me especially.  Meadowcroft identifies that constituency of young concerned idealists who have tended to support - and even work for Labour because they saw no other better answer…’ [although 25 years later I think they are just as likely to wish a plague on both our houses]. Up to the Alliance the Liberal Party was able to recruit such individuals when the party set its stall out for them. Many of our Councillors, candidates and officers are exactly this kind of person but it has often been a hard job persuading them to stay in recent years. In addition all too often our rare recruits from this key group have come through personal acquaintance with a like Liberal rather than through any indirect means. Unless we only wish to win the plush constituencies we must appeal to those who currently drift to Labour by default. That means addressing issues of concern to feminists, youth, those concerned about the arts, about green issues, and about the developing world.’  This challenge has only been intensified since 2010.

Finally, this gem could have been written in March 2013:

 There is always something slightly odd about the way the MPs choose to act corporately from time to time. It is rather like the brave survivors of a polar expedition coming to tell the rest of us who got killed off en route that, despite what everyone else thinks, they are sure that it was actually a rather successful expedition and all we need next time are somewhat different arrangements and we shall all survive.


*My impression is that more of them ended up not involved in party politics than in the Greens or Labour, but I’m too young to make a judgement from personal observation, so others might correct me.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

State of play

There are good reasons to stay in the Liberal Democrats (here are two pithy summaries, from
from George Potter, and Jennie Rigg).  But to get the ball rolling with this blog, here is a round-up of comments by various liberals on why they have left the party:

Richard Huzzey, in December 2010, over student fees

Paul Clein, in February 2012, over the NHS and student fees.

James Graham, in March 2012, on a series of issues (his fuller throughts here).

Kiron Reid, in October 2012, to contest the PCC election. (He came third as an independent candidate for Merseyside, clearly ahead of the official Liberal Democrat.  He wrote about this experiences in Liberator 357, February 2013).

Jo Shaw and Dinah Rose, March 2013, over secret courts.