In a recent article for The Student, Nicol Ogston argues that the Liberal Democrats’ recent electoral losses reflect the public’s rejection of centrism, in favour of the “core ideology” offered by each of the two main parties. While intuitive, this view offers an incomplete picture of both the Liberal Democrats and UK politics as a whole.
The Liberal Democrats in fact have roots in two, closely related traditions – classical liberalism and social democracy – both of which share a common goal: the promotion of human freedom to its fullest extent. While classical liberals focus on the protection of individual freedoms, their social democratic cousins seek areas where the state can promote the common welfare.
Unfortunately, times have been hard in recent years for social democrats of all parties. The centre-left is now in decline across Europe; supplanted by an economic populism which can lend itself to parties of either the hard left or right.
Parties such as Labour can no longer command the monolithic social blocs around which political activity was once organised. Meanwhile, the historic projects of social democracy – labour protections, social security and broad public services – have all come under strain as the population ages, moral values shift, and new technologies change the way people work and trade.
Herein lies the central flaw of Mr. Ogston’s thesis: the British left has been unable to find a theory of economic change that can confront the new challenges of the advanced society we live in. Instead, it has retreated into past certainties; “finding its soul”, perhaps, but at the expense of its future.
The Conservative Party, meanwhile, has succeeded in capturing voter-rich swathes of the ageing middle classes. More recently, it has also claimed to represent “hard-working families” – as a true party of labour, to rule the void left by Corbyn et al. This storytelling may be enough to hold the centre ground until 2020, but it shall come at the expense of those on which it places blame, such as migrants or the disabled.
It is this narrow pragmatism – not, as Ogston suggests, a reversion to right-wing type – that characterises the modern party, and may ultimately be their undoing. Ogston is, however, correct to draw a link between the Liberal Democrats’ losses and their recent electoral strategies. The party relies too heavily on tactical votes; exactly the kind of support likely to unwind once in government. The infamous bar-chart, showing voters that “only the Liberal Democrats can win” in their own constituency, has become a hallmark of local campaigns.
Despite this, there remain a number of reasons for optimism. Polls consistently find that younger voters are both more socially and economically liberal than their parents. This trend mirrors the success of other liberal parties across Europe – such as the governing Estonian Reform Party, which attracts support mainly from younger, well-educated voters.
Liberalism is uniquely well placed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by new markets and young technologies. It can win the argument that an enterprising society benefits even the poorest in society – encouraging deep institutional change on issues ranging from immigration to education – while at the same time preserving the best of the social democratic tradition.
We did not witness the death of the centre in May, as Ogston suggests; but nor did the general election herald the death of liberalism’s radical spirit. Indeed it is that spirit, preserved in the Liberal Democrats to this day, that the party’s supporters believe offers the best hope for confronting the new realities of the 21st century.