The Toxicity Problem


This is the first post I’ve written in a long while. Blogging something I’ve always viewed as a bit pompous and annoying. But I’ve grown so frustrated with the leadership of my party that I will explode with annoyance if I don’t write it down somewhere, and hopefully, this will help marshal my thoughts into something more coherent and useful. In this first post, I want to scream into the void about our supposed toxicity. I have no interest in protest voters who abandoned us after we became a party of government – here, I want to focus on the pro-European, anti-Brexit liberals who still think we’re an unconscionable political choice despite the wrecks of their own parties, in particular, Labour.


The Liberal Democrats have been stuck on 7-8% pretty much consistently since the general election, and this figure – notwithstanding a moderate increase in support after the Richmond Park by-election – has remained pretty much the same since shortly after the party’s decision to enter into Coalition government in 2010. And yet, politics has changed almost beyond comprehension since then, the Conservatives having abandoned the liberal conservatism of Cameron, Labour having abandoned the social democracy of New Labour, and, of course, Brexit having happened. To anyone even moderately involved in politics, the claim that there is a “vast space” or a “gaping chasm” or a “vacuum” in the political centre is hardly new. And yet, no matter how many times it is pointed out, and no matter how many times ‘moderate’ voters claim that they are politically homeless, the Lib Dems remain firmly confined to that 7-8%.


“But tuition fees!” say some. “But austerity!” say others. These accusations normally come from the left, and from reluctant members of Labour. The hypocrisy here reeks. The Lib Dems have always been proud of most of what we achieved in government, but have always been open about the fact that we made mistakes. We openly, publicly apologised for tuition fees, for example (despite the fact that a majority of the Parliamentary party didn’t even support increasing them), in the spirit of adult politics. We used our private members’ bills to try to put right some of the problems with the bedroom tax. The leader who took us into the Coalition is no longer even an MP, and a majority of our MPs and our members weren’t around under the Coalition. And yet we still get these accusations levied at us, as if we are the exact same party; as if the decision of a very different group of people eight years ago somehow toxifies the whole concept of a liberal party. The way some people talk about the “traitors” who make up the Lib Dems, you’d think that somehow, joining the party turns you automatically into a liar who lusts after power so much that they would abandon every principle they’ve ever had. Clearly, the idea is nonsense.


But the accusations so often reek of hypocrisy. Despite the massive changes in the Lib Dems, we’re still the same, and still toxic – but Labour, who had their own problems with the Iraq War, are different now, and no longer toxic. Labour members point to our leader and deputy leader as having been Coalition ministers, while forgetting that their deputy leader and a significant chunk of their Shadow Cabinet voted in favour of the Iraq War. Labour members claim that their membership has changed so radically that it is functionally a different party, while ignoring that the same churn has happened within the Lib Dems, with a majority of our members being post-2015 joiners. Let’s be adult about politics. If you think the Lib Dems are necessarily still tainted by Coalition, then by the exact same token, Labour are still tainted by the Iraq War. If you think recent changes in Labour have absolved them of toxicity, then the same arguments also apply to the Lib Dems. But perhaps more pertinently, it is just in bad faith to make arguments delving back a decade into history. It’s about ideas now – if you disagree with our ideas, challenge them. But feebly whinging about a u-turn half the party didn’t vote for, which we apologised for, and the person responsible for no longer sits in Parliament, while the flames of Brexit engulf everything and your own party is rife with overt racism in the present day is just in bad faith and ridiculous.


But perhaps there is something more that underlies why our vote share is flatlining, and why these accusations still work. Aside from our anti-Brexit policy, I think even the most seasoned of Lib Dems would agree that we have got ourselves very lost in recent years. We don’t really know what we stand for. We don’t really know what the liberalism is that we are supposed to support, other than vague intuitions. We have been unable to articulate radical policy that matters to people (not helped by the party’s structure). My hunch is that if we were to throw caution to the wind, boldly state exactly what it is that we are for and what our vision for Britain is, and accept no policy platform which includes mere tinkering, settling for nothing less than structural, root-and-branch liberal reform, we’d be considerably more attractive for wavering pro-Europeans, and would start, at last, to make progress.


In short, I think the Lib Dems are held to an unfairly high standard, and that the criticisms of us as toxic for things we did in the Coalition are deeply hypocritical. But the way to get round this is not only to robustly defend ourselves while making fair concessions where we got things wrong – it’s to push forwards, finally get ourselves in order, and articulate what liberalism is and what it means to the people of this country, rather than blandly dithering, and throwing policies at the wall to see what sticks. This, as you may guess, will be the theme of my posts in future.