Liberal Left – Direction for the Liberal Democrats

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Linda JackChair of Liberal Left

The outcome of the 2010 election was for many Lib Dems a huge shock. In retrospect maybe we should have been prepared for the potential of a coalition with the Tories – but we weren’t. Over that fateful weekend I was in constant touch with a pal on the Federal Exec, reassuring me that we would never jump into bed with them – to the extent that I relayed that assurance on to an angry constituent who said he hadn’t voted for me to “let the Tories in.” So, when the likes of John Reid and David Blunkett in the Labour Party were wheeled out to speak against the possibility of a Lib/Lab coalition and it became inevitable that we would end up with the Tories, I was personally devastated.  I also couldn’t understand why “confidence and supply” was ruled out and why as a party we didn’t force Labour to provide it.

Like many of my fellow activists I thought long and hard about what to do. For some it was all just too much and they resigned on the spot, for others it was the tuition fee debacle that pushed them over the edge. That camel’s back-breaking straw has been different things for different people – the Health and Social Care Bill being the latest in a long line. But my decision to stay and fight was influenced by a number of things.

Firstly a phone call I received from an old friend in the Stop the War Coalition. She had been chatting with mutual friends about what I might do. After all, I was the most vociferous critic of the likes of John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn – how could they stay in the Labour Party after it backed Bush in the war in Iraq? But I explained to her that, for the first time, I understood why they stayed. It was their party too: why should they conveniently butt out and allow the right to hijack everything they had ever stood for? By staying and fighting they could be a constant thorn in the side of the leadership as well as reminding loyal activists that they were not alone in their opposition to Blair et al. And of course it is always worth taking the long view – do we believe the post 2015 Liberal Democrats will have slid irredeemably to the right, or is it more likely that there will be a backlash and a return to the left of centre roots of the party? This can’t happen if those progressives in the party (still clearly in the majority) leave.

Secondly, there was the knowledge that I was not on my own in my opposition to the coalition and in particular that there were others in the party whom I highly respected, who felt the same. At the special conference when the party voted overwhelmingly in favour of the coalition agreement and as one of only 4 to speak against and 12 to vote against, it was easy to feel isolated.

Thirdly and most importantly, my commitment to the stated aim of the party – to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity which remained, and remains, worth fighting for. I hadn’t changed; the party hadn’t changed (as we have seen in the backlash over the Health and Social Care Bill in particular). It was a small cabal of “Orange Bookers” who had been in the right place at the right time and who must have seen the possibility of a coalition with the Tories as a gift.

Over the months since the election Richard Grayson has been working hard behind the scenes to build alliances across the left, in particular with the Labour Party. He drew together a group of like minded activists and eventually we agreed that we needed to formalise that group and invite others to join. Richard had been involved in establishing the Social Liberal Forum and the three of us who sit on the SLF Council will continue to do so. We don’t see Liberal Left in competition with SLF, far from it. But those of us who support SLF but also want to go further in opposing the coalition and its economic strategy, alongside taking a clear view on future alliances, Liberal Left is the answer.

As you will glean from our founding statement Liberal Left exists to provide a voice for those opposed to the Coalition and has two clear goals. Firstly to provide a voice within the Liberal Democrats, opposing the party leadership on economic and fiscal policy, and advocating a positive alternative; secondly to seek every possible opportunity to build good relations across the left, between Liberal Democrats, Labour, the Greens, and the non-party liberal left, recognising that organisations such as Compass already offer a thriving space for such dialogue around democracy and sustainability.

On Wednesday (7th) we published a pamphlet with essays from respected Liberal Left members exploring in more detail the issues facing the party. Professor Richard Grayson in exploring liberalism and the liberal left, reminds us that:

as a party we argued during the last election that eliminating the structural deficit in a single parliament, as the Tories proposed, would remove growth from the economy.  We also said that the impact of such a plan would fall disproportionately on those least able to afford the cuts, increasing the gap between the rich and poor and further dividing the country.  This is exactly what has happened and we must not as a party stay silent and accept it as the best deal possible.

Stephen Knight calls for radical thinking from the liberal left regarding how the state can best support a sustainable, stable, green economy with real distributive justice. Dr Jo Ingold explores the disproportionate and adverse impact of current Coalition policies on women, Simon Hebditch draws on his wide experience in the third sector to explore the contested role of the state.  Ruth Bright strongly argues that the party is fooling itself if it does not understand that the need to appeal to women voters cannot be separated from the need to make the party itself look democratically representative of the country. Ed Randall’s historical analysis challenges us to consider seriously how as Liberal Democrats we should be responding to the current economic crisis. Professor Stephen Haseler argues that the deficit reduction programme is not dealing with the underlying debt crisis but is in fact making it worse. He urges the party to ditch the Orange Book and Conservative neo-liberalism and return to our Social Liberal roots.

On Saturday evening (10th) we will launch Liberal Left at Lib Dem conference, Hall 2 at the Sage, Gateshead. We expect a lively debate so if you are there, we hope to see you.

For more information about Liberal Left do visit our website and if, like us, you want to stand up for the founding principles of the party, do join us.

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