The 2016 Brexit vote polarised Britain. And the Liberal Democrats have sought to use the event to turn themselves into a ‘party of opposition’. But it’s way too late for them to take the moral high ground.
Simultaneously fighting for the left and right. Wait, what?
Writing in The Guardian on 14 March, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said:
Labour’s impotence has left my party as the only real opposition to the government. We will keep battling for Britain – and all progressives should join us… Despite having so few MPs, we are now the only opposition to this government… The Tories want to jump into the darkness. We don’t need to jump with them.
One major problem here being that, when the Lib Dems did have the power to decide who ruled the UK in 2010, they happily opted to ‘jump into the darkness’ with the Tories. They didn’t need to. But they did it anyway.
The Lib Dems haven’t only asked ‘progressives’ to join them in the wake of the Brexit vote, however. They’ve also made a play for the business wing of the Conservative Party.
Days after the comments above, Farron told Tories and business leaders:
Theresa May has put at risk the very people who have bankrolled her party’s success for years, and she didn’t have to. So business should drop the Conservative party like a hot brick… You are now the supporters of a government that is as anti-business as Jeremy Corbyn… All you generals without armies, here’s your army.
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Putting to one side the fact that many business giants actually favour Brexit, let’s just clarify Farron’s point. The Lib Dem leader apparently wants groups with different goals and different interests to come together. Workers and owners. The left and the right. An unholy alliance if there ever was one. But then again, this is the party that claimed to be progressive and then jumped into bed with the Tories at the first opportunity.
Sticking to the fluffy, meaningless and unpopular ‘centre ground’
Farron claims to lead a “progressive party”. But his big argument against Brexit seems to be that we’re turning our backs on free trade. A system that, on an incredibly unlevel global playing field, isn’t so much about freedom as it is about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
And now, Farron is calling out to Tories who lost the Brexit vote; and to the wing of the Labour Party that managed to lose two general elections in 2010 and 2015. He might as well say: ‘You want a party of unpopularity? Come to the Lib Dems!’
Embracing liberals from the Conservative Party and right-wingers from the Labour Party, Farron’s not seeking to form a “progressive party”. He’s seeking to form a liberal party on the centre-right. Or as it’s otherwise known – the Lib Dem platform of 2015.
And the infamous Lib Dem wipe-out of 2015 was precisely because people had come to see the party as unprincipled. It had joined the Coalition government to get the odd compromise. But at the same time, it propped up a regime which saw food bank usage skyrocket, an unprecedented attack on some of the most vulnerable people in Britain, and a government-led decline of the NHS. Whether it agreed or not is irrelevant. It stood by the Tories through thick and thin. And voters punished them in 2015 as a result.
— Julia Seath (@Julia_agent007) April 17, 2015
The problem at the heart of the Liberal Democrats
In 2010, The Liberal magazine saw the mistakes the Lib Dems were making. It wrote about how the ‘classical’ liberalism of small government and free markets had moved in the 20th century to a ‘modern’ liberalism, “committed to active government, the mixed economy and the welfare state”. But it also criticised the Lib Dems’ move from that modern liberalism towards neoliberalism, which it called “the creed of market fundamentalism rather than market pragmatism”. As CorpWatch describes, that creed is one of “the rule of the market”; cutting public spending on social services; deregulation; privatisation; and “eliminating the concept of ‘the public good’ or ‘community'”. (Note here that this economic liberalism does not necessarily have to go hand in hand with liberalism in terms of freedom of speech and lifestyle; a liberalism with which most people on the left would no doubt agree.)
The Liberal asked:
How did a party of the liberal left, proud of its heritage as the progenitor of the great civic amenities of the 19th century and the jewels in the crown of the 20th century social welfare settlement, including the NHS, fall in thrall to a neo-liberal fringe regarded, until relatively recently, with derision across the broad Liberal Democrat mainstream?
Former leader Nick Clegg, it said, had been part of “the rise of the party’s neo-liberal wing” which “toyed with privatisation of the NHS and sought ties with ‘liberal’ Conservatives”. That was the Lib Dems’ big mistake.
Neoliberalism – whether in the hands of socially liberal parties like the Lib Dems or more socially conservative parties – has served to increase inequality of wealth, justice and the most basic of human rights around the world. It has given us a world where eight billionaires hold between them the equivalent wealth of 3.5 billion people. And it has delivered us a Britain where, between now and 2021, our poorest citizens will see their incomes shrink by more than 10%, while the wealthiest will see theirs grow by 5%.
Time for a change
As The New Statesman wrote in 2014:
The Lib Dems have a future, but Clegg’s neo-liberals are finished
And it was right. There are some areas where liberals and the left can work together. But working communities around the world hate neoliberalism with a passion, whether they refer to it by name or not. As author Naomi Klein said in late 2016:
a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs… They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening… At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests…, and they know in their hearts that this rising wealth and power is somehow directly connected to their growing debts and powerlessness.
It’s too late for neoliberal apologists – Lib Dems, right-wing Labour MPs, or Tories – to champion opposition to that system, which has caused so much pain. And while they can change over time, ordinary people have little to no faith in them right now.
That means we’re left with two options. A right wing which answers people’s pain not with opposition to neoliberalism but with nationalism, anger at remote bureaucracies, and numerous forms of discrimination. Or a real left-wing alternative prepared to fight against discrimination, authoritarianism, and economic inequality all at the same time.
Sorry to say this, Lib Dems. But you are currently part of the established order. Not part of the progressive alternative. And until you drop neoliberalism completely, your irrelevance will continue.
Featured image via Flickr/Liberal Democrats
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