Kelvin Holdsworth: Liberal Democrats need to be more liberal - and more democratic
Vince Cable is just completing his first month in the most difficult job in UK politics – as Liberal Democrat leader in 2017. As someone who was once a Lib Dem candidate and who is now a floating voter, I find myself asking what it would take to bring me back on board.
The basic answer is for the Liberal Democrats to be more liberal. And be more democratic.
I’d like to see the party answer its own problems in liberal ways. By that I mean I want it to get to the root of problems rather than find pragmatic solutions to them. That’s what being liberal means.
There’s a problem about gender balance amongst elected Liberal Democrats. I see the problem and I want liberal solutions. I’m looking for radical solutions, meaning that a good look is taken at the root of the problem and that the party fights what is wrong. In this case, dealing with misogynistic party culture more strongly and both Vince Cable and Jo Swinson becoming gender-balance evangelists. The seemingly pragmatic solution of banning men from winnable seats seems to me to be part of the problem. It isn’t possible to be the party of fairness if you discriminate against people on the basis of gender. If the party can’t deal with its own troubles with liberal/radical solutions then how can it help the country to do the same? You can’t be the party of equality and equity if you are not walking the walk.
I’d like to see some stronger party discipline too. I know it is some time ago but in the early days of the coalition government, David Laws should have had the whip withdrawn for misleading the public over his expenses rather than hiding behind the fact that in the Lib Dems he hadn’t felt able to come out as a gay man. Good policy doesn’t provide cover for bad behaviour and generally speaking, I think there’s too much cover provided in the Lib Dems for “personal” issues for individuals. If you lie in public you should expect to take the consequences, yes, even if your lie had your own best intentions behind it. Perhaps especially so.
The “Exit from Brexit” line that Vince Cable used on the day of his coronation was great - very clever, but it did make me worry that we might just be getting more Farronesque popularism. It is good to have people who can come up with lines like that but many are looking for a bit more wisdom in politics and the great liberal leader of the future will be the person who can be engaging whilst having a bit more substance.
If the Liberal Democrats are going to be fit for government again then there needs to be a lot more attention spent on culture and faith issues. The party often looks weak in these areas and though many Liberal Democrats really, desperately want faith to be regarded as private and personal, it isn’t so in the world that we currently live in. You can’t fight violent Islamism by saying faith is merely a personal matter.
To think of a recent example, I admire hugely the personal loyalty that some activists have shown to Tim Farron but in the end they found themselves praising someone who was going round negatively comparing religions that have “funky-garb, have nice colourful festivals, have interesting buildings and ceremonies” to those who, presumably like himself, are “actually believing” in Christianity.
This has the appearance in Scotland of dog-whistle anti-Catholic sectarianism.
I’d like to think that if he’d been racist in public everyone would have disowned him immediately. The same should have applied to that last interview. One suspects that too many Lib Dems are so religiously illiterate that they think all religious views are acceptable and should be regarded as potentially slightly embarrassing but essentially private matters.
However, it isn’t good enough to simply say that someone in the position of party leader is entitled to his own views - some views are unacceptable in a liberal leader. Again, if the party can’t get its head around that for its leader, it has some way to go to be credible in dealing with Islamism and the far right.
As usual, I’d like to see disestablishment and Lords reform near the top of the upcoming agenda. The well-being of the UK is probably intertwined around both issues along with electoral reform. Liberals have been banging on about the constitution for years and have been largely ignored by the electorate who have not seemed to care. But now is the time for all that. When the SNP claim that Westminster government is broken, the Liberal Democrats shouldn’t simply be disagreeing. The response should be “Yes, something is broken and we know how to fix it”.
The liberal answer to broken government is reform not partition.
I’d also like to see Liberal Democrats looking for liberal solutions to poverty and I’m not sure I hear that conversation from the party itself even though there are internal ginger groups within who are flying that flag.
In short, people are looking for wisdom, fairness and integrity in public life. Tim Farron didn’t convey wisdom, the selection system for candidates doesn’t look fair and the tuition fees thing has damaged the integrity element profoundly. All three of these are hard to fix and that job now falls to Vince Cable.
These need liberal solutions and the party needs to be democratic. At such a time as this, the country needs a credible centrist party. My heart wants to believe the Liberal Democrats are good for what ails us as a country. My head tells me that Vince Cable has much work to do before voters will come to share that view in large numbers.
Kelvin Holdsworth is Provost of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow, and a former Liberal Democrat Westminster candidate for Stirling