by Stephen Tall on February 1, 2006
“A national residents’ association” and “An electoral dustbin for protest votes” are two of the major jibes that have been levelled against the Liberal Democrats down the years. (It’s possible a few more have been added in recent weeks.)
This has often struck me as a massive over-simplification, so it was good to see it exposed as such by today’s Guardian, which offers a sneak preview by Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley of their forthcoming book, Third Force Politics: Liberal Democrats at the Grassroots.
The Guardian article comprehensively demolishes the idea that most Lib Dem members see pot-holes as more important than rendition. (Indeed I remember once having to defend to one stalwart member that the front page of my Focus newsletter should lead on a new pedestrian crossing; he felt, not without good cause, that we should splash on New Labour’s disregard for the principle of habeas corpus.)
… the members share a coherent set of Liberal principles which go beyond local concerns. As the party’s name suggests, contemporary liberal democracy encompasses both liberalism and social democracy. The former emphasises individual freedom and market solutions, while the latter emphasises equality and redistribution. In relation to the former, our survey found that 58% of members thought that “individuals should take responsibility for providing for themselves” and only 28% thought that “it is the government’s responsibility to provide a job for everyone who wants one”.
This backs up similar research undertaken last year for The Times, which showed that “More voters think the Lib Dems share their values; understand the way people live their lives; are honest and principled; are united (by a huge margin); and have clear ideas for the most important issues facing Britain, than take that view about either the Conservatives or Labour.” (Though I concede we may have slipped back some on a couple of those measures recently.)
As for picking up protest votes… well, as I posted back in September:
Political views are often as much defined by what we are against as what we are for. On the canvassing trail, I have met many, many voters who view British party politics as an essentially binary process. They vote Labour because they hated what “that bloody woman did to the country”; or they vote Tory because they “remember rubbish and unburied bodies piling up in the streets”. And sometimes they vote Lib Dem because “the other two have had their chance”. Such are the negative faute de mieux choices by which this country’s political classes are elected. To assume that this works solely to the benefit of the Lib Dems is fallacious.
Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the scepticism with which many Lib Dems regard ‘the market’ is also noted by Seyd and Whiteley:
only 19% agreed that it “would be a good thing for schools to be made to compete with each other for students”, the same percentage who also thought that “the government should encourage the growth of private medicine”.
This is not an article when I bang on yet again that creating decent public services requires the creation of vibrant markets offering real choice. (For those who want that article, it’s here.) But it did echo with the concluding paragraph of this week’s Economist leader offering a lukewarm welcome to Mr Blair’s education reforms:
Even if Mr Blair does get his reforms through, the argument over them has revealed a deeply depressing aspect of modern Britain. Passionate argument has raged over marginal changes. Genuine radicalism, of a sort that might really improve public services, is impossible. Until Britain opens its mind about how it might run itself, its schools and hospitals are doomed to be second-rate.
* Peter at The Apollo Project uses the same Guardian article as a springboard to discuss liberal approaches to environmental taxation and incentives. Well worth a read.