Friday, June 29, 2018

GUEST POST An ideological conflict is coming - time for Liberals to seize the initiative

The remains of the Berlin Wall © Shrevas Joshi
Liberals must start setting the terms of political debate, argues Luke Jeffery.

Throughout modern political history there have been ideologies competing to be the dominant world view: in the 1800s and early 1900s Liberalism competed with Conservatism and Socialism, and afterwards Liberalism was faced with challenges from Fascism and Communism.

The first two ideologies were pushed back after the conclusion of the First World War, which suggested a new Liberal world order backed by the League of Nations would come into being. 

However, as we know, this is not what happened. Instead Communism established itself first in Russia and later in China and other countries, and Fascism rose most notably in Germany, Spain and Italy.

The parallels between the period following the fall of the Berlin wall and after the First World War are striking. After both of these periods many thought that Liberal Democracy had triumphed over the opposing ideologies of the day, but as soon as the economy hit hard times people turned back to the extremes. 

After the 1929 crash, in Germany the Nazi Party and Communist Party increased their combined share of the vote to over 50 per cent by 1932 (not that they worked together as they were sworn enemies). 

This process happened a lot faster in the 1920s and 1930s than it is happening today but the emergence of opposing ideologies to the Liberal orthodoxy are beginning to appear in the form of left-wing and right-wing Populism (verging on Authoritarianism).

The response from established centre-left and centre-right parties across Europe has been either to keep following status quo policies or to begin to pander to the populists. This process has been particularly brutal for the centre-left social democratic parties of Europe many of whom were in power during, or seen to be responsible for, the 2008 crisis.

Austerity was not a comfortable fit for the centre-left. Whereas fiscal responsibility was always considered a centre-right trait, hence the relative stability in the vote share of centre-right parties. 

However, the populist right has begun to significantly eat into the vote share of the centre-right making gains across Europe. This can be seen most notably in France (although Front National failed spectacularly in the parliamentary elections) and Germany.

The UK has certainly been different in that new parties have not sprung up to oppose the established parties but that is mainly a function of the first-past-the-post electoral system. Instead Labour and the Conservatives have had internal ideology changes with both adopting some characteristics from the populists. 

This leaves us with the question of what should Liberals do to make sure they are prepared for the showdowns against Populism which are still to come?

The primary issue for Liberals is that they have been too willing to simply react to these changes in public opinion, or simply point to logical or fiscal holes in the populist arguments to try to discredit them. 

While these holes certainly exist in their lines of argument this comes across as being dismissive of the concerns of the people backing these parties, as Michael Gove infamously said, “people in this country have had enough of experts”.

Liberals need to start setting the terms of the debate and articulating a positive, liberal view for the future which moves away from the status quo and actually helps to address the issues which have lead to people backing populists. This includes reducing regional inequality and making sure those who feel left behind by globalisation can start to reap the rewards that the system undoubtedly produces for some.

If Liberals can learn anything from the politics of the last few years is that we can succeed when we make the positive case for liberal values in the face of an extreme threat, like Macron’s victory over Le Pen. 

Otherwise we fall into the errors of the Remain campaign and hark on about the risks of not backing them without making really making the positive, hopeful case for our own values and we will lose. 

An ideological conflict is coming between the various shades of Liberal Democracy and Populism, Liberals need to be prepared for this conflict to prevent a triumph for Populism.

Luke Jeffery is Vice-Chair of Devon and Cornwall Young Liberals and the Youth Development Officer for Tiverton and Honiton Liberal Democrats - follow him on Twitter.

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