Sunday, December 15, 2019

Rediscovering the Liberalism of the left-behind

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Populism, all right-thinking people agree, is a Bad Thing. Yet in the far-off days when I was a Liberal activist and then councillor, there was a definite populist strand to our campaigning.

We were the people who stood up for the unfashionable end of town. We were the people who stood up for the voters against council ruling groups and senior officers.

I remember doing a survey on council house repairs here in Harborough and being told the next day that the council offices were thronged with people we had encouraged to make complaints. I was proud of that.

Somewhere along the way we have lost much of that spirit. As Peter Sloman reminded us in 2017:
If the party’s sociological heartland is middle-class and cosmopolitan, its geographical heartland lies in the windswept constituencies of the Celtic fringe. It was here that Nonconformist farmers and shopkeepers stuck with the party through the 1940s and 50s, and that the party found it easiest to turn votes into seats during the 1970s and 80s. 
Jo Grimond spent most of the 1959 campaign holed up in his Orkney and Shetland constituency; fifteen years later, Jeremy Thorpe had a cable installed so that he could address press conferences at the National Liberal Club from his seat in Barnstaple. 
From the 1970s onwards, 'community politics' campaigners also established the party as the main challengers to Labour in a string of northern towns and cities hit hard by deindustrialisation. By 2010, the Liberal Democrats ran the council in Liverpool, Sheffield and Hull and had MPs in Bradford, Burnley and Redcar.
I have too much personal nostalgia for the Liberal Party of the 1970s and 80s to be an objective judge, but I do think we need to rediscover what Peter Sloman calls the Liberalism of the left-behind.

Peter asked me on Twitter yesterday whether I thought the gains made in the West Country by the Lib Dems in May's local election were a sign that we were beginning to win back the support of our former 'left behind' voters.

If they were, Thursdays results there suggest we still have a long way to go.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more Jonathan - but where is the Jo Grimond of today that might lead the party in that direction?

Davey is the only leadership contender with experience and credibility - but for all his personal qualities, he is an Orange Booker at heart. Carmichael has always impressed me with his common sense approach, but he doesn't want it.

With 11 MPs the choice is grim. Maybe time to look for a leader outside Parliament... I wonder if Hugh Grant has time on his hands... he was PM once!

Paul Holmes said...

You missed out running the Council and electing the MP in Chesterfield -but otherwise I agree with you.