The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Friday, July 29, 2005
The Second Time Around – Repairing the Liberal Schism
by Steve Travis

“There are those who'll bet love comes but once, and yet I'm oh, so glad we met the second time around … “

The lyrics of this Frank Sinatra song refer to a couple re-kindling their early love later in life, in the face of the prevailing view that such love can only occur once. The prevailing view in politics is that the Conservatives benefited during the Twentieth Century from the schism caused by the establishment of the Labour Party and the loss to Liberalism of the Trades Unionists and the working class. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, the other great loss to Liberalism, those whose patience with the party finally departed in the 1930s, were the new suburban Middle Class. Curiously their departure is a much less remarked-upon phenomenon.

Faced with the looming spectre of unfettered socialism following WWII, Churchill and others reached out the hand of friendship to the Liberal rump. Some suspected that their warm embrace was actually designed to smother us, and eventually this attempt to forge a small-government alliance failed. A fortunate thing too, as the Conservatives became ever more adicted to the levers of power.

As the Twentieth Century drew to a close progressives such as Roy Jenkins and Paddy Ashdown sought ways to heal what they saw as the rift in progressive politics. Given the situation of nearly two decades of untrammelled right-wing hegemony such a position was understandable. Unfortunately, this project has foundered on the rocks of Blair’s acquired taste for unfettered power, Labour’s lip-service to some Liberal tenets and the needs of the electoral system. A decade later, following Labour’s third election victory, the picture looks different - New Labour is a fundamentally illiberal party. The challenge for Liberals is to assemble a liberal collective to oppose the most pernicious measures emanating from the Blair government.

Where do we look for these allies?

Most Liberals would baulk at the idea of any kind of co-operation with the Conservative Party in its present form, and they would be right to do so. Yet, contained within the ranks of the party are a minority of social and economic liberals who would be far better suited to being Liberals. However, through reasons of tradition and loyalty they plough their lonely furrow, tolerated but unloved. Some of the more thoughtful of their number are agitating for the Tories to move in their direction in order to capture the number of votes required for majority government. Make no mistake, were their advice to be heeded it would be catastrophic for our party.

During the Twentieth Century the Conservative Party established itself as a powerful election-winning machine. But it was more than just that. It absorbed the aspiring middle classes into strong local and family networks. The party became woven into the fabric of middle class life in this country. Whilst this aspect of the party is a shadow of itself following the post-Thatcher implosion, the afterglow can be still be seen in the support that the party manages to retain. Voters whose views no longer chime with the party still vote for them because their family did, their friends do, their newspaper supports them, and they’ve been offered no alternative.

It may well be that in some cases there is no hope to convert such people into Liberal voters. But if we as a party are to ever win a significant presence in Parliament we need to reach out beyond 20% of the vote, and we are not going to pick up sufficient support just from Labour.

There are some green shoots of hope from the last election. The demise of the Tories in the cities has led to our emergence as the party of urban liberal Britain. We need to build on this by creating a liberal economic and social agenda to persuade those who cling onto the Conservatives by habit that their interests are best served by a forward looking and thinking party. They can quietly divorce themselves from their marriage of convenience and return to their first true love.

Perhaps then the Liberal Diaspora will finally have returned home.
posted by Apollo Project @ 1:59 pm  
  • At 30 July, 2005 08:36, Blogger Bishop Hill said…

    Excellent post. I have nearly always voted Conservative in the past, taking the view that a vote for the only economically liberal party was more important than a vote for one of the socially liberal parties. I am quite happy to transfer my vote to a party that offers liberalism on both fronts.

    At the moment I remain entirely unconvinced that the LDs are it. The party needs to make clear that it is a party of small government. The Orange Book appears to be a start, but is hardly radical in terms of economic liberalism.

  • At 30 July, 2005 15:32, Anonymous Steve Travis said…

    Bishop, thank you for your kind comments.

    The Conservatives have been probably the most economically liberal party of recent years, but even they leave much to be desired. We aim to challenge that position. Look out for an upcoming post containing some thoughts on small government by one of my co-contributors.

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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.


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