Party Groups and our Liberal identity
When Roy Jenkins left the Labour party in the early 80s rather than defecting to the Liberals, David Steel encouraged him to form the SDP in order to capitalize on a wider base of support for a future alliance.
Three decades on the Liberal Democrats are a merged, centrist party in government for the first time. With a hugely diverse membership base we are (proudly) the most democratic party in British politics, and recently this has formalized into a number of groups within the party.
Longest standing is the libertarian group Liberal Vision. Last week Liberal Left were making headlines calling for us to work with the Labour party. Arguably these two are fringe groups, but nonetheless represent valid opinions and ideas from party members.
More influentially the Social Liberal Forum are doing excellent work in promoting our fight against inequality, and acting as an internal party brake on the pressure exerted by our coalition partners.
Today the launch of Liberal Reform completes a span of the spectrum. Describing itself as “defending four cornered freedom in the Liberal Democrats: social, political, personal and economic” Liberal Reform is seeking to promote & expand economic Liberalism as a key aspect of the Liberal party’s historic identity.
All of these groups represent different core elements of Liberal ideology. Whether it is social or economic, there is much room for overlap. David Laws recently claimed “we are the party that best fuses social justice and economic liberalism”. And of course as Nick Clegg made clear in his conference speech last year “we are not on the left, and we are not right, we have our own label: Liberal”.
But there is a risk that commentators will fail to understand this. To be fair to them the internal workings of the Liberal Democrats are complex enough as it is, but these groups have an important role to play in shaping the party’s policy and identity. The more debate & discussion we have, the more we can claim to be a truly diverse and representative party.
Committed campaigners may rightly wonder why we aren’t spending more time out on the doorstep, but don’t underestimate the ability of internal debate and democracy to motivate and engage our membership. It is important that people feel engaged and able to influence party policy, and these groups can play a key role in membership development & recruitment if they gear their efforts towards it.
So a challenge to those joining & co-ordinating these groups: yes engage on party policy, on shaping our identity and celebrating our unique ideology. But also endeavor to be inclusive: encourage co-operation and good-natured debate between the groups; use them to expand our membership both internally and externally whether it is through media presence, affiliations or targeted campaigns.
And finally the most obvious, but undoubtedly most important: remember we are all Liberal Democrats. We are members of the same party, fighting from the same political base. Each of these groups will succeed if and only if they are united in seeking to take our party forward and expand our membership, not divide it.