A new liberal party not obsessed with Brexit could work

BY Alastair Benn | alastair_benn   /  20 February 2019

That the two-party system is under strain is something of a cliché of contemporary political discourse, reflective of the way the class divisions of the post-war period have rapidly made way for a diverse potpourri of indicators for voting preference, taking in identity, culture and age. The most consistent way of telling how an individual voted in the 2016 Brexit referendum is by testing their view on the death penalty, for example.

So, the central question of politics – why should someone else tell me what to do? – has been thrown into some confusion. In the immediate post-war period, it was relatively easy to answer that question. Fighting a War of Survival against a foreign aggressor tends to strengthen a sense of solidarity. As we have found out to our cost in recent years, wars fought far away in remote parts of the world for abstract principles tend to do the opposite.

It is no surprise then that there has been the growth of “movement-style politics” across the West, involving anarchic hodge podge entities, vulnerable to fringe voices who speak the loudest. There was Occupy in London and New York, Los Indignados in Spain, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, and the Gilets Jaunes in France. They are a series of challenges to representative democracy, which has so long been filtered through megalithic party machines.

The crisis feels particularly acute in the British Labour party which has turned away from its historic mission – to represent working class interests in Parliament and to articulate a progressive vision that speaks to the nation as a whole – and been reshaped, under the auspices of Jeremy Corbyn et al, into a receptacle for some of the worst ideas of the twentieth century, sloganeering Marxist-Leninism, chic anti-Western posturing, and an indulgence of anti-Semitic interpretations of world affairs.

Corbyn is a perfect figurehead for movement politics, with his kitsch sensibility. When asked by Newsnight in 2015 what makes him cry, he said “people suffering”; when asked what makes him cry, “children being happy”. Then there are his cliché-ridden speeches, random appeals to socialist values, equality, decency, brotherhood, you name it.

“We’re clear that there needs to be an alternative”, said Chuka Umunna, Member of Parliament for Streatham, at the launch of The Independent Group, a breakaway group from the Labour party. He’s right of course – there needs to be an alternative on the Left to Corbyn’s Labour party, both because the party leadership is a palpable moral disgrace and because liberalism, for so long the ethic that underpinned the two-party system, now needs a proper voice in parliament all of its own.

The Independent Group is a brave refusal to go along with the Corbyn project, but I’m not sure it is going to come up a more convincing answer to the “why should I obey someone else” question that seems to be so tricky to resolve at the moment.

After the defection of three Tories to the new grouping this morning, (Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen), the new party, if we can call it that, has a distinctly second referendum flavour – and the plan seems to be to convert the energy and manpower of the People’s Vote campaign (lots of marches, hashtags galore, blindly supportive commentators, James O’Brien for one) into representation in parliament.

Now the statement on their website avoids any mention of a second referendum – it’s a document with lots of fine words about Britain’s obligations to preserve a rules-based order, close cooperation with allies, and the desirability of a market economy with inbuilt social protections. A good start – but a new liberal party should be allowed to evolve organically over time and an early obsession with the Europe question could bring this quickly to a halt.

To succeed, a new party must fuse a patriotic vision of the nation state, that goes beyond the Leave and Remain constituencies, with a sense of historic liberal mission. The great victories of the nineteenth and twentieth century for British liberalism were progressive extensions of the franchise and proto-welfare state social protections. These have their modern equivalents – homelessness, fighting encroachment on democracy by tech giants and constitutional reform for the regions and England.