The ‘fuzzy’ party

What do the Liberal Democrats stand for? Party members in Brighton give mixed messages.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

After victory in London’s Brent East by-election, the Liberal Democrats have been fêted as the new opposition to Labour. The spotlight has been turned on to their annual conference in Brighton, an event that last year was watched only by the seagulls.

But ask the question of what the Lib Dems actually stand for, and it is difficult to get a clear answer.

‘Freedom, equality and community’, answered 20-year-old Ali Goldsworthy from Wales, a little too quickly. ‘It’s on our membership card’, she confessed. ‘I should have brought my membership card’, said another man, as if he had forgotten the correct answer. ‘We stand for the things in our constitution’, said 74-year-old Pat Fearnley from Tatton.

Once away from the official blurb, there was less agreement. ‘Basically freedom, liberty, justice, that kind of thing’, said Stephen Bird, 40, from Dewsbury. ‘Listening to the community’, said Jacqui Gasson from Cardiff West. ‘A mix of liberalism, to some extent, but liberalism allows for the free market, whereas we believe in the social market’, she continued.

‘Education’, said one young Lib Dem, ‘equality for everybody to have an education, and freedom to keep up with lifelong learning’. ‘It’s terribly difficult to define’, said Doreen Darby from Wiltshire North – ‘it’s an instinctive feeling about freedom, the rights of the individual’. ‘We are all individuals – we are allowed to be individuals’, another concluded, saying that much of politics was an issue of personal ‘conscience’.

The Liberal Democrats aren’t even really, well, liberal. There would be much to admire in defending freedom, at a time when New Labour is passing draconian new laws, such as the Criminal Justice Bill currently going through Parliament. A number of people told me that the Lib Dems stood for libertarianism against authoritarianism. When it comes to talking political realities, however, principles such as the freedom of the individual are soon compromised.

Few had many objections to the government’s new criminal justice initiatives, such as the laws against ‘anti-social behaviour’ or on-the-spot fines. ‘We need a balance between rights and obligations’, said Jacqui Gasson, ‘laws against noisy neighbours are a good thing’. Anyway, she continues, ‘if we see it from the victims perspective, they have a right to a quality of life’. ‘I don’t feel liberty is threatened by ID cards’, said another.

Stephanie Ripley, 58, from Surrey thought that something should be done about people wandering around drunk on a Friday night. Instead of prison, she said, it should be tackled on the ‘supply side’ by restricting sale of alcohol.

The Lib Dems seem to have a taste for petty, behaviour-policing measures. On 24 September 2003 the conference voted, somewhat mean-spiritedly, to ban children from buying pets. The motion emphasised that ‘children would still be able to own pets’, they would just need an adult to act as ‘guarantor’. The Lib Dems also supported a motion to make smacking children a form of domestic violence – something that even New Labour had dismissed as unworkable.

Liberal Democrats are quite open about their lack of a distinctive agenda. Old-timer Shirley Williams told a fringe meeting on 22 September that: ‘It’s no good hiding behind the wonderful success of Brent. We are too fuzzy, our central themes are not clear enough, so that when people say “what do the Liberal Democrats stand for?” it is very difficult to give them an answer.’ (1)

The fuzziness of their national agenda means that Lib Dems find their feet in pavement politics – getting immersed in local issues such as drains, roads and skate parks. ‘We are about whatever we are trying to do in a particular sphere’, said Pat Fearnley. The aim, she said, is ‘devolving decision-making down to the lowest level’. This localism is often seen as a virtue, as a sign of the Lib Dems’ closeness to ‘the people’ – but actually, it just expresses the party’s fragmentation.

On the level of official policy, the Lib Dems have little to distinguish themselves. One policy paper about social care, ‘Promoting Independence, Protecting Individuals’, read like it had been cobbled together from other parties’ jargon – referencing ‘a people-centred approach’, ‘working together for wellbeing’, ‘protecting vulnerable people’, and the need to ‘value, support and develop skills’ (2).

Charles Kennedy’s closing speech, meanwhile, was described as ‘Blair-like’, using ‘short sentences and almost no verbs’. In his speech, Kennedy called on his party to adopt ‘self-discipline’ to attack the government (3). Perhaps he should give Peter Mandelson a call.

What makes the Lib Dems distinctive is the fact that they haven’t actually held power. This gives the party a kind of innocent quality, a light-heartedness. Take Charles Kennedy: he’s just not very political. Whatever Kennedy dreams about, it is not politics – probably doing up his garden or drives in the countryside. He doesn’t seem to have the edge or drive of figures such as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, or even Stephen Byers and Oliver Letwin.

Kennedy’s spirit can also be seen among party members. When asked whether they are ready for power, they respond as if you had asked them if they were planning to move house over the next few years. ‘Yes, I think we should be working towards it.’ They don’t have the world-weariness of Labour Party members, or the stubborn backbone of the Tory Party faithful.

Lib Dems will cheerily admit their limitations. ‘We have a problem with discipline’, said one, not aware of the irony that it is undisciplined to admit such things to journalists. ‘We benefit as much from other people’s weaknesses as our own strengths’, said another. One woman (an ex-councillor) even said that the Lib Dems could be as bad as both the other parties if they reached ever government. This is not honesty of the good kind – it is childish, rather than honourable. They are honest because they don’t have any weight of responsibility on their shoulders.

At a time when politicians and politics are viewed with cynicism, the Liberal Democrats are seen as relatively untainted. Their isolation from the corridors of power, which would normally be a limitation for a political party, has become their selling point.

It is perhaps this that explains the party’s growing attraction. Conference delegates included slightly hippy types who joined the Liberals/SDP in the 1980s, and earnest-young-Christian types, such as Brent East victor Sarah Teather – but there was also a notable handful of intelligent young people, with good haircuts and smart suits. The Lib Dems, it seems, are becoming attractive to some who are disillusioned with the two main parties. The party is seen as standing back from the sordid scraps of political life.

The fact that the Lib Dems are ‘not the other two’ has always been the main part of their appeal. What is different today, however, is the degree of cynicism directed towards the two main parties, and the dominance of anti-political sentiments. In this climate, the Lib Dems appear to have become something of a dustbin for discontent, as voters dump their concern with mainstream politics into the least political party.

Charles Kennedy has been trying to capitalise from his ‘whiter than white’ image, saying that voter disillusionment ‘offers the best chance to break the political mould since Thatcher’. In his closing speech he denounced Labour’s ‘shop-soiled Labour government’.

This anti-politics strategy, though, has limited mileage for a political party. The Lib Dems may be able to sop up votes in the short term, but it will be difficult to run for government on this basis.

Read on:

Brent out of shape, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Disillusionment ‘offers best chance to break political mould since Thatcher’ , Guardian, 23 September 2003

(2) ‘Promoting Independence, Protecting Individuals’, Liberal Democrat Policy Paper 60

(3) Lib Dems ‘only credible opposition’, Guardian, 25 September 2003

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Topics Politics


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