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Nov 21 2010

A little bit of politics

This is, to put it pretentiously, a meta-politics post rather than a post about particular political tendencies. It arises following a few months of Coalition government and a lot of chat on twitter and elsewhere, it is a personal view.

I joined a political party because I couldn’t be doing with the “plague on all your houses” view of politics. That I joined the Liberal Democrats is perhaps a sign I wasn’t fully committed to the alternative! Commitment to a party is a ticket to complain with confidence, you have a defined ground to defend and a crowd to back you in attacking the opposition. The downside of this is you tend to believe that any other criticism comes from a purely party political standpoint, and you in some ways tied to views that you don’t hold. This does make me somewhat rare: the Liberal Democrats have around 65,000 members, Tories 250,000 and Labour 166,000 (source), so of a voting population of 30,000,000 people less than 2% are members of a political party.

I struggle with mindless opposition, so end up always being mildly pro-government. To me standing on the sidelines and complaining automatically that the government is doing it wrong, whilst not proffering alternative solutions, or even tweaks to proposed solutions, is intellectually barren. I’ve been a party member for 20 years, for most of that time I’ve been an inactivist. Since the election I’ve been much more involved, this is partly due to the internet: online activism is the sort of activism I can cope with but also the fact of being in power brings home what the point is: not just to have policies but to enact them.

The Coalition has also brought to light the various strands of the Liberal Democrats: the old social democrats who left the Labour Party, original Liberals and the Tory equivalent of the social democrats. If you’re interested I’m probably closest to the latter group although I never considered joining the Tories (those Young Conservatives were a bit extreme).

No party really adequately captures an individual’s views – how can it? And further to this, many people find themselves utterly out of tune with the electorate and so destined to be unhappy with whatever government is in power. The benefit of a party out of power (and out of the likelihood of power) is that you can confidently project your desires on them without real fear of contradiction since they are untested in the white-heat of government. The problem with party politics is that it supresses attempts to gain consensus on key, long term issues and it does it’s best to supress free thought amongst parliamentarians.

Funnily enough in many senses the politically committed, by which I mean party members, get on with each other better than they do with the uncommitted. This was visible back in my days as an undergraduate, the members of the political clubs interacted with each other and disagreed quite considerable. Labour and Tory were despicably extreme ;-) but we shared a degree of enthusiasm for the political programme. The politically committed are approximately tied to a point of view, which can be argued with. The uncommitted can drift along in happy opposition to everything.

I have my own personal view of political change, which is that the British are largely non-revolutionary and they vote a government into power not because they offer compelling new ideas but because they believe they will offer broad continuity and that the incumbents have been sufficiently reduced in their eyes by the ordinary attrition of government that it is now time for a change.

Coalition is a novel position for a party to find itself: Britain hasn’t seen coalition since the Second World War. The interesting thing for a Liberal Democrat these days is how to behave in government, particularly in coalition government where the policies of the government differ from those of the party. I think this is worth repeating “In a coalition, the policies of the government are not the same as the policies of the component parties”. The government is still the government and as such there is a low limit to how much rebellion within it’s own ranks it can bear – this is true regardless of whether the government is a single party of a coalition. For the rest of the party things are somewhat easier. Liberal Democrats should argue for the party’s policies – particularly those being enacted by the government. They should be thoughtfully critical where they think the government is going wrong – this is our best opportunity to influence the workings of government across the board.

7 comments

  1. NewShoot

    Thanks for the meta-post, well-timed for my current musings. You say no party can be completely in tune with an individual's views. I'd be interested to know whether there is any LD policy you really disagree with?

    I ask because I'm 'liberal' (I hope!) and have recently thought more and more about becoming Liberal D, but although there's a lot of good there, I still disagree with one main policy…

    I think they're a better fit to my views than any other party, so tend to vote that way, but still not quite convinced enough to join…which is perhaps a daft attitude – but there's more to politics than logic?

  2. SomeBeans

    @NewShoot I disagree with LibDem policy on nuclear power and GM crops, which is probably a bit unusual!

    Logically one should consider each issue separately and come to conclusions divorced from political allegiance – but life is too short!

    As I said back in my first political blog post, way back here – I rely on the party to be roughly in tune with my views without my intervention, which fits in with this article which comments that liberals believe in individual liberty but then spoils it by saying we're egotists!

    Looking at both this post and my previous one, I joined a political party because of my very general beliefs about politics and the Liberal Democrats because of their approach to politics rather than primarily their political philosophy but broadly it's a political philosophy I'm happy with.

  3. NewShoot

    It was the anti-nuclear-power that troubles me too – and I spent 5 years in renewable energy research! We're going to need both – renewables certainly should be the long-term goal (and we need to include 'extreme' renewables in there like mega desert solar) but we need nuclear to tide us over in the short term (50-100 yr timescale) Carbon-based fuels are getting too precious to burn (except to go off-planet ;-))

    I hadn't picked up on the GM crops…presuming you're pro…distortion and fear again holding back developments that could change the world.

    I'd join a political party that would take a hard honest look 30 years into the future and base forward-planning around world scenarios then – and then educated and communicated as to why decisions like going nuclear will be needed if we wish to retain our quality of life (hmm, that last sounds selfish – not thinking of future generations dealing with our waste and all that – but imagine the middle-class anarchy when we get asked to give up our central heating to preserve gas supplies :-p)

  4. SomeBeans

    @newshoot 30 years is 6 parliaments and 30 years ago predates the merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP! So this is quite a challenge for any political party – climate change is one area where policy has to be set on this stage. I'd argue that care for the elderly is a similar area.

    I see more scope for influencing policy as a member in the LibDems than I do in other parties (it's not something I'm active in though).

  5. mike

    Good article.
    There a lots of lib Dems who realise we must give consideration to new nuclear and personally I think the coalition has got the balance right and I hope coalition policy becomes party policy.

    I wrote a thesis on nuclear power at university and there was no scientific or economic case to exclude nuclear for dogmatic reasons, so ive got some background info too.

    I'd suggest you join the party and get involved in the debate, as I think the lib Dems are taking a much more scientific approach to policy making these days than ever before. I spoke to a rep from the nuclear industry trade body at lib Dem conference and she told me lots of delegates had expressed support for a rethink on blanket opposition to nuclear.

    One of the reasons I'm a lib Dem is because they do rely much more on empirical evidence than tabloid pleasing scare stories – ie on drugs.

  6. cromercrox

    Interesting – from your tweets I'd have put you down as a slightly wayward Tory. But then, all Tories are a bit wayward. I'm one myself.

  7. SomeBeans

    @cromercrox Labour's approach post-election probably means that most LibDems would look slightly Tory by being in reaction to them.

    I'm Greener and more socially liberal than the old Tory party, and I'm more pro-European and less small-statist than the current party. I've never been aware of the different strands of LibDemism prior to the election.

    It would be interesting to see how I would have appeared politically pre-election.

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