Lib Dem voters are being urged to hold their nose to back Labour to stop Boris Johnson in a number of seats. But BEN DUNCAN-DUGGAL argues in some ways the party’s election pitch offers a better answer to liberalism than Jo Swinson’s own manifesto.
I know that many Lib Dem supporters aren’t feeling particularly enchanted by the Labour Party at the moment. After all, that is, to an extent, implicit in them being Lib Dem supporters. But in seats where Labour pose the best challenge to the Tories, Lib Dem voters should vote Labour, yes, for reasons of Brexit – our policy of a Public Vote with Remain on the ballot provides a clear no ifs, no buts route to remain, and a Public Vote is all our Brexit policy is, at its most fundamental level – but much more besides.
The Lib Dems may often appear to be a ‘none of the above’/’in the middle’ party, but that characterisation would be unfair. Although the liberal tradition had a more obviously ideological grounding when it was a more radical ideology – across the Western world it was a significant focus of rebellion against the hegemony of religion over public life – it is nonetheless still a tradition of its own, distinct from simply being a weakened version of either of the two main parties’ platforms.
It’s a tradition of bold freedom of the individual, as long as the use of that freedom is not in harming others. If you doubt that this is still at the core of the Liberal Democrats, look at this 2010 Nick Clegg interview where he references John Stuart Mill’s idea that ‘people should be free to do what they want but not when it harms other people’ as the foundational basis for his politics.
To add a bit more colour to this, in this country this philosophical start is conceptualised as meaning that the liberal tradition has a responsibility to create a culture of caring capitalism, where the market does not inflict disproportionate harm on some individuals (see: the creation of the welfare state by Lloyd-George and Asquith, or Beveridge’s ‘five evils’ report which provided the basis for Attlee’s post-war reforms). This is something not necessarily flowing from John Stuart Mill’s principle: it can be argued that this is an active choice to conceive of this ‘harm principle’ as not just relating to our immediate actions, but to our place within the wider economic system we live in and benefit from. Alternatively, it’s possible to see these kind of policies as an attempt to extend individual liberty via government aid. Either way, they represents a further, significant part of the British liberal tradition.
It would be perhaps churlish to say that Labour are representing the liberal tradition at this election better than the Lib Dems are, not to mention probably untrue. But there is some truth in saying that the ‘caring capitalism’ ideological root of liberals finds much common ground with Labour’s 2019 manifesto. There’s a commitment to returning public spending relative to GDP to decent, pre-Thatcherism levels, average amongst those of European countries. That’ll fund key tenets of a functioning welfare state in any capitalist system: an NHS that works, a country that builds homes for its people, an end to the damaging Universal Credit which has left thousands of people, including children, relying on foodbanks to survive. This is not revolutionary socialism, but sensible social democracy.
That said, let’s not forget Brexit, one of the biggest issues for our country. If Boris Johnson gets a majority, we will leave the EU. All 635 of the current Tory candidates have pledged to back his deal, so a Tory majority is a majority for a Johnson deal; a majority for a Hard Brexit, a majority for damage to rights and protections, a majority for a risk of return to conflict in Northern Ireland, a majority for an exit with a circa ten year waiting period for reversal. That is a non-negotiable fact, as is the fact that Labour’s Brexit policy would be infinitely better than this.
So yes, Brexit is an entirely valid reason for Lib Dems to back Labour candidates where they present the strongest challenge to the Tory candidate. But there are other important reasons to, as well.