Close your eyes. Now think of the first image that springs to mind at the words ‘Liberal Democrat’. What do you see? Socks and sandals? Bearded men with a pint of ale and an overly enthusiastic disposition? A bafflingly orange colour scheme? The traditional view of the Lib Dems is a hard one to shake off. My 16 year-old self was a card carrying Lib Dem –before I moved onto harder political substances-, and even I couldn’t quite shake the stereotype.
Perhaps this image is an incongruous one for a party who grew phoenix-like from the Liberal/SDP coalition of 1983; despite their slightly shambolic, middle-aged image they are by all accounts a young party, with all the vitality of youth. The Warwick Liberal Democrat society is the embodiment of this. At some point in the hazy past of ‘term one’ I offered my writing services and article space –in what can only be regarded as an act of gross nepotism- to the highest bidder in an environmental campaign’s promises auction. Expecting simply to relieve a drunken egotist of the money in their wallet, I was needless to say surprised that the Liberal Democrats were the principle bidder. Here we are, a few months later, and this feature on Warwick’s ‘Orange Revolution’ is testament to the upward surge of Liberal activity on campus, and perhaps an indicator of greater success to come nationwide.
I met with some of the Lib Dem Society’s exec on behalf of the _Boar_, in order to discuss the society, the party, and the state of national politics. So much has been written of the increasingly meaningless distinction between Labour and the Tories that it seems bizarre so little attention has been paid to Britain’s third party, who have consistently promoted themselves as a genuine alternative to the main opposition. Equally, given Labour’s tenuous hold on power, and the Conservatives’ still unknown pulling-power, a situation similar to that of 1997 looks on the cards. When talk of a hung parliament is so fervent, and so feared (depending on your perspective), again it seems like the right moment to get to know the Lib Dems, who, as in 1997, are cautiously priming themselves for the position of kingmaker.
Sitting down in SUHQ with Joe O’Leary, Katie Rickard and Ed Legon –who hold the positions of communications officer, vice-president and campaigns officer respectively- these themes are never far from the surface of our discussion. In the course of the interview, the exec’s genuine, principled belief shines through an understandable layer of frustration. At every turn the party seems to be held back by the glass ceiling of the system: media coverage always significantly lags behind the two main parties, and so the ability of the party to permeate the public’s disaffected consciousness is limited. Compounding this, an iniquitous voting system undervalues the not-insignificant level of party support in terms of parliamentary representation.
Joe puts it eloquently, “Even now on an issue that the electorate care about, like the economy, you might say we’re quite strong on the economy because of Vince Cable, but still there’s not an absolute liberal revolution happening. And part of that is the age-old problem that people don’t think we can win. That’s partly to do with a political system that encourages you to vote in a tactical, unprincipled way, and that squeezes out the small parties.”
Katie quickly echoes the point, saying how even in her own personal discussions “I feel that a lot of the time [people] try and dismiss us because they think we’re never going to win” rather than “actually engaging with the arguments”.
As Joe and Katie break into an impassioned exchange of scenarios in which political debates have followed that same trajectory, the question forms in my mind, why do they continue to stick so stoically to a party that has not, as Joe earlier pointed out, been in power since the days of Lloyd George? Surely their efforts could be better applied through different channels? I voice the query and they respond with a number of arguments. Underpinning most of them is the same sense of ideological commitment and drive, the tenets of liberalism, which they hold in such esteem.
Joe explains what he sees as the purpose of the party, “we’re here to try and make the world a more liberal place, and while I’m not saying we don’t want to be in government…it should be our goal to change things, and if we’re doing that then I think we should be happy with ourselves and continue to do that”. As if pre-empting my follow up question, Joe adds that “despite being out of power and a relatively weak party [throughout much of the last century], you could say liberal ideas still influenced policy; I mentioned John Maynard Keynes, also Beveridge, who established the ideas of the welfare state. The notion of the Bank of England adopted by Labour in 1997 was originally a Liberal idea; you don’t need to be a party in government to change things. It’s really important the Liberal party is always there to promote this dynamic, these ideas, and push them to the mainstream. As for how our policies get stolen by other parties, it’s almost a good thing, it shows that they want them’.
A frequent assertion during our conversation is how the two main parties continue to adapt (“badly”) many Lib Dem policies. The ambivalence of both frustration and vindication in this regard is particularly synonymous with how the exec seems to view the party’s position.
Continuing on the theme of the pragmatism of party politics, Ed contests the perceived weakness of the party: “[our presence] on the news in the run up to this election has been greater than ever. Vince Cable, a popular figure, was on the BBC news just this morning, whereas for example you don’t see someone like George Osborne. So I can only assume that the perception of the Liberal Democrats as people with something to say has increased”. In stressing the value of an incremental process of amassing both an identity as a party of conviction, success, and clarity, and of developing a strong relationship between Nick Clegg and the electorate, none of the exec are despairing about the party’s lack of electoral breakthrough. Katie highlights the importance of the upcoming election, “we’re on a course of progress as opposed to deceleration. Each election provides us an opportunity to increase our support base…and the potential of this election might see us spring-boarded up into the mainstream media coverage a little bit more.”
Of course the national politics is only so important without the advances being made at the grass roots. In talking about the Lib Dems at Warwick things seem brighter in a more immediate sense. The Warwick Society boasts a local councillor in Solihull in the form of Tim Hodgson, and the 8th most influential Liberal blogger (Luke Richards). Their ‘campaign days’ (Ed’s remit) have also apparently seen a dramatic increase in the number of signatures gathered, despite the inevitably inclement British weather.
All in all, talking with the Liberal Democrats at Warwick is an interesting experience. As someone with no faith in governments or the institutional power of states to effect the radical social, environmental and economic change we so desperately need, it is inevitable that our opinions will differ when it comes to something so fundamental as means and ends, but the discussion was nonetheless hugely engaging. The vanity and bickering of party politics seems absent from this group at the very least, and if there is to be any hope in the present system, it probably comes in orange.