Recent calls for the formation of a ‘new Centrist party’ à la En Marche have rekindled the debate around ‘First Pass the Post’ (FPP) and Proportionate Representation (PR) voting systems, extremism and the decline of the duopolist party system.
Ironically, the FPP system which was designed to keep extremist factions out of parliament has enabled the two largest parties to move ever further away from the moderate centre, leaving a gaping hole in the middle.
Or so it seems.
Between Brexiteer-Austerity Tories and Momentum-style, hard-left Corbynites, Liberal Democrats find an increasing amount of support from moderate Labour MPs and a few courageous Tories who despair at their leaders’ inability to stop Britain’s march into oblivion.
So why have Liberal Democrats not been able to establish themselves as the New Centre, the obvious answer to extremist tendencies on either side of the political spectrum?
Blaming PR alone is too easy. While Britain’s unfair voting system clearly disadvantages smaller parties and perpetuates the power of the incumbents, it did not prevent Liberal Democrats from gaining enough parliamentary seats in 2010 to force Tories into a coalition. It was the latter which has thrown Liberal Democrats into the credibility crisis it is still grappling with. Let’s be honest: this, not the lack of a chance of winning, is what most voters tell me is their main problem with Liberal Democrats.
How does a political party recover from a such a crisis?
First, it is worthwhile putting the facts right: as junior coalition partner, Liberal Democrats did much more good and prevented much more harm than they could have done in opposition. Examples include the opposition to Heathrow airport expansion (without which we might have a third runway already); the rise of the Income Tax personal allowance from £6475 to £10,600; 15 hours free child care for disadvantaged children; the 5pm charge on plastic bags and free school meals for infant school children and in the first three years of primary school in England. There were failures, too, such as the much quoted inability to prevent the increase in university tuition fees, but overall there is no doubt that things would have been much worse, and did turn much worse, without Liberal Democrats acting as a brake on Tory excesses.
Second, it is possible to evolve and learn from mistakes. The Liberal Democrats I re-joined in 2016 are different from those I left in 2010. More diverse, more energetic, but also more realistic and absolutely determined not to overpromise – a party which has a better incentive to deliver than any other. What drove me to Liberal Democrats were its people, young and old, from all backgrounds, as diverse as Britain as a whole, bound together by a sense of pragmatism, tolerance and the realisation that to achieve common goals we must be willing to work not only across national borders, but across party borderlines. Most of all, by the notion that trust can be lost easily, and is incredibly hard to regain. People who have worked tirelessly to prove their trustworthiness, and have the drive to continue to do so when in office.
The time and place is right for Liberal Democrats to take their place in the centre of British politics – in government, in centrist coalitions or in opposition, at local and national level. Three years after the end of the coalition government, and almost two years after the Brexit referendum, Liberal Democrats have resurfaced as the only consistent, nation-wide opposition to a hard Brexit, and the only voice of the moderate centre. While not without fault, it is the only party largely free from major scandals, allegations of corruption, anti-Semitism, sexual transgression and infighting. This is not because it is populated by saints, but because its core values - tolerance, freedom and inclusivity – inform the behaviour expected of its representatives and members. We stand for a fairer, open, responsible Britain within Europe, which respects the weakest members of society, those largely forgotten by the large parties in their battle against each other.
A vote for Liberal Democrats in the London Local Elections on 3 May is a vote for a real alternative at the centre of Britain.