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Should Liberal Democrats accept defeat and join the two main parties?

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Today in The Times  (£), Daniel Finkelstein, former SDP member turned Tory, writes that it’s all over for the Liberal Democrats. The best thing, he says, for those who wish to advance liberal ideas is to join whichever of the Tories and Labour they feel most comfortable with.

I would be lying if similar thoughts hadn’t crossed my mind, particularly after the 2015 general election. It’s heart breaking to see the party you support make steady progress throughout your adult life, culminating in entry into government in 2010, only to be seemingly pushed back to square one. Do we need to wait another 20 years to get back into government? Is that even a realistic objective anymore?

With the UK’s punishing electoral system working to maintain the two party status quo, does it make sense to be on the inside of that system, working for change, rather than pushed to the margins?

I think Finkelstein’s argument only really holds for those inside the Westminster elite. Yes, I can understand that if you’re an ambitious Liberal Democrat MP who has lost their job, you might now be wishing you’d jumped to one of the big two parties, where you might still be in government and looking to implement your ideas. But the argument isn’t really valid for anyone else.

For a start most elections in the UK now use proportional representation. If you are looking to get elected in London, Scotland, Wales or to the European Parliament each vote really counts and Liberal Democrat influence corresponds to its success (or sometimes lack of) in those elections. For those of us not standing for election anywhere, I fail to see the attraction of being a flag waver for a party that isn’t very democratic and doesn’t particularly correspond to my point of view.

I liked the coalition. I thought it provided good government and on the whole I agreed with its policies. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats should have moved to become a clearer defined adjunct to the Tories, entering a coupon election that would have saved some seats in the South West of England. But the idea that I could be in the a party irrevocably bound to the anti-EU fanatics sickens me. Let’s not forget that a majority of Conservative MPs voted against their leader on same sex marriage. Now that the Tories have a majority they are wasting no time furthering their illiberal policies. There are historical reasons too – I’m of the generation that lived through the effects of Section 28 in secondary schools. I don’t think I could ever forgive the Tories for that.

What about Labour? I often find their economic policies to be populist and incoherent. An Ed Miliband-led Labour party would have been extremely hard for me to support. I’m a liberal and the idea that you can fix prices and control rents and not expect negative consequences I find naïve and ridiculous. Their authoritarianism seemingly knows no bounds. On social policy it might be easier – there are fewer Labour people trying to hold back progress on gay rights for example. But on the EU I find them spineless. I’m an internationalist and Labour never seems to feel able to stand up and make the case for Europe. I guess we’ll see how they act in the forthcoming referendum.

Looking at the Labour leadership election I suspect that Liz Kendall is a leader that I and many Liberal Democrats could support. What I’ve seen of her in media interviews has impressed me. But it seems doubtful that she can win over Labour’s membership and the unions, who are averse to supporting any candidate vaguely Blairite. I’ll admit I’m not familiar with her positions on many policy areas, but I get the feeling she might have made an excellent leader of the Liberal Democrats, but probably she took the decision to go to Labour for the reasons that Danny Finkelstein outlined in his article. She is perhaps part of that political elite who had to decide where their career is best furthered.

The rest of us can only go with our conscience. Yes my views overlap with both the moderate wings of both the Conservatives and Labour, but no other party represents my opinions as well as the Liberal Democrats. I think Finkelstein doesn’t understand that for ordinary members being a member of a political party isn’t always about influence. It’s about being part of a family, joining together with like-minded people to feel part of something bigger than you. As I’m not looking to further my political career or to work behind the scenes in the corridors of Westminster, this matters more to me than being on the government team.

Author: Martin Petts

Martin is the founder of Lib Dems in Spain and lives in Barcelona. He works as a web developer.

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