On 1 November 2011, I announced on the Social Liberal Forum that I was “returning to the fold“. On 5 March 2012, I announced I was leaving the party – and thus my role in the SLF (constitutionally, only Lib Dem members can be members of the SLF). So what happened in the four months in between?
Tangibly speaking, not a lot – and that’s what forced the issue. I had a lot of good intentions, but I found myself doing only a small portion of them. The SLF needed someone who would take on the role of looking at its broader strategy and public affairs brief. I had broad idea of what I needed to do; but none of it actually happened. And in the process, I was very aware that I was starting to alienate a growing number of colleagues who felt that I was coasting off their work; mainly because I was.
It was trying to understand why someone like me who normally is quite enthusiastic about taking on such a role could make such a bodge of it that lead me to this point. In the end, I came to the conclusion there were two reasons.
Firstly, my day job. I’ve taken on wider responsibilities within the organisation at a time when the work of the organisation has become much more challenging (I work at Unlock Democracy if you don’t know). Influencing a coalition government is significantly different to influencing a single party government, particularly when your focus is on democratic reform. Every issue goes through the prism of which party “owns” it and therefore which party would be “gaining” if that policy were to be prioritised, even issues such as House of Lords reform where both parties had a manifesto commitments. It’s challenging and tough, and doesn’t leave a lot of time for anything else. Coming home from a long day to do more political work was quite hard mentally.
But while that’s a good reason to scale back my activities, it only works so far. Most political activists will be able to tell you that the main thing they need to keep going is not really time but enthusiasm. The latter does a remarkably good job at stretching the former as and when it is required. If you feel that what you’re doing is making a difference, however marginally, you keep going.
It isn’t always 100% evidence based either. In the first by-election I ever took part in (in Rochdale in 1995), we won by about 10 votes and I personally managed to get at least double that many people out of the door to vote. That’s tangible. But most of the time, you work on the basis that what you’re doing is helping in much more abstract and amorphous ways; even losing a debate can sometimes lead your opponent to shift their position in order to defeat you, for example – that’s often how it works in politics. You’re never quite sure to what degree you are actually changing things or to what degree they wouldn’t reach that position without your intervention. However much you might rationalise it, most of the time you depend on instinct and faith to keep you going.
And I, quite frankly, have lost that faith (and yes, you do have permission to laugh at the atheist’s expense for writing that). I can’t get it out of my head that the Lib Dems’ fate for the next few years has already been sealed, based on a number of very crucial decisions that were made early in the lifetime of the coalition (and a number beforehand). Changing the course of that is beyond my meagre abilities. But at the same time, I’m not a spectator, and I’m not willing to just sit there and watch things happen.
When Lib Dem Voice announced I was leaving, Lord Greaves lampooned the fact that I said I might eventually return to the party in his characteristically generous and affable way: “when the rest of you have dug in and beavered away with time and energy to sort out the problems”.
He has a point. What I’d say in my defence is that I’d be doing that if I merely quit my roles in the party and just became a passive member for a couple of years. I’d also question the underlying assumption behind it, which is that the simple act of doing stuff is effective. Indeed, one of my problems with the Lib Dems is precisely this attitude towards activism, what Simon Titley regularly critiques in Liberator as “Maoism” (pdf).
I’m not going to cease being a political activist – my day job wouldn’t allow it apart from anything else. But I am going to have a very serious think about what form that political activism should take. I could try, to use that most Churchillian of phrases, to “keep buggering on” but my big fear is that all that will mean in effect is focusing on narrower and narrower parts of the agenda and not really thinking about the bigger picture. The problem is ultimately much, much bigger than the Lib Dems. We have a horrendous political culture in this country which the party has traditionally claimed to not be a part of but which now is in danger of consuming it whole. But at the same time, that culture itself is starting to fall apart, with the banking crisis, the expenses scandal and the media hacking scandal. Something very scary but potentially wonderful is happening out there but the Lib Dems are stuck in a bubble effectively propping up the status quo – at best gently reforming it on the inside but all too often being changed by it. I worry that so much energy is being put into keeping the good ship Liberal Democrat afloat at the precise moment that a new generation is experimenting with flight.
None of which is to say that I can honestly tell you that there are better alternatives to parties as a means of democratic participation. But if you content yourself with being a member of the “least worst” party working within the “least worst” system then I contend you aren’t ever going to achieve very much to be proud of. I need to think about alternatives for a bit and if I can’t find something better I might at least be able to come up with some ideas and approaches that the Lib Dems might adopt.
All of this must come across as horribly abstract but, as I say, I didn’t leave because of policy X or Y; it’s been an accumulation of things. I’ll no doubt return a few times to what specific problems I have with the Lib Dems at the moment but for now this will have to suffice.