The newspapers have been quick to denounce the Liberal Democrats and imply that they are clearly fracturing with the creation of the “Liberal Left” that will be launched at the Spring Conference 2012. Alongside the occasionally maverick group Social Liberal Forum, such factionalism is both embraced and abhorred by members of this political party.
The Liberal Democrats have not had an easy two years; it takes a great deal of guts to pursue a pluralist agenda in what is essentially a two-party system which bases all of its ideals on empirical content only. The Conservative, and major partner, within the coalition, have being keen to follow the political science predictions of the coalition, viewing it almost surely is a thorn in their side as they move towards a majority government.
However, with the global economic crisis, with significant divide in wealth and a growing, and ageing, population, empiricism has little value. Rather than the obvious predictions of the Coalition in 2010; that the economy would pick up, the Conservatives would be able to sell the nationalised banks on a vast profit and take control of the government quickly and easily with the help of the Murdoch press, the Conservatives have had to develop some humility. Not only have they been forced to sell one bank at a loss, and the other one is not looking too good, but they are not seeing any growth and being forced into quantitative easing which they had vehemently criticised in opposition, but they are also now looking at further hung parliament in three years time. So much for empiricism.
The unhappiness within the party is demonstrated by tantrum-like behaviour from the far right and the Eurosceptics. However, a similar level of unhappiness is demonstrated within the Liberal Democrats, by creations on formal and informal bases, of factions.
There is nothing wrong with factionalism in principle. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats could learn a lot from not only their coalition partners but also from Labour as both parties encompass a range of factions that create identities depending on their true beliefs as opposed to the whole. The Conservative party has their 1922 committee and associated followers, the Thatcherite liberals, the Eurosceptics, and the more Traditionalists. The Labour Party had their own little groups, such as the Fabians, Compass and also the relevant Brownites and Blairites groupings alongside the Socialist Campaigners and Bennites. As the Liberal Democrat party has grown, both in elected and in non-elected members, their number of associated bodies must also grow. It is unnatural for everyone to the left of the fence to support complete nuclear disarmament for example.
The development of the Social Liberal Forum, a thorn in the side of the Orange Bookers as the centre left-rightists of the party are referred to and who form the majority of the Cabinet members, has caused enough so-called trouble. They have heavily contested the NHS Bill, heavily contested the Welfare Bill and helped to disrupt an entire conference by bringing Hugh Grant along.
Now we have the Liberal Left. This particulara murmeration of Liberal Democrats works on the premise that they are anti-coalition, therefore, in principle, they are anti-pluralism. Or, alternatively they are only anti-coalition with the Conservatives. Unlike the Social Liberal Forum, which seeks to open debate around policy developments, the Liberal Left is seeking to back the party into a corner.
Not only is there a risk of the factionalism descending into bickering amongst the party; alongside snide blog posts by more “economic facing Lib Dems” for example, there is a real risk that the party is effectively being divided and ruled by their own inability to focus on what is important to them. And when factionalism becomes bickering, as indeed such affiliated formations are in danger of becoming, the party is going to lose any merits it can gain from all of the extremely positive things they have done in the coalition.
On an official basis the largest problem about the “Liberal Left” is an organisation is it will upset the whips and the coalition agreement. People may be unhappy with what the Coalition is doing in principle, but they don’t make such striking statements on websites or conduct launches within their own federal boundaries. Indeed, this could constitute breaching the party’s own constitution of bringing the party into disrepute. This level of upset among the grassroots could then become upset amongst the ministers and subsequently across government. It is unlikely to get that far, but it should be noted that on the first event that the Liberal Left hosting, there is not one minister or MP attending as a speaker. Unlike the Social Liberal Forum which has elicited support from across the ministerial cabinet, the Liberal Left seems to be being left alone to fight amongst themselves.
With a prolific Mid-Term Review due within the party and within the coalition, perhaps the liberal left will be able to provide grassroots support for such a striking anti-coalition stance. However, the majority of the Liberal Democrats would benefit from turning the other cheek to tantrums that we generally only expect from the Conservative Euro Sceptics.
Kelly-Marie Blundell is a fundraising professional as well as keen political and feminist blogger. She is also an active member of the Liberal Democrats. On Twitter she is known as @PoliticalParry
What do you make of the unhappiness is demonstrated within the Liberal Democrats? Can factions be good thing? What do you think the future is for the Liberal Democrats?