Monday, 19 September 2011

The Liberal Democrats need "Nicks" not "Tims"


There are, it seems to me, two sorts of Liberal Democrat. I’m going to call them “Nick” and “Tim” for the sake of explanation.

For many year’s Tim was the man. Liberal Democrats – and Liberals before – were activists, campaigners, street politicians. The purveyors of pavement politics, the champions of potholes, the organisers of dog pooh campaigns and the persistent pointers at things in the local paper – and these tactics worked, Tim and his friends got elected. 

Tim isn’t really a liberal or even much of a democrat. Tim knows the buttons to press with the local ‘community’. Tim is prepared to be inconsistent and contradictory, to say one thing on the council estate and a completely different thing in the terraced town centre. To campaign against a wind farm while, at the same time, making the right green noises to a different audience somewhere else. 

Tim doesn’t think about the philosophical basis for his liberalism but prefers instead to make the right, slightly pink-tinged remarks about tax, business and the environment. The sort of remarks that get you liked, that plays to the prejudices of people who consider themselves “liberal” but aren’t.

Because farmers like subsidies, Tim will campaign for subsidies without thought. If NIMBYs and BANANAs approach Tim, he will support them without question. Tim is progressive in that slightly mushy, largely meaningless way - as if he'd stopped thinking about politics after his first "it's not fair" thought at the age of 14.

For Tim the acme of politics is the “good constituency MP”, the man or woman who does little else than chitter and worry at little local issues, who cares more about electoral tactics and the next “Focus” leaflet than about the economy or the environment (except, of course, when those are the correct tactical topics for that “Focus” leaflet).

The Liberal Democrats were filled with Tims. The pavement politics, the deception, the inconsistency worked and the chambers began to fill with Liberal Democrats. And thoughts turned to government, to the prospect – at local level first, then nationally – of having to propose some sort of coherent believable strategy for government. Tim was lost. Tim wanted to just attack the Tories, to continue the never-ending local campaigns about potholes and cracked paving stones. Government wasn’t for Tim.

But there was “Nick” to help. Nick was different. He hadn’t grown up as a local activist; he’d been on the international stage. Nick was well-educated – top schools, Oxford – and worked in banking, management consultancy and the European bureaucracy. Nick actually believed in something called ‘liberalism’, actually had a philosophical basis for the arguments he made and put forward policies that weren’t simply a tactical response to whoever in the local constituency shouted loudest.

Nick provided some gravitas, a sense that this was a party with a real programme rather than a collection of slightly odd people brought together mostly by a desire for power and a shared dislike of Labour and/or Conservative. Nick began to think, to propose policies based on local power, on the effectiveness of markets and on personal choice. For sure, Nick’s ideas were dragged back by Tim who wasn’t quite ready (or rather worried that his carefully manufactured activist image would be damaged by actually having to believe in something) for a coherent policy for government, but those ideas began to get a purchase with supporters. And Nick came to lead.

Now times are tricky. Nick took the liberal democrats into government, made them support some tough policies necessary for that government to work. And Tim isn’t happy. Tim liked it when he didn’t have to defend the difficult decisions of government. Tim preferred the time when the prospect of eternal opposition allowed him simply to say the things that got the best response from his voters. Tim just wants to be a “good constituency MP”, some form of self-directed delegate of the loud voices in some part of England. Tim wants the Liberal Democrat comfort zone.

And Tim is wrong. Tim will make the Liberal Democrats irrelevant again. A bunch of irritating blow flies rather than a diligent hive. An opportunistic, devious, untrustworthy and prejudiced bunch of slightly left-wing activists rather than a serious party with a set of serious policies based on a coherent, believable political philosophy.



Phil said...

I remember a "Tim" type who used a cross-party "Yes to AV" event as an anti-Thatcher platform... with Nigel Farage sharing the stage!

asquith said...

Nick has kept the Tims of this world more on board than they might have been because he consulted them thoroughly over the coalition, to an extent that Cameron didn't do with his party.

I find it a bit odd that Labourites gloat about Liberal Democrats not getting through 100% of their agenda. Of course, the junior partner in the government won't. And the same people who hated what their own party did in office want Tim to defect to a party that hates them anyway?

I do think both social liberals and economic liberals have a lot in common, whatever party they are in, as distingusihed from social democrats (often confused with social liberals), conservatives, and other schools of thought. They are universally for civil liberties, which is why Clegg has got such a mauling over secret courts, the snoopers' charter etc.

And now people sneer at LDs for saying if they were in government they wouldn't follow these policies. Well, if Dennis Skinner, Ian Lavery, Diane Abbott etc had issued a manifesto in 2010 it wouldn't have looked much like Gordon Brown. But they supported a governing coalition which totally ignored them.

Whatever. Nick and Tim are not hugely far apart. And it's actually easy to see why they are in the same party and why Tim was never actually tempted to defect any more than his mate Vince.

PS- sorry about this, it's a bit too late to be 100% sense.