First, thanks to everyone who shared my previous post on splits that don’t exist within the Liberal Democrats (but still apparently live on in the conventional wisdom of political reporters).
However, just because the image of a party irredeemably riven by a split between classical liberals and social democrats is incorrect, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t factions within the party, it’s just that characterising them in terms of the merger – and assuming they’ve persisted unchanged since 1988 – is the wrong way of going about looking at them.
This post isn’t about me listing factions, but rather a defence of the existence of factions which are often maligned as nefarious influences within parties, but in my view are part and parcel of trying to be a party that attempts to have an appeal to anyone outside of a small coterie. The actual task of identifying and classifying the factions within the Liberal Democrats I leave to someone with a thicker skin than mine.
Perhaps because of the party’s origins in a merger, there is a tendency to decry factionalism in the Liberal Democrats. This can be an honourable and idealistic – ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ – position to take, but it can also become quite stifling, imposing a passive conformism on people who try to dissent. Factions are seen as representing divisions within the party, divided parties are bad, and therefore factions and factionalism are bad and must be stamped out.
I take a different view, and see the party as being under-factionalised (a position put forward by Richard Grayson a few years ago) and in need of actually expressing its internal differences more openly. Factions are often part of a political irregular verb – I encourage healthy debate, you spend too much time talking to people who agree with you, they’ve factionalised the party – and get depicted as negative forces, but they exist in just about every political party (and the ones they don’t exist in are too small for us to be concerned with). The Tories range from the Tory Reform Group and Bright Blue through to Cornerstone and Better Off Out, while Labour have Tribune, the Campaign Group, Progress, Compass and plenty of other groups within them. If a party is going to be successful in attracting members and voters, it has to cover a wide ideological space and can’t expect all of its members to hold the exact same position on every issue. Parties expect members to support the general principles and aims of the party, but politics and ideology are not exact sciences, and people will naturally interpret those in different ways.
It’s entirely natural for people who feel a certain way about issues to come together and work to spread their ideas. After all, that’s one reason they joined a political party in the first place. Factions are just the way this process gets carried out, allowing people to organise and promote themselves, instead of letting things happen in hidden undercurrents and coded language. Political parties have their own internal politics, and calling for an end to factions is the making the same argument as ‘let’s take the politics out of this’: what they’re really asking for is for everyone to stop arguing and agree with them.
Like most things, if you let factionalism go too far it can become unhealthy, and there are examples where the parties themselves have become effectively empty shells that factions fight to control, or where the factions separate into new parties. Those are rare occurences, and shouldn’t prevent the development of healthy and organised internal debate within a party. As Liberal Democrats we generally Mill’s notion that ideas need to be tested, challenged and discussed to improve and strengthen them. Factions allow for different strands and interpretations of liberalism to discuss and put forward their ideas in an organised and open way, rather than having to almost surreptitiously do so. Proper and lasting consensus can’t be imposed by a diktat from above seeking to depoliticise debate, but from an open process where people express and accept difference.
That’s why even if the media perception of what our factions are is wrong, we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that they do exist. Pretending they’re not there leads to a lot more trouble than accepting them does, as acceptance allows us to establish proper norms of how to interact and debate with each other, rather than concealed sniping from under cover.