There were varying degrees of excitement amongst Liberal Democrats that the Economist had recommended a vote for the party this Thursday. Some were ecstatic at the idea of any sort of publication that people have actually heard of endorsing the party, while others actually read the piece in question and saw that the endorsement was, at best, half-hearted:
No party passes with flying colours. But the closest is the Liberal Democrats. Brexit is the main task of the next government and they want membership of the single market and free movement. (Their second referendum would probably come to nothing, as most voters are reconciled to leaving the EU.) They are more honest than the Tories about the need to raise taxes for public services; and more sensible than Labour, spreading the burden rather than leaning only on high-earners. Unlike Labour they would reverse the Tories’ most regressive welfare cuts. They are on the right side of other issues: for devolution of power from London, reform of the voting system and the House of Lords, and regulation of markets for drugs and sex.
Like the other parties, they want to fiddle with markets by, say, giving tenants first dibs on buying their property. Their environmentalism is sometimes knee-jerk, as in their opposition to new runways and fracking. The true liberals in the party jostle with left-wingers, including Tim Farron, who is leading them to a dreadful result. But against a backward-looking Labour Party and an inward-looking Tory party about to compound its historic mistake over Brexit, they get our vote.
It’s not a vote for the Liberal Democrats as they are, more for some ideal version of the party and liberalism that exists in the head of an Economist leader writer. It’s the same thing that had people a couple of years ago claiming that Tim Farron isn’t a ‘strong liberal voice’ and is a shibboleth amongst certain people in and out of the party. The ‘true liberalism’ they speak of (and never trust anyone who claims they know what ‘true’ liberalism is, as thought the whole history of liberalism wasn’t a story of resisting absolute dogmas) is a vision that only appeals to a small number of people of whom a disproportionate number are writers for the Economist and newspaper comment sections. It’s a liberalism of ‘my life’s quite nice but not perfect, and I went to a same-sex marriage once, so why should I have to pay more taxes to help anyone else out?’ not one that wants to challenge or change the system.
Further, they’re not really asking people to vote for the Liberal Democrats, but rather vote against the Tories and Labour and in faovur of some new nebulous centre party:
We know that this year the Lib Dems are going nowhere. But the whirlwind unleashed by Brexit is unpredictable. Labour has been on the brink of breaking up since Mr Corbyn took over. If Mrs May polls badly or messes up Brexit, the Tories may split, too. Many moderate Conservative and Labour MPs could join a new liberal centre party—just as parts of the left and right have recently in France. So consider a vote for the Lib Dems as a down-payment for the future. Our hope is that they become one element of a party of the radical centre, essential for a thriving, prosperous Britain.
(As an aside, out of the many explanations of voting behaviour a vote as ‘a down-payment for the future’ is a new one on me)
Here, they’re doing what many others have wistfully done over the past couple of months in looking wistfully over the Channel towards Emmanuel Macron and thinking ‘if only…’ but if your plan for resurrecting the British centre is nothing more than hoping for a Macron then you don’t have a plan, you just have political fanfiction. They’re hoping for ‘a new liberal centre party’ or ‘a party of the radical centre’ to miraculously emerge and subsume the Liberal Democrats as ‘one element’ of it. They always put ‘radical’ in front of ‘centre’ when describing this type of hypothetical party, but it’s a doth-protest-too-much move as the vision is anything but radical as it’s about those who’ve always had power in some form or another – and for whom the Economist is the in-house journal – wanting to ensure that no one scares the horses or damages their position. What liberalism there is in there is entirely coincidental to the cause and described with the smallest ‘l’ possible. When proponents of this form of centrism look towards the Liberal Democrats it’s not with any misty-eyed fondness for the party’s radical past or with any acknowledgement that’s what now consensus had to be fought for and won, over and over again, but rather with the eye of a predator wondering which parts of the party can be cannibalised and repurposed into a quick-fit infrastructure for the new ‘radical centre’.
All votes count the same in the ballot box, of course, and no one can tell which were cast for this election and which were down-payments on a future, but even in a time when praise for the Liberal Democrats is rare, we should be wary of the motives behind some of it.