I’ve been thinking for a while that a lot of debate about the Liberal Democrats – especially in the media – seems to assume or apply a dichotomy that members of the party are either socially liberal or economically liberal. A lot of the time the biggest debate doesn’t seem to be on whether these factions/wings of the party exist, but what to call them, with both being described as either ‘Liberal’ or ‘SDP’, depending on the author’s history and biases.

Of course, there’s been a lot of talk about this in the threads, post and comment sections of many sites and blogs, and while I do think that many, perhaps a majority of, party members, wouldn’t want to see themselves as part of either ‘faction’, I think a strong and distinct tendency within the party is being ignored and sidelined by these supposed battles.

I think that there’s a strong radical tendency within the party that’s currently only poking its head above the parapet on infrequent occasions and particular issues. Of course, there are many people who proclaim themselves to be radical – and by conventional definitions they are, wanting to drag the party well off to the left or right – but I’m thinking more of a form of radical centrism, wanting to take the best bits of the economic liberals and social liberals and combine them into a establishing a new way forward for the party. Back in the 1960s, Steel and Jenkins pushed forward legislation that dramatically liberalized British society and I think we as a party need to be identifying how to emulate that work in our modern society. This isn’t about finding soggy compromise between the two supposed wings of the party, but instead using a synthesis of the two forces to carve out a new direction that looks to the future.

(Can you tell I’m desperately trying to avoid using the formulation ‘neither left or right but’ in an attempt to not sound like either the Spitting Image version of Paddy Ashdown or various extremist nutjobs?)

There are already sizeable groups within the party in favour of issues like real marriage equality, a secular state, liberalization of the drug laws and abandoning Trident. I suspect that there’s probably a strong overlap between the supporters of those causes and several others that aren’t seen as mainstream. Many of them will be those that have some sympathy for the libertarian position, but shy away from the vulgar market-fundamentalist selfishness expressed by some of its supporters. As Robert Anton Wilson put it: ‘I suppose I should have voted for the Libertarian Party, but I’m not that kind of libertarian – I don’t hate the poor.’

There’s an interesting phenomenon noticed amongst advocates for reforming the drug laws whereby even when a majority of people support reform – as has been shown in some polls – the societal ‘mood music’ is such that they believe themselves to be part of a minority. I think that might be the same with the supporters of what you might call the ‘radical centre’ – we tend to believe we’re a small minority within a party dominated by others, but what if we’re not? What if there are a lot of people thinking that way – both in the party and outside of it – who don’t want to stick their heads above the parapet for fearing of being shouted down because the media coverage tells them their views are a minority?

So, the question is this – do we need to do something to organise people like this, like me, within the party? Or are we just a small minority that should hide away from those doing the proper politics that can only be expressed on a two-dimensional axis? Is there a need for something – a website, an organisation, a pub crawl – to give focus? And what name is best? Radical centre? Modern radicals? Liberaltarians? New Radicals?

The Parliamentary Radicals were one of the groups who founded the original Liberal Party all those years ago, so maybe it’s time to reclaim their energy.

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4 comments untill now

  1. The problem is where the lines are drawn. I consider myself a liberal centrist, radical centrist – whatever – a combination of economic and social liberalism. But I think you are absolutely wrong on tuition fees. There is nothing radical about making poor people pay for middle class kids to have a great time away from the real world for three years. It’s not fair, it’s not liberal, it’s not right – and it’s time the party woke up to that rather than fool itself into thinking everything can and should be free.

  2. Nick,

    As somebody who has just joined the LibDems (although I was a member of the old Liberal Party up until the merger with the SDP) and who is slowly getting back into thinking about “political thinking” rather than simply thinking about policy, I do believe that there is a constituency of people that would define themselves as being in the radical centre, and that they will be residing in all parties and none. The question, perhaps, is how do we create a space where they can start a dialogue with each other.

  3. A good article. Certainly I don’t identify as left-wing or right-wing, though people tend to place me on the “left” of the party by whatever arbitrary metric they use for these things.

    But much as I have a problem with the supposed left-right axis, I have a similar problem with the term “centrist”. If you don’t believe that there’s a useful, coherent definition of “left” and “right”, how can you believe that there’s a useful, coherent position of “centre”?

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