Radicals and Democrats and Renewals, oh my!

As ever, there’s an xkcd for that
It’s getting very hard to go on social media these days without bumping into someone declaring that they’re going to be creating their own new centrist political party and inviting everyone to join. In this era of Warholian politics, everyone gets to be a party leader for fifteen minutes, and last night it was Economist writer Jeremy Cliffe describing his Macronic dreams in public and declaring a new ‘Radicals UK’ movement. Previous incarnations of this idea include ‘the Democrats‘, ‘Renew‘, multinational street parties in Maidenhead, and the idea that George Osborne will come riding to the rescue sometime around 2022.

Now, I’m not going to repeat the various blog posts and articles I’ve already written about why forming a new centre party isn’t the guaranteed route to political glory some people seem to think it is, but I do want to focus on one particular aspect of all these proposals. Tom King talks about it here, and we could phrase this problem as ‘you want to create a socially liberal, anti-Brexit, forward looking party, yet the Liberal Democrats and the Greens already exist. Why not just join one of them?’

The usual response when asked that is to say something on the lines of ‘because reasons‘ and declarations that this new party is going to be different in some vaguely unspecified way. I think it actually reveals a fundamental flaw in the makeup of these new movements that show why they won’t amount to much more than a short term flash in the pan, even before we get to the massive problems they’d face because of the nature of the British political system and the structure of the British electorate (the ‘socially and economically liberal’ people they want to represent are the smallest segment of British voters and massively over-represented within the commentariat).

The problem I think the ‘we have to have something new’ attitude reveals is an antipathy to dealing with the actual realities of politics, especially centrist politics, which requires the ability to compromise and build wide coalitions of support if you’re going to achieve your long-term goals. Compromise and coalition isn’t just something that happens between parties, it’s something that has to happen within parties unless they’re going to remain hopelessly small or ridiculously centralised and authoritarian. Divisions, disagreements and factions are an inevitable part of creating any political movement that has more than a handful of members. The sort of people declaring that they want to join a new movement/party because they have some disagreements with the existing ones are the sort of people who are going to become very disillusioned very quickly when it turns out that not everyone in their bold new movement agrees with them on everything.

It’s very easy for someone to read what they want into a vague set of principles – consider that even in existing parties, there are people who are a long way away from what you might regard as that party’s core beliefs – and aside from being anti-Brexit these new movements are saying little more than ‘we’re for good things and against bad things’. Jeremy Cliffe talks of his Radicals UK being ‘pro-tech and social liberal‘ but what do those phrases mean to people. One person might see ‘pro-tech’ as full speed ahead to the technofuturist dream, fracking all the way because technology will save us, while another might see it as ‘yes, we must invest more in sustainable technology and renewable energy’ while ‘social liberal’ can mean anything from a vague Cameronian middle-class niceness to full-on Georgist land value taxation fuelling massive social changes. Somewhere along the line if you want to be a proper political party, you’ve got to broker a compromise between these people who’ve all joined your group because they think it means they won’t have to compromise.

If you want to try and create a political party for people who don’t like the realities of doing politics, that’s fine, but at some point you’re going to have to face up to the problems and contradictions that causes for you. If you’re going to build a movement based on people who aren’t willing to compromise, don’t be surprised when they won’t compromise with each other.

Of centrists, radicals and liberals

As the Liberal Democrat leadership election now appears likely to consist of just two stages – closing nominations, and announcing Vince Cable is the winner – attention now turns to what direction the party will head in under its new leader, with some declaring that the only way forward is for the party to become the herald of the ‘radical centre’. This is often linked to claims that what Britain needs is a new centre party and that Macron and Trudeau are examples the party should follow (click on the links to see what I wrote about those ideas before to save me from writing them out again).

The problem with the ‘radical centre’ is that it’s a phrase that’s effectively meaningless, a political buzzword that you invoke to get the nodding approval of your audience without any of you actually agreeing on what it means. Some hear ‘radical’ and think back to the radical reformers of the nineteenth century, imagining it invokes the spirit of the Chartists and others to overturn the structures of power, or they see the unfinished business of the early twentieth century to tax land and wealth, while others imagine it as a call to the spirit of Hayek and Thatcher to radically cut back the state and taxes. Meanwhile some see the centre as a nice safe place to be, just picking what they like from left and right, while others see it as merely a location of necessity on a scale they have no interest in. And all of them hear ‘radical centre’ and see something different from their neighbour whilst imagining everyone is thinking the same as them. (And I will admit to having used this empty signifier myself in the past)

And when you come down to it and ask for an explanation of what the ‘radical centre’ is you get something like this from The Economist. The exact policy detail may change between different ‘radical centrists’ but the intention is the same, wanting a centrism that “reconciles the left’s impatience at an unsatisfactory status quo with the right’s scepticism about grandiose redistributive schemes.” Or in other words, recognising that things are bad or very bad for some people, but there’s not much that can be done about it beyond a few tweaks. Despite the Economist’s claim to liberalism, there’s a strong element of small-c conservatism behind this position as it’s a belief that everything’s essentially all right and any changes that are needed to make things better are purely administrative rather than structural. Quite where the ‘radical’ applies in this centrism is anyone’s guess, and the liberalism it invokes is very much a conservative liberalism that often likes to ignore that left-liberalism exists.

One of the problems of discussing centrism in British politics is that the concept has become strongly linked with liberalism, but I think this is more by a historic quirk of the British party system rather than any ideological similarity between liberalism and centrism. British liberalism has always been a broad church movement, trying to bring together the various different strands of liberalism into one party which, in order to accommodate all these different beliefs has tended to split the difference between them and oscillate around the ideological centre. When we look to other countries we can see liberal parties that don’t anchor themselves in the centre, and we also see centre parties (especially those from the Christian Democrat tradition) that don’t define themselves as liberal but do see themselves as a bridge between left and right. While I doubt any of these parties would define themselves as radical, they do exist as centrist parties of varying levels of political success.

One train of thought I’m developing in my work on centre parties – and this is still quite nascent, so comments and thoughts on it welcome – is the concept of a political system having what I’m calling for now a ‘centrist moment’. That is to say, there’s a period of time where there’s tacit agreement of parties and electorate to agree upon a consensus politics of the centre which can either take the form of a centrist party being in power or an alternation between left and right that’s effectively about managerial differences rather than ideological ones. Systems move between a centrist moment and a polarized one (where differences are accentuated and ideology becomes more important) independently of any left-right ideological movement as they choose to accept or reject a consensus. In this view, Britain is actually exiting a two-decade long centrist moment, while France is entering one. We can’t have a British Macron, because we’ve already have one.

If we continue to conflate liberalism and centrism – whether it’s ‘radical’ or not – then we’re heading up a blind alley towards a liberalism that doesn’t challenge anything but is content to be brought out in defence of the status quo. It’s liberalism with the sharp edges filed off to make it safe and unthreatening to anyone with any actual power and of no hope to anyone without power looking in on the gilded centre from the outside. Just saying you’re radical doesn’t mean you are, no matter how many times people might say it.

Calling all the radicals

There’s an interesting discussion going on in the comments on this post of Jennie’s about whether there’s a need for a ‘radical liberal’ group of some description. This reminded me of this post I wrote last year on the same issue, even if I got myself a bit trapped in semantics about left, right and centre.

So, given that five or six people in a comment thread think it’s a good idea – hey, the SDP started with less than that – I think it’s time to take a step forward from ‘that’d be a good idea’ and actually do something about organising a radical grouping. Actually, it’s more than five or six, as I’ve seen similar ideas discussed elsewhere and get support from different people. There is, I believe, support out there for a radical liberal organisation of some sort, but the question is what sort of form should it take?

My thought is that I think a radical liberal grouping would benefit from taking a different approach to organising itself. In my view it would be best organised as a network or a forum where like-minded people can come together and discuss, argue and plan things together but without the necessity for having to convince the entire organisation of something before any action gets taken. One of the issues with trying to create an organisation that’s truly radical is going to be that not everyone is going to agree with everything that’s discussed and suggested, and it seems to me that the best way to deal with that is to embrace it and make it a feature. Indeed, you could argue that if everyone agrees with something, it’s not really that radical…

Rather than creating some new faction with a shopping list of policy proposals that everyone has to sign up to, my idea would to be to come up with a relatively short statement of radical liberal principles, and people who agreed with those could become part of the grouping. I’d expect that list to be centred around issues of freedom, civil liberties and libertarianism, anti-authoritarianism etc with dashes of decentralisation, internationalism and other issues. Once that’s done, then we can look at how we go on to build a network of the people who agree with it, and what shape that network could take.

So I guess it’s time to throw it open to the crowd – how does that sound for steps forward? What’s your vision of radical liberal principles?

Do the Liberal Democrats need a radical centre?

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.