Repost: Ambiguously liberal and unambiguously beige

This article was written by Kevin McNamara and is reproduced here with his permission.

The Liberal Democrats are seen as the party of splitting the difference — this must change.

Tragically, many people have this faithless, wishy washy mindset, which causes them to lose the battle in their minds before they ever fight it in the world. – Craig Groeschel

Much has been said — from the National Liberal Youth Chatbox, to Liberal Democrat Voice — about how the involvement of Nick Clegg (Brexit spokesperson) and Norman Lamb (MP for overwhelmingly Leave voting North Norfolk) in the re-launch of Britain Stronger in Europe, under the name Open Britain, has confused our pro-EU message in the wake of the UK (and I really mean England’s) vote to leave the European Union.

It is obviously disappointing for me, having poured blood, sweat, tears, and the last vestiges of my sanity into the referendum, it is not that surprising to me. The propensity to dither, try to offend no-one and triangulate while bumping along between 6–10% in the polls all returns to the fore, as if by reflex. At a time when people cannot explain what the Liberal Democrats are for, we are turning around and saying “not much — a bit of this and a bit of that”. The political fallout of the Brexit vote has given the Liberal Democrats the opportunity to collectively nail our colours to the mast of Europeanism and internationalism.

Instead, what has followed is a fudge that no-one has asked for. Not voters at large, not our target market, and certainly not our members at least. The version of events as I recall it:

  1. Tim Farron proudly declaring on June 24, that the Liberal Democrats would fight against Brexit.
  2. This got watered down to a slightly confused “we respect the result” (whatever that means) and “we will fight for the best deal, and fight a snap General Election on the policy of keeping us in the European Union”, and then…
  3. Open Britain launches. The party’s Brexit Spokespersons joins a movement that respects the result and accepts that free movement must end, along with Single Market membership.

At a time where it seems the party leader and its Brexit spokesperson are on different pages, the leadership has been silent minus an amusing press release from Tom Brake. During this time, Caron Lindsay, a Scottish Liberal Democrat spokesperson, has rightly called for the party to fill that space left for a unambiguously pro-EU party — but this is telling too: if our leading lights have no idea what our policy is anymore, how should voters know? And how can the 48 Movement, as Vince Cable has called it, have any faith in our ability to fight Brexit?

Which leads onto my greatest frustration. The publication ‘The 20% Strategy: Building a core vote for the Liberal Democrats’ by David Howarth and Mark Pack (I thoroughly recommend reading it) identifies that there are perhaps 20% of the population who share our values, and that is where our core vote should be, and we should then be able to build on that if we are ever to achieve majority government.

At a time when we need to capture pro-EU voters to build our core, why does our latest message read like something designed to placate soft Leave voters? Marry this up with our very overt reversion to localism and community politics, it is hard to see a future where the Liberal Democrats survive as anything other than “a confederation of residents’ associations,” as Julia Wright put it.

If the Liberal Democrats want to shake our image of being wishy-washy and unprincipled, we could try by not being wishy-washy and unprincipled. Stand up with our backs straight, loudly declare our unambiguous support for the European Union and the UK’s continued membership of it.

We might lose, sure, and we might not get even all of the concessions we fight for as the EU slips from our grasp — but there are only two things certain in this. If we do not fight for our pro-European values, a loss is guaranteed. If we do not fight for the 48%, then no party will.

If we cannot be trusted to give those people a voice and fight for our values, then what is the point of the Liberal Democrats at all?

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