On Misfit Liberalism

July 19, 2020 § 2 Comments

A lot of people wonder what on earth binds the Liberal Democrats together. A lot of those people are Liberal Democrats – though it’s also confusing to external observers. The glib answer is that liberalism binds the Liberal Democrats together, but this is also unhelpful for observers, because the Lib Dems’ understanding of what “liberalism” means is somewhat internationally idiosyncratic, sitting economically well to the left of most of their counterpart liberal parties in similar countries.

The failure to pin down the core elements of the Lib Dem coalition – and the challenge and failure of attempts to change the core Lib Dem instincts and coalition over the past decade or two – are in my view closely intertwined.

Before 2010-15, the Paddy Ashdown/Charles Kennedy voting coalition brought us over sixty seats with strength in suburbs, university towns, the South West, rural Wales, northern Scotland, and some more remote English rural seats and seaside towns. One of the main arguments that has been raised against a return to this coalition of voters is the allegation that it was incoherent, and that we had such a “protest vote” support base that it was inevitably going to shatter. This leads to the question of where the Lib Dem support ought to come from, and the answer is usually one of refocus on wealthy, socially liberal seats: strong bastions of pro-European sentiment who might want a more caring option than the Tories. This strategic shift has been tried more than once now – the 2015 and 2019 General Elections both emphasised some of those sorts of seats – and it’s largely failed both times. I’m not here to re-do any of the endless post-mortems on that, but I do want to discuss why I think the party’s voting and membership coalitions are more coherent than they look and why the party’s traditions might have sat badly with trying to find the newer and more coherent voter base that some of its leaders have craved.

So here’s my explanation pitch: liberalism, in the British tradition of such, is misfit politics. It’s a political movement the most fundamental identifying feature of which is as a grouping of people who are (or at least feel) in some way excluded from societal norms, and who, equally importantly, want to retain the right to that difference, rather than either imposing a new norm or paper over those differences.

I use the term misfit here because it seems to better encapsulate the sentiment than, say a term like “diversity” – it’s not just about the range of identities under discussion (which has always been far too limited in our party), but about the relative acceptability, performed roles, and self-perceptions of people holding those identities. One can have a certain sort of diverse Toryism, but you can’t have misfit Toryism. Misfit also implies a more conscious rejection of authority. One can have a certain unity in diversity: misfit politics doesn’t value unity for its own sake, setting out explicitly to create a noisy, varied, ragged patchwork blanket of a society, pulling together those who dislike the imposition of prevailing norms and the centralisation of power.

This broadly helps explain much of the party’s history. Nineteenth century liberalism was often focused on religious exclusion: Toryism and Anglicanism were then deeply intertwined, and the non-conformists meanwhile had a strong liberal tradition. Some people I’ve seen have taken this religious divide and assumed that far too much can be explained by its aftershocks, like the continued strength of the Liberals in non-conformist areas like rural Wales through the twentieth century. But in fact, I want to suggest that rather the things that made those areas good ground for nonconformism also made them good ground for liberalism in this particular form. The fringes of Britain, often left quite badly off but with a mistrust of central governance and without the urban or union traditions through which Labour flourished, were misfit communities ideal for a misfit movement that would fight for more localist approaches and whose MPs somewhat by definition tended to build independent, local-minded reputations.

The later twentieth century saw a liberal movement that was increasingly invested in, and ahead of the curve on, issues like LGBT rights, and which was also adopting its distinctive “community politics” streak. These again fit the overall pattern: community politics in its original Greaves/Lishman formulation is fundamentally about ways to empower communities to act on their own behalf, accepting, permitting and making a strength out of their differences. Areas like civil liberties and LGBT rights are natural areas of growth for a movement whose defining characteristic is “people have a right to not fit in”.  Cooperatives, championed by Jo Grimond? That’s where you end up if you don’t like conforming to corporatism or statism. The list could go on.

So we reach more recent times, and misfit politics in many ways formed a core of the new Liberal Democrats’ voting appeal, and certainly its appeal for its own members. Some people write off things like voting reform and localism as being a matter for anoraks, but correctly played they can be a powerful call to people who feel alienated by central government policies. Core Lib Dem shouts of “decentralise”, “community services”, “make votes count”, or “protect our rights” all have important parts to play in building that. Another core appeal point has always been the idea of the Lib Dems as the blue skies thinkers, the ideas party. Again, this fits in very well with a party that at its heart sees itself as out of the box to begin with, so approaching ideas that are also out of the box comes as a comparatively natural next step.

The problems of the Lib Dems in more recent years have come from a number of sources, but have not fundamentally altered this fact about the party’s make-up. Misfit politics, built on that fundamentally human desire to see an authority figure and stick a middle finger up at them, has never sat so easily with the desire for the Lib Dems to be a party of moderating influence as it fought the catastrophic 2015 election on. Outgunned by a barrage of attacks from Eurosceptics before and after 2016, the also party never managed to do the thing it most needed to do and present its internationalism within the scope of its misfit sensibilites: as the “you shouldn’t be allowed tell me which country I get to live in and who I get to love”, rather than as an appeal to not rock the boat and tick back to past halcyon days which is how it all too often came across. That’s been a factor in the splintering of the Lib Dem vote share: one of the explanatory factors for losing votes to the Conservatives after 2010, other than a general loss of trust in the party, is that anti-Westminster sentiment became increasingly effectively weaponised as anti-Brussels sentiment by the right, allowing certain sorts of voters to be hoovered up into Conservative or even UKIP voting tallies.

Recent events, I think, show that the party has not lost the knack or desire for misfit politics. In particular the work of Jamie Stone in becoming the parliamentary front man for ExcludedUK, a group for people falling between the cracks of the government’s Covid support measures, is a very notable example. It also shows how misfit politics isn’t just identarian in nature: anyone can find that they have fallen between the cracks, and enough people have done at times to potentially make their collective action a politically powerful force. This may be mistaken for purely protest politics because of its explicit appeals to disaffection, but it offers something very different – a mode of politics that aims at empowered individuals and strong communities, not in order to bring everyone into one bubble of increasing similarity, but to allow, liberate and empower people to keep not fitting in. “If you’re excluded, you’re included,” says ExcludedUK’s website. Taken more generally, that’s a political blueprint worth paying attention to.

I certainly don’t mean to say, with all of the above, that I think this conception of misfit politics is the only force in defining the Lib Dems. It emphatically isn’t, and slogans like “Open, Tolerant, United” which I had to cringe through in recent years display that there is a much more centralising and unity-driven tendency that’s strong within the party. We also emphatically fail to live up to what the strategic and ideological requirements of misfit politics done at its best would be: in particular the party has been and continues to be poor at engaging disaffected working-class folk and, overlapping those, BAME folk who are some of the most marginalised in our society today. Nor can any of this stand alone as a principle – the harm principle in combination with the social-liberal political turn are important mediators for this style of politics, preventing it from veering into spaces where people’s right to not fit in is misinterpreted as a right to abuse and harm others. I do think, however, that understanding this approach is critical to understanding what drives the UK’s liberalism as opposed to that in other countries, and helps provide an overarching principle that explains much of how the UK liberal movement we see today came together and stays together.

Finally, well… I don’t actually have a final point here about what all this should mean for the party’s strategic future, other than the fact that I think we have to live with the fact that this is who we are as a political movement. I don’t know if it’s possible to persuade enough people in for example former South Western stomping grounds that they share their perception of themselves as outsiders with migrants, LGBT folk, etc, and if one can any more put together a voting coalition on that basis. The Brexit divisions are very, very deep. But I think there’s a lot to be said for recognising this aspect of who we are, for better or worse, recognising that there IS a workable policy and electoral logic to attempting to form the grand misfit coalition, and then deciding what we do with that information.

As for me, I think and hope that there’s a future for misfit liberalism. May we never be brought into line!


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