The UK is in desperate need of a centrist movement that is able to temper the increasingly polarised political landscape, and drag the debate once again to the centre, from which sensible, credible decisions are made. If one does not emerge, we risk making politics, which ought to be serious and important, trivial and meaningless. The result of the general election, indicates that we are moving back towards a two party system, at a time when we need new thinking, and a new political ideology to emerge, that is about more than the left, right divide, but seeks to unite divisions, and is able to grapple with the huge domestic and global challenges we face in the second decade of the 21st century.
I believe that the party best placed to offer this new radical, liberal plan for our country is the Liberal Democrats, under the leadership of Norman Lamb.
The success of centrist movements around the world, shows that the archaic, tired and traditional political forces have had their day. The left and right, in its current form, is finished, because both have failed to adequately address people’s concerns. Time and time again we witness the tribalism that exists in British politics, which allows the two main political forces to revert to their respective safe positions and encourages the adversarial nature of our political discourse rather than facilitating an environment where political parties work together in the national interest. The general election was the most polarised and divisive campaign in many years. Just as Theresa May intended, the campaign became a two way fight between her and Jeremy Corbyn .As a consequence, the other smaller parties, including the Liberal Democrats, were somewhat sidelined from the debate. The combined 84% of the popular vote for the two big parties shows this strategy worked. Despite some commentators claiming we have now reverted to a two party system, I strongly believe there is a desire out there for a new political force, one that allows fresh, radical thinking to emerge.
After two bruising general election campaigns for the Liberal Democrats, I can see why some believe they are not the political force they once were. Their decline has been rapid, and some might say it will take a generation or more for the party to recover. After 5 years in government they suffered the ‘junior coalition partner’ syndrome, like the FDP did in Germany and D66 in the Netherlands. But the increasingly extreme tone that the two big parties are taking, means that with the right leadership the Liberal Democrats can fill the ever increasing void in the centre of British politics and sooner than some might expect.
Since the 2015 general election, and after the EU referendum, the party experienced a huge membership surge. It now has over 100,000 members, more than it has ever had in its short history. Tim Farron made it a personal goal of his to drastically increase party membership by the time of the next general election, then expected in 2020. The party smashed their target and reached 100,000 members in Spring 2017. With a much bigger membership, the potential exists to build a liberal movement in this country that aspires to achieve power and be in government. Now, all the party needs is a radical programme able to inspire the millions of liberals in our country who currently don’t believe they have a political home.
Without a doubt the biggest issue we face in this country over the next few years is Brexit. It is essential that we have a pro-European party in the UK to ensure that the extreme interpretation of Brexit being pursued by the government doesn’t become a reality. The Liberal Democrats made it their signature policy in the general election to oppose hard Brexit, and seek to ensure the final deal reached is given public approval. It remains important to ensure the public are included in the most seismic change in our country in decades, and the Liberal Democrats must keep the pressure on – no one else is offering an alternative view. Polling since the election indicates people are more accepting of the need for a final vote on the deal, which somewhat vindicates the Liberal Democrats’ position.
However, in addition to the parties leadership on Europe, they must outline a radical economic policy, radical policies on health, on education, on housing, on defence and security, or risk being seen as a one issue party. The Liberal Democrats have spoken up for the 48% who voted remain ever since 24th June 2016, but ended up with a paltry 7.4% of the popular vote in the general election. It just shows that the party was not able to convert a significant number of ‘Remainers’ to their cause, so now must develop a vision that will appeal to the wider electorate.
Norman Lamb is known across the political world and outside of it as being a mental health champion. He commands respect from both sides of the political spectrum, from MPs like Anna Soubry to Liz Kendall and from celebrities like, Frank Bruno, Dappy, Ruby Wax, to name a few. He used his time as a Minister in the last government to introduce the first ever access and waiting time standards for mental health care, invested more than ever before in mental health services and has had a prominent role in numerous cross-party, non-political campaigns, notably ‘Time to Change’. His passion for this issue is genuine and personal and people can see that. In Norman the Liberal Democrats will have a leader with a deeply liberal record and someone who has helped to shape the national debate on mental health. In his role as the Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson he has promoted the need for the party to think radically about drug laws in the UK, and helped to develop the parties current position which is to legalise cannabis. These are exactly the issues that liberals need to be pursuing. Liberal Democrats must offer the radical solutions to decade old problems in our society that only they are brave enough to talk about.
Core to liberalism, is the notion of giving power back to the people, so that individuals can shape their own future and destiny. This concept is somewhat lacking in our current political discourse, but it is exactly what we need to be thinking about. The left have always wished for the state to exert more and more influence on an individuals life, and the right believe everything should be deregulated and left to a powerful free market. The centre, where the Liberal Democrats should be sitting, seeks to balance both views, allowing for a more efficient state that creates a level playing field, but one that doesn’t infringe on personal liberties. These ideas were central to Norman’s 2015 leadership campaign, and I am hopeful he will again seek to pursue an intellectual liberal platform in this campaign – it is what liberal centrists want to hear.
Above everything, Norman Lamb is one of the most genuine, compassionate, and admirable politicians in this country. We have very few political giants, respected by all sides, left in the UK – Norman is one of them. He has the sincerity and integrity to appeal to a wider electorate than currently consider voting for the Liberal Democrats. I believe in his ability to offer the country a vision that we’ve been desperate for, for many years. Liberal Democrat members have a huge opportunity in this contest to elect an honest, caring man as their leader. I hope he stands and I hope they do.