This is, to put it pretentiously, a meta-politics post rather than a post about particular political tendencies. It arises following a few months of Coalition government and a lot of chat on twitter and elsewhere, it is a personal view.
I joined a political party because I couldn’t be doing with the “plague on all your houses” view of politics. That I joined the Liberal Democrats is perhaps a sign I wasn’t fully committed to the alternative! Commitment to a party is a ticket to complain with confidence, you have a defined ground to defend and a crowd to back you in attacking the opposition. The downside of this is you tend to believe that any other criticism comes from a purely party political standpoint, and you in some ways tied to views that you don’t hold. This does make me somewhat rare: the Liberal Democrats have around 65,000 members, Tories 250,000 and Labour 166,000 (source), so of a voting population of 30,000,000 people less than 2% are members of a political party.
I struggle with mindless opposition, so end up always being mildly pro-government. To me standing on the sidelines and complaining automatically that the government is doing it wrong, whilst not proffering alternative solutions, or even tweaks to proposed solutions, is intellectually barren. I’ve been a party member for 20 years, for most of that time I’ve been an inactivist. Since the election I’ve been much more involved, this is partly due to the internet: online activism is the sort of activism I can cope with but also the fact of being in power brings home what the point is: not just to have policies but to enact them.
The Coalition has also brought to light the various strands of the Liberal Democrats: the old social democrats who left the Labour Party, original Liberals and the Tory equivalent of the social democrats. If you’re interested I’m probably closest to the latter group although I never considered joining the Tories (those Young Conservatives were a bit extreme).
No party really adequately captures an individual’s views – how can it? And further to this, many people find themselves utterly out of tune with the electorate and so destined to be unhappy with whatever government is in power. The benefit of a party out of power (and out of the likelihood of power) is that you can confidently project your desires on them without real fear of contradiction since they are untested in the white-heat of government. The problem with party politics is that it supresses attempts to gain consensus on key, long term issues and it does it’s best to supress free thought amongst parliamentarians.
Funnily enough in many senses the politically committed, by which I mean party members, get on with each other better than they do with the uncommitted. This was visible back in my days as an undergraduate, the members of the political clubs interacted with each other and disagreed quite considerable. Labour and Tory were despicably extreme ;-) but we shared a degree of enthusiasm for the political programme. The politically committed are approximately tied to a point of view, which can be argued with. The uncommitted can drift along in happy opposition to everything.
I have my own personal view of political change, which is that the British are largely non-revolutionary and they vote a government into power not because they offer compelling new ideas but because they believe they will offer broad continuity and that the incumbents have been sufficiently reduced in their eyes by the ordinary attrition of government that it is now time for a change.
Coalition is a novel position for a party to find itself: Britain hasn’t seen coalition since the Second World War. The interesting thing for a Liberal Democrat these days is how to behave in government, particularly in coalition government where the policies of the government differ from those of the party. I think this is worth repeating “In a coalition, the policies of the government are not the same as the policies of the component parties”. The government is still the government and as such there is a low limit to how much rebellion within it’s own ranks it can bear – this is true regardless of whether the government is a single party of a coalition. For the rest of the party things are somewhat easier. Liberal Democrats should argue for the party’s policies – particularly those being enacted by the government. They should be thoughtfully critical where they think the government is going wrong – this is our best opportunity to influence the workings of government across the board.