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Do the Lib Dems need ‘Plastic Liberals?’

It is one of the biggest arguments on football message boards up and down the land. When a club is successful the hard core get annoyed at all the bandwagon jumpers. ‘Were you there when we were playing x in the pouring rain on a wet and miserable Tuesday night?’ they’ll ask. It has always caused tension as the hard core feel that they belong more and deserve a bigger say. If a manager is under pressure and they think he should go whereas the newcomers are still not sure then the hard core will feel that their voice is the one that should be heard.

Something similar is playing out within the Lib Dems. I blogged earlier today about Cllr Bob Blezzard quitting the party and his parting shot was the following:

“The principled party I joined under the leadership of Charles Kennedy in the wake of the Iraq war no longer exists under your leadership.”

The Iraq war. I think it is accurate to say that in the wake of the war the Lib Dems saw a significant upsurge in members. A lot of Labour voters and members were so unhappy by this action in the Gulf that they joined the party who were so very publicly opposed to military intervention. At that point the Lib Dems had no responsibilities and could basically be as ideological as they so desired as whatever they said or did didn’t actually matter. Things though have changed and now their actions actually have consequences and that has left a lot of people with a bad taste in their mouth.

In the aftermath of the Iraq War there were three political parties with any real influence and the Lib Dems were very much the third of the three so if you were interested in politics and getting active about it then you had three choices. You had Labour who were actually running a pretty good economy but had had a bit of a faux pas on the Iraq War that led to many drifting away from them. You had the Tories who were still in disarray following a couple of pretty bad leadership choices and then you had the nice and inoffensive Lib Dems. Of course there were other parties but these were the three with a significant national base.

At this point many people thought that the third way was the best way but then the unthinkable happened – Labour lost the election and the Tories failed to win it either. Not ideal. When you couple this with the economical situation then things didn’t look good at all. The numbers meant that Labour and the Lib Dems couldn’t realistically form a coalition with any majority unless it was a proper rainbow coalition of pretty much ‘everyone against the Tories’ so the only coalition that could bring stable government was one of the Tories and the Lib Dems – something that did not sit well with most Lib Dems.

Well that is what we got and unsurprisingly given the economic climate and the fact that the Tories were the major party in the coalition the Lib Dems had to swallow hard and continue to do so regarding some of the things they are having to do. I am pretty confident that every single Lib Dem has seen several things come through parliament that deep down they were prefer not to do but coalitions are about give and take – not just take, take, take. That is how grown ups work.

So many Lib Dems have left the party saying they are making a ‘principled stand’ against what the national party are doing. It seems to me that the majority of these departures have been people who joined in the Charles Kennedy/Iraq War era. Now are these people ‘plastic liberals’ and should we care that they are leaving? We bloody well should care that is what I think.

The Lib Dems are a mix of people from a broad spectrum of politics and many join the party over one issue. The Iraq War was a big one as was Tuition Fees. Now the Iraq War has ended and the people who were blamed for it in the Labour Party have since moved on so it is easy for people to drift back from the Lib Dems to Labour as they can be forgiven. When Nick Clegg moves on (whenever that may be) it will give people the option to drift back to the Lib Dems should say Labour win the next election and make as unpopular of a decision as they did over the Iraq War. Tuition Fees is a different kettle of fish because at this juncture because both the other major parties want students to pay for their own education.

Many Lib Dems believe that because they have been in the party since the day the party was formed that they should have a more significant say and hate the fact that Nick Clegg is willing to concede ground to the Tories for making ground elsewhere. Some of the newer members – certainly those who have joined since the 2010 General Election (yes there are some – more than some) are clearly happy that the Lib Dems have moved from a party of protest to a party whose opinion actually has some influence. It is easy to stand on the sidelines and tell everyone how they should act but when you have to actually act like you say you want to then that is the sign of being grown up.

The fact is like football clubs – all political parties need ‘plastic fans’ and the Lib Dems more than the other two major parties. Look at UKIP. They are getting more members and doing well in by-elections because of one issue – people don’t like the EU and think we pay to much money and get too little and all those pesky (but sexy) eastern Europeans are coming over here and taking jobs, claiming benefits et al. That is a buzz topic just like the Iraq War was and UKIP have tapped into it. Now imagine if UKIP formed a coalition with say Labour or the Tories but weren’t able to get a referendum on EU membership or got one and lost it would UKIP haemorrhage members? Yes it would because people would think the one issue they joined the party over had become unobtainable or they had lost.

However in the meantime they have more members and a bigger movement and more effective on the ground. Do these one issue people just sit on their bums and do nothing or are they active? They are the latter. So the Lib Dems need to embrace and not lampoon members who choose to leave because their one issue they joined over is not an issue any more or is something the party cannot deliver in the foreseeable future.

Whilst it must be hard at times to see people come and then go whilst you are always there delivering a focus on a wet Saturday morning we all have to remember that the party needs all the help it can get and that we need to embrace those who are new even if we wonder how long they’ll be about. If it was just the hardcore liberals within the party then we would get nowhere just like your local football club. They need fair-weather fans and the Lib Dems need one issue members who will work hard to bring their one issue into the limelight and into law. Call them ‘plastic liberals’ if you like but without them all we are is a bunch of idealists who are swimming against the stream and we are no trout.

If someone has an issue that we are passionate over then lets welcome them with open arms. It would be obviously preferable if in time they took on other causes that we are passionate over and then they would be more likely to stay on and be active if the one issue they initially cared about was won or decisively lost. Even if not though hopefully local parties all over the country welcome new people and bring them into the fold as much as possible because the more people feel as though their voice is being heard and their work is appreciated and worthwhile then the happier they’ll be. Even if Lib Dems get annoyed nationally they can do good work locally and that is something we should all remember.

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