Article

This is why I joined the Liberal Democrats

  • I thought that Britain needed a new party. I thought that was what the millions of politically homeless people in Britain wanted. I was wrong.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

Our country is one of the greatest in the world. From the industrial revolution to the world wide web, Brits have revolutionised the way we live. The NHS is the envy of the world. We are one of the world’s largest economies. William Shakespeare provides just one example of our cultural impact across the globe. We have revelled in our diversity.

We can be a country not only proud of our history, but proud of what we can become – open, humorous, decent, confident and modern. It is this spirit which inspired my late father to come to this country from Nigeria and build a life here. This the Britain I love, and that we must strive to become again.

Today, sadly, we may be diverse but we are also a deeply divided and unequal country. A truly “United” Kingdom now is an aspiration, not a reality. Globalisation has raised the standard of living of countless millions of poor people around the world but in Britain it has brought wealth to too few and insecurity to millions on low and middle incomes.

Moreover, our failure to care for our planet threatens future generations. As the fallout from the 2016 vote to leave the European Union has illustrated, Britain is crying out for change. In the face of this upheaval, there is a real risk that instead of coming together and working to ensure all see the benefits globalisation can bring, the UK responds by asking “who can we blame?”.

We must not allow this to happen.

Our politics is broken and the two main parties, which sit at the heart of the system, are simply not up to addressing these problems. In fact, they have exacerbated them and are fuelling the divisions not only within their parties but in our country too.

The absolutism and tribalism which predominates in both dictates that you’re either with us or against us, where true believers are arrayed against an “other”. Too often the parties’ supporters indulge in or tolerate ugly abuse, indignity or brutishness on and offline in the pursuit of purity. The targets on the Tory right are pro-Europeans, immigrants and other minorities; on the Corbynite left, businesses large and small, “centrists”, and, of course, “the west.” It follows that political parties which cannot unify themselves cannot unify the country. Political agendas that cannot forge a degree of consensus among supporters are incapable of bringing together such a diverse nation as modern Britain.

Above all, Labour and the Conservatives have failed to provide the leadership and clear direction which the UK desperately needs. They have failed to fulfil their constitutional duties as a government and opposition. They can’t provide the answers because they are part of the problem. This is why I left the Labour Party earlier this year – I was not prepared to stand idly by and do nothing.

Progressive politics

There is a rich and diverse progressive discourse out in the country and in our politics which is capable of meeting today’s challenges and uniting our country. It has roots in the social democratic centre left and the liberal and One Nation conservative traditions. As a social democrat with liberal values, this is my politics. It is non-binary, it dares to appreciate the complexities of modern Britain. It is commonly dismissed as “centrism” – a term which is thrown around as an insult by those on the populist Left and Right and their media champions. “Centrists” stand accused of seeking to maintain the status quo and being blind to the urgency for change. The opposite is true.

Splitting the difference between the old approaches of the left and the right is not the purpose of this progressive politics – radically changing our country is the mission. It is “progressive” in the true sense of the word. It instinctively understands that as the world changes our politics must change and adapt too. It is out of this politics that we must give birth to a new and different agenda that will do justice to modern Britain – to that complicated, progressive nation that we are.

Centre ground values

In my view, six key values and principles underpin this progressive politics: unity, reciprocity, work, community, democracy, and patriotic internationalism. Individual freedom and the ability to lead happy, fulfilling lives relies on a strong, cohesive “United” Kingdom. Collectively, we must seek to ensure everyone is provided with the tools to reach their full potential to live a life they have reason to value, and where those who cannot provide for themselves are properly supported. Every member of our society stands in a reciprocal relationship with others. In return for the support we each enjoy from our society through the state, we all have individual responsibilities.

Work is fundamental. Not only does it provide us with the means to prosper economically but it has a value in and of itself that gives purpose, identity and mission in life. Yet there is more to life than work. Family life, in all its forms, is the building block of every community, one which motivates people, connects them to each other and gives life meaning. We rightly want our communities to be open, free and diverse, where our differences are celebrated and respected.

For this we need a healthy democracy, one in which everyone has an equal voice and a say in how society is run, and control over the decisions that affect them. Decisions should be taken at the closest possible level to the people they impact. There of course must be protections for minorities, just as there must be curbs on concentration of power whoever hands it sits in. That means the introduction of a constitution in which the country settles how it wants to practice democracy – viewing the rule of law, a free press and an independent judiciary not as supplements to democracy, but integral parts of it.

It also means we must dump our anachronistic, undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system and replace it with a system of proportional representation, as well as experimenting with citizens assemblies and other initiatives that truly return power back to the people.

Protecting the sovereignty of the nation state of the UK is important, but we must be realistic about how sovereignty should be exercised in a globalised world. Progressives are resolutely internationalist, because we understand that one cannot build a good society at home in isolation from the global forces that are buffeting our people.

Where appropriate, we should pool power and work closely with other nation states which share our values. This is the most effective use of sovereignty in the globalised era – working in partnership to shape the world we live in, taming globalisation and protecting the environment and our planet. This is why continued membership of the EU not only makes sense, but is of fundamental importance to our way of life.

The overall goal arising from these progressive values is a United Kingdom, one where each citizen is free to live a good life, in a fair society, with a sustainable future.

After being in retreat for the last few years, the progressive centre-ground in Britain is fighting back. Brexit runs counter to the values we hold dear. Instead of waving the white flag and leaving the field, progressives have rolled up our sleeves, taken to the streets and campaigned.

We came together to establish the People’s Vote movement – a concept once dismissed as a fringe concern but now in the political mainstream. The People’s Vote organisation, which I helped co-found, working with The Independent’s Final Say campaign, boasts a supporter and activist base of more than one million people. It has held marches in the capital and has a presence in every region of the country, involving people from all walks of life.

For many, it is the first time in living memory that there has been an active and vocal pro-European movement. As a result, today, polls regularly show that a majority of Brits now want to remain in the EU if given the chance, not least over 2 million young people who were not entitled to vote in 2016 but can do so now.

The progressive centre-ground of UK politics is also enjoying an electoral resurgence. In the local elections, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party – both unequivocally committed to a Final Say vote and remaining in the EU – performed strongly. On average, independents also picked up 25 per cent of the vote where they stood.

These elections illustrated that millions of voters agree with the assessment about the appalling state of the two main parties. If voting in those elections were replicated in a general election, the two main parties would have won far less than a third of the vote each. It was much worse in the European elections where the combined vote share of the two main parties was only23.3 per cent. The tectonic plates are shifting.

These elections show that the public is now more in favour of upending the two party system than at any time in my lifetime. This provides a historic opportunity to change the system, fix our broken politics and resolve the problems which caused people to vote for Brexit in the first place. History will not forgive us if we fail to rise to this challenge, or indeed if we do things which undermine these overall objectives.

The next general election could fall any time between now and the middle of 2022. Over the last few months I have learnt that if the progressive centre-ground wishes to play the decisive role in our country’s future, it is time for all of us who hold these values and share these ambitions to come together under one banner.

Lessons

If we remain divided, no one single force in the Remain movement or in the centre ground will be able to stop Brexit or break the two-party system. Indeed, if we fail to come together, we will effectively deliver Brexit and maintain the political status quo. This must be more than a coordinated effort.. We have to put small differences to one side and focus on the bigger goal of stopping Brexit, halting the drift of our politics to the extremes, and fixing the country’s problems.

In the future, the centre ground should be thought of less through the prism solely of party politics, and more as an ecosystem which can work for the progressive cause not only at a general election but more generally. It should be made up of a party, a movement, different incubators for new ideas, social media collectives and other actors. But when it comes to party politics, we must avoid unhelpful or, worse still, counter-productive rivalries.

After leaving one of the two main parties, I had thought that Britain needed a new party at the centre of this ecosystem. I believed that was what the millions of politically homeless people in Britain wanted. I was wrong. You have your ups and your downs in politics. Politicians are all human, and we have our flaws; I have plenty! The important thing is to learn the lessons from your mistakes, to listen to what your constituents and the electorate are telling you, and to strive to do better.

First, I massively underestimated the challenge of building a new, fully fledged party in the midst of a national political crisis, never mind attempting to do so at the same time as running a national election campaign. I should have listened to Vince Cable and others who pointed out the importance of having a party infrastructure and existing relationships with hundreds of thousands of voters and volunteers to electoral success.

Secondly, there is no doubt that the first-past-the-post electoral system used in Westminster elections leaves space for only one main centre ground party. Having been given the choice of voting for other centre ground parties in the recent elections – fought under different electoral systems which are more forgiving to third parties – the voters have made it clear that their preference is for the main centre ground party to be the Liberal Democrats.

Remain voters expressed frustration at the plethora of parties unequivocally advocating a Final Say and remaining in the EU. There is merit in voters being given a wide choice, but my sense was that many would prefer that those in the pro-European centre-ground had worked together and maximised our collective strength by providing one clear option for people to vote for rather than several. Beyond Brexit, many have pointed out to me that the progressive values that I champion and hold dear are exactly the same as those promoted by the Liberal Democrats. There is no denying this fact, so what stopped me from joining?

Austerity

Like many progressive voters, I found it hard to come to terms with the impact of the public spending cuts which were instigated by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010-2015. I did not disagree that there was a need to reduce the deficit and debt – there is nothing progressive in spending more each year paying debt interest to City speculators and investors than investing in housing, transport or education. Indeed, Labour’s last chancellor, Alistair Darling, accepted this. However, I disagreed with the speed and severity of fiscal consolidation, and the extent to which cuts to public spending as opposed to tax increases were made to carry the burden.

Four years on from their time in office, things have changed. The Liberal Democrats have voted against every Tory budget since 2015. They stood on an anti-austerity manifesto in 2017 with, for example, commitments to end the public sector pay cap, increase tax to pay for the NHS and reverse cuts to housing benefit and Universal Credit.

Senior figures – including Cable – have since said that, although they curbed George Osborne’s worst excesses, they should not have allowed measures like the bedroom tax to be introduced. They also accept that a major mistake was made in relation to the pledge given on university tuition fees, which should never happen again.

Most importantly, the biggest impediment to ending austerity currently is pressing on with Brexit. According to the Conservative government’s own economic impact assessment, the UK will be poorer under any form of Brexit. Indeed, the economy could be up to 3.9 per cent smaller after 15 years, even under Theresa May’s Brexit plan. The impact of a no-deal Brexit on business and trade would be worse. In that scenario, the economy is estimated to be between 6.3 per cent and 9 per cent smaller. This estimate does not account for any short-term disruption from a disorderly no-deal Brexit which could occur this October. In every Brexit scenario, tax receipts will be hit hard, depriving the Exchequer of much needed revenue to invest in public services.

Labour and the Tories are committed to facilitating Brexit, and Brexit makes ending austerity virtually impossible. The Liberal Democrats are not – they were arguing for a people’s vote and to remain in the EU from the very start.

I suspect those who will be most critical of the decision I have made will be many of those I left behind in the Labour Party. The question they must answer is how, if they are committed to ending austerity, continued support of a party’s leadership that is committed to Brexit helps achieve that goal. Privately, many accept this, and know that a visceral hatred of the west and antisemitism is all too common place in too many Labour circles. They also abhor the bullying behaviour by supporters of the leadership as much as they do the fact it is tacitly sanctioned. In its words and deeds, Labour is not being true to the progressive values I believe in, and they know it. We all do.

I have chosen to join the Liberal Democrats because it is at the forefront of a renewed, progressive and internationalist movement in British politics that shares my values. The behaviour of the leadership of the party is also in keeping with those progressive values too. For all these reasons and those set out above, I am convinced the Liberal Democrats, as the spearhead of a broader progressive movement in civil society, offer the best chance chance to improve the lives of those I represent as well as countless other citizens across our country. The time has come to put past differences behind us and, in the national interest, do what is right for the country.