I joined our Party in February 2010 on the back of my studies with the Open University through which I developed a strong affinity with the works of liberal writers such as Locke, Mills and Rawls. I also found myself heavily influenced by the writing of Michel Foucault and became frustrated with how power operated to control individual freedoms according to the whims of vested interests. I had always been politically minded, but my studies helped me find my political home.
Now, ten years on and as the chair of my local party, whenever I am asked by a member of the public what the Liberal Democrats stand for, I share with them part of the preamble to our constitution.
To me it encapsulates the quintessential elements of our party and our values. It is the blood that runs through our veins.
At least it should be.
Throughout the Brexit era, we as a membership (myself included) seem to have forgotten this. Many of us adopted absolutist positions – Leave or Remain – and often for very good reasons. I adopted the Remain position partly because I believed we are better off working with our neighbours than isolating ourselves from them, but also partly through a fear of losing the freedoms and protections that I associated with being a citizen of Europe. I, like many of you, campaigned fervently for my cause and at times I, like many of you, lambasted those on the other side of the debate for their ‘obvious’ foolishness. On reflection there is nothing obvious about their views. Like them, my reasoning is based on belief, not fact. Beliefs are all too fallible.
When I read the preamble to our constitution two words really stand out for me: freedom and dignity.
Politics is, by its very nature, the contestation of ideas. The liberal tradition allows for different ideas to exist; for them to be expressed and examined, challenged and debated. It allows for people to be held accountable for what they believe without them being enslaved by the tyranny of majority thought and the expected conformity with singular ideas.
Liberalism has freedom as one of its core foundations: freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of association, freedom to be who we want to be and freedom to do what we want to do so long as it doesn’t harm others. As we rebuild our party, we need to reaffirm this basic tenet of our political philosophy.
Yet we have failed to live our political lives in accordance with this critical tenet. We spent a decade or more fighting over whether the Orange Bookers or the Social Liberals should be at the helm of our ship and we have done so with a lack of dignity. Whether we like it or not, in this respect, we are no different to Labour or the Conservatives.
To be electable, we need to be what we proport to be. We must recognise that there are myriad views within our party and we provide a safe space for those ideas to be expressed and explored, challenged and debated. We must remember that our beliefs are fallible.
If we want to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity then we need to start practicing that within our own party.
We may not agree with what someone says or believes, but we must never close down their right to think or say it. Of course, we must hold them to account for what they say or believe but please, for the sake of our party, and of all our members, let’s do it with dignity and practice what we preach.
Andy Thompson is Chair of Redditch and Inkberrow Liberal Democrats. He Tweets @RedditchWolf.