THE BLOG

Why It's Time To Forgive The Liberal Democrats

10/10/2016 00:30
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

My political awakening, if it can indeed be called such, happened in 2010, at the time of the UK General Election. I'd just turned eighteen, my mum had enrolled me on the voting register, and my sixth-form was handing out brochures listing side-by-side policies of the main parties. I wasn't far-sighted enough to pay much attention to pledges regarding pensions or privatisation but, up to my ears in UCAS forms, one policy resonated with me: scrapping university tuition fees. Along with 48% of my fellow students, I cast my ballot for the Liberal Democrats.

All Brits know how that story ends. I was old enough to miss paying the £9,000 tuition fees imposed by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, but I felt that my odds of getting a university place were slimmed by the increased competition as older school leavers rushed to apply and all my peers forwent gap years. I'd graduated and was a year into my first proper job when the next election rolled around and the Lib Dems were trounced. Watching Nick Clegg's resignation speech, I found his warnings about the death of liberalism and tolerance strangely moving. And then I forgot all about it.

How much has changed in the eighteen months since! My country has been ripped out of the European Union. A Prime Minister nobody voted for is imposing sweeping changes which, whatever you think of grammar schools, have no democratic mandate. Labour is in crisis, with 172 of its MPs voting 'no confidence' in their leader. Hate crime in the UK has risen by 57%. Syrian children are drowning on our doorstep while our parliament refuses to let just 3,000 of them into the country.

I believe passionately in the benefits of the European project, in the value of openness and cultural tolerance, and in the progressive prosperity of free trade. I want a government that is environmentally friendly, pro-globalisation, and which embraces the potential of technology to revolutionise the world. I want a government that is fiscally responsible but gives a safety net to those who need it. I am a typical liberal centrist. Or, in other words, a typical Liberal Democrat voter.

There are plenty of Brits who disagree with me, of course. Fine - let us retire respectfully to our respective sides of the political spectrum. But there are also many - millions, maybe- who do agree with me. And yet current voting figures suggest these centrists concur with the multitudes of my acquaintances who have told me that regardless of policy matching, they will never again vote for the Liberal Democrats after the tuition fees betrayal.

Enough. All political parties make unpopular policy changes (working tax credits, anyone?) and while I can understand the resulting impulse to wash your hands of politics altogether, the fact remains that such a course of inaction is not a viable way to get your opinion heard.

It's time for us centrists to ask ourselves if the raising of tuition fees four years ago is reason enough to contribute to the death of the political centre ground now. Think carefully, because the stakes are high. On the right, the austerity-happy Conservatives are slashing away at the welfare state. On the left Labour is split between a leader who thinks Venezuela is an admirable model for society, and MPs who, focused on their Brexit voters being seduced by UKIP, are increasingly coming out against freedom of movement and immigration in general.

Many argue that because the Liberal Democrats broke promises before they will again. The Liberal Democrats sacrificed their free tuition policy to get the AV vote on a ballot paper. AV, with its ability to give smaller parties like themselves greater political power, was their top priority at the time. These days, it is their opposition to Brexit which separates them from the other parties, gives them a purpose, and attracts new members. It is too important to abandon.

Recent history has proved that, despite our first-past-the-post system, supporting a small party is not a waste of paper. You don't have to like Nigel Farage to admire what he has achieved - UKIP showed that small, vocal parties can make a difference. Four million UKIP voters in 2015 elected just one MP, but they snowballed an idea that made Brexit a reality. Why couldn't we centrists do the same? And with the money, resources and national recognition of an established party, the Liberal Democrats are the best-placed vehicle for us to try to do so.

My real political awakening has taken place this year. Recent events have made me conclude that the world is scary, challenging and heading in the wrong direction. If £9,000 tuition fees are the price to pay for stemming this tide of intolerance, I for one would gladly pay it.

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