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This House Would Disband the Liberal Democrat Party

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Tom Belger defends this week's motion:

'Just what are Lib Dem activists holding out for? If there was to be a Liberal moment, 2010 was surely it. With a severe recession, an ailing Labour party and a gifted leader, circumstances could hardly have been better. Yet on polling day they could not 'break the mould' any more than the much-hyped SDP-Liberal Alliance in the 1980s.

One doubts left-leaning supporters cherish the thought of further Conservative coalition. Do they await rather the dawn of the 'progressive alliance'? Hung parliaments have not been common, and after those of the 1920s and 1970s the Liberals were squeezed out by disaffected voters. A much-weakened Lib Dem cohort in the Commons would surely struggle to counteract Labour's less liberal tendencies. The party will be a 'wasted vote' or 'sell-outs' once more.

If activists genuinely care about people, politics or principles, it is hard to justify remaining in a party incapable of doing anything about them. Backing a glorified think tank, pure in the pursuit of its lofty ideals on the opposition benches, seems only self-indulgent posturing. Critical voices are essential, but is activism not a means to an end, to power, policy and results? As Sartre asked, why sharpen a knife if you do not intend to use it?

Furthermore, belonging to and campaigning for the Lib Dems is now not merely fruitless, but positively destructive. For all the welcome crumbs they have pilfered from the Tory table, history will surely remember today's Lib Dems for supporting a brutal austerity government. Every penny paid, every letter licked for the Liberal Democrat cause sustains its deplorable programme.

When they are not close to the Conservatives, when there is a chance of securing the electoral reform they need or of becoming the party of the left, go ahead and support the Liberal Democrats. Some may protest that success is not going to happen unless activists make it happen. The safe money, however, is patently on it not happening full stop. Why not save yourself years of dashed expectations? Back a party able to make a difference, red or blue.

Labour today may not seem an inspiring alternative on the left. Yet it has an unmatched record over the past century in improving the lives of the disadvantaged. If it is the equivalent of a dusty old van, with an adenoidal new horn, it retains the power to press on. This is plainly something the Lib Dems lack. Labour may be less ambitious or exciting, but it anticipates rather than wishes away the inevitable exigencies and compromises of power. We should support the practically achievable, not the instinctively alluring.

Pushing liberal views and voices into the fray within a party able to effect real change seems infinitely more sensible than basking in the liberal glow of a party unable to make a jot of difference. Refusal by Lib Dems to abandon their mustard shipwreck of a party betrays an attitude to politics less about getting anywhere than taking pride in the voyage. But politics as a voyage to nowhere is no politics at all.'

Matthew Tyler argues against the motion:

'This is a motion created in anger. We are not arguing over the Lib Dems' effectiveness in government, or the merits of their policy positioning, or any number of more reasonable motions - we are arguing over whether they can justify their very existence. To a certain brand of tribal left-winger, the Tories are just the opposition - the Lib Dems are the enemy.

It's tough for the party to respond: they have to triangulate a unique, impossible position with a fraction of the funds and expertise the other parties can afford. In reality, the Lib Dems of 2012 are driven by the same liberal principles as when they opposed the Iraq war and the encroaching surveillance state in previous parliaments, and are pulling all the political weight they can muster in a government where Conservative MPs outnumber Lib Dem MPs six to one. Raising the income tax threshold to £10,000, introducing equal marriage legislation, implementing the pupil premium, restoring civil liberties and creating the Green Investment Bank - all are concrete liberal contributions, but they tend to get lost, twisted and crowded out when interpreted by a media that could charitably be described as unfriendly.

Furthermore, Lib Dems are constantly blocking and watering down egregious Tory policy, in both public spats and the offices of government . Forcing U-turns on secret trials and housing benefit cuts, kicking Trident renewal into the long grass, creating a more progressive student finance system (and if you disagree, I urge you to Google the relevant IFS report), preventing George Osborne from scrapping the 50% rate entirely - David Cameron's admission to the Mail that he'd "govern like a true Tory if it wasn't for the Lib Dems" was enough to warm the cockles of any downcast Lib Dem's heart. But advertising themselves as persistent legislative spoilers wouldn't come across as principled, merely petulant. Acting as a moderating influence isn't nearly as sexy or sellable as implementing a full legislative agenda, as successive Labour and Tory governments have always been able to do, until 2010.

But this argument, at its core, is not about the achievements and failures of the Lib Dems in government, nor the merits of their political positions - it is about their very reason to exist. The fact that Britain has a strong third party at all makes it an anomaly among the political systems of the world that still use first-past-the-post voting. There is a loose tendency (known to political scientists as Duverger's Law) for 'First Past The Post' electoral laws to favour two-party systems. The Lib Dems have managed to hang on to parliamentary representation against these odds and despite a political culture that doesn't accept the legitimacy of a party that positions itself outside the stifling left-right paradigm.

The Lib Dems' success in this regard is a historical accident, and the possibility of some other party rising from nowhere and filling the yellow void is vanishingly small. The more entrenched the duopoly gets, the harder it is to challenge - see the USA as an example - and disbanding the Liberal Democrat party, however angry you are with them, would not improve our politics. It would further narrow our already impoverished political choice.'

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