Who do the Liberal Democrats represent?

Max Atkinson poses this question on his blog. It is an interesting one because it relates to comments I have made previously that the party lacks a social base.  He blogs the comments of Liberal leader of 1959; Jo Grimond who insisted that we represent a ‘new class’ ; somewhere between workers and employers. To answer Atkinson’s questions briefly:

1.  We have grown as  party of protest and arguably are reaching the limitations of that growth. This is the challenge that transcends the electoral system which in some instances does entrench class interests and the representation of these interests.  Grimond obviously envisaged growth on the basis of representing this new class oblivious to the fact that he described people who obviously to my mind would go onto cleave into a class based dynamic.

2.  I don’t think such a simplistic classification ever applied; it doesn’t take account of the stratification of classes. It also treats class as a monolith not a complex and eve-changing phenomena. I would say that Labour under Tony Blair re-captured the aspirational working classes and lower middle along with a section of the higher classes. The social coalition that this represented has collapsed but all the signs that the Conservatives under Cameron are *not *poised to rebuild it in any lasting form.

3.   As above, I think we have grown as a party of protest not one that has built an established social base.  I think our support reflects that and is reasonably socially diffuse as opposed to being concentrated. This is both a strength and a weakness, a strong social coalition needs a core (it needs more than that but without a core its as substantial as a will o the wisp) but also obviously it means we can draw support from a wider range of sources. Battles over our policies and narrative are also about who we represent or aspire too; I think we should seek to represent Labour’s core constituency and reverse the process that historically led to Labour’s formation. Once we do that (and not before) we can think about reaching out to build a broad coalition however if we continue trying to be ‘everything to everybody’ we will be squeezed and be not alot more than a large party of protest.


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11 responses to “Who do the Liberal Democrats represent?”

  1. plumbus says :

    All parties are a mix of values & perceived self-interest but the USP of the LDs is surely the strength of the former & the weakness of the latter. Trying to pretend some loyalty to the male working-class would be silly, counterproductive & wrong.
    The long-term declines in traditional political, class & gender identification are strongly connected & form the base for the growth of genuinely values-based parties like us & the Greens. Lets leave nostalgia for old certainties to UKIP & worse.


  2. darrellgoodliffe says :


    I think you are partially right but I think there is also a virture to having a strong ‘core vote’ as I have tried to say. Core votes also give a party some stability and longevity; it is one of the reasons Labour won’t disintergrate and one of the reasons that the Conservatives didn’t in 1997.

    True, this decline in indeitfication has taken place but that doesnt mean it does not still exist; there is rather a multiplicity of differing identities. The problems with value-based politics is that values are much more diffuse than identities.


  3. Joe Otten says :

    Surely Labour’s core constituency, whatever that is (a particular kind of middle class I guess) are by definition the people who will keep voting Labour whatever.

    I agree with Plumbus that the kind of shallow visceral identity politics that has defined the Labour and Conservative parties is breaking down and we would do well not to try to perpetuate it.


  4. darrellgoodliffe says :


    Not necessarily; I would define a Labour core constituency inclusive of the bulk of the working classes upto somewhere like c2’s (i believe that is lower/middle class) though I think in practice the middle classes constitute most of the ‘swing’ vote which goes which way it’s think its best interest lies.

    I dont necessarily agree; it’s collapsing in a negative way and in extremis you can see the results of that in the rise of the BNP (who create a negative identity that core Labour voters can buy into) so I am not inclined to see this as a wholly good thing. Identity can have positive aspects like cohering communities too and it would be wrong to collapse into some anarchistic view that identities are wholly negative and imprisoning.


  5. Joe Otten says :

    I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with identities, rather with identity politics – of which the BNP is a fine example. The BNP does working class identity politics better than Labour because Labour is largely middle class. And we are even more middle class than that.

    It would be great to have a class-based core vote like Labour and the Tories do, but you don’t acquire such a thing by having all the right policies – people are not so fickle. Rather it is a historical relic like the core support of a football team. So I cheer its decline.


  6. darrellgoodliffe says :


    Well to be totally honest I reject the notion that the BNP represent an authentic voice of working class identity. In fact, I would argue they represent the reverse of that; its negative image and negation. For sure, they represent a section of opinion within it and its one that has gained currency wider than it normally would given the circumstances and given the actions of the Labour Party which you rightly cite.

    Agreed I have said this on many occasions. It is not a historical relic; we do not live in some kind of post-modern utopia where class simply doesnt matter. Without it we are subject to the same fickle whims that you rightly decry.


  7. Joe Otten says :

    I’m not sure what authenticity means in this context. There is as much diversity of opinion in the working class as there is in any other class.

    The idea of an identity being coterminous with a group of homogenous interests or values is exactly what I’m complaining about.


  8. darrellgoodliffe says :


    Agreed there is a diversity of opinion it just seemed to me what you were implying; when you said “the BNP does working class identity better than Labour” as if they were somehow the ‘true’ voice of the working class as opposed to Labour who were/are not.

    It’s only natural that they do so and my contention that has both positive and negative sides.


  9. Joe Otten says :

    Ah I see the misunderstanding. No I see identity politics as inherently a cynical exercise, and how well you do it a question of using the tools effectively.


Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Identity politics…..a cynical exercise? « Moments of Clarity - October 15, 2009

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