Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Help me out Steven - letters to a Liberal Democrat from the political wilderness

The first in a series of soul bearing conversations. First up, here's what happened when I dropped a note to Steven Duckworth, a Liberal Democrat activist in Northumberland...

Help me out Steven.

Like you I left the Labour Party, for me it was because I fundamentally oppose the kind of crude ‘easy answers’ sloganeering socialism that typifies Corbynism.  There’s a direct dotted line from there to antisemitism, the socialism of fools and the people who felt welcome in Labour. It’s not for me any more. Before joining Labour in 2014 I’d been outside of politics for long enough not to feel a need to be part of the Labour family. But having been active in my home constituency and standing for parliament, when you’re in the political sphere, you’re in it. I still believe in a mixed economy, a society that values human contribution over individual rights, looking after our most vulnerable, fair tax rates, and I don’t have an instinct to clip the wings of business. I was gutted about leaving the EU, but assumed the grown ups would negotiate some kind of future relationship that most of us could live with. But I didn’t feel an urgent need to seek a new political home.

So, you joined the Liberal Democrats and got stuck in. That would have been a tough call for me. Having fought against them locally, in council elections and in a four way parliamentary tussle (in which I came third), I have some visceral tribal instincts to get over. Plus, I thought they were truly done for when the levy broke and the first wave of MPs left the main two parties to form the Independent Group. We know how that turned out. I gave it a shot too and stood for Change UK in the European election. We all know how that played out too.

What has that election experience and this summer of madness taught us? For me, it’s that there is life left in the party that many of us had written off. But how does a progressive, social democratic policy framework even begin to be created out of the mess of the current politics? And I’m not just talking about parliament here, but our corrosive discourse, the lack of trust, an assumption of bad faith, the politics of easy answers of the left, the right and the centre?

Thanks for listening. Cheers,


Hi Michael,

Lovely to hear from you.

I was incredibly worried about the election of Corbyn, particularly as it was followed so quickly by the appointment of Seumas Milne as the strategic architect of the Corbyn project, a project that seemed to me at the time to be about creating a rump party that was ‘pure’ in socialist thought. I found the antisemitism and general approach to party management toxic and disgusting and so, like you, I left- knowing it wasn’t a productive and creative space in which to ‘do’ politics.

Regarding Brexit, I’m rather an outlier on the centre-left in that while I voted for us to remain and hope we have a close alignment to the EU in the future. I do think some of the Brexiteers criticism of lack of democracy and sovereignty inherent in our EU membership have some force that left leaning liberals have failed to acknowledge. I also believe the outcome of the referendum should be respected and that May’s deal, however imperfect, was our best way through this.

You’re right that politics is in a state and that it is going to be difficult for a left leaning platform to come out of this. But it’s my firm belief that the mainstream left over the past twenty years has drifted towards a managerial and technocratic approach to politics and that, in some part, has given rise to the populists of right and left and the easy solutions they propose. I really feel we need to get back to discussing the big questions: what a good society is, the nature and dignity of work, what should an education system provide, how do we democratise markets? how do we improve our institutional culture? And many more. These are big moral questions that we should not be afraid or embarrassed to discuss and we should be wary of discussing them purely in terms of policy fixes.

Why did I get stuck into the Lib Dems? I suppose I’m a believer in the idea that you refine your views and politics by getting involved and testing them out. I also think being a member of a local party helps to root you in the concerns of the community, like you I’m suspicious on the constant focus of individual over that of the common good. I’m very much a trans-partisan and I find tribal politics to be tedious, though I accept that it’s red meat to a lot of activists and we need activists. As Roberto Unger points out in his recent book: It’s not hope that leads to action, it’s action that leads to hope.

Best wishes,


Thanks Steven, that’s illuminating.

I’m going to have a few questions for you though. It seems from reading between the lines that you have to do a lot of holding of your nose as a member of the Liberal Democrats. Like me, you’re probably not an outright liberal, more of a democrat. You don’t hold with the vehement Stop Brexit strategy either.

I concur with you on the party-as-a-key-player-in-a-community point. And I get that the Liberal Democrat identity and strategy is to dig deep in a community, plant firm roots, build a network of activists and councillors, then MPs.

But what do you do when you fundamentally disagree with the stances that a local party takes in a community? It strikes me that the closeness to what a community wants nearly always places you in opposition to change, be that a new road, new houses, or new community infrastructure – like a mosque, for example. When does a party activist lead, rather than follow, public opinion? What latitude do you have to do that?

And what do you do when those difficult decisions are taken by people at an elected level in your own party? It seems to me that’s where the Liberal Democrats come unstuck locally, because the constant campaigning and petitioning and community chivvying leaves you exposed when you actually achieve power and have to make a decision. It certainly happened in the coalition government.

Sorry to appear negative, but it serves as a useful metaphor for the future too. When the dead cat of Brexit is off the table. What next? Is this even a political entity that has legs beyond that, or a repository for protest votes in the way it was after the Iraq war?



Hi Michael,

You’re right to say I’m not an outright liberal and more of a social democrat. I’d go further and say I’m a communitarian with liberal values; these two positions are often portrayed as being in opposition, but I think they can be reconciled by taking a more nuanced view of liberalism. I tend to find British liberalism is heavily defined by Mill and is reductive and negative in many ways. I think ‘liberalism’ has its limits, beyond which it tends to eat its own values to some extent.

As I said earlier in our conversation, I do find being rooted within a party to be extremely beneficial to the way I think about my politics and other moral questions. I don’t expect to agree with my fellow members on everything, but my experience is that dissent from the party line is usually respectfully tolerated. Maybe I have been lucky locally in that respect.

I’m less concerned by achieving national power than building up a base of activists and local councillors that can start to engage with the change needed at that level. It’s my hope that Brexit will lead to more emphasis on local democracy and that is how we must try to steer it. With local associations and institutions driving the agenda forward. I realise this sounds very utopian, but I’m all out of thinking in the old ways of public policy tinkering.

To be honest it’s an approach to change that goes well beyond our current party set up, it’s just that it’s that set up that helps me to think and contribute in the small way that I do while rooted in a party structure.

Best wishes,

Hi Steven

This has been a very helpful and salutary exercise. It’s helped me to focus on the important questions that were front and centre to me when I left journalism and made the decision to get involved in a local campaign, then to rejoining the Labour Party in 2014. Ultimately we have to be driven by something greater than the sums of our personal ambitions and wanting to support the latest jousting in the Westminster arena.

My politics starts with my faith, and the centrality of the human person so passionately articulated through the traditions of Catholic social teaching. But something has gone very wrong with our politics. I think the party system is knackered, but it’s been inspirational to hear of your local experiences in the Liberal Democrats. Time and time again I’m inspired by the efforts of people who get things done, without necessarily having been granted the permission to do so. Subsidiarity and human control cross over into so many inspirational examples of local action, and that includes what the Metro Mayors have done, despite all of the flaws in their fragile constitutional mandate. I like everything I hear about the experiment in Frome in Somerset, where local people have taken over a local council.

I think for my part I have to dial it down a bit on the tribal politics. It doesn’t do me any good and for what it’s worth I’m veering to the view that the politically homeless have to start showing a bit of humility and appreciate the bigger picture and start thinking a bit more about how their behaviour contributes to the distrust and dislike that has undermined institutions from councils, parliament and public services. I’ve probably torched my bridges with my local political parties, but I remain supportive of campaigns that address the burning injustices and the spaces that exist for socially committed actors.

Thanks again for your time.


It’s been helpful for me too, to get some of my thoughts into words. I think we do have to take inspiration from big ideas and while it doesn’t mean we can’t be pragmatic in application, I do think politics has been reduced too much to issues of managing the existing system.

You’re right that much can be achieved by people at a local level committed to making positive change happen. I too have been impressed by the ‘flatpack democracy’ movement in Frome and by initiatives by town and parish councils in different parts of the country, not to mention the community and voluntary sectors. David Cameron has a lot to answer for, but I think the Localism Act might prove to be useful.

I don’t know about ‘dialling it down’, but we all should think about our methods of doing politics, including how we engage with other people. Institutions are important in this and it is no surprise that people with a short-term view of political change often see them as the problem and not as an enabler. I don’t think we need political parties to achieve a lot of this agenda, but they are useful in terms of the generation of ideas and ways of engagement.

Best wishes,


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