Our endorsement for the UK general election 2010

We are in the final days of what has –unexpectedly but fortunately- become the most unpredictable and exciting election campaign in the United Kingdom in
decades. Among the most important features of this campaign season is the excitement that the election has produced on British voters. According to different sources, turnout in this election could be as high as it was in 1997, when more than seventy per cent of voters went to the polls to end eighteen years of Conservative rule and elect a new and revitalised Labour Party. This election campaign, we believe, will also be remembered as a turning point in the history of British politics. The unfair first-past-the-post electoral system is coming to an end, and with it, the decades-old Conservative-Labour duopoly that has dominated British politics since 1922. Whichever the result, we believe the prospect of electoral reform, or at least some type of change in the political system, is inevitable. It is our expectation, as well as our aspiration, that Britain’s political system will start a transition from a two-party to a three-party system, with the Liberal Democrats having an equal footing with Labour and the Conservatives.

But political change is not the only prospect facing Britain. Whichever party (or coalition of parties) wins the election will have to face a difficult challenge: to reduce Britain’s massive deficit and, at the same time, jumpstart the country’s economic recovery. Political reform and deficit reduction with economic growth, these are the issues that, we believe, voters should bear in mind at the time of making their choice on Thursday, 6th May. Both are equally important for the future and prosperity of Britain. Both demand a government that will put aside political dogma and embrace principled pragmatism and fairness. We believe there is only one party that has these two values at its core. There is only one party that has always fought and continues to fight for the adoption of a fairer and more democratic electoral and political system. There is only one party that has presented a principled, yet realist, plan to reduce the deficit and grow the economy in a pragmatic but fair way. If RealLibs.com had a vote on Thursday, it would be cast proudly for the Liberal Democrats.

The need for electoral and political reform

In the course of the last year, the British political system has been profoundly discredited. The expenses scandal revealed the level of corruption in what was seen around the world as one of the cleanest political systems. People have rightly lost confidence in politics and that is never a good thing –the BNP gaining two MEPs in last year’s European elections is a proof of that. If mainstream political parties want to avoid the rise of fringe parties like the fascist BNP and the far-right UKIP, people need to recover trust in their representatives and in the system as a whole. This takes us to an even more fundamental issue: electoral reform. As the world’s first parliamentary democracy, Britain cannot continue to have an electoral system that ignores millions of voters that do not feel represented by the two main parties. How can anybody support a system that ignores the voices of millions of citizens? That is simply as undemocratic and illiberal as it can be. The first-past-the-post electoral system needs to be replaced by a more proportional system that fairly represents Britons. Contrary to what opponents of reform say –that a proportional system would give fringe parties like the BNP more chances to win seats–, we believe that adopting a more proportional system would restore trust in politics and thus help parties that hold mainstream values.

In this specific issue, most of the blame goes to Labour. After 13 years in power, the Labour Party failed in its promise to reform the political system and bring about real electoral reform with a more proportional system to elect MPs. Moreover, they were the most severely damaged party in the expenses scandal. After 13 years of inaction on serious political and electoral reform, we simply cannot believe Labour when it promises to enact political reform during the next Parliament. Nonetheless, Labour is at least pretending to care about electoral reform. The Conservatives have repeatedly opposed all attempts to make the electoral system more proportional and more democratic. It is really shameful to hear David Cameron talking about change on our politics when, in fact, the change his party offers is more of the same.

Reducing the deficit and jumpstarting the recovery

The second, but not less important, issue facing Britain is the need to dramatically reduce the country’s massive deficit while, at the same time, strengthening the economic recovery. While no party has been entirely honest on the big cuts that will be necessary to reduce the deficit, only the Liberal Democrats have come up with a credible plan that includes specific figures on cuts and savings. The Liberal Democrat manifesto is the only one whose policies are fully costed. Lib Dems have been quite frank about the big cuts that will be needed in order to reduce Britain’s debt. On the other hand, Labour and the Conservatives have adopted the same old rhetoric to please their respective electoral bases. The Labour Party pretends to cut the deficit without specifying any major cuts. Moreover, they refuse to eliminate government programs and bureaucracies that are not going to survive any serious deficit reduction policy. The Conservative Party, which had adopted a sincere message of austerity last year, has decided to go back to the typical right-wing dogma of lower taxes (for the wealthiest) and efficiency savings (too bad they cannot tell where those efficiency savings would come from). Here’s where the principled pragmatic approach we were talking about before comes into place. Both Labour and the Conservatives have decided to embrace their usual dogmas of ‘big government’ and ‘no government at all’ respectively. Only the Liberal Democrats have presented a principled pragmatic plan to cut spending and reduce unnecessary bureaucracy while, at the same time, avoiding sudden massive cuts that would jeopardize the economic recovery.

New Labour’s record

After 13 years in power, it is natural for people to feel the need for change. However, even when we feel tired of Labour and even Labour –based on their lacklustre campaign and uninspiring leader– feels tired of itself, we should not let our frustration and boredom interfere with our judgement. The last 13 years of Labour rule have had positive as well as negative consequences for Britain. In 1997, Tony Blair came into power with a mandate for change. Britons were tired of the Tory party and Mr. Blair inspired a sense of optimism and hope in the hearts and minds of the British people. In many ways, Mr. Blair and his revitalized Labour Party delivered many of their promises.

Under New Labour, Britain has experienced an avalanche of forward-looking and progressive change: An open economy, devolution, further European integration, a fairly open immigration system, increasing respect for diversity and a more tolerant society, the adoption of civil partnerships for gay and lesbian people, a series of pro-equality legislation (including the Disability Discrimination Act), a centrist and common-sense approach to economics, a low crime rate, peace in Northern Ireland, increasing international aid, climate change legislation.  These actions represent real and positive change Labour can be proud of. But there have been serious mistakes during the last 13 years too. Even though New Labour adopted a centrist approach to economics, its democratic socialist instincts did not free it from its addiction to centralisation and statism. These can be seen in the party’s support for a top-down approach to the NHS and education. Instead of giving more power to individuals and local communities over the NHS and schools, Labour continues to prefer the centralised approach. This has resulted in unnecessary regulations from a distant centralised government that cripple innovation and efficiency.

However, the two areas where the years of New Labour will be remembered as a step back for Britain –especially by those of us who believe in liberal values– are foreign policy and civil liberties. New Labour’s biggest mistake was Tony Blair’s decision to join the United States in the invasion of Iraq. While an overwhelming majority of Britons opposed the war from the beginning, some of us believed Mr. Blair’s arguments were persuasive. They turned out to be outright lies. This participation in an illegitimate invasion costed Britain its international reputation as a force for liberty and human rights in the global scene. In what was probably the major judgment issue of the last decade, Labour got it wrong. The Labour Party took us into a war based on lies and falsehoods. This mistake alone should have costed Mr. Blair his re-election as Prime Minister in 2005. Also, Britain’s over-dependence on the U.S. has diminished its stature within the natural place where it belongs: the European Union. At the same time, in the name of anti-terrorism, the Labour government adopted an unprecedented authoritarian approach to civil liberties. Their failed plan to implement national ID cards is the strongest proof of their rampant authoritarianism. But that’s not all. Labour’s approach to crime also demonstrates the party’s dismal record on, and disdain for, civil liberties. Even though crime has been lowered during the last years, Labour’s authoritarianism on this issue cannot be defended by any real liberal. The party has even prided itself on the high number of prisoners in Britain –prisoners that, by the way, are more overcrowded than ever before.

The deficit is another terrible legacy Labour will leave Britain with. While it wouldn’t be fair to blame Gordon Brown for the global financial crisis –after all, no country around the world was prepared for it–, he is to blame for the lack of action on controlling Britain’s deficit. Finally, as mentioned before, Labour’s failure to fulfil its promise of reform of the electoral system is a total blow to its claims to represent fairness as well as its failure to reduce inequality and the gap between rich and poor.    

All in all, New Labour’s record is mixed, with many achievements but also major mistakes. After 13 years in government, we believe it’s time for the Labour Party to do some serious thinking on what it really stands for. We believe the party should keep the good policies of the Blair revolution, while, at the same time, abandon its authoritarian tendencies and its love for over-centralisation. The party should never go back to its position during the 1980s, when it adopted far-left and statist stances in order to be the exact opposite of right-wing Thatcherism.

The Conservative disappointment

If we have to mention our biggest disappointment during this campaign, it would be David Cameron and the Conservatives. When Mr. Cameron became leader of the Tories in 2005, we believed in his promise of changing the Conservative Party and making it a modern, compassionate and more liberal party. We were initially encouraged by the actions taken by his team. We were pleased to hear a message that was taking into account the environment, climate change, civil liberties and decentralisation. We thought this time the Tories had changed for good. Yet, week after week –and as the election gets closer-, the more we read between the lines and the more we look at the people who are part of Mr. Cameron’s shadow cabinet, the more we believe his party has not changed. The David Cameron who made us believe there was such a thing as “liberal Conservatism,” has deeply disappointed us. Perhaps we made the mistake of comparing Britain’s Conservatives with America’s toxic brand of conservatism. In that scenario, the Tories would certainly be seen as progressive (well, almost anyone or anything would). But Britain is not America. In many ways, British society is more liberal and more progressive than America’s. Therefore, Britain deserves a party that truly represents its liberal nature. And the Tories are not that party.   

Mr. Cameron says the Conservatives want to reform politics, yet he opposes any attempt at reforming the electoral system. Mr. Cameron says his party will fight for gay rights, yet every week we discover a new member of his party who holds homophobic views. Mr. Cameron says he believes in climate change and equality, yet he allies his party with homophobes and climate-change deniers in the EU. Mr. Cameron says he believes in giving more power to individuals, yet he patronises society proposing tax breaks for married couples and discriminating against single parents. Mr. Cameron says the Conservatives are a progressive force, yet he proposes an extremely unfair inheritance tax cut for the wealthiest and seems happy to exploit fear over immigration.

o be fair, David Cameron has indeed improved the Conservative Party in many ways. It has revitalised a once moribund and tired party and has injected it with new ideas. In fact, we like the idea of a “Big Society.” The problem is that we don’t see that idea reflected in the actual policies the party offers. In other words, the message has changed, the policies have not. While we once thought we could support Cameron’s new brand of Conservatism, we no longer believe that is the case. As liberals, we simply cannot support a party that is rooted in a pessimistic view of society, a party that continues to be deeply anti-European, anti-immigration and socially authoritarian. That is not the kind of change we want for Britain.          

The Liberal moment 

That leaves us with Britain’s historically third biggest party: the Liberal Democrats. As liberals, it is hard for us to be completely objective when talking about the party of John Stuart Mill (to be precise, that was the old Liberal Party, the predecessor of the Lib Dems). Despite being the land that gave birth to the liberal philosophy, since the arrival of the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century, the Liberals have been relegated to the third place in British politics –a place that, thanks to the unfair electoral system, makes it very difficult for any third party to have real influence in Westminster. But that may be coming to an end. The Liberal Democrats have been gaining seats in Parliament in every single election since the Liberal-SDP merger and, if the polls are correct, this election could prove to be a breakthrough for the party.

Why do we think the Liberal Democrats deserve our vote of confidence? It is clear the Lib Dems are the true voice of liberalism in Britain. If there is one theme that is all around the Lib Dem manifesto, it is social mobility -giving individuals the opportunity to develop their talents to the full, empowering individuals to leave fulfilling lives.  Not through top-down statism as Labour usually is tempted to do. Not through ‘law of the jungle’ anti-government Toryism. But through a balanced approach that recognizes the market as the only creator of wealth and prosperity, whilst, at the same time, acknowledging its excesses and the necessity of proper regulations. After all, what is more liberal than the idea of social mobility? What is more liberal than the idea that no-one’s success in life should be determined by the conditions in which she or he was born?

Whether it is civil liberties, fair taxation, immigration, equal rights for all, sustainability, education, protection of the environment, free and fair trade, European integration or international cooperation, the Liberal Democrats are the only liberal and progressive choice. Of course there are some things in the party’s message that we dislike (for instance, we consider their portrayal of bankers and the City of London as ‘greedy’ rather populist), but, all in all, the Lib Dems are the only party espousing a clear liberal programme -not only on rhetoric, but on actual policies. When it comes to expanding freedom, protecting human rights and delivering fairness, only the Liberal Democrats can be trusted. Labour had their chance. They did not deliver. The Conservatives say they have changed. They have clearly not.

As liberals, we believe in freedom above all. But we cannot have real freedom if millions of individuals do not have the opportunity to realise their potential. Freedom is not possible without fairness. Fairness is non-existent without freedom. Only the Liberal Democrats have this belief at their core.

It’s time for real change in Britain. It’s time for liberalism to make a comeback. It’s time to vote Liberal Democrat.   

 Check out the Liberal Democrat Manifesto here