IT HAS BEEN a disastrous year for liberalism. Across the Western world, the politics of tolerance, freedom and openness has taken a fierce beating from Brexit, from Donald Trump, and from the rapidly rising spectre of right-wing populism. With economic anxiety and a mounting refugee crisis continuing to spiral out of control, plenty of fodder is still being provided for these sinister movements. 2017, as we have discussed before on this blog, may present further opportunities for the far-right, with particularly ominous elections coming up in France, the Netherlands and Germany.
It’s not all bad, however. The last few weeks have shown us a distant glimmer of hope, first with a by-election victory for the Liberal Democrats in Richmond Park, and then – more importantly – with the defeat of the thinly veiled fascism of Norbert Hofer in the Austrian presidential election.
But it is Canada we must look to for our greatest hope. Already a country defined by its tolerance and diversity, Canada has so far weathered the populist storm that has swamped its southern neighbour. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party was swept to power in an unprecedented landslide victory in 2015, bucking the global repudiation of liberalism. The country soundly rejected its cynical Conservative government, swayed in part by the wholesome good looks and charm of Trudeau, and buoyed by the promise of reform and renewed vibrancy. Indeed, the country’s worldwide reputation for friendliness has reached new heights since the Liberal rise to power, thanks in no small part by the positive image projected by their new prime minister.
Liberals and moderates around the world can learn from his victory the way to harness policies of freedom and openness to galvanise a disenchanted population.
Remainers may flock to the Liberal Democrats, the only national party left to represent them.
This month we began to see the first stirrings of this in Britain, on a small scale at least. In Richmond Park, pseudo-independent Zac Goldsmith’s vanity resignation backfired as he was comfortably beaten by Lib Dem Sarah Olney, whose valiant anti-Brexit campaign overturned a 23,000 Tory majority. The Liberal Democrats’ parliamentary party has swelled by one, and can now no longer fit inside a minibus.
To some degree, this victory represents a rejection of Brexit, of the Conservative government, and of their rightward lurch to capture UKIP voters at the expense of the moderate centre. It’s not, however, necessarily indicative of any kind of national trend – Richmond Park is a wealthy, London constituency that overwhelmingly backed remain in the referendum – though it should send a message to Theresa May that her government’s position isn’t as stable as she has thus far assumed.
If an increasingly baffling Labour Party can’t muster enough wherewithal to act as the opposition, maybe it’s time we looked to the Liberal Democrats to do so instead. With the country divided by its opinion on Europe, a weak opposition unable to compete against the well-organised Conservatives and a UKIP reenergised under Paul Nuttall. Remainers may flock to the Liberal Democrats, the only national party left to represent them. A few more choice by-elections may turn this one-off victory into broader momentum, and a renewal of liberalism in this country.
It’s clear that liberals need to become champions of democracy once again.
One of the ways to achieve this is for liberals to adopt and communicate strong, radical positions. What is clear, to my mind, is that liberals need to become champions of democracy once again. For too long, centrist, third way politics has been associated with the status quo, with unrepresentative democratic stagnation.
I’m a great advocate of electoral reform: I believe that changing our voting system and bringing democracy to the House of Lords would do more to heal the damage and disenchantment in British politics than anything since the Great Reform Act. By choosing our governments with a proportional electoral system, they would become more accessible, more accountable, and more representative. As detestable as they are, UKIP were robbed by our first past the post (FPTP) system in 2015, having been awarded a single seat in the Commons despite winning over 4 million voters. The Conservatives, meanwhile, were allowed a governing majority with less than a third of the electorate behind them.
A proportional system of some kind would encourage compromise, collaboration, and coalition – a concept proven to be effective by the Liberal Democrats, as people are finally beginning to realise. Broader swathes of the population would be represented in government. Faith would be restored to our democracy. It isn’t difficult to guess which liberal leader has already made electoral reform a cornerstone of his manifesto: Justin Trudeau.
We’re entering a new political reality: that of liberal globalism vs. populist nationalism. It is a zeitgeist epitomised by Angela Merkel vs. Frauke Petry, Remain vs. Leave, and more than anything by Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump.
France has gone a different route, pitting the conservative Francois Fillon against the fascism of Marine Le Pen. He may be able to present a kind of moderate nationalism to sway some of Marine Le Pen’s electorate, or he may simply fall flat on his face with a feeble and cynical parroting of the far-right’s rhetoric without any of its forbidden, anti-establishment allure.
If liberals are to succeed, they need to cultivate charismatic, sincere leaders to match the outspoken demagoguery of the populists. They need to attack the Trumps and Le Pens of this world for their ill-considered policies, not for their controversies. Justin Trudeau won his election by presenting a fresh and vibrant vision for Canada. In the absence of that kind positivity, right-wing populism fills the void. If disaster is to be averted, liberals must follow the example set by Trudeau, and give a reason for people to hope, rather than to fear.
Picture credit: Justin Trudeau by Alex Guibord (CC BY-ND 2.0)