Sunday, 8 March 2009

I'm a liberal Democrat. But am I a Liberal Democrat?

So in America, for years I've been described as a "liberal democrat" by folks who thought that was some sort of crushing insult.

This weekend, I spent a few days in the company of some folks who have gone so far as to join a party CALLED the Liberal Democrats. Who are these raging radicals?

According to Wikipedia:

They support multilateral foreign policy; they opposed British participation in the War in Iraq and support withdrawal of troops from the country, and are the most pro-EU of the three main parties in the UK. The party has strong environmentalist values – favouring renewable energy and commitments to deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Since their foundation, Lib Dems have advocated electoral reform to use proportional representation (a system which would increase their number of seats and those of other minority parties), replacing the House of Lords with an elected chamber, and cutting government departments.

They are also, bless their little cotton socks, a collection of fervently keen political geeks. What the brits call "anoraks", and the Guardian describes as the "beards and sandals brigade." Personally, I found them both good company and a credible political force now that the Labour party is desperately demoralised and the Tories are faced with an economic crisis to which they have no solution.

But the weekend was also a constant reminder for me of the fundamental difference in concept between British and American politics. Politics here is much more party centered - with policy debates held at Conferences like this very much forming the basis of what the party will campaign on in the forthcoming general election (whenever it is called).

Obviously, in the States the Democrats and Republicans both have party platforms that are formed in a somewhat similar way - through resolutions passed at local and national level - but to be frank they are widely ignored by Presidential and Congressional candidates. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, obviously from a democratic-with-a-small d perspective it's bad. It would be seem sensible for party members to have some say in the policies of their party. On the other hand, we do have very open and high profile primarie in which the candidates set out their policies, so you could argue (and I probably would argue) that this is when the voters express their policy preferences in their candidate selection.

But we also have a very different political context in the USA. All three British political parties in the US would fit pretty comfortably within the US Democratic party. So a lot of the policies and approaches of the Democratic party in individual states are going to differ from each other. Therefore national policy setting at a party level isn't really going to be meaningful to folks in Utah or New York.

Anyway - it's all very interesting. A good Conference, and worthy addition to my own political education, for sure (next, I'd like to try some Labour party events...). My major complaint is the hideous, hideous yellow branding. I get that the other two primary colours were already taken, and that the Greens have a claim on the best non-primary alternative but seriously guys, against a yellow backdrop everyone looks jaundiced.

As a side note, one of the stars of the conference was our own Howard Dean, who gave a well received lunchtime keynote address. Dean and I had actually met at a drinks reception a couple days before and he was telling me his thoughts about the LibDem party ("They have a problem that is a lot like the problem my campaign had - their supporters are typically young, highly educated middle class kids. How to you reach beyond that?"). Most interesting, but to forestall any wild rumors I should clarify that the scandalous pictures posted here do not signal a change of orientation.

You can watch his speech online here.

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