by Chris Jarvis
It’s no secret that the Liberal Democrats are far from the most popular political party in Britain today. After the General Election, they were left with just 8 MPs, and were ousted from their position as junior coalition partners in Government. For the preceding years, they attracted mockery, ire, and ridicule in equal measure, not least from young people and students, a group who once made up a significant proportion of their voter base – especially in the dizzy days of Cleggmania.
I’m still fascinated, then, by the fact that they have managed to maintain a sizeable membership through this time, including among young people. Why would a young person join the Liberal Democrats, and why would they remain active in the party? This intrigue is what led to me interviewing Charlie Kingsbury, current co-chair of Liberal Youth, as part of a series of interviews focusing of the role of young people in shaping British politics.
Why would a young person join the Liberal Democrats, and why would they remain active in the party?
We start the conversation simply, by discussing how Charlie would define his broad political outlook and ideology. Unsurprisingly, his starting point is to define himself as a “liberal”, but the nuance beneath this is interesting. “That means caring about things like intergenerational injustice, protecting fundamental freedoms and, as far as I’m concerned, those are the core ideals of being a liberal. But I also care about fighting against an overreaching state, fighting against authoritarian values which are quite commonly proposed by Tories and Labour.”
Given the historically broad nature of his party, split between centre-left social democrats and classical liberals, who combine their stance on political freedoms with an emphasis on the need for free markets and free trade, I press him as to where on this spectrum he would place himself. In this regard, Charlie responds by arguing that he is both a “classical liberal” and an “economic liberal”, which came as some surprise to me initially, but on reflection – what other party would someone like Charlie find themselves comfortable in? While the Tories might share his views on free trade and economic liberalism, their authoritarian policies in relation to migration, to civil liberties and so on would make right wing liberals feel particularly uncomfortable.
This is something that is echoed throughout the conversation, a frustration Charlie has with aspects of contemporary politics as put forward by other political parties and their leaders. “There are plenty of horrendous things that both these parties support, things that are deeply illiberal – they’re quite authoritarian on a lot of things. Just a few weeks ago, a Labour peer had a debate on reintroducing national ID cards – this is a typical authoritarian thing that came about in while New Labour were in power.
“I don’t think there’s any other party out there that stands for the free, open, and fair society that the Liberal Democrats stand for. I think the Liberal Democrats are able to promote values that are often forgotten about in the polarising discourse of our political system. Not everyone’s going to be convinced by the kind of left-wing rhetoric of Jeremy Corbyn or the quite harsh rhetoric of David Cameron and Theresa May.”
In light of these criticisms of the both the Conservatives and Labour, I ask the question that almost every Liberal Democrat who has been interviewed has been asked – in the event of a hung parliament, if the Lib Dems had a choice of coalition partner, which one would it be? Naturally, Charlie is evasive: “I think that really depends on the result and how many seats we would pick up. In our present state, with 8 MPs, I think it would be quite unwise to go into coalition with either of them. I’m not really naturally inclined to Labour or Tories, one or the other, it doesn’t make a difference to me. They both have good points and bad points and I think that’s something that would have to be thrashed out in a post-election scenario.”
I don’t think there’s any other party out there that stands for the free, open, and fair society that the Liberal Democrats stand for.
Despite me pushing him again to get a firm response on this, Charlie is still unwilling: “I couldn’t say because it would very much depend on what the Tories and Labour are actually promoting as their headline campaigns and their manifesto.”
The interesting thing about this is that, historically speaking, it would seem that the Liberal Democrats’ natural bedfellows would be the Labour Party, right up until that time in the rose garden when Nick Clegg metaphorically got into bed with David Cameron, and yet the co-chair of the party’s youth branch refuses to express a preference. Much was expected of a shift to the left once Tim Farron ascended to the leadership, but perhaps this view espoused by Charlie is evidence that such shifts have not trickled down to members lower down in the party hierarchy.
Seeing as it seems as though he does not believe that a move to the left would be preferable for his party in the post-Clegg era, I am intrigued by what Charlie’s vision would be for the Liberal Democrats. He responds again by hammering home the message of the Liberal Democrats as a party of personal freedom and liberties – “Liberal Democrats need to articulate a clear and concise liberal agenda for reform. Whether that’s in housing or in drug reform; our party is obviously signed up to the idea that we should be decriminalising cannabis. We also think there need to be significant developments in housing to look after future generations to make sure we’re able to get on the housing market.”
We need so many more houses built in the UK, otherwise our generation is going to be hugely screwed over
Housing is the issue that Charlie identifies as the biggest people are facing in Britain today: “We need so many more houses built in the UK, otherwise our generation is going to be hugely screwed over. Previous generations have reaped the rewards of stifling development, because of course, if you have a supply of houses that isn’t growing while demand is growing, what’s going to happen is house prices are going to inflate. Those people who already have houses are going to benefit most from that, while our generation is going to suffer.
Social housing is incredibly important, but it’s not just about social housing. In a lot of places across the country, you’ve got these Greenbelts, which are green in only name [and] effectively prohibit cities from actually developing. What it means is that the people who live bordering these Greenbelts, they’ll potentially be the only ones who can live [there], whereas people like us are going to be deprived from living near green spaces. Green space actively promotes happiness in a population. There’s stuff that we can be doing in social housing with regards to government building, but there’s also stuff we can do to remove the barriers that government currently place on private development.”
For many years, the Liberal Democrats have been proud and stood strong on their environmental credentials, although since entering government, they have been criticised for abandoning some of these principles. After Charlie’s suggestion that more building should be done on the Greenbelt, I ask whether this is a move away from an emphasis on environmentalism within the Liberal Democrats’ policies: “Absolutely not. I think the Greenbelt is a wonderful misnomer. I don’t think it’s green at all, because what it does is promote urban containment, and what [that] leads to is some developments within a city, but by developing within a city, you usually leave infrastructure behind, meaning you get more congestion within cities and obviously congestion means lots of vehicles standing still polluting the environment. It does nothing for the environment.”
We move away from discussing specific aspects of Lib Dem policy, and begin to discuss what Charlie’s role is really all about – enthusing young people to join and vote for the party. After the broken tuition fee pledge, the Lib Dem brand is toxic among the young and among students, so what can Charlie do about it? “I stand by the policy to change the tuition fee repayment scheme. It’s now a lot less harsh on graduates who earn less once they graduate. But we should not have broken that pledge, it was done in bad faith.
“I think it’s important to note that looking out for the young shouldn’t just be looking at university students, we need to be looking at everyone else as well. So the Lib Dems have stood for increasing apprenticeships across the country. We’ve made some important changes in primary and secondary education as well through the pupil premium and free school meals. Unfortunately we’re now seeing the Tories unpicking the good work we’ve done in Government, so in order to regain that kind of trust from young people we need to be fighting the Tories consistently on these things and promoting the good things we’ve done for young people.”
I think it’s important to note that looking out for the young shouldn’t just be looking at university students, we need to be looking at everyone else as well
Even if we ignore the inherent doublespeak and contradiction in the claim of simultaneously supporting the £9,000 tuition fee policy, while also claiming that the policy should never have been introduced and the pledge never broken, you can tell in Charlie’s voice as he speaks on this issue that he recognises that the youth vote is the party’s Achilles heel. The perception of betrayal runs deep.
But there is a lot of sense in some of what Charlie goes on to say about the way in which we can improve electoral participation amongst the young, even if his proposals do not go far enough, or acknowledge the role of the political establishment in erecting barriers to participation while also creating a political culture that is so unappealing, that electoral politics is a huge turn-off for young people: “I think we probably need a much more comprehensive civic education in schools. At the moment, some schools offer or something like PHSE or general studies and in that there’s usually some sort of civic education but there needs to be more than that. There needs to be something all students go through and I think we would benefit a lot from having elected politicians coming in, talking to them, but as people and potential voters, not as these voteless chickens they seem to treat young people as. I think for that to happen though, a decrease in the voting age needs to happen. It needs to be something we need to push for a lot harder in parliament.”
In the background of all this is the looming referendum on European membership. The Liberal Democrats have been staunch Europhiles for the totality of their existence, and young people will play a central role in determining the fate of Britain’s membership. I therefore ask Charlie what he sees as his role, and the role of Liberal Youth in that referendum: “We’ve got members everywhere getting really involved in this. They’ll be incredibly important getting out the younger vote in the referendum. I think it’s been suggested somewhere that young people have a much more pro-EU stance, so if we want a ‘remain’ vote, then their role is going to be a very important one.
“We also have to start thinking about the future as well. In the event of a leave vote, there has to be a party out there who continues to push for our society to be open and internationalist and promoting free trade and international agreements on things like climate change. It’s not just in the run up to the referendum, you have to plan for the future as well.”
Before we finish off, there’s one last discussion I wanted to have with Charlie. Over the last year, the media has become frenzied in its criticism of university campus culture and Student Unions, accusing them of censoring speakers and free speech. Despite many of the allegations being falsified, blown up or over-simplified, it is an ongoing debate in the press and on campuses up and down the country. Given Charlie’s staunch stance on political liberalism, I ask his perspective on these developments.
“I think any good liberal really needs to look to their roots, and I think our roots are quite firmly grounded in the John Stuart Mill style of liberalism. In his book On Liberty, he articulates quite a good account of why free speech matters and why free expression matters. Now, I don’t always agree with people who are wanting to speak at universities or campuses or whatever. I don’t always think they’re good people or articulate views I agree with. But nevertheless, I think it’s important that everyone is exposed to these kinds of views, because you need to know that there are people out there who disagree with you. And when you know that, you’re able to fight back against them, beat them intellectually, and I think that’s really important.
I don’t think anyone should be forced to listen to what someone has to say. They can say themselves what they want, they can protest if they want, but I don’t think that’s sufficient justification for shutting down debate.
“There’s obviously got to be a limit. There’s a limit on a lot of freedoms that exist. But especially in free expression, you have to be able to join the line when the speaker is actively calling for someone to break the law. That’s actually illegal, and I think it should stay that way.”
I point out that often the issue that has come under criticism in the media are ‘safe spaces policies’ designed to ensure that when students who are marginalised and oppressed by society are in their own Student Union, they should not have to be subjected to the same oppressive views, attitudes and actions that they face in their everyday lives. Charlie still disagrees with this:
“I don’t think anyone should be forced to listen to what someone has to say. They can say themselves what they want, they can protest if they want, but I don’t think that’s sufficient justification for shutting down debate.”
That final comment is an apt place to end. From our discussion, I understand that Charlie is ideologically and militantly liberal in his defence of political freedoms, but also not particularly swayed by the kind of leftist politics put forward by former Lib Dem leaders such as Charlie Kennedy. What will be interesting to watch is, if this is the new generation of Liberal Democrats, as they emerge in the world of left and right wing populism, where the party will position itself in that context. I’ve written before about how I believe the Liberal Democrats need to move to the left in order to maintain relevance, but perhaps, given the polarisation of politics across the globe, as demonstrated by Corbyn and UKIP, Syriza and Golden Dawn, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, there may be a role for an aggressive centrist party. Charlie Kingsbury will be part of that story, and will help to write the answer to that question.
Featured image: Charlie Kingsbury © Liberal Youth