What lies ahead for the Lib Dems?
BY TORRIN WILKINS
At the age of 13 I joined the Liberal Democrats, a party which I felt fit my values and ideals well. I have always been in the centre-ground of politics and for that reason, the Lib Dems immediately appealed to me. I found the party that I joined during the coalition years to be tolerant of people with opposing views and extremely welcoming to me as a young person interested in politics.
Yet, over the course of the referendum and the three and a half years that followed it, I argued that the Liberal Democrats should adopt a more pragmatic approach to Brexit. Over this time, I’ve spoken at Lib Dem conference three times, been on television and the radio. Whether it’s being told to kill myself, to leave the party because I’m not welcome, being questioned because of my age or the leadership ignoring leavers within the party telling the public we are united on the issue of Brexit, all of it has left me feeling unwelcome in the party I used to love so much.
It was this that caused me to temporarily leave the party – not because I wanted to but because I felt I couldn’t stay. It’s voters like me that the party needs to win back if we want to build a coalition of individuals capable of winning a meaningful number of seats.
The general election has forced a new mood in the party.
The perceived unity within the Lib Dems on EU membership is becoming more fragmented by the day. There is a realisation that Brexit will happen with the Conservative majority. I accept the Lib Dems are against Brexit and I respect them for fighting against it. Yet this fight is now over, we are leaving. The question is now what lies ahead – returning to EU membership? A close partnership with the EU?
Rejoining may seem the logical policy with the Lib Dems previously supporting remaining an EU member, but I’d caution against this idea. With negotiations about joining the EU likely to involved discussions about membership of the Euro and Schengen, they are unlikely to be easy. The last referendum saw a leave result with our EU opt-outs – the rejoin supporters would be extremely unlikely to win if they are campaigning on a platform that includes the Euro and Schengen.
The next step must, therefore, be to decide how to adapt the party’s pro-EU values to these changing times. I think whilst the idea of the European Union was a noble one, it’s practices often failed to live up to those ideals. We can therefore use this as an opportunity by joining with the four existing members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) to form both a close alliance with the EU whilst offering a new European bloc.
EFTA has internal structures which are preferable to the EU with decisions being made unanimously within the EFTA council. Membership of the bloc also gives us an impressive set of free trade deals along with the ability to negotiate our own. The other advantage is it gives us the ability to rejoin the EEA which would allow us to continue economic cooperation with the EU, in a similar way to what we have now.
There must also be another element to this: we should focus on areas other than EU membership. Perhaps our largest mistake last election was putting Brexit front and centre. I want a party that focuses on an education system that gives children more choice over their futures and greater opportunities.
I want a party that focuses on a free market economy and I want a party that champions a comprehensive welfare state. There are so many things we need to fight for, a new relationship with the EU must be one of those things – but we must also focus on a border vision to transform this country.