Let’s recall a recent snapshot of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's viral “Welcome to Canada” message for refugee children. While largely symbolic, it represented a more inclusive, rather than divisive landscape. In contrast to populist voting, it brought about the best of our emotions. Who didn’t, for a moment, wish that he was their Prime Minister? But we shouldn’t be surprised about Trudeau’s inclusive rhetoric – he's a liberal.
Recent elections have taught us that they’re not only unpredictable, but also reliable mood testers. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent referendum victory in Turkey is partly a message to Europe. Brexit, Trump and Corbyn’s Labour leadership all exposed anti-establishment moods. Britain’s election might yet show further calls for change.
The day British Prime Minister Theresa May announced snap elections, the Liberal Democrats, traditionally viewed as the third party, gained 5,000 members – 1,000 just in the first hour. It’s now over 15,000, pushing overall membership beyond 100,000 (of which I'm one), more than double the number during the 2015 elections. Two days after the announcement, Labour boasted donations of £200,000, only to find that the Lib Dems had raised £500,000 (now £1.6 million) – no surprise given that they’re raising more than Labour this year anyway. While Labour argued about candidate selection methods, eventually deciding that party members would have no say, Lib Dem candidates had been selected at the local level months ago. These developments are indicators about the trajectory of this election.
For better or for worse, elections are becoming more a form of individual self-expression than a means towards creating a healthy and functioning government and society. To me, the answer to the divisions created by populism must be conscious calls for an inclusive, pluralistic society that appreciates the importance of different identities, viewpoints and contributions. A society in which representation and compromise are not seen as hindrances, but as positive necessities. In other words, one that upholds the values of liberal politics.
That the Lib Dems are the real alternative to the Conservatives is also evidenced in Emmanuel Macron’s first round victory in France. If we want to overcome divisive politics, we need an inclusive alternative. Macron and his new party "En Marche!" represent a moderate social liberalism that is progressive, centrist and pro-European. Sounds just like the Lib Dems.
Following TV debates in 2010, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg was so popular that the term ‘Cleggmania’ made it to the dictionary. Following a coalition with the Tories, his party was reduced to just eight MPs in 2015. Now turn to Canada. Trudeau may be more handsome than current Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, but they lead sister parties. In 2011, the Liberal Party of Canada’s leader Michael Ignatieff topped the country’s ratings. But the party had the worst performance in its history. Then, in 2015, everything changed.
That’s right, the Liberal Party of Canada finished third in the 2011 elections (no surprises there). But in 2015, they shocked everyone by winning an outright majority.
Canada saw a higher voting turnout, which worked in Trudeau’s favour because first-time voters wanted alternatives to the usual Conservative arguments (part of the reason Lib Dems and Greens call for younger voting age).
Given recent events in the UK and beyond, political interest is high and there’s a yearning for anti-establishment alternatives moderate enough for us not to regret supporting them. Some of those who voted to leave the EU or for Corbyn’s leadership already wish they hadn’t done so.
As Trudeau demonstrates, actions that promote individual liberties and mutual respect should come from all facets of society, not least those who lead. Agree with them or not, Corbyn and May are divisive because their positions at either end of the political spectrum make balanced, universally relevant politics less achievable. While the media effortlessly uses the term “extremism” when referring to religious fanaticism, we ignore the potentially extreme nature of the right, not least in its economic policies and divisive rhetoric. The UK needs a tolerant centre-ground more than ever: one where it is fine – really – to agree or disagree, to be religious or secular, to wear whatever you please, to eat curry or pie.
Recently, Canada’s Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussen (a Somali-Canadian), proudly dubbed his country “a nation of immigrants”. But in the UK, even the Remain campaign tried to appease voters with concessions on migrant access to benefits, failing to emphasise the positives of immigration. Now, one of May’s first pledges was an immigration cut. Global and European citizens aren’t being represented by the government or its supposed opposition, and they will look for an alternative.
But perhaps we’re all guilty of perpetuating a pseudo-democracy. We kept the non-proportional electoral system and aren’t questioning the sneaky constituency changes. Most of us wave the white flag to the safe seat model when technically the power is in our hands to overcome it. Voting tactically against the Tories (a concept spreading online) still means that, in essence, we are surrendering our basic democratic right to choose the best candidate or party to an unrepresentative system that will consequently never change. And that’s without mentioning how wafer-thin mandates are celebrated as absolute.
Recent outcomes (Brexit, Trump, Turkish referendum) have been terribly close. Uniting a country is idealistic – nice as it sounds, a progressive alliance is almost as unlikely as a unified Labour party. But we could reduce polarisation. The UK is ready for a government that has open, tolerant values. We just haven’t noticed that this is what we’re longing for. ‘Centrism’ isn’t very exciting and headlines about moderate politics aren’t exactly sensational. So there’s no loud media outlet to boast the country’s recent movement in that direction (even in places that voted Leave) – nor, in fact, to mention that Trudeau was just being a liberal.
But such politics is precisely what the UK needs. What’s more, even if we haven’t been pushed to internalise this, it’s actually in demand. And despite the odds, if Canada and recent surprise results are anything to go by, liberal politics can eventually come out on top.