Why should libertarians participate in the electoral system?

Some of you may be aware of my efforts to create a new libertarian political party. My aims for this party are simple. 1) Get registered with the Electoral Commission; 2) Get members; 3) Get activists; 4) Get libertarians elected to councils across England, Wales and Scotland.

The structure and indeed the name of the party will become more public in the not-too-distant future, but the fact that I want to see libertarians active in the community and elected to office is no secret.

© Tom Page

There are plenty of freedom think tanks, forums and societies in existence in this country, and they play an important part in allowing for the discussion of the ideas of liberty and libertarianism. However, in spite of this valid role, it is my view that such organisations aren’t really reaching outside of their respective bubbles. Rather than engaging with the public, they by and large instead attempt to influence so-called professionals or the already converted.

This is where the idea of a new libertarian political party comes into play. It is my desire to see active libertarians out in the community – working to promote the ideas of liberty to the masses as a challenge to the Statist indoctrination they are fed on a daily basis. It is then from this foundation of strong, community activism that I want to see libertarians standing for election to their local authorities to a) further the brand recognition of libertarianism and liberty; b) train libertarians in how to become effective campaigners by them actually doing it; and c) get libertarians elected to office.

It is my view that for the libertarian movement to become a valid option for others within our communities, libertarians themselves must become active in the real world of everyday life; the world in which our family, friends and neighbours live. This real world is full of that inescapable thing called politics, and with it comes democracy.

Unfortunately, there are some libertarians who claim it is somehow unlibertarian for anyone to participate in the electoral process; that standing for election is an endorsement of the system and ‘power’. Though I can see the validity in this argument, it is, in my opinion, a tiresome assertion as it actually ignores real life.

Even those who reject the so-called democratic system we have in this country in reality participates within it on a daily basis, whether it’s accessing state-provided healthcare or education, or applying for a passport or driver’s license to travel. Life is one set of compromises, so surely compromising a little to promote liberty to the masses isn’t such a bad thing?

It is my opinion that to do nothing is not an option, and I don’t see too many publicised alternatives taking place either, for example, libertarians taking part in or encouraging public acts of civil disobedience; nor a flourish of agorist activity to demonstrate voluntary market alternatives. Therefore, the only other option to further the cause of liberty is to participate in the political sphere.

It is has always been my view – even when I was an active Liberal Democrat member – that political activism should start at the community level. If we’re serious about influencing change, we need to present a trusted, local face to the ideas we’re advocating.

At first, many libertarian ideas can sound overwhelming to people who haven’t encountered them before. They fear for the vulnerable in society, or hold the belief they will lose all the services important to them. After a while however, and in particular if we present a real human face to the ideas, people start to realise there are alternatives to the current way of doing things. They may not agree with everything that libertarianism is offering, certainly not in the early days, but the drip-drip of ideas soon starts to have an effect, particularly if those ideas can be related to local, more tangible issues. This is where having a local activist base, and in particular libertarian elected representatives, helps.

The benefits of having elected libertarians

I believe libertarians elected to local office can play an important part in a) holding the establishment to account; b) challenging existing ideas and practices; c) acting as advocates for others; d) promoting the ideas of liberty to a wider, and potentially more attentive audience.

As a Liberal Democrat, a Liberal Democrat (Libertarian) and then Libertarian Party councillor on both Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council, I’ve stood up and argued for many things that are considered unorthodox, but which have received media coverage and more importantly, recognition and respect from colleagues and constituents, who still might not even agree with you on all or some of what you might be advocating.

As a councillor:

  • I’ve opposed the introduction of Alcohol Restriction Zones, instead calling for improved local policing rather than blanket criminalisation;
  • I’ve called for a review to introduce a prostitution tolerance zone in Stoke-on-Trent to help improve safety for the workers;
  • I’ve refused to apply for a Criminal Record Bureau check at the request of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, on the basis that my constituents are my employer, not the City Council;
  • I’ve been an advocate for local businesses and free enterprise by encouraging, eventually, self-financing business groups; and supporting individual business owners against undue pressure and persecution by the authorities; and attempting to remove council policies that hinder the free market;
  • I’ve introduced people to the ideas of asset release with a view to transferring currently public-owned assets to community or private control, like commercial and residential property, bowling greens, allotments and neighbourhoods themselves;
  • I’ve argued for the reduction of the number of principle authority councillors, the abolition of Special Responsibility Allowances and for all-out elections; together with the introduction of local community councils, in order to bring more responsibility and power down to the individual;
  • I’ve promoted alternatives to government provision of leisure facilities, schools and residential care for the elderly at times when government sees fit to close such facilities, in order to highlight that the government can’t always be trusted to provide the services individuals want;
  • I’ve stood up against populist and hypocritical nonsense by, for example, refusing to sign the National Holocaust Memorial Book on the grounds that our own government sends troops overseas to kill innocent people;
  • I’ve supported private property rights by actively promoting the abolition of the Conservation Area section of the City Council, whilst arguing for the introduction of voluntary conservation associations;
  • I’ve called for greater financial accountability by calling for all the City Council’s accounts to be published in (as far as is possible) layman’s terms so they can be viewed at any time by the taxpayer; and pushed for the accounts to be audited by third parties like the Taxpayers’ Alliance;
  • I’ve consistently said that I wish to return as much power as possible to individuals in order to make myself and other politicians redundant.

Now, with all this and more, I’ve seen both success and failure; experienced satisfaction and frustration. It would be great to win every battle, but honestly, life isn’t like that.

However, regardless of whether or not I succeeded in overturning a council policy or improved accountability, the one consistent is that I was able to get media coverage as a liberty-leaning/libertarian councillor far easier than a non-elected resident would. If elected, libertarians can help local residents and business owners whilst at the same benefitting from increased media exposure. To me, this is a win-win.

Increased coverage, both in your council ward or division as the elected representative, and through the media means increased chances of getting new liberty-minded individuals on board. More people means more donations, more helpers, more activity and potentially more libertarians elected to councils. And remember, once libertarians hold fifty-one percent of the council seats, they control the council. When this is the case, there is greater freedom to implement, inform and educate.

So, to do nothing or to do active, grassroots libertarian politics? Which will you choose to see greater liberty in your lifetime?

  10 comments for “Why should libertarians participate in the electoral system?

  1. Paul
    Jun 12, 2012 at 7:34 am


  2. Ken Ferguson
    Jun 13, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Even those who reject the so-called democratic system we have in this country in reality participates within it on a daily basis, whether it’s accessing state-provided healthcare or education, or applying for a passport or driver’s license to travel. Life is one set of compromises, so surely compromising a little to promote liberty to the masses isn’t such a bad thing?

    This is true in that no citizen can function without submitting to the daily petty coercions of the state and its system of regulation.

    However, volunteering to participate in the system that coerces you is different to submitting to being coerced. Government cannot liberate the masses, they must liberate themselves and, at the moment, most people show few signs of wanting to be free.

  3. Jun 13, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Ken, I assume then, that Wirral First is now abandoned and you are advocating armed revolution instead?

    • Jun 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm

      Gavin – your record in office stands up well and deserves respect. However, you’d be the first to admit that being part of the only three games in town helped in a massive way, getting you elected in the first instance.

      That’s why Ken’s point is a fair and honest one.

      Democracy is a rotten system because it perpetuates a spiral of candidates bribing/gerrymandering electors with goodies. People like ourselves are at a distinct disadvantage because we don’t have the luxury of being able to promise the inhabitants of no4 that the state can solve all of their problems by taking some of no12’s money and spending it on largesse for them (of course we aren’t then able to go to no12 and promise the reverse).

      The trouble with Libertrian thinking in democratic politics is that it necessitates an unprecedented level of honesty. Despite what anyone might say, honest politics is never a vote-winner and won’t be until the current system of doing things falls through the floor. Then and only then can we make some real inroads.

      While people are looking for the mythical ‘they’ to change their nappies for them, all we can look forward to is the odd freak result punctuating a lot of lost deposits. Ken is right, using an NHS hospital because circumstances have deprived you of other choices does not make you complicit in anything.

  4. Gavin Webb
    Jun 14, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    @Ken – unless the masses are introduced to a viable alternative, on a regular and consistent basis, they will alway submit to being coerced. Participating in within the system enables libertarians to spread that alternative. Sitting in one’s house bemoaning how unlibertarian the world is, or participating solely in internet forums, or solely mixing with like-minded, freedom-loving individuals does nothing to help others grasp the concepts that you and I have been fortunate enough to grasp.
    @Daz – I agree that democracy has it’s problems and that it is not the most suitable model to use in all circumstances. I wouldn’t however go so far as to say it is rotten – rather a democracy than a fruit basket despotic state I say.
    I understand your concerns about electoral bribes etc, but just because other candidates and parties behave in such a way, it doesn’t mean libertarians have to. Libertarians can campaign throughout the year on their ticket of honesty and transparency. Personally, I don’t think this is a handicap – the public by-and-large is quite sensible, it’s just they’re not being given the opportunity to demonstrate it often.
    But, even if after campaigning; after introducing people to the ideas of liberty; and after putting oneself in the firing line at elections there is defeat, at least you can say you’ve done something public and positive for the cause.
    You are right, I was elected as a Liberal Democrat, but Stoke-on-Trent in 1999 was certainly not a three party city. It was a solid Labour city – in 1996 Labour held every seat on the council.
    I moved to Stoke in 1997 and worked with the Lib Dems to design and deliver leaflets, knock on doors, and helps others with elections. In 1998, the Lib Dems won their first ever seat (since some Liberals in the ’70s) on the City Council at a by-election (my front, downstairs bedroom of a student terraced house was the Committee Room), and a couple of months later, two more seats. Of a total of sixty council seats in May 1998, Labour held 54 seats, Lib Dems 3 seats, Tories 1 seat, and Independents 2.
    The following year I was elected as the youngest ever City Councillor at the age of 21. Not only was I contesting Labour in a seat which the previous year saw a Lib Dem win, but I had my age against me. Hard work from me and my colleagues secured the seat by 100 votes. The makeup of the City Council was now Labour 48, Lib Dems 4, Tories 2, Independents 6.
    In 2000, the Lib Dems won a further three seats to 7; the Tories up to 6; and the Independents up to 15; and Labour had slumped to 32 seats.
    In 2002, there were all-out elections as a result of boundary changes (I had stood down this year to move to another area) and the Lib Dem seats increased to 11, Tories remained at 6, and Labour and the Independents both ended up with 21 seats each.
    The following year in 2003, the BNP won their first seat and reached a high of nine seats before splits and election defeat last year. Today, Labour are back in charge with a healthy majority.
    The above demonstrates that in fact at the local level of politics, if the work is put in there is an opportunity for individuals and groups that aren’t part of the big three party system to secure the support of the electorate.
    What’s more, the great thing about contesting local elections and building a local, healthy activist and membership base is that there are no deposits to lose. At this stage, I’m not advocating anyone stands for parliament, though of course they are free to do so if that’s what they want.
    I think two final points. If and when the current system falls through the floor, if libertarians haven’t been working in the lead up to the collapse, who will the people turn to? Will they just work things out overnight after decades of welfarism? I don’t think so. They’ll need some guidance and it is my view that that guidance should come early and steadily from libertarians.
    And finally on complicity with the State. By accessing State provision of anything, we are all guilty of some degree of compromise of our principles. Indeed, accessing tax-paid education for your children means that you are more than likely accessing someone else’s money. I’m not saying there should be guilt for doing so, but an acknowledgement that not even most libertarians are perfect in accordance to their own creed. If they were, we’d see libertarians leading the way in open revolt; in open disobedience to the State apparatus. Of course, we’re not seeing that happen – could it perhaps be said that many libertarians show no sign of wanting to be free?

  5. Jun 14, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Hi Gavin – thanks for taking the time to write such a considered reply. It’s appreciated.

    Point taken on the nature and circumstances of your success in Stoke. As previously stated, your record is clearly a very good one and kudos to you for it. However, I’d stand by the point that being a ‘recognised party’ candidate helped – it was a minor point and one we can happily disagree on.

    Having a Libertarian ‘street presence’ on a consistent basis is a concept I’d broadly agree with. Of course, this is not the same as fighting elections, but you’ve certainly turned my head on that score. On the day we say “told you so” (although not as smug as that), we don’t want the reply to be “told you what?”.

    However, my recollection of elections has been of parties promising to give ‘stuff’ to the general populace who lap it up and encourage the rather weird auction of lies and unsustainable promises. Right now honesty does not sell as a general rule IMO and in that sense we’re cornered electorally.

    The party that lies and promises most tends to win – that’s a sad indictment of both democracy (the least worst system) and people generally, but it happens to be true.

    Re:- your final point. I’d love to have private healthcare but can’t realistically afford it since nanny takes a third of what I earn directly, plus a load more when I have a glass of wine (soon to go through the roof thanks to minimum pricing). There are probably millions in the same position.

    Choosing an option because its the only one you have is not an endorsement!!

    • Gavin Webb
      Jun 19, 2012 at 10:34 am

      I agree that being a member of one of the main three parties helped, but certainly in 1995 when I started Lib Dem activism in Luton and St Albans, and later in Stoke the Lib Dems were not the party of government they’re seen as today. They were very much a third party in a two party system. To illustrate this, you might be aware of this party political broadcast from 1997 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5455K_PzA8. There was also a map of Britain demonstrating that if only people who said they’s vote Lib Dem actually did they’d see a significant increase in the number of Lib Dem MPs. The part spent a lot of time trying to convince voters they were a real alternative to the Labour/Conservative game.

      Also, to further demonstrate there is as good a chance as any to see libertarians elected to councils, we’ve seen more Independents elected to councils across the country (in Stoke, the City Independents actually ran the council with the Tories as minor partners), as well as seeing BNP councillors elected (who ran Barking & Dagenham council for a sort stint), and many more examples of non-mainstream parties/groups being successful at the ballot box. If they can do it, surely motivated libertarians can do likewise?

      It is important when being an activist that you’re working towards a tangible goal, and one of the benefits of participating in elections is that there are many objectives you’re trying to meet; recruiting new members, activists, donors and voters.Of course, libertarians can be active in other ways, but there needs to be firm results that can achieved, reviewed and built upon.

      On a lighter note; wine drinking :). Take up home brewing. It’ll save you money and you’ll pay less tax to the government. From around £12 you could brew yourself thirty bottles of perfectly quaffable kit wine in less than a month; or if you’re into foraging or using fruit and veg you bought on offer from the market or grocers, and have a little patience, you could brew for less (and the wine is better in my opinion).

      Thanks for your comments.

  6. Jun 15, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Ken, I assume then, that Wirral First is now abandoned and you are advocating armed revolution instead?

    No, it is not abandoned but it relies on people helping themselves and, at the moment, they show few signs of wanting to do so. Having said that, WF, as you know, has had some success in publicising the libertarian cause.

    I am not advocating armed revolution because, in current circumstances, it would have no chance of achieving a more free society however I am in favour of individual resistance to the most draconian excesses.

    If you want a way forward, other than the ballot box, I would favour creative media events aimed at publicising our views and creating political traction.

    Imagine the following, for example.

    Man sets up tent at Runnymede on 1st June announcing that he no longer wishes to live in a society where he is coerced and oppressed by the apparatus of the state and, in protest, that he intends to set himself on fire on the anniversary of Magna Carta (today so it would have to wait for next year!!!).

    He starts to build a bonfire.

    The announcement attracts massive publicity over the two weeks preceding the event as the clock ticks toward the allotted time. Large crowds gather at the site and tension builds.

    I have no doubt whatever that, prior to the proposed self-immolation, the authorities would act to prevent it from happening (probably on Health and Safety grounds) making a neat libertarian point in the process.

    All we need is a volunteer………..

    • Jun 15, 2012 at 4:33 pm

      Ken, I would like to add the point that you left unstated which is that even if the authorities do not intervene we would insist that no actual self-immolations occurred.

  7. James Rigby
    Jun 15, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    Who is the “we” you refer to Simon in the phrase “we would insist….”? Sounds a bit authoritarian to me!

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