As far as I know, there have been two explicitly Libertarian parties formed in the UK in recent history. The first one was the Independent Libertarian Party, formed by Antoine Clarke and Paul Marks in 1998, and since disbanded. I know very little about the history of this organisation, and nothing about why it no longer exists. My experience was with the Libertarian Party (often wrongly described as the Libertarian Party UK, or LPUK for short). That party was founded with high hopes in September 2007 but never got properly organised and was taken over in a coup mounted by former members of the National Co-ordinating Committee (NCC) last year. Although the Party still exists as a registered entity, the membership list and bank account are not under the control of the legitimate NCC and has failed to put up any candidates in this year’s local elections. The gang that hijacked the Libertarian Party run a website and take people’s money – your guess is as good as mine as to what that money is used for.
Since some of us do actually want an effective Libertarian Party to exist in this country, there’s been some discussion recently about starting up a Mark 3 version – hopefully learning from the mistakes of the past with the benefit of recent experience. This initiative is being headed up by Gavin Webb, the only councillor the Libertarian Party ever had – if you’d like to register your interest in a new party, please visit his website (no obligation). There’s also discussion going on at Libertarian Home as to what shape it should take.
What follows are my thoughts on what a new Libertarian Party (whatever name we adopt for it) should be trying to achieve, and how it should be organised.
I’d better tell you a bit about myself first, so you can decide for yourself how well-qualified I am to pontificate on this subject:
My name is Stuart Heal and I live in Manchester. I joined the Libertarian Party as soon as it started recruiting members, early in 2008 (Membership Number 12). This was my first experience of being a member of a political party. I co-wrote the weapons policy and became the Regional Co-ordinator in the North West (only because no-one else wanted the job). A couple of weekends in 2009, I travelled to Wisbech in East Anglia to help deliver leaflets as part of our first election campaign, when Andrew Hunt stood for the local council. The following year, in 2010 I stood in the local elections in Manchester. I was due to stand again the following year, but changed my mind, partly due to being too busy to take time off from my job and partly due to the lack of support for local candidates from the NCC.
The objective of a functioning libertarian party should be to promote the ideals of small government and personal and economic freedom, and to make sure that libertarian-minded people are elected to positions of power.
Note the last part of that statement: “make sure that libertarian-minded people are elected to positions of power”. Some fools maintain that libertarians seeking power is a contradiction. The reality is that governments exist and will continue to do so as long as homo sapiens exists – possibly humanity may evolve beyond the need and desire for governments one day, but that day may not dawn for a million years. In the here and now, we have governments and will continue to do so – so they should be staffed by people who understand the legitimate limits of government power and who mean to increase the freedom of the individual at any opportunity. Opting out of the political system just means handing power over to people who don’t think like us.
One of the reasons the Mark 2 Libertarian Party (hereinafter referred to as LPUK) failed is that it didn’t have an effective organisation – by that I mean an organisation suited to a small political party, and one that ensured adequate oversight and internal communication. It also failed to utilise our greatest resource – individual members.
The organisation of the new party (hereinafter referred to as the Party) has to be suited to our likely size (likely to be in the low hundreds for the first few years) and geographical spread (all over Great Britain and possibly beyond). So it needs to be as simple as possible, and every member has to be able to do something useful, even if they’re the only libertarian in their neighbourhood.
I envisage three levels of organisation – national, local and individual.
There needs to be a governing committee of some kind. The bare minimum would consist of the Party Leader, Chairman (possibly combining those jobs?), a Treasurer, a Membership Secretary and a Communications Director. Call it five bods in total – a large enough group to have a sensible division of labour and small enough to make it easy to make decisions quickly. All officers should be democratically elected by the membership at the Annual General Meeting, and their job will be to do the day to day admin work, establish the organisation, approve and support candidates, administer the website (including a members’ forum), produce and distribute a members’ newsletter, make propaganda/campaign material available to members, put together a Party manifesto and approve the formation of local branches. They would also have the power to suspend or expel members under certain circumstances.
Some will mistakenly describe the list of powers and responsibilities described above as authoritarian or unlibertarian – it isn’t. A political party is a voluntary organisation – if you’re not happy with the way it’s run you’re free to stand for election to the governing committee, to resign from the Party or not to join it in the first place. And to have a chance to achieve anything, the Party also has to have an organisation, enforceable rules and discipline.
Most importantly, proper attention has to be paid to the internal workings of the national committee itself, in order to avoid the mistakes of last time, so I’m going to go into more detail about this:
It shouldn’t be necessary to tell Libertarians no to trust leaders, but for some reason most of us who were in LPUK let our guards down in this respect – and ended up having the party stolen from us. The new Party should be organised on the assumption that even the most respected people are going to make mistakes or go off the rails from time to time – and that’s not counting outright criminality. So we need safeguards. I have four ideas about this:
- I think that anyone who is elected to the governing committee should be required to sign a legal contract agreeing to them to comply with the Party constitution and to hand over any records, access to bank accounts etc to their successors on leaving office.
- No-one should have sole access to either the financial records and bank accounts or to the membership records. There should be a Treasurer and Deputy Treasurer, and a Membership Secretary and Deputy Membership Secretary (or whatever titles are agreed on). That’s the best protection I can think of against a repetition of what happened last year, when the coup plotters managed to monopolise control of both the financial records and membership list.
- I don’t believe that any money should be released from the Party bank accounts unless the expenditure is approved by a majority of the committee.
- I believe the committee should have regular face-to-face meetings – at least once every couple of months – it’s hard to gauge someone’s character when your main means of communication is by email.
In most areas, for the first few years, I would expect local organisation to be non-existent, but developing organically as geographical membership clusters emerge. The way I see local organisations emerging would go something like this: a member wants to get in touch with others in his area, so puts a message on the online forum and/or the newsletter asking people to contact him to arrange informal pub meetups. When there are enough members in a defined area that comes under the same local authority (ie at least 10 members in a particular town or city) they can apply to the central committee to set up a local Branch. This would have it’s own local committee running it, it’s own budget, authorisation to produce it’s own leaflets using Party templates but covering local issues, the ability to select their own candidates for local elections and write their own local manifestos, contact the media as official Party representatives etc. This is going to be a vital development, because the Party will never make any headway in national politics until it has a good track record at the local level. The national committee should do whatever it can to support local branches once they’re formed, including providing leaflet templates, instructions on how to mount a local campaign and stand for election, support on the Party website with contact details, and financial support within reason. I absolutely believe that LPUK would have had more local candidates if more support from the centre had been forthcoming.
LPUK had such a small membership (never more than a few hundred) that there must have been people who were literally the only members in their county. You might think that with no organisation in the area, there’d be nothing an individual member can do – but I don’t believe a small party can afford to waste a single potential activist, and libertarians are supposed to believe in the potential of the individual. So I see part of the national committee’s job as being to support these isolated members and give them something to do. Not long before last year’s coup, during the run up to the local elections, I developed an idea for an ongoing series of leaflets called “The Libertarian”, which I tried to get the NCC interested in. The idea was to produce a monthly two-page bulletin in a populist style that could be downloaded as a PDF file from the party website by any party member or supporter who wanted to print a few off and distribute them in his area. Each issue would have covered two or three national news stories, but from a libertarian perspective, and including contact details for the party. I’d already designed and distributed a local version of this the previous year, as a warm-up leaflet for my aborted second local election campaign in Manchester. The advantage of this is that it would cost the Party nothing in money – just a day or two’s work for whoever edits the monthly bulletin. Contributions to it could even be solicited via the Party members’ forum (assuming we have one, which I think we should). So any individual member can print (say) 100 copies off once a month and deliver them round his area. If a 100 members do that, that’s 10,000 leaflets delivered nationwide per month – the publicity equivalent to an election campaign without any money being spent by the Party. It seems to me that this could be particularly useful to people wanting to set up libertarian societies in universities, or members of more general political societies who want to promote a libertarian point of view – thus hopefully lining up the next generation of Party members.
So that’s my idea for what the Party organisation should look like – it needs fleshing out of course, preferably by people with more experience of running political organisations than me. Getting the organisation right this time is vitally important in my view. But once it’s set up, what sort of strategy should the new organisation adopt? How is it to achieve its goals?
When LPUK was set up, there was a lot of grandiose talk about putting up multiple candidates for Parliament – one fool on the forum even said we’d form a government in 15-20 years. There was very little discussion about local politics. We were trying to run before we’d even learned to walk.
Start Small, Think Big
Let’s say you wanted to become a millionaire – you dream of being the owner of a big concern, sitting in your office in a skyscraper full of loyal employees all doing your bidding, getting on the phone and making million pound deals, inspecting your factories and warehouses.
But you haven’t got any money – you’re struggling to pay your rent, utilities and council tax.
So what do you do?
Do you max out all your credit cards and gamble all your money on one big, extremely dodgy deal that will either net you your first million or wipe you out completely?
Do you give up and resign yourself to a life of poverty?
Or do you concentrate on what you can do? Do you use your decrepit second-hand computer in your spare room to set up a little micro-business which will only bring in £10-£20 a week at first? That £10-£20 a week may not be much, but it’s money you wouldn’t have had otherwise, it’s money you can put to one side to build up a stake for when you feel ready to try something more ambitious – and in the meantime you’re building up experience and a reputation. Starting off small, you’re at least making some kind of progress and giving yourself a chance – and maybe one day you will be that millionaire.
Politics works the same way. New political parties don’t just sweep into power – that takes a lot of money, and even more importantly, name recognition. In my opinion putting up Parliamentary candidates is totally futile, except under exceptional circumstances – no LPUK Parliamentary candidate ever got as much as 1% of the vote, whereas Andrew Hunt got nearly 8% in our first local election campaign. It seems to me quite clear that the main effort should be at the local level – people are much more willing to give minority parties a chance in local elections, especially if the candidates focus on local issues – this is why UKIP, the Green Party and even those losers in the BNP have local councillors. And the idea of us ever having an MP before we have a strong local presence is so ludicrous it’s hardly worth thinking about.
Apart from the near impossibility of getting anyone elected to Parliament in the near future (say the next 20 years) there are excellent reasons for Libertarians to try to get elected to their local councils. Councils very often have more of an effect on people’s daily lives than the national government. It’s your local council that will steal your house using a Compulsory Purchase Order and knock it down to make way for a supermarket. It’s your local council that will deny you planning permission to improve your house – or if they do grant permission, they will then use the improvements to reclassify your house in a higher Council Tax band. And if you can’t afford to pay your Council Tax – or even if you’re just a few weeks late paying – it’s your local council that will take you to court and send the bailiffs to your door (and I can tell you from personal experience that a visit from the bailiffs is no fun at all). People who find local politics boring aren’t paying enough attention to what goes on in their neighbourhood – you should do, it’s where you live. I bet if you bought a copy of your local paper tomorrow and read right through it, you could find at least one local issue that can be attacked from a libertarian angle.
Local election campaigns can also be quite cheap to run. I only spent about £90 on mine, not counting petrol and shoe leather. To stand for Parliament you have to pay a deposit of £500 just to get on the ballot. Even better, some local councils – away from the urban centres – are under-staffed. Andrew Withers walked into his parish council seat uncontested last year, and didn’t have to spend a penny on campaigning. A friend of mine who lives in a smallish town once joked that if I moved to his town we could take over the local council between us.
So local politics is cheap to get into and important enough to bother with. It can also be a stepping stone to bigger things. Let’s say we do get some councillors elected in the next few years. One of them serves a term or two as a councillor and gets a reputation among the voters for being good at his job – as he’s popular with the people in his ward, he might decide to have a go at standing for Parliament, and the Party might think it’s worthwhile supporting him. Who knows what could happen? But we won’t get anywhere without having some “form” at local level first. All politics is local politics.
Other campaigning activities
There’s no reason we can’t attach ourselves to any political demonstrations that support causes that we’re in sympathy with – No2ID, any campaigns against future gun bans, drug legalisation etc. In those circumstances we should do what groups like the Socialist Workers Party do – print up our own banners, leaflets etc. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it’s cheap publicity and can attract new members.
When there’s a demonstration that we’re opposed to, we can also stand on the sidelines and hand out leaflets giving our point of view to members of the general public. In those situations, a slightly lower profile and a good pair of running shoes might be advisable, but I personally do get sick of seeing the same old gangs of socialists demonstrating for the same old discredited causes with no-one opposing them.
I’m coming towards the end of this article, you’ll be glad to know, but there’s one last area I want to mention. LPUK had a policy against members also being members of other political parties. This was a policy I supported at the time, but in the last few months I’ve had second thoughts and I believe the new Party should allow joint memberships. The reason LPUK didn’t allow joint memberships was that this was thought to create a conflict of interest – if someone’s a member of (say) LPUK and the Lib Dems, who should he campaign for at election time? It seemed to me at the time that you should just commit to one party – but this forced people to make a choice, and we definitely lost members because of this policy. Apart from anything else, it was practically unenforceable. One guy stood as a local candidate for UKIP and the election was over before we found out and expelled him. To his credit, he accepted his expulsion with good grace. His reason for standing as a UKIP candidate and not an LPUK candidate was that they had an organisation in the area to support him – I can understand this, having stood as a candidate myself. I think the benefits of allowing joint memberships outweigh any potential drawbacks, and include the following:
The potential to have a larger membership base. We know there are libertarians in UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party. By excluding them, we’d be depriving ourselves of potentially useful members.
In a lot of areas there will be no Party organisation – we just won’t have enough members. So if isolated members want to join a larger party in order to have some kind of influence over the local political scene, I see no reason to stop them, especially if the candidate they’re supporting is libertarianish anyway.
Gaining experience. LPUK had a lot of members with no previous political experience – probably the majority. The new Party will probably have the same problem. By joining more established parties, members can potentially learn a lot about how to run campaigns properly. And a guy who spends time leafleting for (say) UKIP in one election might develop the self-confidence to stand as a Party candidate next time, who knows?
Influencing other parties. If we’re ever to change the political landscape of this country in a more libertarian direction – and I think we can – we need to influence members of more established parties and try to get them to adopt more liberal ideas. So joining these parties, going to meetings, talking to members and maybe circulating leaflets seems to me to be worthwhile.
Reality check: Associating with people who have different political opinions can have the beneficial effect of forcing us to double check our own beliefs to make sure they’re still in line with common sense. There’s a danger that probably all radical political parties face – when activists are only associating with other activists of the same stripe, they can lose their common sense to theory. I’ve been in libertarian meetups where people have argued for or against a particular policy idea based not on whether it’s morally correct, or practical, but on how “libertarian” or “unlibertarian” they think it is. One ex-leader of LPUK even commented in a blog post that it would be “unlibertarian” to intervene in a mugging unless the victim asked you for help! That’s how far off the rails theory can take you – so yes, I think associating with people who aren’t quite on the same wavelength as you can help you stay anchored to reality, as well as honing the debating skills.
Can we succeed?
I think we can. The present might look fairly bleak and statist, but there’s no reason for the future to go on in the same vein. It’s important to remember that what we now call libertarianism would have been called liberalism in the 19th Century – and the Classical Liberals did OK. The 20th Century was dominated by statist ideologies, especially the twin evils of socialism and racism. It’s time for the pendulum to swing back, and I think current social and technological trends are pulling society in a more individualist direction – the rise of the internet has meant that not only can people promote their political views more easily, and network more easily, it’s also made it possible for practically anyone to have a go at setting up a business from home – look at people who make a living through eBay for instance. That’s going to give rise to a more entrepreneurial small-business culture than has existed in the past – just the type of people who are our most natural constituency. It’s also made it easier to raise money for charity, lend money to small entrepreneurs (or get a loan if you need one), do research etc. I think the 21st Century will be dominated by individualist philosophies just as much as the 20th was dominated by collectivist ideas. We can be part of that.
Can we ever form a government. Maybe, I don’t know. Not in the short term, but longer term, who can say? Do we need to? If we can take control of some councils and show how to apply libertarian ideas to improve our communities, if we can influence other parties by sharing members with them – will we even need to get into Parliament? Not necessarily, as long as people with the right ideas are getting elected, whatever flag they fly under. If a future Prime Minister stands up in Parliament and introduces a raft of legislation including the abolition of Income Tax, re-legalisation of pistols and concealed carry, the scrapping of most of the red tape that gets in the way of small businesses functioning, re-introduction of trial by jury in all criminal cases – he’s getting a round of applause from me even if he’s a member of the Labour Party!
We can win. Victory means getting the government off our backs, whether we’re actually in government or not. As long as we’ve got a clear idea what we want, as long as we’re willing to put the work in, and as long as we’re properly organised, we can do it.
So those are my thoughts on how a new libertarian party should be organised and how it should operate. It’s not a complete blueprint, just an outline – better-qualified people than me would need to flesh it out. But I think it’s workable.
Of course there are other options…