Years ago, when I was a reporter in Oxford, I remember a curmudgeonly old Labour councillor who used to put post from his constituents unopened into the bin, if they had the temerity to write to him at his home address.
We’ve come a long way from the days when the public weren’t allowed to attend council meetings, let alone contribute to them. The fact that we have moved on since the days of Local Government Life on Mars is largely down to the revolution wrought during the 1980s and 1990s by the Lib Dems.
It was their collection of radical devolutionary ideas that provided the necessary edge to the local government revolution. It was a revolution that was long overdue, and they were the Chosen Instrument of its coming.
I’ve been thinking about this since the news of Douglas Carswell’s defection to Ukip. The truth is that I’ve always rather admired Douglas Carswell. Not that I agreed with him on everything, by any means, but because he was a thinker and a radical (and may still be).
Westminster has shied away from any uncomfortable thinking about the design of money, but Carswell didn’t. You would find him popping up in a range of less than popular radical causes, because that was where his thinking had taken him. It was refreshing.
Everyone has been discussing the implications of his defection for the Conservatives, and of course there are some. But I’ve been wondering about the implications for Ukip and for that Liberal radicalism that once turned local government inside out.
Carswell may well lose the by-election which he is bravely fighting, in which case perhaps this doesn’t apply. Farage is a shrewd debater, but the party does seem to be short of radical thinkers.
Quite the reverse, they seem to be populated by venal types from the John Major years, mixed in with a rather exhausting collection of very angry people who hate what they suppose people like me stand for.
Their stance on the future of the UK seems barely to have been thought through at all. They are obsessed with the tyranny of Europe and apparently blind to the tyranny of the USA or the global trading system as a whole. They appear to be characterised mainly by what they hate; it isn’t at all clear what they are for.
But Carswell is different. He is another radical devolutionist. He is clearly no Liberal, but his commitment to people power is important and far more thoughtful than Farage’s.
And here again, the debate misses what for me is the main point. Will Ukip target Labour voters? Quite obviously, they will. It also seems to be obvious to most political commentators that they are hardly going to target Lib Dem voters.
Yet with people like Carswell, thinking through a powerful potential set of radical democratic ideas, they are nonetheless a major long-term threat to the Lib Dems.
Not perhaps for the votes of the disaffected – they already have those – but for the theft of the main Lib Dem purpose for existing: as a radical democratic force, capable of putting a coherent set of new ideas into practice.
There is an antidote. For the Lib Dems to be a good deal more angry themselves, a good deal less safe and to remember the urgent job that needs doing: to renew democracy now that it is so seriously under threat from the two ends of the spectrum - medieval terrorists and technocratic corporate power.
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