I visited Manchester this week, to help with the ASI's events at the Conservative Party Conference. Sadly, apart from our own events, the TFA's Freedom Zone and Forest's excellent Stand Up for Liberty event, I left feeling a little despondent. What struck me about the conference was just how marginalized libertarians are within the Conservative Party today – not just the Rothbard-reading, abolish-the-state libertarians, but also classical liberals who just want to reduce the size and scope of government, if not to (say) privatize the roads. The same applies to UKIP and the Liberal Democrats – both have libertarian members who struggle against parties that are fundamentally unlibertarian. (I have not met a libertarian Labour member but a few may exist for all I know.)
Yes, the Conservatives generally agree that income redistribution is a bad thing, but on a range of other important issues the party is at best divided and at worst totally opposed to the libertarian agenda. On issues like sound money, the NHS (“the most precious institution in our country”, according to the PM), bank bailouts, farm subsidies, personal freedoms, localism, economic regulation, migration, foreign interventionism, drugs, defence, corporate welfare, and others, the leadership and/or membership of all of the UK's mainstream parties are set against even moderate libertarian stances.
It's not just that they're insufficiently radical on the areas where there is agreement; in many cases above it is profoundly opposed to libertarian ideals, and this will never change from the inside.
It seems to me that many politically-active libertarians have overinvested in the party politics – rather than convincing politicians, who ultimately have to appeal to voters for their jobs, libertarians should be focusing both on changing public opinion and asserting themselves as a voting bloc. Libertarians, moderate and radical, should be fiercely independence from any particular party.
Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie, both editors at Reason Magazine, have a new book, The Declaration of Independents, in which they argue that libertarians in America should throw away party tribalism and embrace being floating, independent voters and activists. It's not a directly analogous system, of course, but the principle that libertarians should avoid wasting time on party politics and instead work on specific issues is a good one. Why waste time working for a political party that mostly despises what you believe in?
This is true of Conservative libertarians most of all. It's perfectly possible that the Liberal Democrats, UKIP or even Labour could put forward a manifesto that coincides with more libertarian beliefs than the Conservative party – the latter's corporatist "pragmatism" (bailouts, protection for big business) is widespread but may be less ingrained among other parties' voting bases. And the Tories might become more libertarian if they had an incentive to. There is no incentive unless more libertarians assert themselves independently from parties. They have nothing to lose but their membership cards.