Now is an exciting time for Liberal Democrats. We have the chance to implement ideas in Government – an opportunity denied our predecessors for many decades. For the next five years, instead of contributing ideas from the national sidelines with no real prospect of them ever being adopted, we have a real chance to realise key elements of our agenda. We have all come into politics to make a difference, to be effective. Liberal Democrat Ministers know that they carry the weight of the party’s principles and expectations as they work in coalition with Conservatives.
But even as we put our principles into action, we must also renew and refresh our ideas – and indeed since we are in coalition government, it is more important than ever to establish and maintain our separate identity as Liberal Democrats.
And so to review the likely policy challenges of the next few years, to assess how our existing body of policy faces up to those challenges and to assess where we as a party need to do further work, the Federal Policy Committee has set up a wide-ranging review, Facing the Future. It will build on our existing and widely respected statement of Liberal Democrat philosophy, It’s About Freedom, and like the similar exercise that we carried out at the start of the 2005-10 Parliament, Meeting the Challenge, it should set out the areas where the FPC will commission further work through this Parliament, and the approach it will take to developing policy in those areas.
If we are to succeed in creating a strong political and philosophical approach for the party for the next few years, then it is vitally important that party members engage in the work of the group as widely as possible and take charge of the direction that it goes in. We have started this process already: we have written a consultation paper which will be available shortly on the conference section of the party’s website, and conference committee has given us most of the Monday morning at conference for a very full consultative session.
I hope as many members as possible will come along to that and contribute their ideas and views. But I also want there to be other opportunities to engage with party members: I and other members of the working group will be very happy to speak to local parties about our work, I hope we will also be present at regional conferences, and we are also planning to support discussion by local parties. I urge every party member to have their say either by taking part in such a discussion or by writing to me and the group with your views.
This exercise, similar to that undertaken at the start of the last Parliament, is emphatically not an attempt to review every line of existing Liberal Democrat policy: our intention is certainly not to re-fight old battles on well-established party policy positions. But it is an attempt to establish and maintain a clear and distinct Liberal Democrat identity in the new Parliament particularly given the changed circumstances which we are now in.
We will address the widest questions possible about how Liberal Democrat ideas are relevant to the future governance of Britain and the world. For example, what is the right macro-economic policy framework to meet the challenges of the next few years? What view should Lib Dems take in terms of the balance between sectors such as manufacturing and financial services? How can we make the economy more environmentally sustainable? Should we be pressing for greater support for mutuals, co-operatives and worker participation?
On the environment – does the UK have the right overall policy framework for tackling climate change? How can we improve it? How can we ensure that renewed growth in the economy is green growth? How do we meet our future energy needs?
As Liberal Democrats, we talk a lot about the need to create a fairer society. What policy areas and actions are most important in advancing the struggle against unfairness? How should we tackle poverty and inequality without promoting dependency? Is digital inclusion a key to social justice, or a diversion?
What is the right balance between liberty and security in the twenty-first century? How can we take reform of penal policy further forward?
And in the context of political reform, once we have implemented the constitutional reform programme set out in the coalition agreement, what further reforms should Liberal Democrats prioritise? What more can we do to liberate local government from central control?
These and the many other questions in our consultation paper could not be more relevant, broad-ranging and exciting, and I hope party members will engage enthusiastically in helping us to think through these questions and help us define a clear and distinctive Liberal Democrat policy approach for the next five years.
Norman Lamb MP is Chair of the Facing the Future working group and the new Chair of the FPC.