25 years ago, our party agreed its new constitution – and the preamble to that constitution, setting out our core values and vision.
Many of us will know some of it – ‘The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, … in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity’.
This extract – the bit that appears on membership cards – is in my view truly poetic, and captures brilliantly what we are trying to do. We are concerned about people, and empowering them to do what they can and want to do. We are concerned about poverty, not just because we want people to be above an arbitrary financial line, but because we want to ensure that they are not held back from achieving their potential in life because of lack of money.
I frequently refer to that passage in talks and on leaflets. I think particularly now, when we are being questioned as to what we stand for, it is especially important to emphasise our core underpinning values, not just the policies we support as a way of achieving them.
However, until very recently, I had never actually read the full preamble. I suspect many of you haven’t either – in which case pause for a few minutes, and read it in its entirety.
What struck me when I read it, was both how much I agreed with it, and also how much it is still relevant. Sure, a couple of phrases are a bit clunky, and we’d probably say a bit more about climate change – but the importance of the environment is still mentioned. We talked about well-being before it was fashionable, and kept talking about workplace democracy when no one else did.
25 years on, it is still a well-written, clear, positive vision of what we stand for. A great tribute to the writers of the time!
It also sets us apart from the other parties, who quite pointedly don’t start with a statement of values, but of power and existence.
Let’s take Labour – there was much debate around clause 4 and Blairism – but I think the key to understanding the Labour Party is seen in Clause 1, the very beginning of their constitution. Here it is:
— Clause1 – Name and Objects 1 This organisation shall be known as ‘The Labour Party’ (hereinafter referred to as ‘the party’). Its purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.
2 The party shall give effect, as far as may be practicable, to the principles from time to time approved by party conference. —
The purpose of the Labour party is … wait for it … for there to be a Labour party! Clause 1.2 then admits it should try at least a bit to have some principles, but that is clearly secondary to the main purposes of existence and power. I think this says quite a lot about New Labour and Blairism.
The Tory constitution is rather hard to find, and is also rather self-referential. It starts:
Part 1 – Name, Purpose, Objects and Values
1 This is the constitution of a political party which shall be known as ‘The Conservative and Unionist Party’ (referred to in this Constitution as ‘The Party’)
2 Its purpose is to sustain and promote within the Nation the objects and values of the Conservative Party.
I’m proud that we start with a statement of values, rather than a statement of existence. We went into politics to achieve things, to make things better, to help people – not for power or political might.
But to build the free, fair and open society of our ambitions, to safeguard it, and to free people from their tripartite enslavements, we have to be able to actually do something about it. Our preamble quite rightly doesn’t encourage us merely to argue our values – but to try to deliver them as best we can. Let’s hope we are in a position to do so more often in the next 25 years.
* Julian Huppert is Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge.