I, famously, don’t write for Lib Dem Voice. But on a day like today, how could I not? Apparently, there are like ten thousand of you guys now. Welcome! Genuinely, really, welcome. In order to help you acclimatise to the culture of the party there’s a few things you ought to be reading. A version of this was originally posted on my blog, and this one has been amended to reflect the comments there as well as my original post. YAY crowdsourcing!
The back of your membership card* is the first and most important thing for you to read as a new Lib Dem. The front will have some sort of pretty picture on it, and your name, and your membership number. The back will say on it:
The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.
which is an extract from our Constitution and is something that is graven on most of our hearts. Regardless of the fact that I have recently called for a constitutional convention, and I genuinely think that we should rebuild from the ground up (hopefully with your help), the idea that the words “no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity” won’t be a part of whatever comes out of that process is unconscionable.
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. You can read this online, but my favourite version** is this 1912 edition which also contains two more of Mill’s essays – on running the government and on feminism – and an Introduction by Millicent Garrett Fawcett. You might be a bit put off the idea of reading a dry work of Victorian philosophy, but I promise you, it’s worth it. If you really can’t bear all that beautiful Victorian verbiage, though, there is a Spark Notes for On Liberty*** too.
The Liberator Songbook. You can buy a copy here and there are some extracts online here, for example, or here. You don’t have to attend Glee Club at conference – and indeed, many Lib Dems look upon it with total embarrassment – but a read of the songbook will give you an idea of the culture of the party. We like to extract the urine. We extract the urine out of ourselves, each other, other political parties, the political system, and ourselves all over again. Often with swearing. I suspect The 12 Days of Coalition will be sung with great fervour in Bournemough this September, as will Losing Deposits.
The Electoral Reform Society’s Guide to Voting Systems. The one thing everybody knows about the Lib Dems is that we are in favour of “PR”, and so non-Lib Dems will often ask you to justify your position on this****. Most people don’t know what PR is. Most people think we had a referendum on PR in the last parliament. We didn’t, we had a referendum on AV, which is not a proportional system. You, as a new Lib Dem, are going to get asked about “PR” a lot. Familiarising yourself with the various voting systems is probably a plan. The favoured system of the Electoral Reform Society, The Liberal Democrats, and myself is Single Transferable Vote, which is known everywhere else in the world as The British Proportional System, because we invented it. We like it because it gives the most power to voters. We use STV for all internal elections, and it’s in use in various parts of the UK and internally in other political parties, but not yet for general elections. If you are pushing for proportional representation, please specify that we want STV, not nebulous “PR”.
There are lots and lots of other things you can read as a Lib Dem. An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism by Conrad Russell is one I would fully recommend; I am very fond of The Journal of Liberal History; many people would recommend the free back issues of Liberator magazine, or The Theory and Practice of Community Politics for the localism angle, or Progress and Poverty by Henry George for another shot of Victoriana; and I’m sure the people in the comments here will have many many more recommendations… but I would say the four I have listed above are the absolute essentials. If you want an ongoing reading list, punctuated by pretty wordles, I can genuinely recommend Lib Dems Believe on tumblr, which curates content from blogs, books, videos and all sorts.
Many people in the comments to my original post also made suggestions as to things you should not bother reading, mostly because they will give you incorrect ideas. These included anything written about us in the mainstream media (often hilariously ill-informed), The Orange Book (really, actually, incredibly dull), and “anything by Jeremy Browne” (who was much more convincing when he had a beard). While I would agree with all those suggestions you’re a Lib Dem now, and free to make your own decisions about what to avoid. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you 😉 I’d also share Richard’s recommendion from the comments on my original post that you avoid any manifesto or policy document unless your kinks veer that way or you’re sleepy, although speaking personally I quite like policy documents*****.
Anyway, I hope you found this post useful, and I hope you don’t find any of the reading too taxing, and most of all I hope you enjoy being a Lib Dem and come to conference. I’ll be the one with the purple****** hair drinking real ale, or possibly a gin and tonic, in the bar. Do come and say hello, and give me your reading suggestions. Aside from Lib Demmery I’m very fond of scifi and horror.
* when it arrives, which will probably take a while because there are a lot to produce and the new ones are actually quite fancy
** I like this edition so much that I keep giving it to people as a present 😉
*** The bit most often cited by Lib Dems is The Harm Principle: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” – we often discuss the implications and applications of it, but few of us don’t think it is a guiding principle.
**** You are now a Lib Dem, therefore most people will assume that you are both expert on and in agreement with everything the party puts out. This can be deeply frustrating, especially because we’re really not like that. We have (sometimes quite heated) disagreements on policy, sometimes just for fun. If you go for candidate selection, one of the questions you will be asked is “is there any part of party policy with which you disagree, and if so why?” If your answer is “no, I agree with all of it” you will be looked upon with deep suspicion. The erstwhile commander in chief of LDV the Lovely Caron and I have had absolutely blazing rows about policy and I’m proud to call her one of my best friends. We take the whole not being enslaved by conformity thing very seriously.
***** I’m weird like that.
****** or blue. Or pink. Or maybe another bright unnatural colour.
* Jennie Rigg is an award winning Liberal Democrat blogger who blogs at Secure the unlimited rice pudding