Opinion: Britain is more liberal than you think

Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London Olympics has deservedly won widespread praise. He managed the difficult trick of presenting a vision of a Britain in which the British can feel proud, without resorting to any of the tired old clichés. There was not a bowler hat or a red double-decker bus in sight, and nobody mentioned the war.

One measure of the ceremony’s success is that the only high-profile critics – apart from the Iranian state media – were Peter Hitchens, Toby Young and Tory MP Aidan Burley, who tweeted that the ceremony was “leftie multi-cultural crap”.

The churlishness of the Iranian authorities is only to be expected. What is notable is that the criticisms from Hitchens, Young and Burley had no traction with public opinion. Far from becoming a rallying point for conservatives or setting a trend, these critics have been isolated.

This tells us something interesting about Britain. Popular opinion is much more (small ‘l’) liberal than is commonly supposed. It turns out that most of us can relate to a multi-cultural vision of Britain. Most of us are no longer shocked by the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols – how can we be when Mick Jagger has a knighthood and Johnny Rotten advertises Country Life butter? Most of us cannot understand why the church is still getting its knickers in a twist about gay marriage. We’ve moved on, further than most politicians or the press realise.

Illiberal opinion might interpret this trend as a loss of morals. Far from it. We have no time for greedy bankers, reactionary priests or dishonest politicians. And none of these pillars of British society figured in the Olympic opening ceremony.

Instead, what the positive response to the ceremony tells us is that the British are much more at ease with themselves. It is hard to imagine many other countries having the confidence to show the world the self-effacing humour of the Queen’s James Bond skit, or include Mr Bean at all (let alone allow him to end on a fart gag).

The success of the opening ceremony also tells us that pride in Britain is no longer the preserve of jingoistic right-wingers. People on the left and centre of British politics have tended to be reticent about national pride for fear of being associated with the xenophobia and racism of the far right. But now, a national identity is emerging that is more inclusive and free of old imperialist associations, and which does not need to be expressed in terms of hostility to others.

That is not to say that the old intolerant and supremacist notions of Britain and Britishness have gone. Xenophobia, homophobia and racism still exist. The point is that such attitudes are less and less representative of British society.

The Liberal Democrats should take heart from this trend. For as long as I can remember (and I first joined the Liberal Party in 1975), Liberals have been inclined to apologise for their liberalism, too willing to pull their punches, too keen to split the difference, more concerned to mollify illiberal opinion than to enthuse and mobilise liberal opinion. (Don’t believe me? Just look, for example, at the shameful way our party has fought recent Euro elections). And this is basically why the Liberal Democrats have failed to consolidate a core vote.

The question of a core vote has been the subject of two recent pieces on Liberal Democrat Voice (here and here). In response to both of these pieces, I commented that a potential core vote already exists, among people who are younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan, as I explained in more detail here.

Social trends are moving our way; more people have what pollsters describe as ‘drawbridge down’ values. So the party should abandon its habitual cringe towards illiberal opinion and express pride in its Liberalism. Let the Tories, Labour and UKIP fight over the ‘drawbridge up’ vote; we have no business competing on that crowded territory. Our job is to rally the growing number of tolerant, educated and cosmopolitan Britons – people who have nowhere else to turn if we let them down by being too timid or defeatist to be true to our values.

After all, if the Liberal Democrats were true to their values, what’s the worst that can happen? We’ll anger Peter Hitchens, Toby Young and Aidan Burley, that’s what. Bring it on.

* Simon Titley is a member of the editorial collective of Liberator magazine.

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39 Comments

  • I agree, Simon, with the view that Britain is becoming increasingly liberal in social terms – but I don’t see how that gets the Lib Dems any closer to a ‘core vote’. After all, as you say, liberal values (pluralism, tolerance) are becoming increasingly mainstream. And they are supported – notionally at least – by the three major parties, which means there is little to differentiate us (unlike, say, the Democrats in the US).

    As my previous post argued, I think core votes depend on economic factors, not social ones – particularly in countries like the UK where there are few major, totemic arguments about the type of society we want.

  • “There was not a bowler hat or a red double-decker bus in sight, and nobody mentioned the war.”

    Were you watching the same ceremony as me? Did you not hear the Dambusters March? The ceremony was brilliant in places, but was also cringe worthy and embarrassing in others precisely because of its jingoism. I also found the use of uniformed members of the armed forces completely inappropriate for an Olympic ceremony. What were the political elements (NHS, CND, etc) there for? Why did Boyle choose to celebrate Britain’s contribution to children’s literature (is that something we’re really noted for?) whilst completely ignoring the country’s contribution to science (something we are noted for) and, bizarrely, modern sport (other than a few people playing cricket right at the beginning as far as I can recall). I can put my snobbery aside and accept that cheese (Branagh dressed as Brunel reciting Shakespeare on Glastonbury Tor to the tune of the Enigma Variations) is probably unavoidable in such a ceremony but some of the elements were, quite frankly, weird beyond belief.

    “Far from becoming a rallying point for conservatives or setting a trend, these critics have been isolated.”

    Or maybe they’ve been trampled on by the jingoistic crowd (as much as I hate to appear to be putting myself on the side of Hitchens and Young). Let’s face it – the majority of the coverage of the Olympics has hardly been objective. I await the disapproval of the crowd.

  • Simon Titley 31st Jul '12 - 10:41am

    @Stephen Tall – As I explained before, you are wrong to assume that a core vote must necessarily be based only on economic factors. Culture is replacing economics as the key dividing line in identity, as Stephan Shakespeare identified:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/apr/17/uk.election20054

    We can also see a similar development in the USA, where most of the grassroots support for the Tea Party comes from people who are suffering from the effects of right-wing economic policies and the lack of healthcare, but who nevertheless identify culturally with Tea Party values.

    See George Lakoff’s book Don’t Think of an Elephant, which explains why people vote for their values and identities, often against their best interests, and why politicians need to campaign on values rather than programmes.

    @Steve – “completely ignoring the country’s contribution to science”? Did you not notice Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Tim Berners-Lee? As for the idea that Britain is not noted for its children’s literature, where have you been for the past 100+ years?

  • @Simon Titley
    Brunel was an engineer, not a scientist. Berners-Lee is a software engineer (or at least that was his role in creating his web browser software system). How does our children’s literature compare with that from other countries? Does it really stand out as being significant (maybe it does, but I’m unfamiliar with how many books have been translated into foreign languages and are popular elsewhere)? Our scientific heritage is definitely significant on the world stage, yet was completely ignored. Sorry – a bit of a gripe, but a fair one.

  • Simon Titley 31st Jul '12 - 11:13am

    @Steve – “Did you not hear the Dambusters March?” OK, I admit, they mentioned the war once, but I think they got away with it.

  • @Steve – do you really believe in engineering without science??? Would you have had rows of desks with scientists putting global warming figures into computers and then plotting trends? Or what?

  • “do you really believe in engineering without science??? ”

    Where did I say that? In answer to your straw man – the fact that engineering relies on science and science on engineering is irrelevant. Science is science and engineering is engineering. My little gripe stands – an area of intellectual pursuit this country has excelled at was completely unrepresented.

  • Simon Titley 31st Jul '12 - 1:05pm

    Yet again, a debate on Liberal Democrat Voice is veering off-topic. The original point of my post was to argue that Britain is a more liberal country and that the Liberal Democrats should celebrate and exploit that trend. Scientists with a chip on their shoulder should have their argument elsewhere.

  • @Simon Titley.
    You are the one responsible for steering the debate in that direction by picking up on a small point in m original comment – maybe you should complain about yourself.

  • Liberal Neil 31st Jul '12 - 1:52pm

    @Steve – yes Britain is recognised for its contribution to children’s literature and did you not notice the big up of Tim Berners-Lee?

  • Charles Beaumont 31st Jul '12 - 2:16pm

    I think the evidence for Britain’s increasing liberalism is pretty good (and there is also positive evidence from attitudes to homosexuality and race – distinct from immigration). But whether this translates into LD votes is harder to grasp. The increasing cultural liberalism coincides with falling voter turnout (especially among younger voters) and increasing votes for minor parties/general disillusion with electoral politics altogether. The experience of seeing the LDs in government will do little to help people equate liberalism with our party, even though entering a coalition was undoubtedly the right thing to do.

  • paul barker 31st Jul '12 - 2:21pm

    On topic, 100% agreement – especially the point about the Euros.
    Because Britain was the birthplace of the scientific/industrial revolution, the novel, childhood as a seperate stage of life, mass literacy, science fiction etc, etc – we can all complain that our particular enthusiasm was downplayed or missed completely. As it was there was so much happening that I didnt know where to look. I missed the dambusters but saw david niven being heroic in ” a matter of life & death”.
    The number of people thinking the Olympics were worth the money seems to have risen by 10% during the ceremony itself ( as reported on “political betting”) so obviosly millins of us got it.

  • I fear that the patriotism the Games are engendering is actually thwarting liberalism: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-19059127 I’m not the only person to find this man’s arrest (for being offensive) shocking.

    As to the ‘liberlism’ of the ceremony: From the comments on various newspapers I’ve read, I rather got the impression that a large number of people enjoyed the ceremony but, at the same time, didn’t like the political slant of some of it. I do get the impression that a significant proportion of the population saw it as leftie-liberal brainwashing (obviously ineffective brainwashing, sadly).

    @Paul Barker
    “we can all complain that our particular enthusiasm was downplayed or missed ”

    This country’s contribution to science isn’t just an enthusiasm of mine – I regard it as an important piece of our country’s history and the fact that it was completely missing from the opening ceremony is, I find, rather odd.

    I realise I’m not going to be popular for going against the national fervour – the same fervour that proclaims Berners-Lee as the inverntor of the internet, whereas in reality he was a software engineer who made the (already existing) internet slightly more accesible to non-specialists by writing a piece of software. He made a significant contribution to his field, but it was nowhere near as significant as the contributions of the likes of Darwin and Newton (to science).

    I’m with Justin Wintle (http://www.eturbonews.com/30406/london-olympics-2012-time-athletes-shine):

    ‘A writer and historian, Justin Wintle, was also underwhelmed by the show but for different reasons. His beef was with what he regarded as Danny Boyle’s threadbare grasp of history. “There was no gripping development. Very little of what my country has had to offer the world was represented. Instead of Isaac Newton, David Hume, Charles Darwin, we got the barest smidgeon of Shakespeare and a bigger smidgeon of the Sex Pistols.” In his view, all that the opening ceremony did was extend the sentimentality of Little England to Little Britain. He felt that the greatest show on Earth was actually painfully parochial. ‘

    I also found the Dambusters thing quite shocking. This is a tune that England supporters use to goad German football supporters. How was this ever thought suitable to be included in the Olympics opening ceremony? How does it make us look?

  • The British contribution to children’s literature is indeed very impressive, though the idea that it can be summed up by J.M. Barrie, P.L. Travers, and the monstrously omnipresent Ms. Rowling, is rather dispiriting. What about Kingsley and McDonald, Kipling and Grahame, Milne and Lewis and Tolkien?

  • I also agree that I’ve seen Britain gradually become a more liberal and better society in recent years, and with the political implication that a more liberal mainstream should provide the core from which the LibDems can exert greater influence over the national political discourse.

    To say, however, that “a potential core vote already exists, among people who are younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan” is arrogant, elitist and exclusive nonsense which regularly proves counterproductive at the ballot box.

    I disagree that we can afford to abandon votes because we’re afraid we don’t have the answers to people’s problems, or that the broad mass of people won’t listen. But we can only be more honest with the public if we are more honest with ourselves.

    We must feel more confident about our ability to convince people on the merits of the arguments because it is only by winning greater participation in the process that we can improve the options available.

  • Stuart Mitchell 31st Jul '12 - 8:08pm

    I don’t understand the gripes about this scientist or that writer being left out of the ceremony. Britain has produced a huge number of great people in every scientific, cultural, and academic field you can think of. When you take out the parade, speeches, and torch-relay stuff, how much time did Danny Boyle actually have available to him – an hour? Give the man a break. The ceremony was by necessity a semi-random skim over a relatively small number of aspects of British culture. Parts of it were not to my taste (the interminable mobile phone sequence) but a lot of it was brilliant, and overall I think he well deserves the plaudits.

    Also, I read somewhere that half an hour had to be cut after rehearsals over-ran, though apart from a snatch of the Dr Who theme music, I don’t know specifically what was removed.

  • Perhaps Darwin and Newton were left out because the theme of the show was British innovations and creations that meant a lot to ordinary people. Shakespeare, the industrial revolution, Brunel, the NHS, children’s literature, musicians, film, comedy, the world wide web all did. Darwin and Newton’s towering contributions to scientific understanding were more theoretical. And not easy to translate into dance routines.

  • Simon Titley 31st Jul '12 - 8:45pm

    @Oranjepan – It is not “arrogant, elitist and exclusive nonsense” to say that a particular core vote exists, when the facts show that it does. Polls and surveys regularly indicate that people who are younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan are more likely to hold small ‘l’ liberal values and more likely to vote Liberal Democrat (see: http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-the-bnp-membership-list-and-the-lessons-for-lib-dems-6175.html). What evidence do you have that this “regularly proves counterproductive at the ballot box”?

    And who said anything about “abandoning votes”? A ‘core vote’ is not exclusive. It does not mean the only people who should vote for us; it means the people most likely to vote for us. If the party wants to consolidate a loyal core vote, it makes sense to focus on these people. That does not mean ignoring other groups, simply recogniing who is most likely to identify with liberal values.

  • @Simon Titley
    yes, ignoring the ‘more likely’ voters to concentrate on the ‘most likey’ does prove counterproductive.

    I’ve never understood the challenge of liberalism to be defensive, rather it is to go out and make converts to the cause. We’ve always prided ourselves on being a broad church, and now is the time to clarify our core appeal so that we can and do reach out. We’re not an absolutist or tribalist party, our principles are about policy priorities. That’s practical idealism, not one or the other.

  • Simon Titley 1st Aug '12 - 10:59am

    @Orangepan – Nobody is arguing that we should ignore “the ‘more likely’ voters to concentrate on the ‘most likely’”. Nobody is arguing that we should be “an absolutist or tribalist party”. The argument boils down to this:

    1. The Liberal Democrat core vote (i.e. those people who will stick with us through thick and thin) comprises, at best, 10% of the electorate.

    2. Because the core vote is so small, the party has to spend a disproportionate amount of time and resources campaigning to win its previous votes afresh, instead of being able to build out from a secure base. This limits the success of the party. If we aspire to win more than 20-25% of the vote in a general election, we cannot do so without cementing the loyalty of a larger core vote.

    3. If the party wants firmer electoral foundations, it needs to identify the people most likely to constitute a core vote, then campaign to consolidate that vote. The polling and survey evidence – whether you like it or not – indicates that such people tend to be younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan.

    4. The party needs to campaign and promote its values, and win converts. But successful campaigning requires targeting. All demographic groups are not equally well-disposed to Liberal values, so it makes sense to focus on those groups more likely to hold liberal values and not waste limited resources on the groups least likely.

    5. Building a core vote does not preclude people from outside the target groups voting for us. If that is how core votes worked, there would be no middle class Labour voters and no working class Tories! However, no political party’s appeal is universal. If you try to appeal to everyone, you end up appealing to no-one.

  • Simon Titley for President! .. and perhaps now the TV programmes will stop their worship of the likes of Hitchens and Young..?

  • David Allen 1st Aug '12 - 12:56pm

    Yes, Britain is becoming more liberal, and yes, Simon Titley’s argument on how we build a core vote makes a fair amount of sense, as far as it goes. The limitations are:

    1. The other parties have seen this coming and taken actions to head off the danger to themselves. Hence Blair’s identification with Oasis, hence Cameron’s “hug a hoodie” phase. Some of this is rather hypocritical, but we are not well placed to say so, “those who live in glasshouses” etc.

    2. If we wanted to appeal to the “younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan”, we perhaps shouldn’t have made a complete hash over tuition fees.

    3. In truth, what Danny Boyle did was an effective political balancing act. The Dambusters appealed to the Tories, the NHS appealed to Labour. We didn’t actually have a horse in that race.

  • Simon Titley 1st Aug '12 - 7:38pm

    @David Allen:

    1. Yes, more liberal elements in the other parties have seen this coming. That is no reason for us to hoist the white flag. But the longer we avoid claiming this territory, the harder it will be for us make it ours. In any event, both the Tory and Labour parties retain large elements hostile to liberal social trends. In the case of the Tories, perhaps a majority of the party believes that the country went to the dogs in the 1960s, while in the case of Labour, there remains a strong tradition of ‘muscular labourism’ typified by John Reid and David Blunkett, with a visceral contempt for liberal values.

    2. Quite so!

    3. Danny Boyle did not do “an effective political balancing act” or a political anything act. The point is not whether the Liberal Democrats had “a horse in that race” but that the overall tenor of the event was a broadly modern, post-imperial view of Britishness – and that most people were comfortable with this essentially (small ‘l’) liberal and multi-cultural perspective.

    My essential point is that social trends are moving in a helpful way for Liberal Democrats. This should put lead in our pencils, and remove any remaining excuse for the sort of defeatism that has led the party to issue ‘dog whistles’ about immigration or spout utter nonsense about ‘Alarm Clock Britain’.

  • @Simon
    with the utmost respect, that’s confused thinking which attempts to obscure the glaring internal contradiction in your argument.

    The basic idea that liberalism can focus on any ‘core vote’ is self-refuting nonsense and the origins of small-C conservatism. To be free one must understand how and when conditions apply, not to to retreat to complacent inflexible and permanent assumptions. It requires a bit more finesse; a paintbrush, not a pneumatic hammer.

    The creation of a free and open society is a higher aim than the mere transitory success of one party or another. So by definition the most liberal demographic are floating voters, provided they do at least consider voting LibDem – meaning paradoxically that they are not ‘most likely’ voters.

    Frankly I’m dismayed, as are many parts of the country, by the loss of intellectual and moral vigour within certain elements of the LibDems. To paraphrase Clegg, nobody supports the LibDems for an easy life, we support the LibDems because we want to change the world for the better. And nobody is gonna hand that over on a silver platter.

    I completely and wholeheartedly dispute any claim which asserts a built-in percentage of people who naturally sympathise with any one party or another. Indeed all the polling evidence refutes this, and shows instead that support for all parties is built upon the shifting sands of opinion within the context of the day – look at the falling levels of party membership across all parties – from the mass movements of the mid-twentieth century to the SpAd-dominated coteries of present. Even you yourself relate support to particular policy decisions, yet don’t apply the same lessons from a wider perspective.

    So you are at best only half right – we already have a core, but we fail if we start to become dependent on it, or begin to settle for it. Instead, as someone far better-placed than I ever will be said, we must march towards the sound of gunfire to confront the disagreement which exists.

  • Simon Titley 2nd Aug '12 - 10:39am

    @Oranjepan – You complain about “confused thinking” and a loss of “intellectual and moral vigour”. Well, throughout my original piece and subsequent comments, I have set out a logical case and supported my arguments with plenty of evidence (either directly or via links). You, on the other hand, have provided not one shred of evidence to back up your absurd claims. Instead, you have simply made a string of bald assertions. Your are entitled to your views but I think readers will be able to judge whose arguments are confused and whose are rational.

  • uglyfatbloke 2nd Aug '12 - 5:23pm

    Any thoughts for the millions upon millions who see the whole Olympic event as yet another means of filling our TV screens with pampered athletes and throwing huge sums of money at them?
    If there are spare billions available to be spent on the hobbies of some (athletics//sailing/judo and even football) where are the funds for everybody else’s pastimes? Where are the international-standard hopscotch courts? Where is the heft subsidy for people who do embroidery or face-painting or bell-wringing – or those who (like my wife) play games with toy soldiers?
    It is possible that most Londoners like having the Olympics (though I have my doubts about that), but the rest of the country would be justified in objecting to a further raft of cash for what is already the most heavily-subsidised part of the country.
    Naturally the ‘games’ will have been a huge success.. Cameron and Miliband will tell us so, and it you can’t trust them, who can you trust?

  • @uglyfatbloke
    “but the rest of the country would be justified in objecting to a further raft of cash for what is already the most heavily-subsidised part of the country.”

    Quite. Another subsidy for the South-East paid for by everybody else. A Land Value Tax would make sure that those who benefit from infrastructure improvements pay for them.

  • Simon,
    being more tribal is precisely what concentrating on a core vote means.

    I don’t agree that we necessarily need to identify a potential core vote to rebuild supposed losses in electoral support – it depends on how you define the parameters of identity. “younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan” is unhelpful on several levels, not least for how it relates to your argument that the country as a whole is becoming more liberal. This in part because the population is aging, and while more people are gaining better qualifications polls show Britons underestimate this status as it becomes relatively more common.

    Equally I’d argue that any ‘core vote strategy’ brings us back to negative divisive identity politics (age, social status or geography) of our opponents which is doomed from the start. LibDems are an independent party, we don’t exist in whatever space in the electoral spectrum is left over after others have had their say. We don’t conform to conventional orthodoxy: we are a diverse party, anyone can be a LibDem.

    Because liberalism is about what you do, not who you are or where you come from – and that any electoral problems we may face is the result of not communicating honestly with the wider public on the issues. When we try to sound like anybody but ourselves (eg by signing strange pledges or being chummy in rose gardens) it simply doesn’t resonate.

    Of course there has been much criticism of a percieved lack of strategy discussion following entry into the coalition and how this has impacted our support at the polls, but a radical rethink after the successful implementation taking the first step towards our long-term aim of forming a government on our own is like getting seasick while the boat is still in port.

    We all know what our strategy is – to maximise our influence by maximising participation to win maximimum votes and maximum seats – and this message comes across strongly wherever we’re serious about achieving our aims.

    The party helpfully organises some excellent training days where members gather to share experiences and knowledge about strategy, doing some excellent work which helps us punch far above our weight. ALDC particularly can lend much support if you want to find out more, while I’d also recommend Mark Pack’s book 100 Ways to Win an Election, or going to help out in a different area – the Cardiff South and Penarth by-election (set for Nov 15) is a great opportunity to engage in the strategy debate in an immediate way.

    I get the impression you’re making a call for a reenvisioned stance from the top about the strategy question, but, again, because we’re a grassroots-oriented organisation and because it’s action which is decisive, it’s an ongoing evolution. There will be no revolution in strategy. We will keep going forwards; if you believe in freedom, there are no losers, only quitters.

    So your quick resort to insult looks to me more like you’re missing the point that there is a wider context to be taken into account. You selected your evidence from a narrow viewpoint, so whatever the merits or otherwise of your logic it leads to an inverted conclusion.

    It all expresses an underlying defensiveness about LibDem chances at the next election – surely you always knew there must be many turns along the way before reaching Number 10? Surely electoral triumph for the party is the lesser prize to political triumph for the public, and neither is wholly reliant on the other?

    I hope my terseness comes across.

  • I was a little bored, but I think I saw it before at Pontins.

  • Simon Titley 3rd Aug '12 - 11:49am

    @Oranjepan – You say “anyone can be a Lib Dem” but anyone isn’t. The idea that all people, irrespective of their demographic characteristics, are equally predisposed to hold liberal values or support the Liberal Democrats is fallacious. We know it’s not true because of polling and survey evidence.

    The sort of universal appeal you believe in works only at the most parochial level. Revealingly, you cite training days, the ALDC’s advice and Mark Pack’s book, but they are about tactical techniques deployed locally. It is only in this context that our messages can have universal appeal; everyone wants the potholes mended and the dog dirt cleaned up. Indeed, most Focus leaflets contain no proposition with which any reasonable person could disagree.

    The problem arises when you move from ward level to the bigger picture. Then, you must make moral choices that will inevitably divide opinion. And opinion is likely to divide along fault lines according to people’s values and interests.

    A core vote strategy is not about occupying “whatever space in the electoral spectrum is left over after others have had their say,” as you claim. Quite the reverse, that is the problem with the present ‘centre ground’ thinking. I am arguing that we should not be afraid to assert our values, and should win support on that basis.

    You keep talking about a core vote as if it were a restriction on who will vote for us (‘tribalism’ is a word you keep using). On the contrary, it is about creating firmer foundations on which to build. As long as the party avoids consolidating a core vote, its vote will be like a bath with the taps left on and the plug left out. Our support will remain transient and shallow, and we will never be able to build enough support to become a major party of government (as opposed to a minor coalition partner).

    Sadly, your thinking is the sort that predominates in the party. It is essentially tactical rather than strategic, it delivers short-term dividends at local level but, ultimately, the resulting ‘strategy’ (if one could dignify it with such a term) looks like one of those old variety show plate-spinning acts, and there is a limit to how many plates the party can keep frantically spinning. The party’s number of councillors peaked in 1996 and MPs in 2005, and neither shows any sign of reviving any time soon.

    You are right that decisions in the party should come from the grassroots. I want to change opinion at that level, not merely among the leadership. Hopefully, the party’s current predicament may encourage the grassroots to realise that long-term success cannot rely on clapped-out electoral techniques.

    I know from bitter experience that Liberals are nice people who hate causing offence. But if you wish to propose serious moral choices (instead of merely offering to clean up the dog dirt), you will inevitably offend as many people as you attract. The party has to cross that difficult psychological barrier if it wants to advance. And if you look at the types of people offended by or attracted to our values, there are definite demographic characteristics. What I am saying is that means we should target instead of persisting with the delusion that anyone and everyone is potentially a card-carrying Liberal Democrat.

  • David Allen 3rd Aug '12 - 1:24pm

    May I suggest that there are good and bad ways to operate a “core vote strategy”?

    The bad way – and I think this may be part of what Oranjepan is taking issue with – is along the lines: “Hey, there are a lot of widget makers out there, aren’t there? Let’s bid for their votes by promising to make widgets the key feature of our future technology strategy, promising to fund retirement homes for disabled widget degrommeters, etc etc”. That is just cynical, and readily seen as such by all. I don’t think it is what Simon Titley is advocating, either.

    The good way is to start with clear principles, and then think about who is most likely to share your principles. Given that as Simon Titley says, these for us are likely to be primarily the younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan, it then helps to do things like targeting the seats with the largest proportions of people in those categories. This also does no harm at all, because it doesn’t mean doing anything cynical or unprincipled.

    However, you do then need to stick to your principles. It isn’t Simon Titley’s fault, but, that’s where we’ve fallen down.

  • …yet it’s something more than that.

    As a diverse party, open to anyone, we are the broad church (compared to the tory high church and Labour low church) – by which we have to recognise the plurality of democracy in which multiple groupings actively present differing perspectives within an ongoing structured debate.

    In other words, you are partly correct that identifiable characteristics exist. And if I were to put my finger on one, we enjoy a process which we can be involved in and challenge us to be better. We need to be able to exchange views – something which is only possible when there are a plurality of viewpoints, not one single hard-core. We reach agreement together.

    As an example of this in practical terms our party internal structures are able to reflect a balance of opinion between different age-groups, people interested in different policy branches and a cross of those from urban, suburban and rural areas. We also have tendencies towards ideological views and then there’s the relationship between the professional politicians and the volunteers and supporters.

    Our philosophy has always operated a volatile coalition from the days the Whigs, radicals and Peelites joined together, through the splits and the Alliance era.

    I’m quite happy to appeal for ‘younger, better-educated, more cosmopolitan’ votes, but would we be capable of forming a single-party government without identifying several more segments? I don’t think so. And that’s why we’re democrats.

    Yes, we want tolerance and openness, but we will only get more if we find ways to further it. Democracy is the path to liberty.

    So, to for such a multi-core, and in the spirit of reasonable proportionality, maybe the ‘core’ groups which came second, third and fourth in the poll analysis are also worth commenting on…

  • bah, italics

  • Simon Titley 3rd Aug '12 - 5:11pm

    @David Allen – I completely agree, and it was, as you suggest, the second (“the good way”) and not the first (“the bad way”) that I am advocating.

    You are right that failure to stick to clear and consistent principles has been our undoing. Worse, the leadership has attempted an alternative (and patently ridiculous) core vote strategy, ‘Alarm Clock Britain’.

  • Simon Titley 3rd Aug '12 - 5:31pm

    @Oranjepan – At no stage did I say that the younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan segment is the only group the party should appeal to. I simply pointed out that such people are more likely to vote for us than any other, and as such should constitute the primary target of a core vote strategy.

    My worry about your approach is that it would necessitate such a diffuse appeal that it would have little or no impact, partly because the party has limited resources, but mainly because if you try to appeal to everyone, you end up appealing to no-one.

    More generally, it has long been a failing of the party that, when confronted with making a moral choice, it feels a stronger obligation to mollify illiberal opinion than to enthuse and attract liberal opinion. This is why the party has gone against its principles on issues such as immigration and Europe. This spinelessness has done us no favours electorally, as the dismal results in recent Euro elections demonstrated, where we failed to mobilise our base while failing to win over xenophobic voters.

  • Alex Macfie 4th Aug '12 - 7:13pm

    As far as Euro elections are concerned, what we have to do is fight them on *European* issues, and nothing else. And incidentally, anything concerning the UK’s relationship with the rest of the EU (e.g. referendums, and joining the Euro) is a *domestic* issue, over which MEPs have no direct influence. During the campaign we should make this clear, and not be complicit in the campaign being hijacked by people who want to turn it into an “EU in/out” thing.

    Our Euro election campaign should be about liberalism in an EU context, rather than about the EU per se. So it should focus on what our MEPs have done to foster liberal values in the EU, and what they have done to stand up to the unelected EU bodies (Commission and Council). And most importantly, we should run a strong negative campaign against the Tories and their European allies in the ECR group. There’s not much point in attacking UKIP, since UKIP voters are unlikely ever to vote for us in Euro elections. It also doesn’t make much sense to strongly attack Labour, since ALDE have a lot more in common with the S&D group than with any other group with UK MEPs. The UK Greens, while extremist compared to most other European Green parties, are still irrelevant except in London and the South East. But the generally nuttiness of Tory MEPs, and of ECR generally, provide a huge open goal for us; drawing attention to this should not only win us votes but also help differentiate the two parties for the general election the following year.

  • as far as the Euro elections is concerned Clegg should go presidential and use it to campaign in other countries, thereby showing the positive leadership in Europe which tories can’t and Labour won’t deliver.

    The next cycle of elections is an important opportunity for the British public to influence the current financial crisis wrecking havoc among our continental partners. It’s not that the current effects of integration is bad or wrong, on the contrary, it has been pushed through too fast with scant regard for checks and balances, causing huge massive growing pains.

    I also think that if we’re to honestly claim to support constitutional reform we should be expressing ways in which the composition of European democracy can be improved. Some kind of European referendum is essential, so we should be thinking about the options we want to be offered.

    Back on target votes, there’s a pragmatic difference between starting with principles and starting with the issues which face us. I tend towards the latter because these are tangible things which can’t be misinterpreted, so it’s easier to build alliances on them. ie vote for some invisible Eurocrat with a belief in democracy and human rights, or vote to solve the crisis?

    So it’s not just who we talk to, it’s the language we use. Too much wooliness washes over the public’s head when what we really want is some solid meat in our politics. ‘enthuse and attract opinion’ is just one such example where it sounds like you’re trying too hard to be neutral, however it comes across as management jargon.

    The other problem with targetting a hard-core rather than a multi-core of likely voters, in that it’s less reliable. It is essentially to analyse demographic proportions in polls without considering distributions or volumes.

    …and that raises a varieyt of new questions.

  • Alex Macfie 7th Aug '12 - 7:43pm

    By “European referendum”, do you mean an EU-wide referendum. Because in the context of European parliamentary elections, that is the only sort of referendum that there is any point in considering: MEPs legislate for the EU as a whole, they have nothing to do with domestic political decisions such as whether the UK should have a referendum on its own membership of the EU, or should join the Euro.

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