A Movement for Liberal Change

One of the most common responses to Vince Cable’s suggestions about “creating a movement” and “supporters” has been to focus on the army of people who already help us locally with leaflet delivery, cake-baking, fund-raising and loyal votes.  I support the idea that those links should be greater and that we should involve supporters in the national party rather than just backing a local candidate or two. However, Vince’s ideas go a great deal further.

He quotes from the resolution on strategy agreed at our Southport Conference in March.  That commits us “To create a political and social movement which encourages people to take and use power in their own lives and communities at every level of society”.  When I wrote those words, they were connected to two other commitments:

“Developing a mass campaigning movement both within and outside the party that is of a scale and effectiveness to match the scale of our ambitions, which supports both elections and issue-led campaigns;

Run issue-led local and national campaigns to help create a liberal society and secure immediate change though harnessing pressure from outside the political system with our own power within it”.

This was my second attempt to build the concept of a movement into my Party’s thinking in place of the model of a traditional party. (I prefer my original wording from 1970 about “campaigning inside and outside the institutions of the political establishment” rather than “harnessing” others, but that may be a minor difference).

In 1970, the success of the community politics idea set out immediately after the commitment to a campaigning movement in the resolution, led us to forget the context which would enable us to build from community politics. That context was about using local relationships to “start from where people are” rather than asking them to make an immediate commitment to a formal party with all its rules and policies. It was about campaigning to involve people in changing policies and government practice NOW – the sort of campaigning which has taken off in the internet age because people are free to support specific changes without having to buy into a party.  It was about campaigning to change hearts and minds rather than only connecting with the minority of people who already agree with us about most things.

I am disappointed by the lack of ambition amongst Liberal Democrat colleagues. We do not have to appeal only to people who already agree with us about most things.  “The educated bourgeoisie” (Keynes’s phrase) is not our only allies. We must not write off the people who should be the most important beneficiaries of a liberal society – those who feel “left behind” by political élites, voiceless, impoverished and powerless in the modern world. If we want to help change their lives, we need a movement which engages, involves and empowers them.

We should be asking how to create that campaigning movement and not just contesting the arid details of structures and constitutions.

* Gordon Lishman is over 70 and has campaigned for older people and on issues concerned with ageing societies for about 50 years.  Nowadays, he does it with more feeling!

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • James Baillie 12th Sep '18 - 8:56am

    As I’ve said elsewhere, Gordon, your position seems to be a very good statement of objectives regarding what we might want out of a supporters’ scheme. I as such agree with most of your post, but I’m very far from convinced that Vince’s specific plans actually take us in this direction. Indeed I specifically fear that aspects of the plans will simply end up significantly centralising power onto HQ and the party leadership rather than giving anything meaningful into community politics or helping us reach out to any great degree.

    However arid the constitutional details may be, it is vital that we get them right, and it would surely be wrong to ask members to vote for a scheme just on the grounds that they agree with the rough zeitgeist around it – a sloppy or bad implementation of good principles can be catastrophic for getting those principles enacted.

  • I agree with Gordon’s “minor difference” – as well as the rest!

    It is not too difficult to say that Liberalism is about changing the balance of power within society. Showing that we mean it and offering a an appropriate style of operating as a political force is the hard bit – especially in some of our most hard-pressed communities, but it can be done.

    In his current Liberator piece Tony Greaves poses the question “Why worry about about a party I’ve been fighting all my life, led by a pretty hopeless man who seems to be living in the past?” He goes on to offer a clear-eyed analysis of what is going on inside Labour (insofar as that is possible!).

    In our conversations about becoming more of a “movement”, it is worth remembering that many decades ago people took seriously the idea of Labour as the obvious movement for change. Hence my joy when people say “You lot are on the side of the people unlike our local Labour Party.” They don’t mean it in a superficial populist sense.

    There are honest socialists with an integrity that can be respected inside Labour with whom I am happy to argue and ultimately disagree with.

    A crude distinction I have often used is that socialism tends to see change depending on shifting money whereas liberals are primarily about shifting power. Of course there is an overlap in terms of ultimate destinations but the way you travel on the journey now is crucial. That was an important element in Gordon’s 1970s vision and we still need it.

  • Bill le Breton 12th Sep '18 - 9:31am

    James Baillie, above, warns wisely “Indeed I specifically fear that aspects of the plans will simply end up significantly centralising power onto HQ and the party leadership rather than giving anything meaningful into community politics or helping us reach out to any great degree.”

    We should never forget that many of the people to whom this increase in central power would be given are directly responsible for the disastrous decisions and policies which smashed the Party as a effective political force across the years since 2007.

    That they apparently find the increased use of plebiscites an attractive solution is a worry. We know the people in the C20th century that argued for and exploited these.

    If memory serves, the SDP argued against the Liberal Party policy that any member could turn up at its Assembly and vote on policy.

    Yesterday Ed Davey wrote that ‘a central tenet of Liberalism is trust the people’ .

    Gladstone wrote, “Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence”.

    There is a world of difference between the two.

  • @Geoff Reid – “socialism tends to see change depending on shifting money whereas liberals are primarily about shifting power”

    I love that. Can I steal it?

  • “Developing a mass campaigning movement both within and outside the party that is of a scale and effectiveness to match the scale of our ambitions”

    How do we reconcile that with our campaigning strategy of ruthlessly narrow targeting? We don’t get air time in the national press, so most people will only hear from us if an activist knocks on the door or sticks a focus leaflet through it. Will our new registered supporters all be immediately despatched to target seats?

    The “mass” bit seems to be missing.

  • John Marriott 12th Sep '18 - 9:56am

    Sorry you find many of us lacking ambition, Cllr Lishman. I was ambitious once; but in a more pragmatic way. I never really thought that ‘Liberalism’ was the answer to everything. My interest was nearly always based on getting things done locally rather than nationally and thirty years as a councillor working with colleagues of all political persuasions and some, who officially had none, taught me the value of compromise.

    However, what I always felt distinguished the Liberals from the rest – and why I was an active member for nearly forty years – is best summed up by the Bobby Kennedy quote: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream of things that never were and say, why not?”

  • Innocent Bystander 12th Sep '18 - 10:12am

    “A crude distinction I have often used is that socialism tends to see change depending on shifting money whereas liberals are primarily about shifting power”.

    I tend to prefer Thatcher’s view that all Socialists eventually run out of other peoples’ money.

  • Gordon Lishman 12th Sep '18 - 10:32am

    I agree with much of what is said above and particularly with Nick on the incompatibility of a national campaigning movement and narrow targeting. That’s what led to the fragility of seats targeted on the basis of squeeze-based local campaigning and that led onto the failure to hold seats when there was a national squeeze, coalition government and the absence of a coherent, distinctive liberal message. It also led to (1) the hollowing-out of the Party throughout the country; and (2) the unwillingness to campaign on EU issues even during a European Parliament election, which, combined with similar reluctance from other parties, was a key long-term factor in the referendum result.
    Bill: I share your distaste for plebiscitary democracy. The challenge that follows in the age of the internet is how to create online deliberative democracy. For better or worse, we can’t simply pretend that occasional physical gatherings of people still work as the only way to agree on issues, big and small. That’s as true in my ward as it is nationally.

    One of several opportunities missed by the Party’s recent working group on communities and local government was to follow through on ideas about how to involve people in discussing, debating, agreeing, compromising and campaigning. The loss of those skills and habits and their replacement by the urgent online statements of alternative certainties is a major element in the decline of public debate and democratic politics. To paraphrase an old saying: a lie is halfway round the world on the internet before Focus has got its boots on.

    John: as a relative newbie, I think you tend to embody the fallacious interpretation of community politics as exclusively locally-focused. As I suggest above, the local focus is necessary to acquire the right and the status to talk directly with people about big liberal issues; local achievements are an end in themselves, but crucially they are also a means to greater liberal goals.

    I see Gladstone’s quote every time I go into the National Liberal Club. I’ve never been very convinced by “tempered with prudence”, any more than I liked Gordon Brown’s prudence. And, it would be difficult to argue that Gladstone’s career involved much tempering – the Midlothian campaign was much more movement than prudence, and his approach to Ireland was defiantly about principle and mobilisation.

  • Sue Sutherland 12th Sep '18 - 11:29am

    I agree with the aims expressed in paragraphs two, three and four and have a great deal of respect for Gordon Lishman but totally disagree with him about our own structures and ways of working. Some people want visionary policies, some want to create a movement and some want both but without the structures and rules that enable this to happen, all that is happening is great frustration.
    The problem is that the party isn’t practising what it preaches and what it preaches is hard to put into practice. It’s so much easier to tell people what they want or work up a proposal and consult people on that idea while resisting change to the proposal because you think your ideas are best. This is often how central and local government works and I’m afraid that to many members this is how the party works.
    I’m conscious that I’m talking to one of the party’s great thinkers but I’m trying to speak truth to power. We are not a party that wants our leaders to announce what our vision is but we are a party of members who want to change the world. If we’re to achieve this members must be involved at the start of the process and throughout it, not just at the end. Then we can have a vision that belongs to the party, policies that support that vision and a basis on which to engage activists of other parties or interest groups and to promote the kind of politics that you, Gordon, and others invented so long ago.

  • Thoughtful and well constructed piece as always, Gordon.

    David Raw writes “I’m afraid the two things – money and power – go together in the modern world, as they always did” This is true, but I think it is also important to clearly distinguish between the concept of pre-distribution and redistribution.

    The focus of Liberalism is organising society and empowering people such that they have the opportunity and the means for economic freedom. The state has a vital role in maintaining the infrastructure and institutions that enable everyone to pursue their economic interests.

    Gordon references Keynes phrase “The educated bourgeoisie” from his 1925 address to the Liberal summer school where Keynes made the prescient remark “I do not believe that the intellectual elements in the Labour Party will ever exercise adequate control; too much will always be decided by those who do not know at all what they are talking about; and if — which is not unlikely — the control of the party is seized by an autocratic inner ring, this control will be exercised in the interests of the extreme Left Wing — the section of the Labour Party which I shall designate the Party of Catastrophe.”
    This is what I believe the ‘tempered by prudence’ in Gladstone’s famous phrase, highlighted by Bill le Breton, relates too. Plebiscitary democracy is inevitably driven by appeals populism and the baser aspects of human nature.
    Liberal policy has to be built on the foundation of unchanging values from generation to generation embedded in the over-riding principles of freedom and social justice.

    Those values were well espoused in Lloyd George’s Limehouse speech https://liberalhistory.org.uk/history/lloyd-george-on-the-peoples-budget/. When we see growing homelessness today, councils paying out billions in temporary accommodation, no accommodation available at the rents provide for by housing benefits, the younger generation paying out half of their after tax income for very basic shelter, we should be asking “How much has changed since Lloyd George made his famous speech”?

  • Nick Baird – In a liberal universe I’m sure that a generous sharing of one-liners oils the wheels of colleagueship!

  • John Marriott 12th Sep '18 - 2:03pm

    @Gordon Lishman
    If it’s me you class as a ‘relative newbie’, how old does that make you? I’m 75 next month, joined the Liberal Party in 1979, was first elected as an SDP/Liberal Alliance councillor in 1987 and served continuously on various councils from Parish to County for the next 30 years. The only two ‘elections’ I ever lost were as a parent governor at my sons’ primary school and as the Lib Dem Parliamentary Candidate for Sleaford and North Hykeham in 1997.

    My “fallacious” comments are based on my personal experience and an interpretation of politics, both local and national, as I see them. You might not agree with me; but it would appear, according to your profile, that not everybody always agrees with you.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Sep '18 - 2:41pm

    Excellent piece, comments too.

    I do think, if the word moderate is over used for some, it is true of radical, too.

    David Raw always speaks from head and heart, but the words nearly always involve criticism of the coalition, a need for apology, the extolling of radicalism.

    The word is all things too all who use it, as much as centrist or moderate.

    Example, I think the BBC are a disgrace, illiberal, hording power, monopolising the licence fee, a draconian tax on the poor, a flat tax, thresholds decided by elites, people who cannot pay, imprisoned, tyranny. I would two thirds privatise the bbc, with bbc public, a true public broadcaster with news, information, educative and cultural programmes, funded by the Department of Culture media sport, then, bbc commercial, funded by advertising, sponsership and subscription. This is in my view radical, neither left or right.

    Others like the bbc, support the licence fee, in my view they are conservatives, illiberal, stuck in an outdated model of statist social democracy and paternalist Toryism.

    I think we should stop assuming everything and being know alls.

    Sue Sutherland has the correct tone.

  • John Marriott 12th Sep '18 - 3:57pm

    @Lorenzo Cherin
    If you think that the BBC “are(sic) a disgrace”, try watching Fox News, if you can get it! I have to say that your ‘plans’ for ‘Auntie’ are distinctly right wing. As a keen listener and watcher for almost as long as I can remember, you ‘radicalise’ the BBC over my dead body. I don’t know from where you originate; but I can assure you, having lived, worked and studied in a few countries in my time, the British Broadcasting Corporation is still admired for its impartiality, professionalism and its ability to come up with stocking programmes (eg ‘The Bodyguard’). Believe me, the world would be a far less well informed place without it!

  • Innocent Bystander 12th Sep '18 - 4:49pm

    Well said Sir! There are no arguments to defend the BBC. All can be knocked over with ease.
    1. “It is very popular”
    Then why does it become hysterical when voluntary subscription is suggested. It is offensive to claim popularity while simultaneously compelling its customers to pay for its services.
    2. “It is envied across the world”
    Not a single one of the other 163 countries in the UN have envied it enough to copy it.
    3. “It is commercially successful and sells its programmes to other countries”
    It could give its programmes away. All its costs are covered by licence fee payers (and more).
    4. “It gives Britain ‘Soft Power’ ”
    Whatever that is but see 2. above. That is a massive problem as it encourages this tiny nation to have ideas above its station and well above its means.
    5. “It is impartial”
    Only from the view of those who share its views. It is the opposite to those who (quite legitimately) don’t.

    So Lorenzo, please keep fighting the good fight. It is a anachronistic dinosaur propped up by the old (who when they lose their free licence may join our opinion) and it loses ground every day. Good riddance and when it finally falls scores of new, fresh opportunities for writers, actors and comedians will emerge no longer forced to beg at the Capital of Luvviedom.

  • John Marriott 12th Sep '18 - 6:45pm

    @Innocent Bystander
    Your view of the world, and the BBC in particular, is not one that I share. Let me address some of your points.
    #1 It would appear to be popular if you believe the viewing figures. It’s not the BBC that “compels it’s customers to pay for its services”. Its Charter is a matter for Parliament to decide, which would therefore seem to be a decision taken out of its hands by politicians, most of whom would seem to be happy to leave things more or less as they are.
    #2 When I lived in West Germany, each household was expected to pay ‘Fernsehsteuer’ TV Tax, which was based on income. I think the country was a member of the UN at that time. Mind you, the three main channels still carried advertising (‘Werbepunkte’); but these were confined to a small time period each evening.
    #3 Surely the BBC’s ability to sell its programmes abroad is to be welcomed for the revenue it generates.
    #4 i’m not sure where you are coming from with “soft power”. For a “tiny power” to be relied upon for its honest news coverage, for example, is surely something of which we can all be proud.
    #5”Impartial”? You bet it’s impartial. Just watch Fox News or Russia Today!

  • Innocent Bystander 12th Sep '18 - 7:20pm

    I don’t mind people liking the BBC. They should just have the decency to pay their own bills but if the BBC actually believed its own propaganda it would have no fear of subscription.
    Germany has nothing like the BBC as I am sure you know. (More like channel 4).
    It doesn’t ‘sell’ its programmes as all the costs are covered by us daft Brits. It gives them away at my expense.
    Impartiality is in the eye of the beholder. It is clear what you define as impartial, others, as I said, don’t require you to advise them.
    But my opinions don’t matter. The BBC has many enemies and they don’t tire of picking out scandals and embarrassments. Its audience is very age shifted and sooner or later it will succumb.

  • innocent Bystander 12th Sep '18 - 7:45pm

    BTW I would be happy with the German system. That is a tax to support our media industry which is a reservoir of talent. But it should be spread across multiple providers who now (because of streaming) can reach all the audience the BBC cannot (it being a pensioner focused dinosaur and all). We have three children none of whom have a licence ( as I do) as they watch on their phones and tablets all sorts of stuff from the web.
    My objection to the BBC (from an arts point of view) is that it is the only game in town so hordes of aspirants queue at its door but very few does it deign to allow in. These have hit the jackpot but within the scores they turn away will be talent that will excite the oncoming generation.
    Anyway, so no monster BBC but perhaps lots of little new ones.

  • John Marriott 12th Sep '18 - 8:26pm

    @Innocent Bystander
    Just a few points of clarification. Firstly, Germany, or rather West Germany, because that was what it was called when I lived there. At that time there were just three Terrestrial channels, ARD, ZDF and das dritte Programm. Just as over here, that number has increased greatly. The point I was making was that there are, or were, places where public money, in terms of a levy, has been used to finance broadcasting organisations.

    As for selling programmes, of course the BBC sells programmes. It certainly doesn’t just “give them away”. As for impartiality, it’s interesting, for example, how many former UKIP county councillors I knew between 2013 and 2017 didn’t like the BBC. Would you happen to be of similar political persuasion? Perhaps not, as you and Mr Cherin would appear to agree. It might be nice to hear from him again. He appears to have gone to ground.

    I appreciate that the media continues to evolve and many people view content in many ways and at many different times. Media experts have been predicting ‘Auntie’s’ demise for many years; but, thanks to public support, she just keeps bouncing back.

  • Innocent Bystander 12th Sep '18 - 9:58pm

    Selling implies some commercial benefit. It operates as a charity for foreign viewers at my expense.
    I am not a member of UKIP and was a Remainer (for economic reasons) but are you suggesting that different opinions to your own are invalid?
    Anyway, as to the BBC’s survival we shall see, shan’t we?
    It’s audience is ageing and the oncoming generation looks elsewhere (and it knows it but is clueless as to a solution), it has an ever increasing army of enemies who steadily encroach on its turf and take every opportunity to damage it, an ever increasing percentage now stream (instead of broadcast) and the number of fee payers can only fall and a couple more scandals should do for it. But we shall see, as I said.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Sep '18 - 11:54pm

    John Marriot

    I am pleased to engage, thanks.

    I think the BBC is as good as it could be at best, as bad as imaginable at worst, the later 70s were the golden era, when I was in primary school!

    I object to the compulsory licence fee, not a tax based on income. I object to homes under the hammer, not get their house in order!

    The Jimmy Saville scandel exposed their culture at the expense of culture, which they should primarily give us but do not.

    The Sir Cliff Richard coverage showed an organisation chanting morality of news worthy provision, in effect gutter journalism and invasion of and infringement, of rights.

    The public broadcasting I advocate is a real one, a bigger version of , not fox news, US pbs, open university, proms, learning zone, from public monetary provision re DCMS.

    This is Liberalism not right wing.

    David Raw

    A presumption that at fifty and a professional in the arts, culture, education, creative industries, media, I do understand, but happen not to agree.


    Reveal your identity and lets be friends as we are political brothers!

  • John Marriott 13th Sep '18 - 8:44am

    @Lorenzo Cherin
    Thanks for getting back. I’ve really not got much more to say. I acknowledge the mistakes the BBC made, including St Cliff and Savile – we could add a few more, from ‘Auntie’ and elsewhere.

    Your mate, (Less than) Innocent Bystander and you clearly have your points of view, with which I, and presumably David Raw, as we settle down to life in Jurassic Park, would profoundly disagree. But, hey, ho, life is too short to hold a grudge. Have a nice day!

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