A party of ideas

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The Liberal Democrats, a recent LibDem Voice posting declared, ‘are the party of ideas.’

Except that we’re not very good at spelling them out, or at getting them across in the political debate, at present.  And that leaves us at a major disadvantage in national politics, since few voters and not enough journalists know what we stand for.  ‘Stop Brexit’ has now run out of steam.  Polls show us as credited with a positive approach to climate change, but little more.

When I joined the Liberal Party as a student, 60 years ago, a popular but cruel description was that we were an intellectual think tank, generating ideas that other parties then took over.  It had been true of Beveridge, Keynes, even Lloyd George.

Tudor Jones’s new and excellent intellectual history, The uneven path of British Liberalism, underlines our huge debt to Jo Grimond and those around him, in setting out domestic and international agendas that gave the party a new credibility after a long and incoherent decline.  His articulation of our internationalist approach, and its foundation in cooperation with our neighbours instead of nostalgia for empire and global status, still stands against the ‘global Britain’ illusions of Brexiters.  His domestic priorities – local democracy, mutuals and cooperatives as providers of public services, local enterprise and active citizenship – are less well remembered.

We have a great many new members who buzz with ideas about policy, from harnessing technology to rebuilding public trust in democracy.  But we lack the resources at the centre to bring them together.  In the gentle and amateurish politics of the 1960s party leaders had time to sit down with intellectuals and discuss ideas.  (Grimond was wonderful at that, with students as much as professors and expert journalists.)  In the 24-hour news round today our small band of MPs are fighting for coverage on passing issues, with limited time to step back and reflect.  And our small policy staff necessarily focus on parliamentary priorities, and on the slow collective processes of policy development managed by the Federal Policy Committee.

Compare our meagre resources with those the Conservative Party can call on.  In addition to large policy staffs in its HQ and to support its Parliament Party, it benefits from several well-funded think tanks which turn out policy proposals – some sensible and well-prepared, some ill-considered but politically attractive.  We lack any comparable network, with the time, money and support needed to generate proposals for our political leaders to take up.

There are several small, and barely-funded, groups that promote debate within the party; I find the Social Liberal Forum, for example, very useful, and only wish it could do a lot more.  Demos and Radix (‘a think tank for the radical centre’) take broadly liberal/social democratic approaches to policy priorities, and with greater funding could do more.  Some determinedly cross-party think tanks, such as the Resolution Foundation, are also providing research on which we should draw.

My greatest frustration, as a parliamentary spokesman (on the Cabinet Office, currently examining the government’s ill-defined proposal for a constitutional commission, its attacks on the civil service, and its unspecific manifesto pledge to promote data science and data-sharing across government) is that I know that there are talented party members out there, many of whom have joined us in recent years, who are expert on these issues and would love to help – but I lack the resources to track them down or to manage any advisory group.  And so of course do many of my colleagues.

So as this parliament settles in to what may be a 4-5 year term, we need our members to generate ideas and proposals themselves – through virtual working groups, What’s App discussions, and on-line publications.  There’s a huge agenda for us to cover – to examine alternative models of public service provision, to propose ways of strengthening (and funding) local government, to spell out the implication of moving towards a ‘sustainable’ economy, etc.   We need our members and sympathisers, with diverse experience and expertise, to help us to challenge conservative prejudices and conventional wisdom, and regain our position as the party of ideas.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Neil Sandison 30th Jan '20 - 2:27pm

    Lord William dont forget the Green Liberal Democrats who are still encouraging fresh ideas and have some underststanding of the circular economy . One of the things that sticks in my memory from a chartered institute conference was ” Theres no such thing as waste, just resources badly managed” . Get some of these think tanks working together in a colaboraive way and perhaps next generation policy will emerge and develop we should not be exclusive about where new ideas comes from or
    what direction the membership wishes to take up they are a precious resource.

  • David Evershed 30th Jan '20 - 3:32pm

    What is needed is a coherent set of ideas – preferably derived from liberal freedoms like free speech; free markets; free trade; free schooling; and free health care.

  • David Warren 30th Jan '20 - 3:35pm

    An excellent, couldn’t have put it better myself.

    As a former trade union officer and then carer I have a lot to say about policy in two very different areas. I am keen to see really strong Liberal proposals on the world of work and the future of adult social care. I have used LDV to generate debate on both, I will continue to plug away but sometimes feel that I am beating my head against a bit of a brick ball.

    As for Grimond, oh how we could do with him now.

  • Very helpful frustration expressed by Lord Wallace. I have a gut feeling that looking beyond “the centre” and the media Westminster obsessions may be part of the answer. The Scottish colleagues have done quite a bit of work and the Yorkshire Yellow Book has appeared. There may be stuff happening in other regions that I am unaware of. Never underestimate the “terroir” of new ideas. Many thanks William.

  • Katharine Pindar 30th Jan '20 - 5:22pm

    William, I am sure you are supportive of an old idea that is being reborn in our party, but busy as you are as a parliamentary spokesperson and in the Lords, have perhaps not noticed the discussion here of it. This is the idea of the Social Contract between government and people, which the UN Rapporteur on poverty, Philip Alston, deplored the lack of in our society at present. I wrote of its roots, from Rousseau to Beveridge, and urged our party to recognise the need for its renewal here today and lead the way in defining it and campaigning for it, in the article entitled A vision for us based on fairness: towards a new Social Contract published here on Monday, which is still attracting comments. I hope that Social Liberal Forum, at whose last meeting I remember talking to you, may take up the idea and perhaps discuss and define it at our Spring Conference in March. I do hope for your support in this.

  • Paul Barker 30th Jan '20 - 7:00pm

    All excellent points but can I add that we should be taking Ideas from Other Parties as well. That would fit with a Strategy of building a “Progressive Alliance”.

  • I can’t help thinking that if other parties DID steal our ideas, as they did 60 years ago, then the country would be in a far better place than it is today. But then again, I speak as someone who has never had the slightest desire to perch my rear on the back seat of a ministerial Daimler.

  • William’s diagnosis is correct – as is Katharine when she highlights the UN Report on Poverty & Inequality in the UK – (it ought to be on every Lib Dem parliamentarian’s to do reading list, William).

    Back in 1922, in the days of Keynes, Beveridge et al, the Liberal Summer School used to be held in the pleasant settings of a University college…. there was even an essay competition to provide funds to assist attendance by students and young people. I remember attending one (thanks to the late Richard Wainwright) in the late 1960’s.

    It’s time to revive it.

    For those who care to look it up, there was an excellent summary of it all on LDV – back in the days ‘before the deluge’. Here’s part of it : LDV 9th March, 2009.

    Dictionary of Liberal Thought
    DLT: Liberal Summer School (now Keynes Forum)
    By Dictionary of Liberal Thought | Mon 9th March 2009 – 11:19 am
    For the past year, Duncan Brack and Ed Randall, authors of the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, have kindly agreed to let us publish extracts on Lib Dem Voice. Last month’s instalment was Keynesianism, following on John Maynard Keynes; this month, the Liberal Summer School. You can read previous chapters on LDV here. The entire book is available on Amazon here and can also be bought at the Westminster Bookshop.

    “Liberal Summer School (now Keynes Forum)…. Founded in 1921 as an annual week-long residential school to develop innovative Liberal policies, domestic and international, for the post-war world, the Liberal Summer Schools were the source of the Liberal ‘Yellow Book’ and helped to develop the thinking behind Beveridge’s proposals for the reform of welfare provision. The School now survives as an annual one-day seminar, in 2004 renamed the Keynes Forum, and run by CentreForum.

    Does it ?


    So come on President Pack, get together with Duncan and revive it. We need to become an intellectual powerhouse again in the post Brexit world. The alternative is a not so slow withering away.

  • William Wallace 31st Jan '20 - 11:57am

    Thanks for comments. Yes, Green LibDems are highly valuable – we would benefit from more groups like them. Ideas like ‘the sustainable economy’ and ‘the circular economy’ haven’t yet been accepted into wiser public debate; we need to push them, and our critique of conventional economics. Katharine: I look forward to seeing more on ‘social contract’; we should be reviving the idea of ‘citizenship’, as in the rights and responsibilities of all citizens, as members of our national community, in public life – and the responsibilities of the state to all its citizens.

  • william wallace 31st Jan '20 - 12:02pm

    Geoff: I agree strongly with you that development of policy ideas outside London and the South-East is an important part of what is needed. A large proportion of our new members live in London. But over the next 4-5 years we have to demonstrate that we understand local frustrations in Yorkshire and Lancashire, the West Midlands and the Scottish lowlands; and we hope to make gains on local authorities across those regions. Yes, of course I have read the Yorkshire Yellow Book: one of its contributors is Helen Wallace!

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Jan '20 - 12:54pm

    William Wallace

    When I joined the Liberal Party as a student, 60 years ago, a popular but cruel description was that we were an intellectual think tank, generating ideas that other parties then took over.

    Yes, and that is why when I joined the Liberal Party 40 years ago, it had developed by seeing what was needed was working hard directly communicating with local people and in that way getting their votes.

    This often worked successfully in supposedly safe Conservative and Labour constituencies, where thanks to the FPTP electoral system the dominant party had become lazy as it thought it would always win, but we could beat then by coming up and showing genuine interest and concern for local people.

    The tactic was often to win seats in local councils, and then use that to build up acknowledgement as the main opposition and so challenge the dominant party in national elections in that area as well.

    The London Borough of Lewisham, where I was a councillor from 1994-2006 was an example of this. We worked hard to win the one ward where I was a councillor, but from that built up, winning more wards, until by the 2010 general election we were challenging second place to Labour in all three constituencies.

    The important thing was to mix success in local elections done by hard work with a more general promotion of our ideas. A valid criticism of local election work is that often it was done in a way that was too much based on a personal vote for local councillors, and so did not move to success in general elections.

    However, I think the party also tended to get damaged the other way, when it was seen nationally as just the party of its national leader. I think that’s why we did so well when Charles Kennedy was our leader as (for reasons we now know) unlike most of the others he did not push it so much that it seemed the party was just about him. It’s also why the belief that “Cleggmania” was the sole reason we seemed to be doing well in the 2010 general election was a disaster, even before all what was done wrong after that.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Jan '20 - 1:12pm

    William Wallace

    Geoff: I agree strongly with you that development of policy ideas outside London and the South-East is an important part of what is needed. A large proportion of our new members live in London.

    Please don’t write in a way that suggests everyone in London and the south-east is part of the wealthy elite.

    The success of the Liberal Party in London and the south-east in the past came precisely from understanding this, and so getting support of people who felt just as disconnected from the ruling class as anyone elsewhere. Our greatest support in the south-east came from working class people who felt they had no representatives, because the Labour Party was only the party of the working class in urban and northern areas, while the Conservative Party was only the party of the wealthy.

    In London Labour areas, we often won support from people who thought that Labour too were just a political elite, and had no real concern for genuinely poor people. In the old days, when Labour was more the party of Trade Unions, we often got support from poor people in jobs that didn’t have strong trade unions, and felt that meant Labour didn’t care for them. That was also why we did so well in picking up support from working class people in the south-east.

  • David Evans 31st Jan '20 - 9:49pm

    When I first read this, I didn’t know whether to be relieved or angry. Relieved because at last someone near the top has at last admitted the fact that the party is back to where it was in the 1960 and 70s, a small party, totally dependent on its members to get it out of the mire, but angry as well, because there is still no sense of culpability on the part of the party hierarchy.

    No courage at the top to admit that they have squandered the 50 years of hard won electoral success those previous generations had fought for – 62 MPs won back down to 11, over four thousand councillors down to less than half, dozens of local councils controlled down to a handful, and finally membership of the EU lost probably for good, all destroyed by an unthinking and unlistening so called elite.

    Our traditional heartlands are laid waste – We now have no MPs in Wales, only four in Scotland, none in the South West, and only one in England North of Oxford. In Labour areas we are almost nowhere, and are now reduced in England to a rump of seats representing the comfortably well off in the South.

    The problem is that without a clear accptance b y those at the top that they got it totally wrong, hardly anyone will have the courage and no one will have the influence to actually get the party to look at what really went wrong.

    So that we never let our leaders make such a mess of it all again.

    I suppose the question is ‘Are we a party who believe in education and learning for everyone, or just for everyone except ourselves?’

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