Agenda 2020 Essay #10: What it means to be a Liberal Democrat today

Editor’s Note: The party is currently running an essay competition for members of the Liberal Democrats, to submit 1000 words on the theme “What it means to be a Liberal Democrat today.” The deadline for contributions is 2nd November. If you would like us to publish your submission, send it to [email protected].

Completely by chance, I’m writing this in the very house David Lloyd George lived and died. I’m here on a retreat for a few days, but had no idea of the history of the house when I booked. Almost one hundred years ago he became leader of the Wartime Coalition. Yes, another coalition, and then as now, not good for the Liberal Party. More importantly for my purpose here, he was the one of the architects and founders of the modern welfare state, worked closely with Keynes to formulate economic policy, and in his final vote in the Commons in 1943, condemned the government for their failure to back the Beveridge report.

It wasn’t easy to be a Liberal then, and history shows the decline of the party during that period and subsequently, though Lloyd George maintains a reputation as one of our finest Prime Ministers. Certainly, it isn’t easy to be a Liberal Democrat now. Some write us off, only 8% of the vote, only eight seats in the House of Commons. Still, that represents over two million voters, more than the SNP, a considerable franchise.

Consider also that the 2014 British Social Attitudes Survey found more young people than ever have liberal attitudes. So the recovery of a Liberal Democrat party isn’t a hopeless case. But as what sort of party? As one standing for vague centrism, more economically competent and less scary than Labour, but kinder than the Conservatives? No, we’ve seen where ‘equidistance’ got us in May. We were so busy trying to straddle the middle ground our legs got further and further apart until the electorate kicked us firmly where it hurts. We must also avoid the revisionism which blames it all on nasty Lynton Crosby frightening our voters away at the last minute, complicit with the SNP threat to the Union. Doubtless this exacerbated our disastrous performance, but the situation was pretty dire already – 10 of our 11 MEPs lost in 2014 and thousands of councillors over the last five years.

We need values now to win these voters back; clear, attractive Liberal Democrat values. Nick Clegg’s powerful departure speech spoke more of values than any during the Coalition period. How many new members have flocked to the Party as a consequence? The way they did in the run-up to 2010, when I was proud to be a PPC, standing on a manifesto with genuine Liberal Democrat values, and Nick Clegg was making speeches promising a ‘new politics’, which never arrived.

Our brand was damaged because of this, no doubt, not merely because we were in coalition, but because of the way we behaved in Coalition. The things we did that we didn’t have to do. Obviously, it wasn’t ‘new politics’ to go back on the tuition fees policy. To corroborate in overly-destructive NHS reforms and coerce the party into backing the Leadership. And standing in the Rose Garden, and yes, Nick’s right, next to David Cameron at PMQs made us look more the grubby apprentice than the critical friend the electorate needed.

My background is retail, so I know something about brands – how it can take a lifetime to build one up, only to see it destroyed in a moment’s folly. Ask Gerald Ratner who lived to regret making a speech disparaging some of his company’s products. Countless times owners believe their brand’s somehow different – they can debase it, but the customers, or in our case the voters, will go on being loyal.

They don’t, they lose faith. Now we have the unenviable task of rebuilding faith in the Liberal Democrat brand, or see it lost forever, like Ratners, banished from the high street. Before we can rebuild however, if we agree we need genuine values, we have to decide what these are.

There is a subtle battle going on now over the way our phoenix is reared. There are those, and some of them are new members inspired by that Nick Clegg speech, who are perhaps more libertarian than liberal.
I have seen threads on social media where our members talk in pejorative terms of the ‘nanny state’, with pithy aphorisms about the freedom of the individual. But this freedom is only part of what it means to be a Liberal Democrat – what about other freedoms, for example from enslavement by poverty or ignorance?

I recall a Sunday magazine article with an anecdote which goes to the heart of the dichotomy between a liberal and a libertarian. David Essex (bear with me) said his father had been a great believer in personal freedom, such that he believed young David should be free to practice the drums whenever he liked. To the extent that when a neighbour complained, David’s dad went round and punched him on the nose. Draw your own conclusions about the neighbour’s freedoms.

Lloyd George and our Liberal predecessors were at the heart of creating the welfare state and we should cherish it. Yes, it should be fit for purpose and serve the people of our nation, and citizens should never have to swear blind allegiance to it or subsume their personal freedoms beneath it. It should sit alongside an economic platform that encourages responsible capitalism.

As Liberal Democrats we should believe in the mixed economy, with a Keynesian approach to policy. The same ethos which guides our attitude towards personal matters should apply to corporate ones, and as someone who’s spent a life in SMEs I say this from the heart. We should be pro-business, but pro start-ups and entrepreneurs, giving them a level playing field to fight against crony capitalism, tax-avoiding global corporations and elusive oligarchs, pro green business and against fossil fuel dinosaurs.

We need to be brave and bold, and Tim Farron’s made an excellent start in leading by example. Say yes loudly to Europe, yes to refugees, yes to a green economy, yes to tax credits and yes to sensible borrowing and investment in local infrastructure and housing. That’s what it means to be a Liberal Democrat today.

Editorial note: This post was changed at 17:13 on 31/10/15 to correct an error. The post had originally, incorrectly, stated that Gerald Ratner had referred to his jewellery as “crap”. In fact, his relevant remark was referring to a decanter and glass set. We apologise for this error.

* Mark Blackburn, SLF Council and ex-Westminster Chair and PPC for Westminster North.

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  • Thanks Mark. A good analysis. Maybe having a smaller leadership team will concentrate minds more simply on the most important values and priorities we share. The reduced media exposure makes sharing widely more difficult, especially with Labour possibly moving towards similar values to us – on some of them anyway. But concentrating on your final paragraph and consolidating it is a priority for all members.

  • I agree with all of that. – except for the Lloyd George bit – sorry but no man did more to destroy the Liberal party than LLG. – His record in the the Great War was often more distracting than helpful.

  • In fact almost a million more votes than the SNP. Thanks for pointing that out; I hadn’t realised. Popular vote: SNP – 1,454,436 Lib Dems: 2,415,862 acc to Wikipedia.

    Brilliant article – agree absolutely, especially with every word of the last three paragraphs.

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