Agenda 2020 Essay #6 What it means to be a Liberal Democrat today

Libby - Some rghts reserved by David SpenderEditor’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].

To be a Liberal Democrat today is a bit like being part of an endangered species. We no longer appear in the media, opinion poll ratings are still low, and we are treated as a former political party. It was ever thus.

In my nearly fifty years as a member of the Party I have seen our fortunes ebb and flow regularly. This is our third dive to the bottom. We have always managed to come back up, and I believe we will do so again.

So, why am I so optimistic about our chances of success in the future?

It’s simple, really. What we do is based on a clear set of principles, and our activities are the consequence of applying those basic principles to everyday practical problems. If our aim is “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” then we have a very clear route into the future.

This clarity about aims and objectives is one of the many ways by which we differentiate ourselves from others. It doesn’t make us better than them, just different. We know what kind of a society we want to create, and we have tried and tested methods of getting there.

Our aims and objectives, however, threaten those who do not believe in fairness, in freedom, or in openness. That is why the Tories targeted our sitting MPs so effectively and ruthlessly this May. They wanted us out of the way so that they could be a real Tory government again, punishing the poor for being poor, doing whatever their rich and privileged backers told them, giving vent to their ignorance and prejudices; in short, showing that they really are the nasty party.

Liberals have always been targeted for extermination by those on the extremist wings of the political spectrum. In the UK, this policy of extermination is done politically at elections. In other societies it is done with the firing squad. Liberals are always the first to be eliminated whenever the extremists gain control.

Does this stark reality intimidate me? Not at all! Completely the opposite. It stimulates me to work even harder for our success, no matter how long it takes.

Success for Liberals though, does not mean simply winning elections. Elections are important, but they are not the whole picture. Just as important is working in communities to bring about fundamental change in the way society works at the most basic level where most of us live. The whole point of our commitment to community politics is to create a movement which helps people to take power and use it to achieve greater control over their own lives. Why? Because power is not just for the elites in society. It is for everyone, because, in a democracy, sovereignty rests with the people, and we believe that people are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves how they want to live.

This trust in the ability of people to run their own lives is one of our core beliefs. We have no blueprint for what society should look like, but we do have a number of practical tools to help people in communities decide how they want their local neighbourhood to operate. That is the heart of the democratic process, and that is why we are Liberals and Democrats. Winston Churchill once said: “democracy is the worst system of government ever invented, except for all those other systems that have been tried from time to time”. This is still true today, and that is why our continued existence is so important.

Other parties may well endorse some of our principles, but most of them reject our belief that giving power to people to decide for themselves how they want to live is the right thing to do. And let’s also accept that some political parties reject everything we believe in, because they have a completely different way of looking at the ownership and use of power.

Conservatives, for example, believe that those who are wealthy and privileged should rule because they have “a stake in society”. What this attitude does in practice is to isolate them from the realities the rest of us, the majority, experience daily in the struggle for survival. The result is that their privileges are a poor basis for solving practical problems, such as tax credits, for example, or the migrant crisis, which show them at their most vindictive and prejudiced.

For Liberals, the political divide is not between left, right or centre. It is between those who believe in change, and those who want things to stay the same. It is the progressives versus the conservatives, and in that contest Liberals represent the progressive tradition. We believe passionately that change is possible. In fact, for us, change is inevitable. It is the natural rhythm of life, because everything changes, everywhere, all of the time. The correct response to change is to seek to manage it, and that is where we need to be politically to make a difference. By managing change we will achieve the goals of building and safeguarding a fair, free and open society.

It will be a society based on trust in people, of working co-operatively with other like-minded individuals and organisations, of celebrating diversity, and of using genuinely democratic processes to give expression to our liberal values.

With so much to do and achieve, how can any Liberal Democrat be downhearted?

* Peter Arnold has been a member of the Party since 1967. In that time he has been a candidate at local, parliamentary and European elections. He was a councillor in Newcastle for fifteen years from 1995, and between 1998 and 2006 he was the leader of the LibDem Group. In 2004, the Liberal Democrats took control of Newcastle City Council from Labour for the first time in thirty years.

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  • Hmmm. Lot’s of anti-Tory examples; not one anti-Labour example. I always worry when I see such a lack of even-handedness when it comes to our political opponents.

    Such an example could have gone:

    “Socialists, for example, believe that those who have the best interests of the workers in mind should rule because they know best what people need. What this attitude does in practice is to isolate them from the realities the rest of us, the majority, experience daily in the way we try to live our lives in the way we want to. The result is that their prescriptive approaches are a poor basis for solving practical problems, such as running a huge deficit, for example, or their imposition of one size fits all education, which show them at their most incompetent and prejudiced.”

  • Graham Evans 29th Oct '15 - 6:07pm

    “The whole point of our commitment to community politics is to create a movement which helps people to take power and use it to achieve greater control over their own lives. ” I imagine few liberals would disagree with this sentiment. However, it fails to answer how liberals should address conflicts within communities, conflicts which may be fundamental to the beliefs and attitudes of individual members of the community. It can be argued that true socialists and market orientated Tories have an answer to this problem, even if we as liberals may dislike their solutions. Surely it is conflict resolution which ultimately defines a political philosophy and a political party, rather than the fine words of a party’s constitution.

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