Author Archives: Gordon Lishman

Tony Greaves

It is a year today since Tony died.  I have been talking with other friends and his family about how best to remember him in a way which captures both the essence of the man and the extent of his contribution to Liberalism and his party over 60 years of activism.  I finish by asking how we to remember Tony and build on the massive legacy of his life in Liberalism.

Tony had the most secure moral compass for Liberalism of anyone I have known.  Time and again, his reaction to events demonstrated an instinctively Liberal mind.  He applied Liberalism as a profound value to challenges, believing that deep, Liberal values would offer the best solutions.  His immediate responses often offered a clear analysis and understanding which showed the natural direction for Liberal political action.  One reason why he was dismissive and angry at times at people with power in his Party and beyond was simply that they didn’t have that instinctive grasp of a Liberal response.  He could be difficult at times, but it would be worth thinking as well about how often he was actually right on the substance of matters.

Tony was the single most important contributor to the growth of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats between 1970 and 1997.  By-election victories built on the ideas and campaigning methods of community politics as did the growth of local parties and council groups from wards to towns to counties to regions to success in Parliamentary elections.  The Association of Liberal Councillors led that work and Tony led the ALC during those formative years.  Those successes were based, more than on any other single element, on Tony’s painstaking, committed, patient work with activists, campaigners and Council Groups to help them, often one by one, to learn about campaigning and winning; always emphasising the need to find an activist’s personal voice that was securely founded in Liberal ideas, along with a commitment to making a Liberal difference in the life of a community or a person.

That’s why he found it difficult to understand those who see liberalism as being defined by a long process of producing disconnected policies.  For him, the policy was the Liberal value, applied to a circumstance.  He wanted those deep, Liberal values to drive every single response, from potholes through to global relations.  What unites us as Liberals is not loads of policies, it’s one approach to everything.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 13 Comments

The Election Review: Hardly News!

I welcome the Election Review and most of its analysis and recommendations. That’s not surprising: I decided last year that I could no longer stand the frustration of being involved with the Party’s governance bodies and stood down (after, believe or not, 50 years of pretty constant engagement).

My main concern about the Review is that it sees governance in terms of formal structures. That’s a mistake – most organisations function reasonably with almost any structure as long as they get right the other elements of governance. Just look at the NHS! That’s why, writing …

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 9 Comments

Caring for our elderly – poor dears!

I am hearing increasing talk about “our elderly” in the current crisis.  

As ever, language and clarity of expression are amongst the first victims of emergency.

I want to say a word or three about the indiscriminate use of “elderly” and particularly its emergence as a noun – as in “the elderly” or, even worse, Boris’s description of “our elderly” – poor, incompetents that we are, ready to be patronised by any passing do-gooder. Bah!

There are several different definitions of “elderly” underlying the current widespread use of the word.  Regrettably, I fall into most of them. In the current, coronavirus, case, I’m also to some extent in the category of “vulnerable”.  These words do not define who or what I am to a greater extent than any other characteristic – indeed, they say a lot less about me than some.

Nor am I owned by Boris Johnson, or the community in general or, indeed, by my “loved ones”.  I am, unequivocally, only owned by me.

I have campaigned against the use of “the elderly” for at least 45 years. As with “the disabled” or “the mentally ill”, it reduces a person to one simple fact about them. And, of course, that fact isn’t usually very simple anyway. There are lots of types of disability or mental illness or, indeed, politics. That’s why organisations concerned with disability or ageing and older people have insisted that we always talk about older people, disabled people and so on.  We are all people first; each an individual person. Shared facets of personality or experience come a long way after our individuality.

Posted in News | Tagged and | 15 Comments

Federalism and the Liberal Democrats

This week’s Economist (Bagehot column) addresses the implications of the current crisis for the UK constitution.

The Preamble to the Lib Dem Constitution says:

We ….. commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

Bagehot says: “High on the list of British oddities is that it is a composite of four nations—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Holding this group together was always difficult given the different sizes of the parts (England is ten times as populous as Scotland) and the history of internal colonisation. It has been made vastly more difficult by Brexit because Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. Brexit increases the chance that Scotland will claim independence and, in the longer term, that Northern Ireland will join the Irish Republic. It also increases the pressure for American- or German-style federalism. The only way to prevent England from being seen to ride roughshod over the smaller nations of the United Kingdom may be to create regional assemblies or more powerful metropolitan governments” (my bold italics).

Brexit has shown up the close link between the failure of policies and the failure of our politics.

The Liberal Democrats and the UK as a whole must address constitutional reform not as a nerdy bit of Lib Dem policy-tinkering, but as the necessary central part of rebuilding trust in democratic politics. It will be top-down with policies, campaigns and leadership as well as bottom-up, demonstrating and leading in our communities to enable people to be engaged and powerfully involved. We should be a campaigning, insurgent force and not just the tame exponents of electoral tactics. Votes will be the result of our campaigning but should not be the purpose.

Our current policy is timid; tinkering with the machinery of government. Federalism, fair votes and new models of spreading power should be at the centre of our campaigning because they are necessary in order to address the big problems of poverty, inequality, climate change and powerlessness.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 12 Comments

A better quality of debate

 I have been reading posts and responses on LDV and LibDem-linked sites for some years. Although LDV posts sometimes don’t follow entirely the same practice as many others, the comments often do. With that in mind and to avoid falling into the category of Grumpy Old Man, I write to offer ten suggestions about how to enter into the true spirit of internet debating:

  1. It’s important to get right the overall tone. Try for a core approach of righteous indignation. There’s no need to be overtly patronising; most people will get the message anyway.
  2. You should cultivate an air

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , and | 15 Comments

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”.

Posted in News and Op-eds | 26 Comments

Four go in search of big ideas

In the recent Social Liberal Forum book, David Boyle asserts that “free trade and anti-trust lay at the heart of Liberalism and Liberal economics from the start of the party”. His essay overlaps with David Howarth’s contribution in returning Liberal and LibDem economics to its roots, rejecting the false claim that “neo-liberalism” in any way represents the liberal tradition.

David writes that: “The original Liberal idea of free trade was not a simple license to do whatever you want, if you were rich and powerful enough. It was thoroughly aware of Adam Smith’s original warning that collusion between entrenched businesses can end in “a conspiracy against the public”. Liberal free trade “was designed as a means of liberation – so that the small could challenge the big, the poor could challenge the rich with the power of the new approach, the alternative provider, the imaginative, liberating shift”.

Posted in Op-eds | 15 Comments

Community Politics is not a technique for winning local government elections

There has been a bit of discussion recently on a couple of Party websites about community politics and whether that idea contributed to recent success in the local elections. But is this defining community politics as the delivery of multiple leaflets with bar charts and slogans?

The phrase “community politics” was coined in 1969 and it was adopted by the Liberal Party in 1970. In 1980, Bernard Greaves and I wrote the following:

Posted in Op-eds | 41 Comments

Alderdice Review: Campaigning or Enforcing?

The Party is coming to terms with the implications of John Alderdice’s review: “Race, Ethnic Minorities and the Culture of the Liberal Democrats.”  We spent much of last Saturday’s Federal Board awayday talking about how to take it forward.

A natural default option is an argument: “wouldn’t it all bit a lot easier if we could just tell people what to do and they’ll do it”?  There was a similar feeling about how to get people to go to target seats during the last two General Elections.  It is, of course, an unconvincing argument in a Party full of Liberals working as volunteers.

I was reminded of a campaign we ran many years ago in the Liberal Party. It was a “Party Education Campaign” about gay rights*. In the early 1970s, there were a lot of Liberals who were very uncomfortable with the idea and also, believe it or not, some Parliamentarians whose religious views affected their position.

Posted in News and Op-eds | 8 Comments

Vince Cable on internet regulation

In the years before the 2008 crash, Vince Cable built a reputation for seeing further ahead than most in politics and economics. Vince’s essay in the new Social Liberal Forum book “Four Go in Search of Big Ideas” enhances this record.

Writing before recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica, he identified: “the heart of the worries growing deeper about the data giants: that by filtering the information we receive they can influence not just the goods and services we consume but how we vote and, indeed, what we think”.

Vince sets out the threat to democracy: “Even if the owners of the platforms are benign and well-intentioned, the systems they have created and now monopolise may threaten democracy as we know it”. “Their systems can be used for surveillance by building up a profile of targeted individuals. Elections in many countries often revolve around which candidate has the largest, engaged, Facebook following while the US President’s Twitter following has become a means of short-circuiting the checks and balances built into media coverage”.

Vince’s concludes that “the Internet is being constructed around a handful of companies of immense and growing power, notably Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Netflix, along with their Chinese equivalents, Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu”. “We are dealing with a particular case of regulated natural monopoly. If there are historical parallels it is with nineteenth-century railway companies which dominated the economy and society of the regions they opened up”.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 8 Comments

Liberals and Neo-Liberals

Professor David Howarth, formerly LibDem MP for Cambridge, contributes to the new Social Liberal Forum book with a powerful, closely argued essay on Liberal economics. This an extract:

Here is a puzzle: if JS Mill, JM Keynes and James Meade were all Liberals and economists, what is a ‘neo-liberal’ economist? One might have thought that it would be someone who updated their thought to consider new facts and new problems.

In a highly successful example of propaganda and disinformation, ‘neoliberal’ has come to mean the doctrines of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman. But those doctrines are anything but ‘neo’. They hark back to the era before Mill. We need to rectify names. Instead of ‘neo-liberals’ the followers of Hayek and Friedman might be called ‘paleo-partial liberals’.

The next step is to reclaim the Liberal tradition. That was the avowed aim of the editors of the Orange Book, but what some of them seemed to mean was not updating Mill, Keynes and Meade but abandoning them in favour of paleo-partial liberalism. Admittedly the diagnosis was not entirely wrong. The Liberal Democrats, as a political party, had wandered a long way from the Liberal tradition and had succumbed to various forms of conventional wisdom.

But the most distinctive feature of Liberal policy was its stance on corporate governance. From Mill onwards, through the Yellow Book to support for codetermination, Liberals argued for a different way of organising firms, not as hierarchical structures dominated by the owners of capital but as partnerships between labour and capital, incorporating democratic representation. James Meade provided a continuation and deepening of this tradition that should have formed the basis of the merged party’s position.

Posted in Books | Tagged , and | 48 Comments

Four Go in Search of Big Ideas

The Social Liberal Forum is publishing this book to contribute to a Progressive Alliance of Ideas, People and Campaigns. Contributors including leading Liberal Democrats and people from other political backgrounds and some from outside formal parties.

The Four are Helen Flynn, Iain Brodie-Browne, Gordon Lishman and Ekta Prakash and the book addresses major challenges facing progressives in the 21st Century. They believe that the revival of progressive politics in the UK must be based on winning the battle of ideas. All four come from the North of England and their approach reflects their anger about the state of …

Posted in Books and News | Tagged and | 17 Comments

Southport and strategy

This is my personal view about the Southport Conference Strategy motion – what’s good and what can be improved.

There are four big ideas:

  1. A dual approach to politics. We are an insurgent party In our hearts and minds – we want to use political power for change and reform through government and by working with people to help them to take and use power over the forces that affect their lives. It means practical campaigns for our values, fighting the forces that diminish people’s lives and making modern liberalism into a political and social movement.  We should win campaigns NOW on local, national and international issues, working with people in other parties and outside conventional politics.  Our members should be on the streets, into social media and telephoning to win campaigns not just votes. Votes will follow successful campaigns; if they appear to be our main or only purpose, we’ll fail to win hearts and mind for liberalism, fail to win a mandate for radical change and fail to win big elections.
  1. A re-statement of the big ideas that define our core campaign themes: the open society, tolerant, pluralist and internationalist; a fair economy which challenges inequality; and helping people to take back control. We want a strong society, a fair economy, and communities where people find themselves as confident, powerful individuals.

These campaigns resonate with communities throughout the UK . We are not defined by Brexit, although we have important things to say to people on both sides. We have strong messages for people “left-behind” by globalisation and for everyone who wants more control over their lives. We are an inclusive Party, hearing and responding to the pain of many who feel that the EU doesn’t help them, and explaining why open, tolerant, internationalist society works best.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 9 Comments

In Depth: Person-centred Liberalism

Person-centred liberalism is a tautology – there’s no other form of liberalism. However, it might be useful to explore a little of what we mean when liberals talk about individualism, the freedom of everybody to be themselves and to make the best of their lives.  “Isn’t that the same as the Tories?” a lifelong Labour supporter once said to me.

The idea is central to liberalism. It says that each, precious, separate person is more important than any group of which she or he may be part.  Yes, we find and express ourselves in communities and other groups. But it’s the individuals that define the groups, not the other way round.

Take class, for instance.  In modern Britain, social class is self-defined and has little to do with income, status, work or even origin.  Look at the Labour Party’s leadership! But it still has a lot to do with Labour rhetoric and strikes a chord with their core vote. It’s often a key reference for the attitude which says: “I’ve always voted Labour; so did my parents, because we are working class”. Even so, I was surprised to see Blair’s pollster, Philip Gould, start his autobiography with a quotation from Hegel:

The human being finds his proper identity only in those relations that are in effect the negation of his isolated particularity – in his membership in a group or social class whose institutions, organisations and values determine his very individuality.

I’ve quoted that rather turgid sentence because it makes my point exactly: for Hegel and Gould, the important thing is to be defined by class, not to define yourself.  As part of the Labour mindset, it’s also an important indicator about why it’s so hard to move on from the institution that imprisons them.

Posted in Op-eds | 18 Comments

Opinion: Let’s put members in the driving seat

“Caron’s test” for emails to Party members is good, but I think we can go further.

The underlying problem, as I’ve written before, is that too many of the emails  seem to be written by marketing professionals who are trying to achieve a specific result – often one that can be measured by funds raised.  The reason it’s a problem is that we aren’t just donors – most of us see ourselves as members of an extended family who need to be reassured, engaged and spoken with directly in ways that relate to our own experience as Party members.

It is interesting that fund-raising charities now spend a good deal of their time and money on chatting with supporters about what they do rather than just doing constant appeals based on need.

A recent piece of US experience seems to me to be useful:

Levitt and Dubner in their most recent book in their “Freakonomics” series quote the example of Brian Mullaney of Smile Train with his “once-and-done” strategy.  That involved asking potential donors to make only one donation with the option of ticking a box to say “do not ask for another donation”. That seems counter-productive: in charities, we have learned that first-time donors rarely give enough to cover the cost of making the contact. It’s only with continued donations that the charity makes a surplus on the relationship.

Posted in Op-eds | 19 Comments

Introducing the Social Liberal Forum

New members have been asking about Lib Dem organisations that they can join.  You are welcome to submit similar items on behalf of other organisations.

Social Liberal ForumWhat we believe

The Social Liberal Forum exists to foster debate within and beyond the Liberal Democrats, with the aim of developing social liberal solutions to the challenges facing the country, and which find popular support.

The ethos that underpins the Social Liberal Forum has remained unchanged since its formation in 2009, and is best described as the belief that a democratic and open state has a positive role to play in guaranteeing individual freedom.

Like all liberals, social liberals believe that individuals should have the freedom to develop and grow as they wish. The creation, protection and nurturing of this freedom should be a central objective of all governments.

Posted in Lib Dem organisations | Tagged | 36 Comments

Opinion: “Values” and Party

There has been a lot written about the importance of “values”. I’m not convinced.

Talk about values reinforces the idea that one can pick and mix principles and ideas – just as with policies, one can put together a package which suits your pocket or your likes and then decide which party at any one time best meets your need to vote. Or, indeed, you can just campaign on one or two which happen to strike you as most important.

This view encourages the idea that party is an outdated concept and often inconvenient if there happen to be some bits of your party’s policies which you don’t like – which there always will be in an open and democratic community. In this world of values, party affiliations are worn loosely and are often transient. I want to proclaim the importance of both party and philosophy.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 19 Comments

Opinion: Long term gains from short term arguments

Libby - Some rghts reserved by David SpenderMost participants in the post-election debate have concentrated on specific changes they want now: the Leader, his advisers, the communications team, the detail of policy issues etc.  I firmly believe that the underlying issues are systemic rather than one-off and that we should use the opportunity to establish structures for the future which minimise the likelihood of problems arising and improve our capacity as a democratic Party for dealing with them.

Some key targets:

  1. Agreement by the Party in advance on the elements which underpin construction

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 28 Comments

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