Opinion: The importance of ideas and policy

It is only a few months ago that my whole life, as Lib Dem PPC for Streatham, revolved around knocking on doors, meeting with community and tenant groups, delivering leaflets and doing casework. Nothing could seem more distant from the world I now inhabit, as Director and Chief Executive of CentreForum, of think tanks and discussions on reforming welfare or what the Big Society means.

But one thing which was clear from the election result on May 6th was that knocking on doors and putting hundreds of thousands of leaflets through letterboxes is not enough to win. Yes, ‘where we work we win’ but often where we work we don’t win, as many disappointed Lib Dem candidates will tell you! Ideas and policy are important as well.

A clear idea of what liberalism for the 21st century means both philosophically and in terms of detailed policies will be critical for the Liberal Democrats as we seek to maintain a separate identity within the Coalition Government. It will also be important to consider what our goal is in strategic terms – is it still to achieve a re-alignment of the left or should there be some new strategic goal? Whereas other parties have gone through such navel gazing when in opposition, the Liberal Democrats have the peculiar challenge of doing this whilst in Government for the first time for several generations.

So that is where I see CentreForum as the liberal think tank playing a part. Helping to define a liberalism for the 21st century but also helping to work up detailed policies for liberals in Government over the next five years and hopefully for many years ahead. So we have four main themes for our work; liberalism, globalisation, education and social policy (with a view to increasing opportunity and improving life chances) and rebalancing the economy within a new low carbon world.

One of the challenges we face is that, as a currently small organisation, we cannot look at all the things which people are already suggesting we should research. Our focus needs to be on those areas where we think we have something distinctive to say and can make a difference. So the fact that we are not researching an area does not mean that we do not think it is important – it may simply mean that we think others may already be covering it or that we do not have the resources to study it.

But it is also important to bear in mind that CentreForum is a liberal think tank, not the Liberal Democrat policy department. We will continue to produce research which may be at variance with Liberal Democrat or Government policy. Yes, many of us are Liberal Democrats, but not all. In a world of coalition politics we should identify the values and policies which unite us as well as those which divide us. Neither are we a bunch of ideologues trying to push the Liberal Democrats towards the right, as I have sometimes heard CentreForum portrayed. For those who have been around in the party for some time will know I, as someone who spent their formative political years in Manchester Moss Side Young Liberals in the 70s and in the radical Liberal group of Councillors in Kingston in the 80s, cannot be classified as right wing!

So whilst CentreForum is not a party think tank I am very keen that Liberal Democrat members will be interested in what we have to say and where relevant can contribute to that. So anyone with bright ideas about what we should be researching please do contact me at [email protected]

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13 Comments

  • Paul McKeown 18th Jul '10 - 5:53pm

    Glad to hear that someone is thinking about what Liberal Democracy is, apart from handwringing and eternal opposition. More power to your elbow.

  • Congrats on getting the job at CentreForum! I hope that the party’s obsessive focus on Pavement Politics/Focus leaflets/hyperlocal stuff/potholes will free our MPs and PPCs to become more specialised in national politics – in big ideas, and so on.

    I’d also say the party needs to start developing a bigger, bolder media strategy to make the case for the Lib Dems post-election and post-coalition. Comments like Nick’s above are thankfully confined to shrieking, hysterical Labour supporters and other idiotic lefties who believe power is evil and that one should never pass policies unless one is Labour. But eventually a perception that the Lib Dems “sold out” will filter down to the public, who will start to see the Lib Dems as pointless – although this was the accusation before this election, was it not? – because the choice will seem either a Labour government or a Tory government.

  • Great initiative! I think a very coherent, very clear set of policies will matter a lot – and yes, I, too, would welcome a more clear focus on national policy in LibDem campaigns.

    I got plenty of leaflets (being in a target seat and all) and became increasingly exasperated with the fact that those leaflets never seemed to reflect the fact that they were for a general (national) election and not a council election. There was not enough sense of LibDem policies – other than the notion that LibDems would be better at delivering council services – which isn’t my basis for electing an MP for Westminster.

    This was simply appalling. I got my sense of LibDem policies elsewhere (the web), but there has to be a much better strategy which mixes a central identity with those local issues.

    I think it will be crucial to do a good deal of research into the interaction between local and national political identities and strategies, and to assess the ideal combination of these factors – as well as ways in which national politics (or political principles) can be communicated well at the doorstep l!!

    I think the LibDems always expected to be hardly visible in the national media (unfortunately that expectation was realistic), so the focus on local campaign issues was sensibe – albeit exasperating for people with an interest in national politics such as myself. But next time round, people’s impression of what the LibDems are will mainly come from Westminster, and will be connected to tax cuts rather than to potholes which the local Labour/Conservative (delete as applicable) council didn’t fix in time.

    Campaigning will have to reflect this … and this will mean to change well engrained habits of seasoned campaigners.

  • Think tank stuff aside – I think Nick Clegg needs to make a video, along with some other Lib Dem ministers like Lynne Featherstone, justifying the Coalition. He can be very persuasive, and a video of a few minutes where he lays out the argument specifically – being honest about the fact that not all government policies are ones Lib Dems are comfortable with – would be a very good tool to send around left-ish circles to show that, on balance, the most sensible thing to do is to see what policies we can get enacted as a result of being in government for a few years.

  • “I think the LibDems always expected to be hardly visible in the national media” – Hi Maria, I think this time was different, largely due to Nick Clegg’s appearance on the TV debates. Ultimately it didn’t translate to higher Lib Dem seats – and there needs to be a lot of work done within the party and around it as to how the Lib Dems can increase their influence next time around. Whilst we may be able to achieve quite a few good policies (actually…. whatever Labour say, we’re getting a LOT from the Tories) we need to be able to say more in 2015 than “look at all we’ve done, vote for us again if you want more!”

    I think we need to identify and work closely with liberals in other parties too – I’m thinking guys like Ken Clarke, whose comments on prisons echo LD sentiments across generations. Whoever thought it would be a Tory who said stuff like that? God Bless KC.

  • Yes, congrats, Chris! But the first thing to do is get a snappy new title and a new way of getting stuff out through the media. Centre for ummm…? has never been very inspiring. And despite being small, you should at least in some areas get results, thoughts, ideas etc out there to rival Demos, IPPR, etc

    Maria – we have had a mini conversation before on another thread – but I agree with you that we need a focus on national policy for national elections (and a bit of principle in all Focuses). I would go so far as to say I think we lose votes by concentrating too much on the local.

  • Good luck in re-aligning the left while in coalition with the Tories.

  • @geoffrey – the UK is the world centre of foreign exchnage dealing, therefore a tobin tax would mainly hit us. So even if it didnt havbe many other faults, it would be a mad idea for the UK to support.

  • Don’t be scared about talking about political philosophy. Richard Reeves did a lot of good at Demos by talking about what liberalism means in the 21st century. Considering Labour’s use of the state and the results, how do liberals pursue a goal of spreading opportunity to those that lack it and raising social mobility within a capitalist system? Let’s talk about forms of ownership, liberalism and the public space, citizen’s income etc etc

  • I would find it interesting to see a fairly theoretical investigation of what liberalism actually means in the current situation. Not least since the government experience has laid bare a few faultlines within the LibDems. I think that any party worth its salt needs a fairly wide spectrum, but I think a re-evaluation of the basic assumptions would be useful in this situation.

    As far as very concrete issues are concerned (not sure how far ‘down to earth/practical’ you want to be), I’d have two which I think (on the basis of the recent political discourse) need a lot more work:

    I think the issue of immigration really needs further detailed political analysis. It’s such a loaded issue with the media that you can’t carry out a liberally-minded public conversation about it, and I think it would be necessary to get some evidence and some arguments well prepared. For example, I loved the LibDem manifesto commitment of an amnesty (now dropped), but I think a policy which is so outside then ‘Daily Mail’ mainstream needs a lot more to back it up than I saw when following it up before the election. I think working futher on ideas concerning immigration, integrating immigrant communities, involving ethnic minorities/immigrants in politics would be useful. In this area, I’d like liberal thinking (and LibDem thinking) to diverge significantly from the Coalition’s line, and to be a lot bolder.

    The second issue is housing.
    This is just going to get a lot worse in future years, and it’s crucial to work out a response to the state of the housing market, but there also need to be new policies dealing with the realities created by the situation (e.g. long-term renting), and there seems to be very little along those lines.

    What’s a liberal stance on the overheated housing market? (I have to say, this question leaves me well and truly stumped).
    How does one deal with high house prices and the hardhips that arise from it?
    Should we build more public housing, and if yes, how, and with what funding?

    Most importantly (not least for many LibDem voters) would be well-thought out policy on letting and renting, possibly based on continental models. Politicians don’t seem to have grasped yet that renting these day is a middle class/middle age issue, not somethig that young people do when they rough it for a few years before they settle down. We need new policy on long-term renting which allows people to make a home in rented property. Current British laws are really unworkable for people in such a situation!

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