Demand Better: Liberal Democrat Priorities for a Better Britain

For as long as I’ve been active in politics people have complained they don’t know what we stand for. We may have a reasonable profile for our position on Brexit, but the fact that we’re only the fourth party in terms of MPs makes it even more difficult than usual to gain media attention.

On top of that, the party has more than doubled in size over the last two and a half years, so we have a large number of new or newish members who aren’t as familiar as many of us with the details of party policy or our key priorities for action.

So over the last six months the Federal Policy Committee has worked to produce the paper Demand Better: Liberal Democrat Priorities for a Better Britain, which is available here and will be debated at our autumn conference at Brighton.

We’ve written the paper in close cooperation with the party’s campaigns and communications committees and staff, and we’re using the party’s new slogan as the paper’s title. Demand Better summarises the Liberal Democrat approach to politics in 2018 and highlights our key policy priorities. Should a general election take place in the next year or so, it will provide the core of the Liberal Democrat election manifesto.

Our main theme is that Britain nowadays is fundamentally unfair and unequal. People too often struggle to achieve a decent quality of life for themselves and their families; work and effort are often not rewarded, while a rigged system allows wealthy people and companies to avoid contributing their fair share. Too much of people’s success in life is determined by the circumstances of their birth, rather than their hard work and skills.
Public services such as the NHS and schools are starved of resources to do a proper job. People from diverse backgrounds often face unfair barriers to success.
Long-term challenges such as climate change or the impact of automation on employment are neglected while the machinery of government is consumed by Brexit.

We then set out our key policy priorities in six sections:

  • A better society, in which everyone is supported in times of need, with an end to austerity, where everyone pays a fair share of taxes on income and where wealth is taxed fairly; where everyone has the chance to live in decent homes in safe and clean communities; where everyone has opportunities to succeed regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, religion, age or disability and where everyone has a chance to make their voice heard through the decentralisation of power and a reformed voting system.
  • Better and more integrated health and social care, including a higher priority for mental illness and standards of public health and greater equality in healthy life expectancy, supported by an immediate injection of resources funded by a 1p rise in income tax and, in the longer term, a dedicated health and care tax.
  • Better education, with more resources for schools, teachers and further and higher education, in particular to support children from deprived backgrounds, in order to foster understanding and tolerance and equip people to play a full part in democracy, to provide children with the skills they need to make the most of their lives and to underpin future prosperity.
  • A better environment, in which people enjoy clean air, clean water and clean energy; where the countryside and wildlife is protected; where businesses are supported to invest in green solutions, including energy efficiency, renewable energy, and low-carbon transport; and in which Britain is a leader in the fight against climate change, achieving zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
  • A better economy, breaking the cycle of low productivity and low-paid and insecure employment; providing opportunities for people to make full use of their talents and be properly rewarded; and spreading prosperity to every community in the UK including a major programme of capital investment to stimulate growth and encourage business in turn to invest, the establishment of a British Housing and Infrastructure Development Bank, and support for innovation in the digital economy.
  • A better Britain, open to and engaged with the world, benefiting from the opportunities of world markets and a positive approach to immigration, cooperating with other countries in promoting peace, human rights, sustainable development and the rule of law world-wide, and remaining a full member of the EU.

I haven’t listed everything in the paper here, so I do encourage you to read it – it’s a good deal shorter than our normal policy papers! It also includes key statistics illustrating what’s wrong with Britain today and why we need to demand better.

I hope you find the paper a decent summary of what we stand for, and a useful tool to spur discussion within your local and regional parties and particularly amongst our new members. As with everything else on the conference agenda, the motion accompanying the paper is open to amendment; the deadline is 1300 on Monday 3 September. The paper itself will be debated on the Tuesday of conference (18 September) at 1130. I hope to see you there.

* Duncan Brack is a member of the Federal Policy Committee and chaired the FPC’s working group that wrote Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe.

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  • Katharine Pindar 30th Aug '18 - 5:15pm

    A welcome paper, Duncan, and an excellent start for our next manifesto: well done, FPC.
    As I have already written in a previous review of the ‘Demand Better’ theme here, I think the first 29 lines of the relevant motion, F35, are a rather limp introduction to your substantive points 1-6, and could be usefully shortened and amended, but the paper itself is a heartening introduction to our policy priorities – thank you.

  • OnceALibDem 30th Aug '18 - 7:22pm

    There’s something wrong with that download as the section on civil liberties hasn’t been included.

  • Paul Reynolds 30th Aug '18 - 9:58pm

    This is a well-crafted ‘manifesto’ and I’m sure that there is a lot of detail behind the proposals, especially costings and the practicalities of implementation … and definitions of some of the concepts used. I would regard it is more social democratic than liberal but that is not a criticism. There is an important question as to the impact of Corbyn being potentially deposed. A centre-left Labour manifesto wouldn’t by any means be identical, but the public and media might regard them as essentially the same in emphasis. In the fullness of time we shall see if that is only a theoretical issue or an electorally important one.

  • Peter Watson 30th Aug '18 - 11:43pm

    “The government’s obsession with creating new grammar schools will only reinforce entrenched inequality.”
    “Good schools which work for everyone. We would scrap the planned expansion of grammar schools …”

    But what about those existing grammar schools?
    If you believe grammar schools “reinforce entrenched inequality” then why retain them? And if the party is happy to retain them then why prevent them from expanding?

  • This is the civil liberties section from the equivalent document in 2014:
    “7.4 Protecting our freedoms
    In the modern digital age, the power of the state and of corporate interests can threaten our privacy and liberty. We have achieved much in rolling back the over-mighty state, but we cannot be complacent. We need to control excessive state power, and ensure that in an era when surveillance is easier than ever before, we maintain the right to privacy, free speech, and open justice.
    We will:
    • Introduce a new Freedoms Bill, to protect citizens from excessive state powers and improve rights of access to information.
    Ensure proper light touch regulation of the media. We support the Royal Charter on Press Regulation based on the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson which, when fully implemented, will secure regulation of the press that is independent of both government and industry. If in the judgment of the independent Recognition Panel, there is significant non-cooperation on the part of the press, Liberal Democrats will determine what further action (including considering the range of legislative options set out in the Leveson report were such circumstances to arise) is necessary to ensure that a Leveson-type system of independent regulation can be made to work. Where possible, we would seek to do this on the same cross-party basis that achieved the construction of the Leveson scheme by the Royal Charter.
    • Pass a Digital Bill of Rights, to define and enshrine the digital rights of the citizen, protect people from unacceptable intrusion by the state and by other organisations, and giving people more control over their own data.
    • Identify practical alternatives to the use of closed material proceedings within the justice system, including the provisions of the Justice and Security Act 2013, with the aim of restoring the principle of open justice.
    • Back the principle of net neutrality and safeguard the essential freedom of the internet while ensuring the reasonable protection of individuals and businesses.
    • Ensure proper oversight of the security services.”

    None of which seems to be mentioned in this paper.

  • John Marriott 31st Aug '18 - 9:32am

    @Peter Watson
    Lincolnshire, where I taught for the last 23 years of my professional career, has Grammar Schools. The one exception used to be what we call ‘Greater Lincoln’, which includes the city and the satellite towns and villages around it. However, even here we now have an Academy, masquerading as an all ability school, when its entrance policy makes it a de facto grammar, with the knock on effect on the other eight secondary schools in the area.

    However, if I could wave a magic wand and turn all Lincolnshire secondaries into all ability 11to 18 comprehensives I would have more than just an outcry from the kind of well intentioned but also pushy parents, who favour the retention of selection at 11 on the basis that their little darlings will make the cut.

    I would have a load of small schools, which, given their population size, would struggle to provide the broad curriculum that a 1000 plus comprehensive can economically provide. To rebuild, amalgamate and to organise these schools to produce effective comprehensive education would cost the sort of money and cause the kind of logistical disruption (split site schools, bussing students and teachers between them, a massive growth in temporary, which has the habit of becoming permanent accommodation – shades of the 1970s) we just do not have.

    In an ideal world this might conceivably happen; but not in this one. So – and I know this might sound defeatist – spend what little extra money we have on making sure that our existing all ability schools deliver the kind of academic AND vocational education that makes parents want to send their children there, as we work on the remaining pockets of ‘selective’ resistance.

  • Peter Martin 31st Aug '18 - 9:48am

    It strikes me that UK LibDems are much more like European Social Democrats than European Liberals. You have a supposed sister party in Germany (via ALDE) by name of the Free Democrats who can’t think of anything better to do with the huge surpluses generated there than offer tax cuts Reagan and Trump style!

    In other words the Free Democrats are liberal/libertarian right in their economic and political viewpoint. Why would you want to be friends with them?

    You’d be better off just calling yourselves Social Democrats! At least everyone then would know what you stood for.

  • Peter Watson 31st Aug '18 - 10:36am

    @John Marriott “as we work on the remaining pockets of ‘selective’ resistance.”
    What work is the party doing though?
    The Lib Dem policy seems to be about trying to court the votes of those “well intentioned but also pushy parents” in (Tory-facing?) areas that have grammars while still being able to promote the party’s more progressive credentials elsewhere. This looks like unprincipled electoral opportunism which might contribute to success in local byelections but weaken the party when trying to communicate a coherent message nationally.

    If grammar schools are bad then why not have a clear policy to scrap them, even if that is a longer-term goal? If they are not bad then why oppose their expansion if that s what parents want? If academic segregation is a good way to deal with a larger number of smaller distributed schools then perhaps Lib Dems should be championing them?

    In his message accompanying the “Demand Better” paper, Vince Cable states, “Under my leadership, Liberal Democrats will challenge the status quo …”, but on grammar schools at least that is patent nonsense with the party opposing any change in one direction or the other: neither left nor right but stagnant?

  • I thought this was a well put-together document, but like others have said, the lack of anything on civil liberties was rather striking. Snoopers charter repeal, and perhaps tying our cannabis policy in with our liberal standpoint rather than making it a purely utilitarian ‘help beat gangs’ would have been a starting point.

  • James Baillie 31st Aug '18 - 11:33am

    Re civil liberties, I will be bringing forward an amendment to the motion on this front and agree with those who feel that such a section is lacking.

  • John Marriott 31st Aug '18 - 1:18pm

    Quite frankly, Mr Watson, I’m not really interested in giving the Lib Dems a leg up in the polls (although I don’t think they really deserve to be where they are). I’m much more interested in doing what I personally think to be right.

    There’s a great deal of hypocrisy when it comes to parental choice. I have known of parents hedging their bets when it comes to choosing a school, especially if they live in or near to Greater Lincoln. Some allow their offspring to take the 11plus in the hope of their getting a place at a Grammar School (even if their success would require them to undertake a long journey every day). What they often do is to put down their second choice as one of Lincoln’s comprehensive schools but not one of the so called ‘County Secondaries – now largely rechristened ‘academies’ aka Secondary Moderns. Surely, if you believe in selection then you should accept that, if your child ‘fails’ then they should go to the logical alternative.

    A socialist might just ‘scrap’ all grammar schools, as you suggest. Surely a Liberal should seek a more nuanced response. As I mentioned before, to create proper comprehensives takes more than just changing a school’s name. After all, that’s what they did with ‘academies’. No, to do a proper job is just not feasible in the present financial climate. The practicalities, certainly in an area like Lincolnshire, are currently insurmountable with current local government finance. Why not change that verb ‘scrap’ to ‘phase out’ as a long term goal?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 31st Aug '18 - 1:49pm

    A better paper than many!

    Why does this party not realise the public do not understand what it stands for because it shys away from saying we are different because we are not the other two, not left , nor right, we do not believe in two extremes but in a way ahead that is mainstream and that accepts common sense solutions, and what might work in different situations.

    It always sounds like we think the only way to emerge is to be noticed for being different , is to be daft, or showy, rather than better.

    A better criminal justice system, would not incarceate cannabis smokers but would keep first degree muderers in for life.

    We never say it and deserve to lose often because of that.

  • Peter Hirst 31st Aug '18 - 2:52pm

    I strongly believe reforming our democracy is fundamental to creating a better Britain, one in which every vote counts and we have a written constitution with a constitutional court that oversees its observance.

  • OnceALibDem 31st Aug '18 - 3:46pm

    James – whilst I wish you well that isn’t something that should have to be added back in. it should be hard-wired into party thinking. And any amendement won’t alter the paper which ‘sets out our Liberal Democrat approach to building a better Britain.’ It should at least be referred back for redrafting if not outright rejecting.

    This has passed thought the FPC and Parliamentary parties who have signed off as happy with this. Set alongside Vince’s leadership manifesto (which was also devoid of civil liberties issues – and the lack of ‘noise’ being made on things like facial recognition it speaks of a party for who such issues aren’t important. If that is to be the case then the party serves no useful purpose as a Liberal force and needs to come or be brought to an end.

  • Neil Sandison 1st Sep '18 - 11:34am

    Great to hear Liberal Democrats talking about education again in this article .good to see John Marriott and Peter Watson taking the gloves off over selective education but i can understand their comments .I am pro-comprehensive because i can see the benefits of set stream comprehensive schools with sufficient teachers of academic ability teaching young people across a range of learning levels .But then i see the reality Rugby has a popular Grammar Stream which is over subscribed indeed attracts children from outside of the Warwickshire catchment area .What we are not taking into account is parental choice .Overall the Grammar Stream and the high school stream have worked together well with little conflict .The conflict will come from the new free schools randomly located in areas already over subscribed for secondary schools to the detriment of parts of our expanding borough which under our local plan is likely to see a population growth up to 42,000 new residents by 2030 with no new schools in the north and children having be transported by the taxi of mum and dad or a bus if they are lucky .Our County Education Department is now a useless paper tiger when it comes to educational allocation of schools and whilst it would be almost impossible to remove parental choice we must ensure educational funding goes to where schools are needed and not politically driven by the government or education secretary of the day .

  • nvelope2003 1st Sep '18 - 12:50pm

    Peter Watson: Changing the status quo on education would mean abolishing the total comprehensive system in most parts of the country such as where I live and creating a different system. How about creating a system where the lives of the non academic are not made a misery by expecting them to do things they hate instead of the things they like ? The present system seems to be there to please the teachers. Whenever I speak to young people they resent it but feel there is nothing they can do and the party that purports to be in favour of radical solutions seems to be fixated on preserving the status quo. One very intelligent young woman told me that she wanted to see grammar schools restored but she did not think there were enough teachers who could teach to the required standard. She might be right.

  • Peter Watson 1st Sep '18 - 6:23pm

    @John Marriott, Neil Sandison, nvelope2003
    For me there are two separate issues: one is grammar schools and one is the position of the Lib Dems with regards to grammar schools.
    I am opposed to grammar schools, but that is (and has been – before Brexit swept all before it) a topic for another thread.
    This thread is about Lib Dem policies, and on grammar schools I think the party takes a pretty pathetic approach by trying to face both ways, presumably to avoid scaring away middle-class voters from either side of the debate. It makes any words from the party about academic selection or parental choice sound hypocritical: criticising academic selection while accepting it, praising parental choice while denying the choice of selection to those who don’t already have it. I would prefer the party to have a consistent and principled position with which I disagreed instead of the current fudge.

  • John Marriott 1st Sep '18 - 6:35pm

    The 1944 Education Act envisaged a tripartite secondary system of Grammar Schools, Technical Grammar Schools and Secondary (Modern) Schools. Unfortunately, the Tech Grammars never really took off, which left the massive divide of the Grammar Schools and the Sec Mods. Some areas, like Leicester, added to the mix with a couple of ‘Intermediate schools (from memory Moat Road and King Richards Road). However you dressed it, youngsters going to the Sec Mods and even the Intermediates saw themselves as failures. If it was wrong in 1966, then it’s equally wrong in 2018.

    By the time I started teaching, it was accepted by most people that selective education had to go. It was how this transition was handled by the educational establishment, in Govian terms ‘The Blob’, which left us with the mess we have today. One thing is clear: if you bring back Grammar Schools you also bring back Secondary Moderns. As Yogi Berra famously said; “It’s déjà vu again”! Is that what we really want?

  • On page 7 of this paper it states, “Britain is one of the most unequal societies in Europe”. On page 8 it states, that “more than 4 million children live in poverty”. It fails to mention that over 10 million people live in poverty in Britain or that 5.7 million of them are working adults.

    And what we are going to do about it – ending austerity “with the reversal of deep cuts to the benefit system”. Think about that. Not restore benefits to the 2008 level, just reverse the worse of the cuts.

    Our policy could be much bolder. Costing less than it cost to increase the Personal Allowance from £6475 to £10,660 we could increase benefits to the level that Joseph Rowntree Foundation say is needed for each family type to live at the poverty level. We could also have regionally set “Living Wages” at 70% of that regions median earnings. Then no body in work would live in poverty and those surviving just on benefits would live at the poverty level but not below it.

    Until we have policies that do more that reverse the worse of the benefit cuts and actually address ending poverty in the UK then our talk of the number of people who live in poverty is political rhetoric; it butters no parsnips.

  • Duncan Brack 2nd Sep '18 - 4:06pm

    Thanks to everyone for the comments. Just to respond to a couple of them, I don’t agree that the tone of the paper is social democratic; I would argue that it’s social liberal. While social democrats and social liberals would tend to agree on the need for an active interventionist state – to, for example, regulate the market, address inequalities and social injustice and meet challenges such as climate change – the difference between them is that social liberals (like all liberals) are concerned with the distribution of power in society, and tend to favour solutions such as decentralisation, community rights and powers, industrial democracy and co-ownership, etc. Social democrats tend not to be so concerned about those issues and to be more prone to think that the state can do it all through top-down rather than bottom-up solutions. I accept this is all debatable!

    Civil liberties: of course there should have been text in the paper, this was a bad error on our part. No excuses: I apologise for myself and on behalf of the FPC. I’m delighted that so many of you spotted it and we will be very pleased to welcome an amendment to put it right. I’ve been in touch with James Baillie about his amendment and I’ll recommend to FPC that we accept it (assuming FCC takes it, which I would expect them to). Sorry again.

  • OnceALibDem 2nd Sep '18 - 4:36pm

    “Civil liberties: of course there should have been text in the paper, this was a bad error on our part. No excuses: I apologise for myself and on behalf of the FPC”

    Oh come off it Duncan. You’ve been a senior Lib Dem and prominent FPC member for decades. You know exactly how key Civil Liberties is to the Lib Dem policy platform and it would have to be an incredibly slapdash – nearly negligent – process that left this out by accident.

    It’s a ludicrous claim to say this was left out by accident. This was discussed at the FPC meeting in March and a draft discussed at the FPC awayday in May ( What you are saying is that at no point did any other member of the FPC say. “hey this Civil Liberties thing – we gonna mention that?”.

    You just look ridiculous making this claim.

  • Duncan Brack 2nd Sep '18 - 4:53pm

    I’m sure the topic was mentioned, though neither of the meetings in March or May actually debated draft text – we discussed the structure and ideas for the main themes. Actual text wasn’t written until later.

    I’m not quite sure what you think is more likely: that I deliberately omitted a mention of it and hoped no one would notice? Or that FPC as a whole think civil liberties is not important? Neither of these things is true.

    People do make mistakes, and I, and we, made one this time. We’ll be happy to accept an amendment to correct it. If FPC think it was sufficiently negligent of me to request my resignation as Vice Chair, that’s what I’ll do.

  • OnceALibDem 3rd Sep '18 - 1:12am

    “Or that FPC as a whole think civil liberties is not important? ”

    They voted through a paper containing no mention of it. So yes I think that is a reasonable conclusion.

    “I’m sure the topic was mentioned, though neither of the meetings in March or May actually debated draft text – we discussed the structure and ideas for the main themes. Actual text wasn’t written until later.”

    That doesn’t seem consistent with what was reported from the May meeting by Jeremy Hargreaves:
    “We started with a briefing from Nick Harvey, the party’s Chief Executive, on the party’s overall direction and current objectives, so that FPC’s plans could contribute most usefully to that. This led on to a presentation of some recent research and polling on messaging. Next we reviewed a paper on the “Left Behind” written by a group of Lib Dem peers led by William Wallace. This all led on to the current draft of our own paper on key Liberal Democrat policy themes, drafted by Duncan Brack in discussion with many others, which we plan to bring to autumn conference this year.”
    Was Jeremy incorrect in that report?

  • Duncan Brack 3rd Sep '18 - 12:40pm

    No, you are wrong in your conclusion. It was a mistake. People make them sometimes.

    On the report of the May meeting, the paper we discussed had draft text for the introduction and then two alternative structures for the remainder of the paper, with headings but no real text. I think I’d have called it a ‘draft outline’ if I’d written the report.

  • Jeremy Hicks 10th Sep '18 - 5:51pm

    It’s hard to disagree with most of this. But it really isn’t very distinctive. Fair taxation of income yes, but what IS fair? Break the cycle of low productivity, of course, but all the parties want to do that, they just don’t know how. Improve education definitely, but no-one can agree what’s wrong with the current system. Declaring support for motherhood and apple pie isn’t going to win any converts. We need specific and persuasive policy proposals.

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