From progress to freedom – the need for liberation politics

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Liberals around the world need to define our cause. In the absence of a clear vision of liberation politics, we are left in the vacuous, uninspiring ‘middle.’ Worse, liberalism is under open attack globally and without a clear message and strong network of messengers, it’s losing. Liberals must move away from nebulous phrases like ‘progressive’ and finally make the case for freedom.

The Conservatives are known as ‘the party of business’ and that holds up even as Johnson says “F*** business.”  Labour are known as the party of public services, of human rights and equality – even as Labour staggers through an anti-Semitism scandal.

But what does the public associate with the Liberal Democrats? More importantly, what does liberal democracy mean to people of Britain and the world?

Without a clear vision of liberation politics, our opponents on all sides have laid waste to liberalism.

Putin has declared liberalism, “obsolete” Orbán proclaims ‘illiberal democracy’ as his goal and Trump and Bolsonaro follow suit. In Britain, it is no wonder that Brexit leaders were so easily able to promote their populism as an attack on the “liberal elite.”

As I described recently, they do this with the support of a network of thinktanks, new media, pundits and bots that have normalized and promoted their agenda – including their unchallenged attacks on liberalism.

On the left, emerging pundits like Grace Blakely openly attack liberals as having “no answer to the questions of the moment” and a growing network of new or resurgent media sites promote a “future that departs radically” from liberalism.

When searching online for advocates of liberation politics, rather than finding Lib Dem thinktanks, media sites and pundits the closest is a solitary ‘liberal Conservative thinktank.’

While a diminishing bloc of Conservatives is defining liberalism, our opponents define us: liberal democracy is the middle, the centre, or moderation. Or we have, too often, followed Labour into the ‘the trap of talking progress.’

One person’s progress is another’s disquiet. The Victorian era was full of ‘progress’ but was also famous for being the Dickensian era. Eugenics was once seen as a route to ‘progress.’ Indeed, in this digital, global, genetically manipulated age we are surrounded by more ‘progress’ than ever before but… arguably a lot of that progress led people to the destructive rebellion of Brexit.

Progress is ill defined or tainted, centrism is middling. Freedom is not.

Liberals must move to a liberation platform where our arguments are centred on the key tenets of  “free to” and “free from.” Liberation politics is about ensuring all people are free from discrimination, inequality and injustice. And yet it’s also about ensuring people are free to pursue opportunities, to invest and trade and experience the world. This is not the middling, uninspiring language of moderation or centrism but the pursuit of a strong, clear principle that can appeal to both the left and the right.

Of course, some will debate and argue where there is a clash of freedoms but both sides will have to agree as a starting point that freedom is desirable – a step forward from where we are now.

Vitally, we can’t do this on our own. Politicians and party members are too easily dismissed as partisan. Liberals need our own “liberation network” of thinktanks, new media and nurtured pundits to promote and normalize the language of liberation politics. We need to build an ecosystem of liberal voices if we’re to grow the Liberal Democrats into the party of freedom.

* Dr Rob Davidson is on the exec of the Association of Lib Dem Engineers and Scientists (ALDES) and the council of Social Liberal Forum. He founded Scientists for EU and NHS for a People's Vote and was a founding member of the People's Vote campaign. Most recently he has launched Liberation Inc, a platform for liberal startups and has helped launch the Free Society Centre and relaunch Trade Deal Watch as new liberal organisations.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Julian Tisi 12th Mar '20 - 2:23pm

    Agreed. We need to define ourselves in a simple way that inspires others. In a way I think this is the other side to the coin to another article published today

    Our key opponents can be described in a word or two and retain their brand despite some policies that contradict them:
    – Conservatives: Aspiration
    – Labour: Social justice
    – Greens: Environment
    – Nationalists: Scotland/Wales
    – LibDems: …?
    This is our problem. We haven’t been clear enough explaining very simply who we are. I’d suggest: FREEDOM.
    We can explain this simply by saying we stand for your freedom to… freedom from…

  • Rob Davidson 12th Mar '20 - 6:53pm

    Julian, I think you’ve managed to summarise my 600 words with your 50. Nicely done and glad to hear we’re on the same page

  • @Rob Davidson

    How would you suggest we go about building these ‘liberation networks’? We surely would need to begin with party members or supporters in order to, for example, support research in areas of concern. Or have I missed the point?

  • Steve Trevethan 13th Mar '20 - 11:00am

    Are we allowed more than one word?
    Perhaps local branches could undertake activities and promotions which helped and improved their localities and attracted attention?

  • Rob Davidson 13th Mar '20 - 11:48am

    @Krissib –
    If we were to launch a network of think tanks, lobby groups, new media sites etc that believed in promoting and pursuing liberty and freedom then, yes, there is a chance that some of the staff and spokespersons would be current Lib Dem members. But there are only 120,000 Lib Dem members compared with 3,600,000 Lib Dem voters (2019 GE) and likely millions more people that share liberal values while voting (or not voting) differently. Therefore, it’s more probable that these organisations would not simply be staffed by Lib Dem party members and existing spokespersons. Indeed, that’s part of the benefit of setting up external organisations – to find and develop talent that can promote liberal aims without relying solely on the relatively small and unusual pool of people that proactively join a party in the modern day.

    @Steve – Absolutely. But when your brand is not understood by the public then it would be better to describe:
    -fairness = people should be ‘free from inequality and injustice’,
    -empowerment = people can’t be free when options are cut off from them. We aim to free people from poverty, inequality and even ignorance in order to empower everyone to be free to pursue their best/preferred life goals.

    By hammering the link between freedom and our drive to address social inequalities etc, I’m sure we will improve CLARITY about our values amongst the public 😉

  • Sue Sutherland 13th Mar '20 - 8:05pm

    Julian, like Rob, I admire your list but I think we stand for aspiration and social justice for all – a combination of the best of Tory and Labour aims. The freedom we stand for isn’t a free for all, but qualified by the no harm principle which is difficult to get across, as you say.

  • Peter Hirst 16th Mar '20 - 1:23pm

    We must elevate freedom to what it is, a fundamental human right. It is partly what makes life worth living. This is a communication issue as many suggest either we don’t deserve, can’t be trusted or can’t have freedom because of safety, national or other tenuous reasons.

  • Aaaaaaaaaaaaa, FREEDOM. That wonderful stand alone concept ? Of course, it’s obvious to any free market enthusiast that ……

    A homeless person sleeping in a doorway near the Savoy Hotel in London is ‘free’ to choose to stay the night in the hotel ……..if they can afford a going cheap at £ 860 for a basic single room.

    And if they feel really flush the next morning they can always tuck in to a “Well Being Savoy Breakfast” for only £ 33. Mind, under Mill’s harm principle I’m not sure how much ‘Well Being’ there really is in such a spread.

  • Peter Watson 16th Mar '20 - 3:17pm

    Given that I can’t imagine Labour or the Tories or the SNP or the Greens or pretty much anybody telling the electorate they oppose freedom, then I don’t see how this branding exercise will do much to distinguish the Lib Dems.
    Certainly a passionate cry of “Freedom!” from Mel Gibson (or better still, Bruce Dickinson) will get the blood pumping far more than any platitude-filled broadcast, but what does it actually mean for Lib Dems? As a political party it might be better to spend more time debating big issues and policies and presenting them clearly to voters. Instead of quibbling over definitions of “free” or “liberal”, show voters exactly where you stand.

  • Peter Watson 16th Mar '20 - 11:37pm

    I’m struck by other threads on this site in which members of the party of “FREEDOM” don’t feel this Tory Government is locking us down enough.
    When push comes to shove, perhaps there is not much to distinguish Lib Dems from anybody else on this sort of issue after all.

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