How Ed Davey could lead for a Citizens’ Britain in 2021

At the end of last year, Ian Kearns and I published a short report called Citizens’ Britain: a radical agenda for the 2020s. The title was in homage to Paddy Ashdown’s book of the same title from 1989, and the core of the approach remains exactly the same: we see the task of liberalism today as being to put more power in more people’s hands. We quote Paddy to start the report:

A society cannot be free and is very unlikely to be successful for long unless the men and women in it have real power to determine their own destiny. The one thing that unfailingly gives me satisfaction in politics is to watch those who have been taught they are the subject of others’ power, rise to meet the challenge of power in their own hands – and then be unbelieving at what they are able to do.

The tools and the methods do change with the times, however. So in the spirit of making this tangible, and building on what they are already doing, here are three proposals for Ed and the HQ team as they rebuild the party.

1. Care is a good focus – but do it with people, not just for them

It’s clear that Ed is staking a lot on the issue of care, and with good reason. His own story makes him highly credible, and it is a huge priority issue with the public (even ahead of Covid, according to some research).

A Citizens’ Britain approach could equip us to work on this in a big, inclusive, participatory way. I’d love to see us launch a “National Care Conversation”, gathering stories of personal experiences from carers and those who depend on it; generating ideas for the future of care from everywhere (perhaps working in partnership with the brilliant Social Care Future campaign); and then tasking an independent Citizens’ Assembly, representative of the national population, to make recommendations as to what policies should be enacted.

We could then respond to these recommendations at our conference, with a view to adopting them as our policy. This would frame us as the party that aimed to put power in more people’s hands, in the context of this vital issue.

2. Talk about power

A Citizens’ Britain approach also make us broaden out beyond care, though. Decentralisation and the distribution of power would become the heart of our agenda. We would position ourselves as the party of community power, reclaiming and reimagining the Community Politics of the 1980s for the present day – not just as a campaigning tactic, but as the core of our whole approach.

The first thing this would do is give us a clear angle on the local and national elections coming up this year: that more power needs to come out of Whitehall and into these places. This is a huge opportunity. A recent report found that the proportion of the population who felt equipped to get involved in their local area increased by 16% between February and September 2020.

The Conservative government is failing horribly on this, from test and trace to vaccines. Labour are still a centralising, big state party, so it is distinctive. And perhaps most importantly, the SNP are also vulnerable: within Scotland, their failures are a result of dramatically centralising power away from the local level, and even some of the greatest advocates of independence are starting to raise questions.

3. Make members the heroes

The third proposal I would make as part of the Citizens’ Britain agenda would be for Ed to position himself differently as a communicator of the party – to act not as a figurehead, in the traditional role of party leader, but as a spotlight.

What I mean by this is that Ed should use his platform to raise up others from across the party: the people who are already living out this Citizens’ Britain. This is in Ed’s nature. For example, he started the Party’s Community Task Force almost immediately at the start of the pandemic. I was proud to be part of it, and had the joy of interviewing people like Josh Babarinde, whose Eastbourne team checked in with over 5000 vulnerable local people in the first lockdown; Jo Conchie, who founded the remarkable Good Neighbour Winsford campaign; and more as we created the Community Champions Hall of Fame (later featured in the Daily Mail).

If Ed used his platform to celebrate the stories of what these people have been doing all over the country, the public would quickly see what a diverse, community-oriented, leader-ful party we are – and I think they would find that very attractive.

* Jon Alexander is a member of the council of the Social Liberal Forum and of Sevenoaks, Dartford and Gravesham Liberal Democrats

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  • Katharine Pindar 8th Jan '21 - 8:56pm

    Jon, as fellow members of the Council of the Social Liberal Forum, I suggest it will be good if we can row together. I would recommend that you read the article posted yesterday, entitled, and contribute a comment to that, as I am doing for your piece here.
    I suggest that your interesting piece does not take account of the urgency of the situation facing our country this year, post Covid and post Brexit, with the increasing social ills that I and Michael Berwick-Gooding are attempting to find remedies for. A National Care Conversation will be a pleasant diversion, but I do not see why our leader would want ‘an independent Citizens’ Assembly to make recommendations as to what policies should be enacted’. That is surely the job of our party, in conjunction with other progressive politicians and professors deeply concerned about the state of the country, such as Sir Angus Deaton and Sir Michael Marmot and Dr Patricia Thane.

    Our proposal for our party to establish a Commission to develop a Beveridge-2 Plan suggests the Commission would draw on such expertise, as well as reviewing and developing further our good and useful policies, with a view to confronting the five great social ills of our country today. A Citizen’s Assembly of party members, or/ and of ordinary members of the public, might certainly contribute further, but it would be as well to begin with a focus on these major matters.

    The facts confronting out party are stark indeed. Not for decades has our position in the polls fallen as low as 6 per cent. I suggest that our party needs a Beveridge-2 Plan to restore our own fortunes as much as the country needs our efforts to produce and campaign on it, and I hope the SLF Council will get behind the motion which is otherwise being so widely applauded, and which I and Michael BG and senior colleagues will shortly be urgently recommending to our Leader.

  • Paul Barker 9th Jan '21 - 10:54am

    On Topic, this is an excellent piece, full of interesting ideas. We should be The Party of Bottom-Up, of Empowerment.

    @Katherine Pindar.
    We are currently Polling in the range of 4-10%, We have been around 7% for the last 8 Months & I put that down simply to Covid. Covid benefits Ruling Parties : The Tories in England, Labour in Wales & The SNP in Scotland. Even Big opposition Parties barely get a look-in, Third/Fourth/Fifth Parties get nothing. When Covid conditions will “End” no-one knows but they wont last till 2024. Things could look very different in 4 Months, lets not talk ourselves down.

  • nvelope2003 9th Jan '21 - 11:59am

    Paul Barker: Surely some of the loss of support for the Liberal Democrats must be down to the rise in support for the Greens who get the younger people who formerly went to the Liberals. Lib Dems have been averaging 7% since the 2015 election. There being no by elections and the convincing victory of the Brexit Conservative party in 2019 has also disheartened potential supporters who are unlikely to return to the Lib Dems without a very strong sign of the failure of Brexit which would take time, possibly years to become clear.

  • Actually on topic and not obsessed with opinion polls ……………………..

    @ Jon Alexander : “then tasking an independent Citizens’ Assembly, representative of the national population, to make recommendations as to what policies should be enacted”.

    So who decides on ‘representative of the national population’ and what selection criteria do they use ?

    As a former Lib Dem Convenor on Social Care I can confirm that Katharine is correct to refer to Professor Pat Thane. She is Research Professor at King’s College, London and Professor Emerita of the University of London.

    She has extensive experience in both media and policy environments. Most recently, she was appointed by the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser to review the research capability of the Department for Work and Pensions. She also managed the Equalities in Great Britain, 1946-2006 project for the Equalities Review. She regularly speaks and writes on issues relating to the history of the welfare state, gender, old age and pensions.

    Her most recent books are Unequal Britain: Equalities in Britain since 1945 (Continuum, 2010) and Women and Citizenship in Britain and Ireland in the Twentieth Century: What Difference did the Vote Make? (Continuum, 2010), which she co-edited with Esther Breitenbach.

  • Helen Dudden 9th Jan '21 - 1:05pm

    It’s not purely the ratings, it’s what you intend to do, with the many issue’s the virus has created.
    Medical Treatment, and the likelihood of court actions, is one a particular article written, speaks about.
    The heavy handed policing that is ongoing. Lack of transparency, is a key factor.
    Losing your home and employment, is going to cause problems for the future.
    I can’t support law breaking, but I’m being honest.
    Of course it’s important we put in place a better future, the problems were going to happen with the state of the NHS, but we can’t have no medical treatment, that is walking in broken glass.
    I understand their is a law going through the House of Lords in the subject of 18 years olds reporting parents in what they consider to be failings related to the Virus. Concerning.

  • Paul Barker 9th Jan '21 - 1:51pm

    Sorry to bang on about Polls but –
    @ nvelope2003
    No, there is no evidence of growth in the Green (GPEW) Vote, also Polling consistently overestimates Green support by 2% or so.
    No we have not been around 7% since 2015. In 2019 we peaked at 20% in the Autumn, thats less than 18 Months ago, is it so hard to remember ?
    Lets stick to Facts whether they suit our mood or not.

  • nvelope2003 11th Jan '21 - 2:33pm

    Paul Barker: I was talking about average ratings since the 2015 election. I know there was a brief upsurge in the Local and European elections in 2019 but everything went wrong at the GE and we got just short of 12%. As some polls give us 6% I think an average of 7% is a fair figure whether we like it or not. I hope that it will start to go up but evidence seems to be lacking.

    I think the Green vote has increased slightly since Corbyn ceased to be Labour leader as some of the more left wing voters have gone to or back to the Greens but some of the type of people who used to support the Liberals have gone to the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru.

  • Geoffrey Dron 12th Jan '21 - 1:22pm

    Citizens Britain: good idea but the priority is preserving Britain.

    The Union is under threat, and LibDems must pursue an electoral pact with Starmer’s Labour.

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