How we can tell our modern liberal story

Existential introspection is a special process for political parties, usually reserved for the aftermath of major electoral events and therefore, gracefully, at least a few years apart. Well thanks to our third UK-wide trip to the polling booths in as many years, we’re right back here again – and this time with the added excitement of selecting a new leader, for only the second time in three years!

There’s been lots of chat about what’s been going wrong and what we need to do in the future, but I think there’s been a consensus building around at least one idea: we must start telling our own compelling liberal story and stop defining ourselves in opposition to things.

I agree – but in my view that’s not a new idea either. It’s been a common complaint for as long as I can remember and, in fairness, initiatives like Your Liberal Britain are trying to address it. But we’ve still not quite cracked how to share with people that feeling we all have – a sense of belonging to a cause that’s distinctive from the other major parties. Here’s how I think we can do it.

First off, we must understand that a story isn’t only made up of sentences but is told and felt. Literally speaking this means we must not fall into the age-old trap of thinking a shopping list of policies is a good enough answer. Whatever the merits of a Universal Basic Income, a new position on Europe or Land Value Tax, merely adopting a new radical policy or two won’t change our fortunes.

Instead, each major policy announcement has to contribute towards a wider story about the world we want to live in. Great policies that cut-through send a signal out to the electorate. But without a narrative wrapped around it, it is difficult to create a feeling of what we’re about.

Secondly, nobody is paying attention to politics (let alone us!) that closely, so we can’t afford to constantly chop and change that story too often – it has to be consistent over time. That goes for what our leader and HQ are saying, but also our discipline on the ground. Across the country, on each door-knock and leaflet we must be chipping in with our contribution to the party’s story.

It’s a relief that, in some ways, we made a reasonable start to telling our story in the most recent campaign. The “Open, Tolerant, United” narrative said something about our internationalism and was backed up by the distinctive offer of a way back into the European Union. Later in the campaign, we spoke about a hopeful vision of Changing Britain’s Future.

But it never really broke out into a full vision for Britain. That made our Brexit position feel like a single-issue campaign, admittedly with the interruption of the relatively popular, but decidedly separate, policy of a penny on income tax for the NHS.

This story can be built on. If Brexit is a symbol of our outward-looking internationalism, and an entry point for thousands of new members, then the second part of our story, our attitude to the global economy, is an indicator of our progressive optimism.

While the Labour and Conservative parties are both offering different forms of protection from globalisation, we are ready to embrace its opportunities. Instead of pointing the figure at a rich bogeyman or pulling up the drawbridge, our task is to offer a way forward that inspires people to embrace our complex, global future.

How do we do that in a way that leaves no one behind? That’s the third component of our story, a commitment to standing up to the powerful. We are suspicious of concentrated power. Whether it’s big companies or big governments dominating people, we will stand up to them both. We have a radical commitment to giving individuals, businesses, communities and entrepreneurs an opportunity to thrive. We do it by dispersing power as widely as is fair and practical and by creating a level playing field.

These are not yet the form of words we should use, but I do feel that somewhere in these concepts we have a coherent story to tell. We are not a beige, centrist force that is neither left nor right. We are a party that is outward-looking, ready to embrace the future and prepared to take on the powerful to create opportunity for everyone.

Whoever our new leader is, I hope they can be a banner-carrier for this modern liberalism.

* Bobby Dean was the candidate in Lewisham Deptford in 2017

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Sue Sutherland 27th Jun '17 - 2:24pm

    This is great stuff Bobby. Our policy making often seems to be based on tinkering with the status quo rather than expressing our values. I think your analysis of what happened to us in the election process is correct. As a small party we never got into a position where we could emphasise any policy other than being anti Brexit.
    I’m not sure I understand about the Tories and Labour protecting us from globalisation though. I would say that the issue of globalisation hasn’t been understood well enough to introduce proper controls that can protect the individual from the over reaching power of some incredibly wealthy people and companies. However, I agree we need to welcome the opportunities it offers for a better life for many people.
    I very much agree that we should be suspicious of power. Indeed I believe the problem we had in Coalition was that most of our MPs forgot this essential part of Liberalism in their understandable excitement at having power after such a long time.
    I think we need to work on our own party structures and customs to embody this mistrust so we don’t make this mistake again in whatever position of power we may find ourselves.
    Thank you for your clarity of thought and hope for our party’s future.

  • The most important part of this article is making sure no one is left behind. So we need to drop any talk of an “open” society as it gives the impression we want everyone in the world to come to live and work in the UK, and we do not. And we should not, because it is more difficult to provide things for people the larger the intake of people. In March 2019 we can drop any talk about the EU because we will have left. We can talk of our internationalism by talking about the need of international agreements to control international businesses and protect populations from their power.

    We want to create a liberal society which is tolerant, where no one is restricted in their choices by the power of others (or conformity) or their economic situation.

    We need to have policies which control power and ensure that the economy works for the poorest in society.

  • Thanks Sue, my point on Labour / Tories “protection” from globalisation is about their respective offers to the electorate. Both offer reducing immigration (pulling up the drawbridge) as a solution and Labour are promising to beat up the rich bogeyman through being hard on business and high-earners, nationalising industries etc. I think we can offer a more positive way out.

    Michael, agree that leaving nobody behind is the most important part. Ensuring a level playing field will mean quite a bit of (heavily scrutinised) government intervention. But I don’t agree with your logic on more people. More people has often meant more productivity in an economy, meaning greater tax take and greater investment in public services. Immigrants have been net contributors to the UK for years. It needs better governance, not lower numbers.

  • David Evershed 27th Jun '17 - 3:06pm

    Immigrants have increased the total GDP of the country but not increased the GDP per head.

    Our country’s biggest problem is that only increased productivity (GDP per head) can increase wealth. Productivity has stagnated for the last decade so we can not expect improved public services.

    Increased productivity is need in public and private sectors. Where are the Lib Dem liberal economic policies for more competition, free markets and free trade in the public services to bring about improved productivity?

    The way to improve productivity is through competition and free markets, a liberal philosophy that seems to have been forgotten with the Lib Dem party obsessed with increasing the public sector share of the cake instead of incrreasing the size ofthe cake.

  • Yes we have to express our values, yes we need policies that have been worked on. But many years ago we were brought back from oblivion by a Leader, Jo Grimond, who was supported by a bunch of pamphleteers who were pushing the boundaries of British politics. Those people made an impact not just because of what they said but the way in which they said it. There appeared to be a freshness and irreverence in the way they were trying to do politics. And for all his dubious activities and theatricalities Jeremy Thorpe was part of that process. Liberalism has to be felt, probably primarily in the guts and it has to be seen. People defend their council seats well when a significant number of residents can answer the question “What does a Liberal Democrat look like?” without too much difficulty. We are part of Bobby’s “story”.

  • Frances Alexander 27th Jun '17 - 5:09pm

    I would like the Liberal Democrats to be known for supporting and/or organising visits to the European Institutions. I would far rather that school children saw the vision of the future than the war graves in Belgium. I did a tour with the 300 Group in 1984 – to Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg. I know much has changed since then … but I became a very positive Europhile, and have been saddened again and again that the UK was never proudly at its forefront.

  • Andrew McCaig 27th Jun '17 - 5:09pm

    David Evershed,
    You espouse “a liberal philosophy” but for over 100 years (since the days of Lloyd George and the People’s Budget) it has not been the dominant philosophy of the Liberal Party or the Liberal Democrats. If you read the preamble to our Constitution you will see that we recognise that “the market alone does not distribute wealth or income fairly” (for example)

    I just re-read the Preamble and I am very happy with pretty much everything it says. If we test our policies against it we will not go far wrong!

  • Another good piece.

    Incidentally, a “like” button would be useful for this sort of thing.

  • Well said.
    It was Sir Terry Pratchett who desctibed humanity as “The Storytelling Ape”, and he was right.
    A narrative is essential. People need something on which to hang our policies and proposals.

  • @ Bobby Dean

    I note you didn’t address an “open” society gives the impression we want everyone in the world to come to live and work in the UK.

    Also for me it is Conservativism that talks about equality of opportunities and not caring about outcomes. A level playing field is the start not the end of ensuring the poorest have the same choices as the wealthiest. It is to do with economics. Reducing inequalities has to be a major target for liberal policies and with a hugely increasing population it is difficult to do this as there are pressures in economics not to do it.

    I agree with David Evershed more people is not the answer as it discourages investment to increase productivity. Why should I make my workers more productive by spending a lot of money when I can just employ more people from the non-ending supply and increase output that way?

    The net contribution of a foreign worker is not the issue. For me the issue is the millions of people in the UK without a job (unemployed and those on ESA) and the millions who find it difficult to manage financially.

  • David Evershed, Michael BG – by the time of the next election, the UK will be already out of the EU. Labour shortage will be a big problem.

    This means an specific automation fund of £50bn will be our ace, as it will simultaneously solve labour shortage and productivity problems.

  • Simon Banks 2nd Aug '17 - 2:08pm

    Before “Your Liberal Britain”, soon after the 2015 election, we made a big start on defining who we were through the “Agenda 2020” process. Lots of people spent lots of time on it. We’ve never seen the result. As part of that process essays were invited and a lot of people responded. The shortlist of ten was really good stuff (especially mine and the winning entry). I was not alone in suggesting the Party publish the ten as a pamphlet. Never happened. Instead we started almost from scratch with “Your Liberal Britain”, an elephant designed by a very large committee, and what’s come out of it so far is a well-meaning wishlist which sidesteps all the awkward questions.

    Does the Party hierarchy realise ideas are important?

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