In need of an identity

I remember, many years ago, attending party conferences – then seeing reports about them, and wondering whether the journalists were at the same conference I was.

And I also remember hearing frequent suggestions that the Liberal Democrats had “no policies” even though the party produced painstakingly detailed policy documents that were debated and, by and large, adopted as policy at those very same conferences.

Perhaps people were suggesting the party had no widely known policies, or none that resonated with the public. But whatever the precise meaning, the claim that the Liberal Democrats had “no policies” seemed very strange to me then.

That was the early 90s, and things have changed. The party has even been in government, implementing some of its policies. So why do I mention it now? Well, partly because the Liberal Democrats haven’t been doing so well since being in government.

I used to think there was a mismatch between people’s perception and the reality. You’ve probably had the same experience: of seeing or hearing things about the party in the media – or, these days, on social media – that were just wrong.

Now, though, I study philosophy… and I’d like to suggest that the perception is the reality. That is, that there is no accessible “reality” beyond people’s perceptions, so our perceptions are all we ever have.

Of course, people’s perceptions of the Liberal Democrats are many and various. But at the moment those perceptions are frequently shaped by the idea that in the coalition the party’s MPs “propped up” the Tories and broke their promise about tuition fees.

I can imagine Lib Dem supporters now wanting to correct that “false” impression of the party’s time in government by listing the good things that were achieved. Remember, though, that I am suggesting people’s perceptions are the reality.

And just as a very large box of policy papers delivered to someone’s door wouldn’t disprove the notion that the Lib Dems had no policies, no amount of “evidence” will make people see the party differently.

The situation is not hopeless, though, because a person’s perceptions of something are all united by the identity it has: that is, by what it is seen as (which may in turn depend on what it is for). For instance, we all know what a car is. But people do not know what the Lib Dems are – there is no clear identity.

That vacuum is waiting to be filled. But I am not talking about “working harder to get the party’s message across” or, indeed, “rebranding”. It is much more fundamental than either of those; and a new identity must be genuine, having the support of the members and permeating everything the Liberal Democrats say and do.

To successfully establish a new identity, though, I suggest it must also be simple and distinctive: it cannot be too vague or confused, or too convoluted. And as I’ve already argued elsewhere, my recommendation is for the Liberal Democrats to be the diversity party, celebrating individuality.

A single, clear identity can help alter people’s perceptions of the Liberal Democrats because they will see the party according to that identity. To return to my example of the car, it is the difference between merely seeing its shape and size and colour, and seeing it as having a use.

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21 Comments

  • It is the wrong identity. I like the idea of building our identity on the first two of your “five Principles” (http://www.the48movement.uk/2017/06/a-manifesto-for-progressive-politics.html) –
    “1 We should want the best for everyone, refusing to divide people or groups into “us” and “them”.
    “2 We should empower people to express their individuality and live the lives they choose, freeing them from conformity, disadvantage and oppression.”

    If we became the party of diversity I can’t see any future for us. At the moment a majority of new members are pro-Remaining in the EU, while a majority of the rest are liberals with some social democrats. I hope that a majority of these are social liberals. Therefore our identity going forward should be social liberal. We want a society that works for everyone, where no one has to conform and where everyone has the resources to make real choices about the life they live. We need to have economic policies that work for everyone and reduce economic inequalities.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 30th Jun '17 - 3:36pm

    If I might, say , Bruce , your feeling and meaning is working better than your conclusions.

    I just read your links.

    I like everything you say and stand for.

    Your very premise though is what concerns me.

    Your raison d’etre is uniting people . But you call your site the 48 per cent movement.

    Great, write off the majority who won in favour of the losers ?!

    You want emphasis on identity and individuality but seem to not want to relate to the identity of individuals who turned to Brexit in hope of something , more immediate or personal than an EU superstate as they would have seen it.

    I voted remain but understand Brexit as I am half Italian and a quarter Irish and know the sense of nation warts and all, is important , and mine is this one .

    I am a member of the Liberal Democrats but was once upon a time in Labour and know the centre left warts and all and understand social democracy as well as Liberalism.

    Identity in a fragmented , lonely disconnected world , is increasingly about individuals in groupings searching for connection , out of isolation, and there is the scope for unity.

    And there is the true need to understand individuality is better served when it is fulfilment of potential.

    Not running any councils, not involved in government, hardly any mps .

    I cannot be other than a personal and cultural Liberal now.

    I would like to be a political and social one too.

    And acomplish and do something worthwhile.

  • “I am suggesting people’s perceptions are the reality.”
    Yes Brian – very much so.

    What’s done is done.
    Re education of ‘common folklore’ is extremely difficult, some would say almost impossible for a party with so little national airtime and a generally hostile media.
    It would occur at geological pace if at all.

    Therefore, 2 ways as I see it (maybe both together)
    1. Build from the ground up – acting as a facilitator to help people (in their communities) make each other’s lives better.
    This addresses Lorenzo’s excellent point above:
    “Identity in a fragmented , lonely disconnected world , is increasingly about individuals in groupings searching for connection”

    2. Nationally, we simply absolutely have to come up with a clear identity which is does not pitch one community/demographic/grouping against another.
    This is so against what Liberals/Social Democrats stand for and is and will be seen as divisive.
    If the public can’t see what we stand for now/going forward as we haven’t told them/can’t agree/decide, then the *perceptions* which *are* their reality will simply remain.

    We will then never build trust, Loyalty and be allowed to move on from “old perceptions” and Liberals will continue to vote for other parties.

    A clear identity may indeed then persuade liberal democrats to vote Liberal Democrat party!

  • Richard Underhill 30th Jun '17 - 4:21pm

    This is topical. Former MP for Bath Chris Patten has just published a book First confession, “Who am I? Who are we?” a search for his own identity. I confess that I paid full price for a hardback copy yesterday instead of waiting for it to be remaindered or borrowing it from Kent County Library, or both.
    John Major described him as “Voter Friendly” and made him Tory Party chairman. A member of our party from Bath I met at a bye-election somewhere was briefer in four letters. I knew that Chris Patten MP (not to be confused with John Patten ,a former Conservative Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon) had aspired to Cabinet and agreed with the Chancellor (Nigel Lawson) that the poll tax was a bad idea. When the First Lord of the Treasury told him he could be in the Cabinet if supported the poll tax he did what she asked and is still wondering why.
    He is also a name-dropper. He has met the current Pope. Princess Anne is not mentioned in this book. What are the dogs called? Whisky and Soda? or did they belong to someone else? Anyway, pet passports are among his legislative achievements. He did not want them imprisoned for 6 months when he returned from Hong Kong.

  • Peter Watson 30th Jun '17 - 5:36pm

    Scrolling back over the last couple of week’s articles on this website is a bit depressing.
    Inevitably there’s a bit of Brexit and a couple of responses to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, but the articles are overwhelmingly expressions of existential angst and introspective organisational navel gazing by and on behalf of the party.

    Apart from an article about torture and one about mental health deaths, which have yet to provoke a lot of discussion, there is very little about “stuff”, i.e. the issues effecting all of our daily lives and those of people in this country, and the policies to address them.

    Surely the way to establish an identity for the party in the minds of voters is to stop talking about the party and to start talking about those things that voters are interested in: schools, hospitals, taxes, transport, care, etc. etc. etc. And even a bit of Brexit!

  • I got an email from James Gurling today and was surprised to see he is still in is post.

    How come he hasn’t resigned? Our GE campaign was dire. Has he no responsibility or shame?

  • Peter Watson 30th Jun '17 - 8:42pm

    @Brian Robinson “I’m trying to explore what might get voters interested in, and listening to, what Liberal Democrats have to say about the things you list”
    I hope I did not appear to be criticising what is a good article. My concern is with Lib Dems and their concerns, at least when viewed through the prism of this site. In particular, it often looks like, once the party stops talking about itself, there is a significant mismatch between the apparent priorities of Lib Dems and those of “the man on the Clapham omnibus”.
    For example, John Pugh wrote an excellent article ahead of the local and general elections about the funding of schools (https://www.libdemvoice.org/john-pugh-mp-writes-campaigning-for-your-local-school-53662.html) which provoked no discussion. But mention faith schools and it’s like putting petrol on a bonfire.

  • ian
    He didn’t resign last time, either! It’s becoming a routine.
    Mind you, I am still in my post as local party chair, and we lost our deposit for the first time in the GE, along with losing our single County seat. So what right have I to comment?

  • I absolutely agree we need a new, simple identity and purpose that is inclusive.
    But this,already, is where it falls down, the language that you use to describe it is jargon. Yes i understand it but it is language that invariably strengthens the barriers you talk about rather than breaking them down.
    We talk about being the party of openness and then alienate liberals who are pro Brexit. I am not one of them by the way.
    I would much rather see a defiant party that builds on the successes of its past (pensions, welfare state etc etc) and pushes for more of this, identifiable benefit for people. After all, loud though they are at the minute, voters didn’t turn away from us towards labour in 2015, rather they embraced the Tory stance. And labour won more votes this time by offering something for everyone (unaffordable yes but as you say, perception and I would add self interest are all)
    I will be honest and say I am split between thinking the party will ever recover. We need some new thinking at the top because what we are doing is not working. (I don’t just mean MPs either – I would like to see a clear structure in place to judge SMT etc against staff turnover and morale, fundraising, feedback etc as to my mind we have seen too many fines and not enough assurance as to how governance and ops are being hopefully strengthened to make sure it doesn’t happen again) Time for change. We need to identify that golden idea and fast or we will dwindle and fade.

  • Richard Underhill 1st Jul '17 - 10:19am

    Do we want to be a larger party? or do we want to pursue certain principles? The diplomatic former leadership candidate Douglas Hurd described himself as a “Liberal Conservative”. Chris Patten supported him, describing himself as a “Wet” an outdated term of abuse from early Thatcherism. Hurd came third, rhyming.
    When the SDP launched they attracted only one Tory MP. He lost his seat and became a peer. Labour rebels are principled but have a memory of the SDP which includes a weakened Labour Party and what Tim Farron described as “early Blair”, which included the abandonment of a key Labour Principle, Clause 4, not forgotten by Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow chancellor.
    David Steel had campaigned against the “two ugly sisters” offering more attractive policies, but there are now , more competing political parties, including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, etcetera and more in Northern Ireland where we do not compete against Alliance.

  • Simon Banks 1st Jul '17 - 5:07pm

    I remember the “no policies” thing right back in the 70s. It didn’t mean “no policies” and as you say, no amount of producing policies did any good. What people were incoherently saying was that we didn’t seem to stand for anything in particular that they could easily understand. You didn’t need Labour to have a single policy on the NHS to be perceived as for the NHS, or to know any Tory policies on business to know the Tories were pro-business. Then we did start developing a message, a little bit more nuanced than those, but enough for our voters to have a markedly socially liberal and moderately pro-equality, pro-redistribution, pro-public-sector character – and promptly undermined it during the coalition. I believe Tim Farron started us back on basically the right course, but it’ll be hard work. One thing we can think about is how local campaigning messages can be linked to national (Federal) messages: for example, we’re campaigning on this issue, but the final decision will be made in Westminster/Whitehall. Liberal Democrats believe…

  • @ Brian Robinson
    I had noted you hadn’t responded early, so thank you for your response.

    There is a difference between Labourism and Social Liberalism as Social Liberalism has at its heart the individual and the freedom to make choices and not the collectivism of Labour. Still it might not be seen as very distinctive, nevertheless in the past we were seen as distinct from Labour and so it should be possible to be seen as distinct again when we are a social liberal party again.

    If there is a majority to be again a social liberal party that is enough in a democratic party. The only way we as a party will survive will be as a social liberal party. I think we have proved that as an economic liberal party lies our extinction.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd Jul '17 - 12:16am

    Brian

    Would that nearly all the contributors here were as constructive and reflective as you on this thread and as warm in response.

  • An excellent article. As a life long LD voter, this is something I sometimes think about. What is it that makes a LD. And the fact that I have to think that, is the problem. People generally have a general idea what the Conservatives, Labour, Greens, Nationalist parties, UKIP stand for. Some people argue the preamble to the constitution, but that is no good for “the average person in the street”, what tag makes a LD?

    What basic principles do the LD stand for, how can that be expressed to the electorate in a simple statement. How do the LD stand on those principles and derive policy from them. It is that focus I think the LD need.

    I recall Charles Kennedy had a habit of tackling issues from first principles. From this statement of principles he often (it seemed to me) decided policy. From this Kennedy and the LDs could say, look this is what we believe and this is why we believe it. The LDs need more of that.

  • A rather easy approach is to copy and combine Germany and En Marche’s best economic policies and make ourselves become a truly “We are the Third Way” party.

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