Jeremy Browne: absolutely right

From an interview the Liberal Democrat Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne gave the Evening Standard this week:

I think there is a danger that we are defined by a relatively small set of issues that are relevant and significant but do not give a rounded picture of what the Liberal Democrats are in government in order to achieve.

As he rightly says, there’s a danger in the events of 2011 that the party ends up leaving just that impression:

It would be a mistake for the Lib-Dems to come to be known in the public minds as the party that in 2011 was the party that was in favour of AV and EU.

Being known only for those two policies would certainly be a mistake. As to what else the party should communicate, Jeremy Browne says:

I want us to communicate with more enthusiasm than on any other subject our desire to see a meritocratic, liberal, opportunity society where people regardless of the wealth of their parents can maximise their potential and thrive and prosper.

Here I disagree with him somewhat for, as I’ve written before, there are major problems with taking social mobility as the party’s core message:

“Social mobility” certainly is a phrase that many in policy-making and government circles use but, rather like “street furniture”, despite being popular in such circles it is almost never used by people outside such circles. You don’t get many people talking about how great the “street furniture” is near the flat they have just moved to nor about their hopes for the future “social mobility” of their children or grandchildren.

It would be intriguing to see quite what most people actually think the phrase means. I have a strong hunch that many people would associate improving “mobility” with getting more people to move, thinking it is just a phrase about housing policies. But regardless, when politicians lapse into vocabulary that is not found on the doorstep, it is normally time for the politicians to reach for a new vocabulary if they want to use phrases that have the power of explanation and persuasion.

The phrase also has the problem that mobility is not a one-way process – it means people moving down just as it also means people moving up. Talking up how we want people to move down is not an obvious route to political success.

But even aside from these messaging problems, the phrase leaves untouched the core question of how bothered – or not – we are about overall levels of inequality. A highly mobile and high unequal society is possible to imagine, and is one that would sit comfortably with the urgings of right-wing economists such as Milton Friedman. It was Friedman who, at the start of his famous TV series, justified inequality as long as it was accompanied by high social mobility.

Talking of social mobility has some tactical uses when in coalition with the Conservatives, given this resulting common ground. But a highly socially mobile, Friedman-style society is not a Liberal Democrat one.

Those problems are surmountable, but so far the party shows only limited signs of doing so. Moreover, whilst Jeremy Browne deserves credit for avoiding the dreaded phrase “social mobility” itself, the language he uses does not match up with that you hear from other Liberal Democrat ministers, even ones particularly good at putting over a coherent view of what Liberal Democrats in government means.

As with party conference, the party continues to face a problem of many people saying sort of roughly somewhat a bit the same things rather than having a clear and consistent message.

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26 Comments

  • “I want us to communicate with more enthusiasm than on any other subject our desire to see a meritocratic, liberal, opportunity society where people regardless of the wealth of their parents can maximise their potential and thrive and prosper.”

    Actually, I think if you want to project some kind of distinctive party identity, you’ll have to be prepared to say something somebody disagrees with.

  • Jeremy Browne says:

    “I think there is a danger that we are defined by a relatively small set of issues that are relevant and significant but do not give a rounded picture of what the Liberal Democrats are in government in order to achieve.”

    I think this is known as ‘waking up and smelling the coffee’. Could this be our Rip van Winklegg moment? This is the cul-de-sac into which we have been being shunted for the past year and a half. The interesting thing is if and how the Parliamentary Party intend to address the problem now.

    I think that Jeremy is right in terms of social mobility. You can have two sets of very different societies in which the index of social mobility is identical One (like the present US) allows the potential for a small set of people to have very big rises and/or very big falls, to great highs or great lows, but, in reality, leaves most roughly where they started. Another allows a much greater flux around the middle with less ‘spread’ between the very rich and very poor. If this latter is what Jeremy is after, I am with him.

  • Simon McGrath 17th Dec '11 - 6:33pm

    @Geoffrey “I do not see any sign that Jeremy Browne knows what should be done about that, not least because he agrees with them on most of the other policies anyway.”

    any evidence for this or just a bit of random abuse?

  • “My preference is the twin themes of being able to take tough but necessary decisions, with being committed to social justice and good public services. Of course, all parties would claim to be in favour of that. But, Labour have succumbed to short-term opportunism on the deficit, and are steadily trashing their own reputation for financial responsibility. And the Tories, if you scratch the surface, still have a lot of the “nasty party” about them.”

    That makes it sound as though you’d see yourself as a Tory, if only it weren’t for the “nasty” aspects of the party.

    Or do you have any _philosophical_ disagreements with the Conservative Party? If not, why not just join up, and do your bit in trying to eradicate the incidental nastiness?

  • Tony Dawson 18th Dec '11 - 9:15am

    While Mark is right about Ed Davey’s clear-cut focus in his ‘delivery’, I would suggest that the topics which he chose are not the most-priority issues, at the moment, to Britain’s millions of terrified swing voters. Given that identifying a ‘simple’ individual position from within the confines of coalition is hardly the simplest of tasks, maybe some talented Liberal Democrats need to go away for a couple of weeks to thrash out both a strategy and some sensible tactics. I would venture that kicking chunks out of each other in public might not be at the top of the list which they might come up with.

  • Robin Martlew 18th Dec '11 - 12:45pm

    Meritocracy turns me off completely. I want as much equality as is possible. Those with ability negotiating with those with less about how they can assist each other. Cooperation by consent. Equality of ‘power’ I suppose. This is by no means ‘sameness’. It is practical compromise. By no means perfection, but at least within human influence.

  • MacK (Not a Lib Dem) 18th Dec '11 - 5:49pm

    The public do associate the Liberal Democrats with social mobility but unfortunately it is the downward kind. Unless the Liberal Democrats leave the coalition and stop engaging with the Tories’ in the economic Balkanization of Britain they will always be perceived by millions of individuals to be responsible, along with the Tories, for their personal downward mobility.

  • Tony Dawson 18th Dec '11 - 8:00pm

    @MacK:

    “Unless the Liberal Democrats leave the coalition . . . . .they will always be perceived by millions of individuals to be responsible, along with the Tories, for their personal downward mobility.”

    You mean you think that the Lib Dems will be thought of as trying to do what Labour consistently did, ever-widening the gap between richest and poorest?:

    “Research by Professor John Hills at the London School of Economics suggests that increasing inequality in the UK after 2004 has meant that, by 2008, it had reached its highest level in the years since figures began in 1961.”

    http://www.futureagenda.org/pg/cx/view#341

    And maybe mimicking the poor and decreasing social mobility under Labour?

    http://www2.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/news/archives/2005/LSE_SuttonTrust_report.aspx

  • Liberals need to decide whether they want to be Tory Human shields or a centre party with clear policies. At the moment we are prisoners of the eurosceptics and the slash and burn of Osbornes economic policies. If we keep going as we are what is to prevent an electoral meltdown?

  • What do you stand for? You’re pro-Europe and pro-electoral reform stance one you a lot of support. Without these you have no defining issues left to differentiate yourselves from the centrist tories after 20 months of ‘coalition’.

  • Cllr Steve Bradley 19th Dec '11 - 1:56am

    For those concerned that we’ll be remembered for policies like AV and the EU – fear not.

    That electoral goldmine of ‘House of Lords reform’ will soon ride to our rescue…..

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 19th Dec '11 - 10:58pm

    Social mobility is a measure of the movement of individuals between different levels of the social hierarchy and is usually defined occupationally. Education is the most important determinant of social mobility. It affects both intergenerational and intragenerational mobility. Yes, the poverty gap increased under Thatcher and continued to increase under Major and Blair but social mobility was potentially sustained by Labour because it widely expanded the higher education system making it possible for many more people to potentially move up the occupational hierarchy. The coalition has put an end to educational opportunity by raising the potential level of student debt to such a high level that it has frightened off potential university students. And by its shortsighted economic policies the coalition has made hundreds of thousands of the students Labour educated unemployed and terminated (hopefully for the present) their social mobility aspirations. These people did not graduate from university with first and second class degrees in order to fill supermarket shelves for nothing — er, sorry, work experience — or to qualify them for their pittance in the form of benefits. If you can’t get a better job than your parents had or a better job than you personally had a year ago then you can’t be described as socially mobile. And more and more people are finding that they are losing their jobs every day and therefore their position in the occupational hierarchy. The Liberal Democrats and the Tories are putting more and more people daily in the position of downward mobility. When the 700,000 public sector workers all lose their jobs by 2015 I don’t think they will listen sympathetically to homilies in your campaign literature about social mobility. Don’t just blame Labour for the lack of social mobility. You are in charge now. It’s up to you to do something about it.

  • @Oranjepan

    But education is not simply linked to social mobility it is a determinant of it. A complex society requires more and more complex skills for the jobs it creates. If people are not trained or educated for those skills they will not achieve social mobility. Failing to create those jobs and putting people off applying for the institutions where they can learn those skills by levying massive increases in fees means that the Coalition is creating the conditions for downward social mobility.

    “It would be fairer to say that the economic mobility afforded by youngsters moving out of home and going up to read a course at Uni provides at least an equal boost to upward social mobility as any qualification, ”

    But if the jobs aren’t there at the end of it all there will be no social mobility. Social mobility is defined occupationally. The economic base determines the superstructure.

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