Conference Countdown 2015: John Pugh MP writes…Benchmark for Bournemouth

Every political party has its own narrative. In the last decade we have  moved from being a popular party of opposition to an unpopular party of government. Our ambition is to be a popular party of government.

Our success in doing so will be influenced by the direction of travel in other parties. Labour is manifestly on a  strange journey but we should be hesitant about drawing parallels or making comparisons. Blairites in reforming their party took that party to massive electoral success. Orange bookers in endeavouring to re-direct the Liberal Democrats took us to electoral wipeout.

It is tempting as Labour de-camps to the left to assume that we shall one more inhabit the mythical centre ground or fill a political vacuum. The reality is though that we will struggle to re-establish ourselves as a political force of real consequence. The road back requires the public to understand what we are, what we believe and not simply what we are not i.e. not Corbyn, not the Tories.

Our pitch at the last election to be the wise hand on the tiller of the ship of state failed because people  were not confident about what direction we would set.

We were offering “ head and heart” but the public were unsure about what was going on in our head. They saw our eagerness to hold the balance of power ( politicians like power !) – they were not clear on what we wanted that power for.

The key job of Bournemouth is not to talk of our political opportunities but to convey to a confused electorate our basic identity. The Tories in government are helping by illustrating what we stopped but that does not by itself tell the public what we are for. Our failure to do that is the reason why our core vote is so small and our support at times very flakey.

Most Liberals have an intuitive sense of what Liberalism is about and know that that they would be uncomfortable in any other party but find it hard to put it into simple words. The golden ideological thread that runs through the diverse policy positions the party takes is hard to put your finger on without sounding platitudinous. Liberalism is sometimes better illustrated by how we do our politics as much as by what we say.

We should talk of fightbacks, we should talk about Corbyn,the Tories etc, we should talk of lessons learnt and the pressing issues of the moment but unless the public get a little closer to understanding who and what we truly are Bournemouth will have been a failure.

* John Pugh was Liberal Democrat MP for Southport until 2017 and was elected as a Councillor for the Dukes ward of Sefton Borough Council on 2 November 2017.

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32 Comments

  • Stephen Hesketh 18th Sep '15 - 8:02pm

    Totally agree John.

    The minority Orange Book faction continue to play their games including a clearly intended strategy of making a lot of ‘centre ground’ noise in the lead up to the Conference in a blatant attempt to minimise any move towards our broadly supported and importantly, broadly accommodating, Social Liberal philosophical path.

    It is quite amazing how ‘four cornered liberalism’ has suddenly started agreeing with Tim, the leadership candidate they all opposed.

    I simply and sincerely hope Tim and the Conference simply remain true to themselves and the ‘golden ideological thread’ mainstream Liberal Democrats each have running through us.

  • Neil Sandison 18th Sep '15 - 8:18pm

    Good piece John time to claim back our mantle of a radical, progressive and socially just party.

  • Dave Orbison 18th Sep '15 - 8:37pm

    Yes, yes ,yes another piece saying we need to say what the LibDems stand for without saying what that actually is. Readers of LDV may be forgiven in the absence of a crisp definition and clear policies for coming to the conclusion nobody knows. If that is the case that might explain 8 MP’s

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '15 - 8:47pm

    I almost ignored this article because the title suggested a bit of conference esoterica but I’m glad I did not.
    An excellent piece.

  • Stephen Hesketh 18th Sep '15 - 8:56pm

    I began writing this post in agreement with Caron Lyndsay’s article about the use of the ‘Centre Ground’ term but hope I may be forgiven for posting it here because I think it also fits in with John’s comments. I have however had to split it into two due to its length.

    Centrism is a wishy washy meaningless no-mans land beloved of the press who don’t want a politically (left-) motivated populace and by those who believe it is possible to position themselves to power.

    We are a party formed by the coming together of Social Liberal and Social Democrat parties. Neither of these traditions is politically Centrist.

    ‘Common-ground’ is much more descriptive of those shared decent, liberal and frequently quite radical views held by those fellow citizens whose support and votes we must capture and recapture.

    When I talk to family, friends, colleagues and neighbours they are frequently Liberal on issues such as personal freedom, conformity, fairness, everyone paying tax and a fair share of it, on decent spending on health, education, housing, transport; on not destroying our natural environment and leaving an impoverished world for future generations. We all know when an electoral and parliamentary system is broken and when a society is being run for the benefit of the few rather than the many.

    The shared common values of a decent liberal Britain are something Liberal Democrats value and support without the need for dishonest or cynical ‘positioning’ and it is entirely compatible with our longer term views of a freer, fairer, greener, Liberal Britain and world.

  • Stephen Hesketh 18th Sep '15 - 8:59pm

    Part II.

    One clear message that has emerged beyond the confines of the Labour leadership election is that people have a hunger for the politics of truth and hope.

    The ever-meaner spirited Tories and the election of a genuine Socialist as the leader of the Labour party presents us with a great opportunity to be, in turn, genuine Liberal Democrats.

    Let’s not waste it by worrying about the selfish economic ideas of the Tories and the unfettered free market nor the controlled Centrist focus group and spin doctor positioning of Blairite Labour and the many questions outstanding for a Corbynite Labour. All are completely alien to Liberal Democracy.

    So recently elected as our leader, Tim must use this conference to present his own take on his and our distinctive Social Liberal Democrat message and connect with people in the hall, on TV and in the country. He wasn’t elected by people looking for positioning or to support the status quo, he was elected by people who liked what he had to say and how he had to say it. I say “Go for it Tim!”

  • Stephen Howse 18th Sep '15 - 9:37pm

    “It is quite amazing how ‘four cornered liberalism’ has suddenly started agreeing with Tim, the leadership candidate they all opposed.”

    I voted for Tim. Next!

  • A Social Liberal 18th Sep '15 - 10:06pm

    This is what we need to hear at conference.

    We must, at every opportunity, shout out our liberal principle. We must once again speak of our beliefs and use those beliefs to underpin any and all of our future policies.

    Thank you for writing this article John!

  • “illustrated by how we do our politics as much as by what we say.”
    Particularly true in Labour facing areas. In my ward where Labour still get a substantial vote (despite near invisibility) people say “We know who you are, we see you on the streets, we know how you work, and we believe you are for the people.” They recognise a non-bureaucratic, power-sharing style that goes beyond casework to community campaigning.
    Thank you John Pugh.

  • @Stephen Howse indeed I’ve been delighted to see how much Tim agrees with four-cornered Liberalism, given his recent tweet calling for responsible economics and his call in the Guardian to Labour MPs to join the moderate force in the centre-ground of British politics.

    It’s great to have a leader we can all unite around, and it’s rather puzzling to see the author and some commentators on this thread looking to stoke division were there isn’t any.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Sep '15 - 10:15pm

    A poll in the Independent has just out and it says with Corbyn as leader 27% of Lib Dem voters are more likely to vote Labour, but 31% more likely to vote Conservative. It’s a poll of 2,000 people. Not many of those 2,000 will be Lib Dem voters though.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-loses-a-fifth-of-labour-voters-with-critics-already-plotting-to-oust-leftwinger-10508584.html

    We need more evidence, but I think if Lib Dems play equidistance with Corbyn then it will be bad.

  • Would be nice if the author had practiced this liberalism by supporting same sex marriage and assisted dying instead of putting his religion before politics.

  • Stephen Hesketh 18th Sep '15 - 10:27pm

    Stephen Howse 18th Sep ’15 – 9:37pm

    Stephen, I didn’t have ordinary members in mind when I made that comment. I personally agree with Norman Lamb on many issues. I am passionate though that as a collaborative democratic political party, we are not here to be repositioned by anyone without the full democratic agreement of the members. For me the democracy is key.

  • Stephen Howse 18th Sep '15 - 11:40pm

    Stephen – I think what that shows is that Tim has done a good job of uniting the party behind him and has backing from people from the other “wing” for the direction in which he wants to take it – which, I hope you will agree, is a Good Thing.

    We are a democratic party, but Tim is the leader and it’s in his gift as the democratically chosen leader to make good on the reforms he outlined during his campaign.

  • What can we do as a party. Cllr Joe Otten baits Labour on Facebook with a poem about Corbyn and others on this site offer Corbyns Labour the hand of friendship. Where do we stand ?

  • Eddie,

    I don’t think you can read anything whatsoever into that poll for the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats, since there was no option to select “more likely to vote Liberal Democrat” and there is no quantification of “more likely”. If they published some tables it might allow some interpretation…

    Meanwhile by saying that we hope to recruit dispirited Labour MP’s Tim Farron at least got on the ITV news (which is better than being ignored…)

  • Silvio,

    Well, baiting Labour is the equivalent of poking a big wasps nest with a stick at the moment and we should endeavor to get them to waste all that enthusiasm of the new young members on the Tories, rather than us… We should bear in mind that anywhere they choose to Labour can easily swamp us with activists at the moment

  • Stephen Hesketh 19th Sep '15 - 6:29am

    Stephen Howse 18th Sep ’15 – 11:40pm
    “We are a democratic party, but Tim is the leader and it’s in his gift as the democratically chosen leader to make good on the reforms he outlined during his campaign.”

    Exactly, I am merely agreeing with John and asking Tim to be the person and the leader we know him to be.

  • Simon McGrath 19th Sep '15 - 7:02am

    @Stephen Hesketh “It is quite amazing how ‘four cornered liberalism’ has suddenly started agreeing with Tim, the leadership candidate they all opposed.”
    Liberal Reform took no position on the leadership

  • Stephen Hesketh 19th Sep '15 - 7:12am

    A question I have never seen answered by the divisive book’s editors is exactly from whom they were “reclaiming Liberalism”.

    There is a reason why it was and remains widely understood and written of as paving the political path to the coalition with the Tories. It was a one way road map to oblivion.

    I have never met a Liberal Democrat who didn’t believe in sound economics but there isn’t just one fixed true path and I struggle to see that unfettered free-marketism is the answer. Our economics should flow from our philosophy and not be an add-on from outside. I for one didn’t join this party to support the economic status quo.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '15 - 7:43am

    James

    Would be nice if the author had practiced this liberalism by supporting same sex marriage and assisted dying instead of putting his religion before politics.

    A fundamental aspect of liberalism is that one respects freedom of belief, freedom of conscience, that one can understand why people disagree and can see the arguments on both sides of a case, which does not preclude holding one’s own position on the case. It therefore involves accepting that we should not expect all members of our party to hold exactly the same position on various issues, and we certainly should not force them to take positions which are against their own conscience.

    On the two issue you have mentioned here, James, there are arguments on the other side. It concerns me that an atmosphere of intolerance has grown in our party such that it seems there is no freedom to put the arguments against on such issues and no respect of those who hold to those arguments, no wish to understand them, and an atmosphere of fear created so that people who wish to be accepted in the party may have to hide their own feelings and conform to the majority viewpoint.

    This is also something that concerns me about the “Orange Bookers”, they were so convinced that they were right that they showed contempt for those who disagreed with them, and seemed to want to take over the party from the top and force their own views on it without seeking consent from the party as a whole. It was exactly this same rigid sticking to a particular ideology, refusal to see the arguments against, refusal to acknowledge that in practice it had not worked out as the propaganda says it should do and refusal to think through why that might be, that led me not to want to be associated with people who called themselves “socialists” and so to become a Liberal.

    Arguing with the “Orange Bookers” is just SO much like the sort of arguing I used to have with the Trots in years past.

  • Terry Gilbert 19th Sep '15 - 8:08am

    The fact is that we have been a deeply divided party, and the public does not vote for deeply divided parties. Perhaps the social liberal left will reassert control of the party, or the economic liberal right will prevent this. But unless we find a way forward acceptable to both factions, we will never regain our peak support, let alone significantly influence central government. The gulf is there, but it is not so wide it cannot be bridged.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '15 - 8:19am

    Stephen Hesketh

    There is a reason why it was and remains widely understood and written of as paving the political path to the coalition with the Tories. It was a one way road map to oblivion.

    As liberals, the sort of government we should be supporting is one where representatives come together and reach a compromise which is the position which gains the most acceptance. Accepting such a compromise does no mean it is one’s personal position. We should, of course, be very concerned that the representatives are truly representative of the population as a whole, which is why we support proportional representation in the STV form. The Leninist idea that politics should be about the supporters of one fixed ideology seizing power and inflicting it on the country should be alien to us – whether that is done by a “revolution” or by a twisted electoral system proposed as a good thing because it allows one ideology to prevail even when it has nowhere near majority support.

    Many of the arguments made against the Coalition reflected this Leninist view of politics. They refused to acknowledge this idea of compromise, and they had a view of political party which seemed to think that if one accepted a compromise it meant it had become this week’s “Party Line” and one supported it as if it was one’s true belief.

    The Coalition represented the balance between the two parties i.e. mainly Conservative. It was not in that sense a coalition as we would have wanted, because the distortions of the electoral system made it unrepresentative. However, in 2011 the people of this country supported that distortion of representation by two-to-one when they voted “No” in the referendum after the “No” campaign made that distortion and how good they felt it to be the main point of their campaign.

    The Orange Bookers undermined what should have been the liberal position on the Coalition by being too keen on the idea that it was an ideological coming together, and by being so dismissive of the arguments within the party against what it was doing.

  • Such a disappointing article!

    It is not good enough to go on about what John Pugh claims Liberalism is not, but feebly give up on any attempt to outline what it is with it is “hard to put it into simple words”.

    In any case the analysis is unconvincing. It is easy to throw about lazy phrases such as ‘Orange Bookers’ whatever in Alice in Wonderland that might mean. Hard questions such as whether there was ever any possibility of the Party taking part in a Coalition and not losing a lot of support and what the Party is for are avoided amid vague and facile finger pointing.

  • Cllr Mark Wright 19th Sep '15 - 10:43am

    A disappointing article. We expect to see “Bookers suck” articles on ldv from the usual suspects, but not from an MP. Compare with the much better article on the same subject by Paul Holmes today. John has gone down in my estimation.

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Sep '15 - 11:36am

    I’m in agreement with the excellent John Pugh MP and also agree with the comments of Stephen Hesketh and Matthew Huntbach. The economic liberal wing of the party were ideologically committed to coalition. It was never just about a business arrangement. That’s why we were hammered in May. We lost our identity as a distinctive force in the early years of the coalition and never regained credibility.

    @ James

    Please read the preamble to the constitution and note particularly the bit about the Liberal Democrat commitment to upholding freedom of individual conscience. Liberalism is also about tolerance ie: disagreeing vigorously with each other but accepting the right of others to hold a different perspective on particular issues in this broad coalition ie: the party.

  • Suzanne Miller 19th Sep '15 - 11:49am

    James & Matthew, with reference to your comments on assisted dying and same-sex marriage, it seems to me that in principle both grant freedom of choice to individuals without denying choice in that realm to others. A liberal person should be able to live fairly comfortably with that position, even though they may feel, and argue, that by their own lights it is wrong. After all each of us lives in a unique mental universe, formed by our unique being, thoughts, and life experiences. Liberal Democrats on either side of the argument surely should not castigate those on the other side, but we must be free to argue our case. And then, having accommodated differing views as much as we can in a law, we vote on it.

  • All the evidence about how voters felt about our role in The Coalition points the same way – they simply didnt see us as important. We didnt get hammered for backing the Tories, we got punished for not being visible at all. As far as most voters are concerned we dissapeared in 2010.
    We dont know how long it will take us to recover, the evidence isnt there yet.

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Sep '15 - 1:30pm

    Suzanne Miller

    ‘ …both grant freedom of choice to individuals without denying choice in that realm to others. A liberal person should be able to live fairly comfortably with that position, even though they may feel, and argue, that by their own lights it is wrong.’

    There is a part missing to this explanation in my view, and it’s crucial in understanding a liberal position. It is not Liberal to argue for unfettered freedom of choice when there is a risk of putting the lives of vulnerable people into harm’s way. It is a crucial balance that needs to be struck in our society.

    In the recent assisted dying/suicide Bill, the movers of the motion referred to cases which would not have even been covered by the safeguards they proposed – suggesting or implying that they would envisage a widening of the scope of the law in future. Many felt that this Bill would be the first step on the road to euthanasia.

    ‘After all each of us lives in a unique mental universe, formed by our unique being, thoughts, and life experiences.’

    Again, unfettered individualism as this view seems to be, does not take into account the fact that we all live in a society. So what I might like to do might have a deleterious affect on others, even if I not immediately aware of it.

    I suppose we’ll have to agree to differ on where we balance competing freedoms. You are right we must be free to argue our case in the party without being shouted down by the voices of intolerance.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '15 - 10:19pm

    Suzanne Miller

    James & Matthew, with reference to your comments on assisted dying and same-sex marriage, it seems to me that in principle both grant freedom of choice to individuals without denying choice in that realm to others

    I live in a house inherited from my mother in law. If she had not died shortly after entering residential care, the house would have had to be sold, and the money used to pay for that residential care. Would I have been able to resist putting pressure on her to “do the right thing” had assisted dying been in place then? Would she have been able to resist the guilt feeling of denying her daughter and her husband a home just so that she could carry on living what seemed to be not a very pleasant life after she became housebound?

    Liberal Democrats on either side of the argument surely should not castigate those on the other side, but we must be free to argue our case.

    I don’t castigate you. All I ask is that you understand what the argument against is, and accept that people who put it may not be bad people or people lacking in a sense of liberalism.

  • Suzanne Miller 21st Sep '15 - 11:24am

    Matthew and Helen

    Far from allowing unfettered individualism, the assisted dying bill had built-in societal protections from the kinds of abuse that you fear. The experience in Oregon suggests that abuse and mistakes are rare. I should think that a liberal-minded person could agree that a dying person should not be forced to suffer against their will if good end-of-life nursing, psychiatric, and medical care fail to relieve suffering, but I do not at all mean to imply that someone who disagrees is a bad or illiberal person. Our party includes many kinds of liberal — some 50,000 of us.

    I’m afraid my remarks have led us somewhat off the topic of the original posting, so I’ll keep quiet now.

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