Lib Dems: The party of wellbeing?

Lib Dem leadership elections often bring up the same criticisms of the party:

  1. People don’t know what we stand for.
  2. We aren’t radical enough.
  3. We need to advance a “core voter” strategy based on values, not just on being “hard working local people”.

I agree with all of these criticisms, but get weary when they are repeated ad infinitum without solutions. Both Davey and Moran talk about the importance of building a distinctive liberal message without saying what this distinctive liberal message should be. What I’m seeing from both candidates is a list of reasonable policy ideas which aren’t meaningfully linked (except by the vague claim that they are “liberal” or “evidenced-based”).

We need a bigger vision which is unique, distinctive and links our policy ideas together. With that in mind I think that we should brand ourselves as the “party of wellbeing”. Tying our policies to the central idea of improving wellbeing would help voters to understand what we stand for. For example:

Economy:

We should follow New Zealand by incorporating wellbeing into our measure for national growth.This would shift our economy towards considering people’s happiness as a relevant factor, not just their economic productivity.

Health:

Our flagship spending pledge should be on mental health and wellbeing. This means an enormous investment in mental health services, and on services which aid the everyday wellbeing of people who don’t suffer from a mental health problem.

Education:

Student wellbeing is collateral damage in the face of our obsession with testing. We are fixated on how to rank and organise students in an order which is bound to be flawed, while damaging their mental wellbeing and shrinking their education in the process. We should propose scrapping or dramatically reducing the use of external exams and using other methods to guide students towards the right universities and employers for them.

Workplace:

Let’s follow France’s example by limiting employers’ abilities to expect emails to be dealt with at any time of day. Smart phones have led to employees who are less able to switch off from work than ever. Let’s give workers a “right to disconnect” and propose restrictions on out of hours emails.

Environment:

Tackling the climate emergency properly will inevitably damage GDP, and have some negative impacts on our quality of life. But there could be some advantages to our wellbeing of living a greener life as well. We should wrap up our environmental policies with our wider pitch, and focus our message on changes which are both environmentally friendly and good for our wellbeing.

We need a big idea, and “The party of wellbeing” is my best suggestion. But I’m sure there are other good ones out there. The most important thing is that we pick one idea and run with it, instead of telling each other that we need to be radical and distinctive while wading in indecisive obscurity. Many people aren’t interested in politics, and focus primarily on Labour and the Conservatives. If we don’t build our pitch around a tangible idea which stands out, then we risk promoting a list of disjointed policies which don’t add up to a unique pitch to voters.

* Ben is a Councillor in Sutton, and the Vice Chair of the Environment & Transport Committee at Sutton Council. He has been a member of the party since the 2015 election, and used to work for the Sutton Liberal Democrats as a volunteer organiser. Ben now works for a charity promoting the greater use of Restorative Justice in the criminal justice system.

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9 Comments

  • I agree that wellbeing should be a priority, but it’s one of those things that are difficult to measure or plan for. David Cameron introduced a ‘happiness index’, and, while we were in deep austerity, we were apparently happier than ever – it was completely meaningless.

    We should try to asses our life experience holistically, not with the tunnel vision of one-dimensional consumerism used from the 1980’s onwards. We have unemployment, ever-growing inequality, poor pay and working conditions for large numbers of people, a housing crisis and a climate emergency – but hey, look how cheap everything is! Everything delivered to your door at the touch of a computer key!

    It is easy for the free market to improve our consumer experiences, but not the other important things in life. That’s where we come in.

  • I thin that Ben’s paper is very useful and agree with his approach. I also agree with the comments by Andrew.
    However here is my approach.
    I joined the Liberal Party because there appeared to be a willingness to give control to the people. I felt excited by the ideas around community politics because it appeared to be a way of actually doing this – by openness and actually looking for ways for people to take control of their own lives.
    The problem is that to replicate this across many wards meant finding the people and the resources to do this successfully. It also meant working out how this participation in decision making was to be organised in practice.
    The same to me applies to the party. This should be the laboratory for trying out new ideas in making decisions by a process which involved all members. We could then have ideas about how to involve the rather larger numbers of people on a local authority or national scale.
    Looking at Andrews objections to a happiness index, I agree with him. I think we should recognise that measuring things is a difficult process. We cannot just ask people questions do a bit of arithmetic and produce an index. Well we can, but the meaningfulness of this is not clear to me.
    So my belief is that we need methods to involve us all in decision making
    We need to be ready for the next viral epidemic, the first totally antibiotic resistant bacteria, as well as all the other almost certain events that await us in the near future and recognise that we can in fact suggest ways that humanity can come together to manage the planet we live on.

  • neil sandison 11th Aug '20 - 4:11pm

    Ben Andrew makes some fair points but well being not going to put food on the table as those on the lowest incomes bare the brunt of yet another self inflicted recession this was coming before COVID 19 as Boris Johnson has tried to bribe the public out of the EU with Brexit with one off payments that are short lived and that massive Kent lorry park to process imports and exports so much for a level playing field .
    We have to harness the reuse economy and create new employment by building better with the circular economy that will create new green and sustainable jobs . build back better by harnessing Hydrogen and Methane fuels from Anaerobic digestion and convert those fossil fuel pipelines to renewable energy pipelines .

  • Sue Sutherland 11th Aug '20 - 7:00pm

    Thank you for raising this Ben, but I don’t think being the party of well-being is going to hack it. Remember David Cameron’s idea of ‘hugging a hoodie’ as it was called?
    Our Preamble states that we believe in Liberty, Equality and Community and, with Tom Harney, I think we have neglected the idea of Community for far too long. In addition I’d like to extend it from local politics to national politics because I believe this is what already makes Lib Dems different from other parties, that it’s in our DNA to such an extent that we don’t realise it and articulate it to others.
    Reflect on the discussions about Brexit. It was incomprehensible to us that people saw countries working together to build an international community as the authoritarian exercise of power by one or two countries to the detriment of our own. I think their belief system doesn’t allow them to understand this way of working. Both the Tories and many members of the Labour Party see life as a competition in which they both want to be winners, one by enabling their cronies to keep their wealth at the expense of the poorest and weakest and the other by clobbering the wealthy and using the power of the majority.
    We want to see cooperative working and a balanced national community.
    I think this is where Ben’s idea of well being comes in. A community works best when everyone is able to give and receive the optimum to and from the community. Party policy should reflect this principle when considering how the different members of the community should be treated.
    This removes the concept of Left and Right because the objective is a community working at its optimum, not a battle ground. At the moment many people are concerned that their public services are strained and unable to deal with the needs of the population. This leads to the sort of cruel comments about refugees in the English Channel that we have heard recently instead of the welcoming voices we would like to hear.
    If we are to create our kind of society we must emphasise the community and how it can benefit all.

  • Antony Watts 12th Aug '20 - 10:08am

    I think DiEM25 have got it right. In addition we must be back in the EU…

    Basic goods provision
    All Europeans should enjoy the right to basic goods (e.g. nutrition, shelter, transport, energy) in their home country, along with the right to paid work contributing to the maintenance of their communities while receiving a living wage, to decent social housing, to high quality health and education, and to a sustainable environment.

    Turning wealth into investment
    Europe’s future hinges on the capacity to harness the wealth that accumulates in Europe and turn it into investments in a real, green, sustainable, innovative economy. What matters is not to boast of one European country’s ‘competitiveness’ in relation to another European country but the rise of productivity in green sectors everywhere. And the happiness of its people.

    Sharing the returns of capital
    In the increasingly digital economy, capital goods are increasingly produced collectively but their returns continue to be privatised. As Europe becomes more technologically advanced, to avoid stagnation and discontent it must implement policies for sharing the dividends from digitisation and automation amongst all its citizens.

    Democratic macroeconomic management
    Europe’s economies are stagnating because for too long macroeconomic management has been subcontracted to unaccountable ‘technocrats’. It is high time that macroeconomic management is democratised fully and placed under the scrutiny of sovereign peoples.

  • Robin Bennett 12th Aug '20 - 6:28pm

    This is an excellent proposal. “Well-being” should sum up the party’s philosophy, under which every economic policy should be strictly tested against the goals of social justice and ecological safety. The party could be the first political party to join the Well Being Economy Alliance (WEAll). Interesting to see that the Well-being Economy Governments partnership (WEGo) is a collaboration of national and regional governments promoting sharing of expertise and transferable policy practices. The aims are to deepen their understanding and advance their shared ambition of building well-being economies. WEGo currently comprises Scotland, New Zealand, Iceland, and Wales. Hopefully the day will come when there is a well-being league table to compete with the likes of the EIU Index of Democracy, the (individual respondent-based) World Happiness Report, and the various rankings of GDP per capita.

  • Peter Martin 14th Aug '20 - 8:04pm

    @ Anthony Watts,

    “I think DiEM25 have got it right.”

    Maybe. But who else does? Their idea is that the EU is reformable by democratic action. That would be difficult even if they had widespread public support. As it is……….

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_in_Europe_Movement_2025

  • Peter Martin 14th Aug '20 - 8:17pm

    @ Anthony Watts,

    “Europe’s economies are stagnating because for too long macroeconomic management has been subcontracted to unaccountable ‘technocrats’. It is high time that macroeconomic management is democratised fully and placed under the scrutiny of sovereign peoples.”

    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have a common currency and for everyone to do what they like on a democratic National basis. The Italians and Greeks would very likely want to vote themselves more euros to spend. The Dutch and the Germans would see it as someone else wanting to spend their money and they’d veto it.

    The EU has manoeuvred itself into an impossible situation entirely of its own making.

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