Liberal Democrats need a distinctive message

When I was blown up in Iraq I knew I had to join the Liberal Democrats. The party needs to find its purpose again.

There was a brief silence after the bomb blast. Then shouting, nervous laughter. The Iraqi policeman I had been meeting pointed at the shattered window and stammered, “Shay aadi,” a normal thing. We were both uninjured, but I learned later that several guards had died outside the building. It was 2005 and I was in a Baghdad. Car bombs were normal. As I left the building I noticed a severed, charred hand on the ground.

I was working on a security assistance project. I had been an “on-balance” supporter of the 2003 invasion and felt that it could leave Iraq a better place. But after the realisation that the coalition had lost control, I knew that we had unleashed a terrible whirlwind. The existence of Islamic State now is a direct consequence of the 2003 invasion and its aftermath.

Later that day as the shock of the bombing began to fade, I went online and joined the Liberal Democrats. This was the only party that had taken the correct stance on Iraq. It had done so in the face of media hostility and accusations of a lack of patriotism. But it wasn’t just about Iraq: in 2005, after eight years in power, Labour had done little to tackle inequality and continued to promote international finance as the best engine of economic growth; Vince Cable had started to raise concerns over the unsustainable credit boom as early as 2003. And Labour continued to cling to an unfair electoral system and an appointed legislature stuffed with cronies.

In 2005 people knew what the Liberal Democrats stood for, as the election results showed. In 2017 nobody knows. Our Brexit message was about process (second referendum) and not about substance (the impact on people from leaving) and we failed to focus on people’s daily priorities (the economy, NHS, immigration). Most of all, we failed to address despair at seven years of austerity. We had the most fiscally progressive of all the major party’s manifestoes and yet we were outflanked by Labour.

There’s no point deluding ourselves we ran a great campaign: we increased seat numbers through intensive local campaigning but lost votes nationally even as Brexit was a key issue. We are a distant third in seats where we were once serious challengers. As a party we risk becoming a caricature – “they just want another referendum and for everyone to be smoking cannabis”.

We need a really distinctive message to set us apart like we had in 2005. People are fed up with austerity and with politics in general. As a party, we stand for less politics: we want to see a smaller, PR-elected Commons and a small elected Senate in place of the Lords. We want power to move from central government to local communities. But we never talk about that. And we stand for taking big money out of politics, whether Trade Union barons or millionaire Tory donors.

Let’s have some really high impact, radical policies: NHS insurance to secure its funding in perpetuity, operated like current National Insurance. A sizeable migration impact fund where decisions on spending are made by communities most affected. All donations to political parties to be instantly searchable online. Force corporations to reveal their ultimate beneficial owners as a condition of registration in the UK. And every time a Liberal Democrat politician opens their mouth they should be announcing fewer politicians, costing less and having less power over you. That’s something people might actually want to vote for.

We lost the Remain vote to Labour. So let’s say what we actually think: we need to reverse the Brexit process. Not because we love the EU,  but because having seen the likely impact on jobs and the economy, we believe the price that’ll be paid by ordinary people is to high.

Are we ignoring the “will of the people,” particularly in Leave-voting  Lib Dem heartlands such as the southwest and Norfolk? There is no clearer mandate than winning a general election, so this is profoundly democratic. The second point is harder: how many seats might we win by rejecting Brexit and how many have we lost anyway with our ambiguous stance? The southwest voted Leave, but not by the huge margins seen in the northeast. A commitment to end Brexit in order to protect jobs, the NHS and the economy could still win these seats.

The Liberal Democrats are being destroyed by timidity. It took courage to oppose the war in Iraq. It will take courage now to reverse Brexit, to take power from politicians and give it back to communities and to create a sustainable future for the NHS. But people might stop asking “what’s the point of the Lib Dems?” and start voting for us.

* Arthur Snell was in the Foreign Office from 1998 - 2014. From 2005 - 2006 he worked in Baghdad focusing on security assistance and counter terrorism projects. This year he campaigned in Cheltenham and Stroud during the general and local election campaigns.

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39 Comments

  • Julie Gregory 28th Jun '17 - 3:13pm

    I agree with the sentiment of this article and with most of the detail. I have recently joined the LibDems, campaigned in the election, liked the leader’s style of delivery, but was underwhelmed by the lack of clarity in what the party overall stood for. Seemed to be blowing in the wind to catch votes from either of the main parties rather than setting a strong course. Probably other newbies like me, need something more concrete, to be stayers. Many of us joined over the EU, and I for one would support a rejecting Brexit policy.

  • Will Parker 28th Jun '17 - 3:25pm

    Brilliantly put. Completely agree. Occupying radical centre is not enough, we need to show strategy and energy to construct it. As you say, making more of our reformist agenda would help in doing this.

  • This is by far the most incisive, persuasive and challenging analysis I have read so far. I made a more modest suggestion for the appropriate role for Parliament to take, in these unprecedented circumstances, in a speech in the Lords last night. I hope to post some thoughts, based on that, shortly. For the moment, I simple record mixed feelings – in acknowledging the positive contribution Arthur is making to Liberal Democrat thinking – about the effect of bombs in Iraq !

  • If the Tories are the party of the big boss and Labour is the party of the mouthy trade union wrecker, the Lib Dems should be the party of the HR partner, who does not tolerate racism, sexism, discrimination and bullying and protects employees welfare and benefits, whilst equally supportive of the needs of the business and aware of the realities of the global marketplace.

  • Dave Orbison 28th Jun '17 - 4:08pm

    Corbyn opposed The Iraq War. Corbyn, unlike the LibDems in Coalition who so enthusiastically embraced austerity, opposed austerity. Corbyn supports an elected second chamber. Corbyn recognises that those who supported Brexit as well as those opposing it need to have their views considered.

    Arthur, the question surely is why bother staying with the fringe tarnished by their love of austerity when now there is a radical alternative in Corbyn’s Labour Party. Are there really any elements of their manifesto that are so unacceptable to you? If not why not get on board and have your say.

    Of course there will be some that go on about the IRA, Marxism, Venezuelan economy etc etc etc but that’s just aping the Tory drivel and vilification which is no substitute for serious political debate.

    The choices are Tory austerity, radical Labour of a LibDem party trying to find their mojo which is hampered by them not knowing what that actually looks like or in which direction to go.

    Corbyn supports the NHS. Yes there was much wrong with Labour by 2005. That’s why I left and joined the LibDems too.

    But the Labour of today is quite different with a bold, not timid election manifesto. The LibDems have receded to the political fringe having endless and non productive discussions amongst themselves asking each other what they stand for.

  • Superb article – agree with it all.

    @Dave Orbinson – congrats for passing over entirely legitimate arguments against Corbyn et al. He put forward a manifesto that did less to help the poorest than the LDs, as the IFS demonstrated – feel free to defend it as much as you wish.

  • Bill le Breton 28th Jun '17 - 5:14pm

    I am afraid I just don’t go for this ‘message’ idea. People will support you if you have a purpose.

    What is our purpose?

    How are we actually helping people in the many communities to which they belong make each other’s lives better?

  • @Dave Orbinson. Frankly Jeremy Corbyn is offering pretty much what Hollande offered France, which was such a failure that Hollande didn’t even bother standing for a second term.

    If Corbyn gets elected then the Lib Dems will experience a revival just as soon as it registers that he can’t deliver the Labour 2017 wishlist.

    Regarding the OP, you’re absolutely right that we need to push harder on the domestic agenda, not least public sector reform via mutualisation as an alternative to simply returning to nationalisation as a magic bullet to the ills of privatisation in the public sector. Labour has made this topical and we need to be pushing our far superior approach on the back of it.

  • Dave Orbison 28th Jun '17 - 6:25pm

    Adam Penny – another forecast that Corbyn will be a disaster. Wow and I’m accused of overlooking facts re Corbyn.

    Of course, as always, everything in the LibDems rose garden is lovely. It’s just those silly voters who continue to abandon the LibDems that’s the problem.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th Jun '17 - 6:58pm

    Dave Orbison

    I have liked and related to, you at times here.

    I on a political and historical basis , have criticised Corbyn in no uncertain terms.

    Such is the way with us when we are able to separate the individual man from the critical issues.

    I would not only agree with, I would actively work towards pre election agreements and more than alliances with both the Labour and Green parties.

    I have come to accept Corbyn is staying . I actually rather admire the slight of hand and pragmatism, on freedom of movement and Brexit of him and his colleagues, just as those less critical of him than me do not . I believe it has worked electorally and we are in no position to gloat on that obvious shall we say , weakness.

    However, Dave, please desist from making the Labour leader a Candidate for canonisation.

    And those who criticise him are your candidates for demonisation .

    Not fair. This site is very fair and open minded . There are some of us regularly insulted for not being pure in our ultra liberalism or liberal leftism .

    Irony is we are well to the left of where they really think we are , are really progressive because we look to the future rather than the past for ideas, even as we are aware of, and lit up by, the great contributors of olde!

    Dave, if you have abandoned this party for Labour , having once been in Labour, that shows a centre left view worth cultivating here.

    I would suggest you would do so with greater rewards if you recognised , we are a broad and important church, and I say that , as with my comments on the not quite St. Jeremias of Isingtonias , as one , who was once a Catholic , and therefore , though not practicing, in the eyes of His Holiness , ever thus… ?!

  • Max Wilkinson 28th Jun '17 - 7:09pm

    Cracking article. Well said, Arthur.

  • Good pitch – the beneficial ownership thing is already law, though! Plus there are proposals to extend it to companies buying property or supplying public contracts. We supported those measures and also called for their extension to British Overseas Territories. http://www.libdems.org.uk/conference-autumn-16-f10-tackling-corruption-corporate-crime

  • Michael Cole 28th Jun '17 - 8:02pm

    Dave Orbison: One thing I can agree with you on. When you assert [that there] “is no substitute for serious political debate.”

  • Great article and one that makes me feel hopeful that perhaps the Lib Dems may one day become a home for those of us who have been left behind by the Labour Party’s lurch away from the centre ground. Hopefully once Vince Cable is installed as the new LD leader we’ll see some of Arthur’s ideas embraced and put forward as official policy. After the frankly uninspiring Farron years there may at last be something to get genuinely excited about and a real alternative to Tory austerity and Labour’s attempts to turn the clock back to 1983.

  • Eamonn, After five years of Nick Clegg destroying ever more of the party to save David Cameron, two years of your so called “uninspiring [Tim] Farron” was a blessed relief, which actually started to turn the corner.

  • Can some one tell me where this mythical “centre ground” is located, and what the hell its go to do with Liberalism?

  • Arthur Snell you imply that the Liberal Democrats in 2005 stood for dealing with inequalities, not relying on international finance and opposing the Iraq war. These seem great policies but instead of advocating dealing with inequalities, controlling international finance and having a radical policy to secure peace in Palestine-Israel you suggest less elected representatives. This will mean they are even more divorced from their electorate. You suggest fewer elected people. Imagine that it only took less than 700 votes to elect every councillor in the land, imagine there were 23,400 district and unitary councillors in the country, and every elector had met their local councillor. Can you imagine that once less than 3000 voters were needed to elect an MP? I expect those MP’s were known by the majority of their electorate. We wish to give power to people and this has to be done by giving them more democracy, more people elected by them, accountable to them, to make the services they use accountable to them. You then suggest an “NHS insurance” scheme whatever that is? You suggest a migration impact fund instead of improving the services for everyone, everywhere. You mention austerity but do not suggest we should have policies to reverse it (such as reversing the welfare cuts, ending the public sector pay cap, having as our number one priority that everyone who wants a job has one, and that those on benefits have the money to be able to make real meaningful choices about their lives).

  • Dave Orbison 28th Jun '17 - 10:49pm

    Lorenzo – Of course I don’t think Corbyn should be canonised – I’m an atheist.

    OK I admit that some of my posts have given me satisfaction in highlighting his success. Partly because I was sick and tired of him being vilified as a person as opposed to his policies being criticised but also because I think it redresses the balance.

    But more importantly here I have tried to challenge what I think amongst some LibDems is a real complacency that threatens the party. For two years Corbyn hasn’t been taken seriously, more importantly the valid issues he has campaigned on were in many instances ones overlooked by the LibDems.

    I want there to be a third party. One that nags at the conscience of the Government but I am afraid the LibDems currently are ‘not fit for purpose’ in such a role.

    You say the LibDems are a ‘broad church’. A phrase so often used by all parties when in fact the party is at war with itself. The LibDems are all at sea. I say this not gleefully but as an outsider looking in.

    Decades ago the radical elements of the party were clear to see and vocal. There was a clear purpose to the party. But not it is pale shade of what it once was. Many here have raised similar concerns.

    Just what is the purpose of the LibDems and what are their key policies. Can we have this defined in positive terms without reference to other parties?

  • Nick Collins 28th Jun '17 - 11:31pm

    Steve Comer, I think it’s somewhere near Middle Earth: a land populated by elves and dwarfs and by hobbits who live in holes in the ground.

    Liberals used to be stereotyped by their detractors as sandal-wearers. Hobbits are something else; they tend to avoid footwear altogether.

  • Dave Orbison,

    What the Lib Dems believe is succinctly set out in this link https://www.markpack.org.uk/150076/what-liberal-democrats-stand-for-poster/

  • Joe,
    I read the link but it does start with “101 ways to win an election” and concedes the party has had the lowest vote share since 1959 and lost 375 deposits.
    You must see that something needs to change.
    Just one example, the graphic appears to show that on wealth redistribution, the party lies somewhere on the spectrum from Marx to Trump, but isn’t more specific than that.
    I, like lots, are desperate to vote for a third force and the LibDems could, and should be it.
    I beg the party zealots to put down their megaphones and hear the well intentioned advice. My first suggestion is to respect the intelligence of the British public. It is at least as great as the smartest libDem. And no amount of cunning wordsmithery and nuance can hide ambiguity,

  • Katharine Pindar 29th Jun '17 - 10:35am

    This is such a useful post, thanks, Arthur, in getting us to focus again on the impact of Brexit on top of the impact of years of austerity: the despair of people as their living standards slip further, and the real hardship that is being endured by many. But it was difficult for Tim and our campaign team to be able to publicise our policies in the Election, where only headline-grabbing statements were of interest to the Media, so neither the ills of leaving the internal market nor our proposals on the economy could be dwelt on effectively. On the positive side, our proposal for a penny on income tax for the NHS and social care was publicised and known about.

    Now there is a chance for detailed exposure of the ills of Brexit and for our proposals and policies to come to the forefront of political debate. We have well- thought-out policies and will develop them further at the September conference. Dave Orbison, you were right I think to say there were too many negative comments on Jeremy Corbyn from us, rather than greater focus on what we have to offer, but your own constant negativity is tiresome now.

  • Dave Orbison 29th Jun '17 - 12:38pm

    Katherine it is fair to say I have repeatedly asked for the LibDem leadership to drop the negative campaigning whilst urging them to develop a clear and compelling case to justify why voters should support the party. One backed by a coherent set of policies which would capture the imagination not just if members but of the voting public.

    So far this has not happened. I’m not sure that repeatedly asking for this should be seen as negative or tiresome. Some of the most effective campaigns are where simple messages are repeatedly made.

    To anyone that finds my posts tiresome, just skip by and don’t waste your time reading them that’s your choice. But there is a risk in filtering out what we don’t want to hear that we lose sight of appreciating that just occasionally other people may be right.

    Just to be clear I am not advocating that what I say is necessarily right, I’m simply adding my views on various topics.

  • Sue Sutherland 29th Jun '17 - 1:12pm

    Thank you Arthur. Wonderfully clear and succinct post

  • I could give a policy that would save the government at least 73m pounds and do uncosted good to peoples dignity and personal sovereignty but no one’s interested so i can’t be bothered.

  • John Bicknell 29th Jun '17 - 2:06pm

    It’s unrealistic to talk of the Liberal heartlands of the southwest and Norfolk. We hold no seats in the southwest, other than Bath, and Norfolk North is surely only held on a personal vote. That’s the real challenge the party faces, reconnecting with the areas of Liberal tradition before they are totally lost. Other than Orkney and Shetland, virtually all of our present seats could disappear with a small shift of the political climate, or the retirement of a popular MP.

  • I’m ok with the sentiment here but there are some profound misunderstandings:
    “NHS insurance […] operated like current National Insurance”
    National Insurance is not an insurance scheme, it is not even a hypothecated tax it is an income tax with a separate set of bands, an exemption for pensioners and investment income. Don’t reinforce myths to those who believe them and don’t say things that make us look silly to those who have even a basic level of knowledge.
    “a small elected Senate in place of the Lords”
    Are we really sure we want this? It is what people first assume is the replacement, but would probably be more damaging and would unravel under scrutiny. What we lacked in the coalition is a well thought out constitutional plan, this is treating things piecemeal.
    “We lost the Remain vote to Labour”
    Well are we sure? People on here were proclaiming before the election that there were 48% of the population that would flood to the LibDems. After the FT and others had been running analysis that those who had a strong opinion were in the low 20s. Add in other national issues, local issues and a perception that a party pooling below 10% were irrelevant and that 20% will have gone in different directions. Some of a big swing to Labour in certain areas will have been related to the Tories plans for the NHS, the changes for pensioners, Corbyn’s over blown promises. Thinking everyone has decided based upon Brexit is not helpful.
    There is a lot of scope for people to realise that Brexit is a disaster coming at us but we appear to be assuming that people will wake up one day and notice and come over, there is an assumption that people will just change their minds with no ground work.
    “Lib Dem heartlands such as the southwest and Norfolk”
    First point, Norfolk, I assume that is a joke? But more importantly We have to remind everyone that we don’t have safe seats or natural geographic heartlands. People who vote LibDem, when we win, are the type of people who are reasonable and wiling to change their mind if presented with good reasons to change. We take them for granted at our peril. You see a larger base in other parties who will only vote tribally, the LibDem’s don’t have that luxury.

  • “NHS insurance to secure its funding in perpetuity, operated like current National Insurance.”

    What does this mean. Perpetuity is hard when the NHS spending is increasing well above inflation and don’t payments from the NI fund exceed receipts?

    In 2014 NHS senior officials produced a plan for the NHS along with the funding that was needed. 3 years on and the money needed is running well ahead of those projections.

  • paul holmes 29th Jun '17 - 9:14pm

    @John Bicknell. But how do we believe we can reconnect with areas of Liberal tradition such as the Southwest when we have deliberately adopted a ‘Strategy’ which says that we are not interested in you because:
    a) You voted Leave
    b) You do not fit our shiny new Core Vote Strategy of pursuing people who are ‘urban, educated, middle class, liberal professionals’.

    Not that the latter strategy worked very well either in Cambridge or Sheffield Hallam and the former didn’t after all sweep areas like Vauxhall and St Albans into our arms however much resource and effort we poured into them!

  • To be credible a party needs policies across the board. Let’s start with trying to HELP people: on low incomes, those experiencing poor educational opportunities and discrimination at work, and paying ridiculously high tuition fees, applied inequitably across the UK. Transport costs are too high, roads are over-congested, air pollution is causing health problems in cities and there is a lack of green spaces in our new high-rise ghettos. Our health services are under sever pressure, our cancer rates are worse than comparable countries across Europe and social care in some homes is of poor quality. There is so much work to do. Liberty is important, but so is social justice.

    There is so much we could be talking about, but we are becoming introspective and irrelevant. We need to be problem and people focused.

  • Katharine Pindar 29th Jun '17 - 10:06pm

    We need to be focused on people’s problems and how to help them, absolutely right, Judy. The new Trussell Trust report on why people go to Food Banks, publicised in the Sky News this evening, is a jolting reminder of the painful lives so many people in our country are having to endure, and of how inadequate the Tories’ ideas of national progress are. We should look seriously at our party’s current policies and how they should develop over the summer, and, surely, co-operate with Corbyn’s Labour on any proposals that really will lift the lives of the most disadvantaged. (I would stop short, though, Dave, of actually suggesting Arthur should join the Labour Party! But maybe that was a joke, and it’s always difficult to interpret tone of voice when merely reading.)

  • Arthur Snell 29th Jun '17 - 10:10pm

    I’m very grateful to all who found time to comment. I will try to address some key points and correct any misunderstandings.

    Of course, I was limited by the amount of space (I exceeded the usual word count) so some points are rather more briefly made than is ideal. But I will try to explain a little more here.

    On the NHS, what I am proposing is an income tax system, run separately from standard income tax (and therefore rather like the current NI) but called National Health Insurance. It is my view that most people accept that the NHS is a vital service that needs paying for to be properly resourced. The fairest way to do that would be to have a ring-fenced tax. We pay less for our health service than do most European countries and, if people knew exactly how much they were putting in (unlike the current situation where you pay tax for an unclear set of government activities) I believe that most people would be prepared to pay a little more. This could give the NHS the stable foundation it needs but it would also allows people to understand very directly the link between rising needs and rising costs.

  • Arthur Snell 29th Jun '17 - 10:13pm

    On the offshore transparency issue, @Ed Long – I think the current law applies only to offshore companies that own property and will be extended to those that supply services to government (as you note). But vast swathes of the corporate economy, including many listed companies, are ultimately owned by offshore holding companies. This is a much bigger tax avoidance scam than the offshore ownership of UK property and needs to be stopped.

  • Dave Orbison 29th Jun '17 - 10:23pm

    Katherine- I agree re policies, certainly cooperate with Corbyn where policies overlap- I’m sure Arthur will make up his own mind where he belongs lol.

  • Arthur Snell 29th Jun '17 - 10:25pm

    On Corbyn @Dave Orbinson (and others) I accept that he is offering a radical socialist vision that is different from his predecessors and this is attractive to many people. But it is not liberal. It will give a huge amount of power to trade union bosses that are themselves highly undemocratic elite figures (check the story of Gerard Coyne for an illustration). But Corbyn’s approach also brings a highly conflictual approach to business owners. There are many countries (particularly in northern Europe) where trade unions and business managers are able to work harmoniously in the interests of the employees and the wider economy (the corporatist approach found in Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, for example). I see no evidence that Corbyn (and more so, McDonnell) have any interest in pursuing a harmonious approach to labour relations. And Corbyn’s approach to the single market and the EU are not in line with most liberals’ values.

  • Arthur Snell 29th Jun '17 - 10:27pm

    Anyway, I don’t plan to join the Labour party for the moment. Thanks for the suggestion though!

  • Thanks @Katherine

  • I’m not a LibDem, in fact I’m a member of Labour. But I believe in a thriving democratic process in the UK. That means a strong LibDem Party. Carving the nation up between Labour and Tories is bad for everyone – even though I’d like to see Labour in power. I’m also anti-Brexit on economic grounds, which does pose something of a problem for me given the rather….well….confused Labour policy on the issue. Arthur is right that a message of a strong anti-Brexit policy combined with tradition Liberal policies and values might just be the catalyst for something bigger and better. And there are millions of loose Labour/Tory voters desperate for a “third way”! Not me, though, but I doubt that I’m typical.

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