Liberals: a fresh message


Politics in the UK is changing faster now than ever before. This change gives us the opportunity to take our place at the heart of the UK by presenting a strong, passionate and persuasive liberal view of the world. It also means we may get lost among the crowd. We must make sure it is the former, and not the latter.

Clear, simple messages are crucial to how the country views us. Every opportunity to speak to people is a chance to present liberalism in its best light – distinct, valuable, and making our communities stronger.

The centre ground is stable, but it is also defined by what it isn’t. Strong messages must change that. The preamble to the Constitution of the party is a wonderful piece of writing; honest, inspirational, and clear, but it is not going to be read by 99 per cent of the population. What we need to do is distil its values: liberty, equality and community, and let that shine through our communications.

So how can we change this? Well, by knowing those values, and by using them consistently and well in our communications. The preamble says: ‘We seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community.’

Each time you write a message, take the opportunity to echo those words. Are you writing to say thank you to voters after the election? Say: ‘Thank you. Together we can build a better community.’

Are you writing a survey to small businesses? Say: ‘Our policies let you compete equally.’

Are you going door to door? Remember those words. We protect your freedom. We build your community. We give you opportunity. We value you.

Liberalism is unique. It flourishes where individuals have the capacity to enrich themselves, and the community around them. It acknowledges people’s individuality, but recognises that they can only thrive when society gives them the opportunity to make the best of themselves.

Let me also introduce the three word test. If you have a policy, can you sum it up in three words? If not, don’t use it. Because if you can’t sum it up in three words, most people aren’t going to take the time to listen to it. Capture their attention, and add explanations for those who need it.

We need to make an emotional case for the party. Evidence-based policies are what we do, but making people care about them is a different thing. Present a policy simply; show how it connects our values to people’s lives.

We need to speak clearly, and listen well. Putting into practice new techniques, such as deep canvassing (sometimes called persuasive canvassing) and the increased use of social media, will help us to campaign more effectively. Knowing what is at the heart of our beliefs, and making those connections to people, comes first.

* Sam Al-Hamdani is a party member, recent council by-election candidate, activist and member of his local party committee (Macclesfield) and on the North West Regional Party committee.

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  • Frances Alexander 24th Jul '17 - 10:28am

    Thanks for an excellent post, Sam. Passing on a feel-good factor can only help our campaign liberal democracy.
    It is good to read the preamble to the constitution occasionally – at least the first paragraph! Perhaps it should be read at every AGM, to ensure we are all singing together! When
    we knock the other parties we should know how we would replace them!

  • David Evershed 24th Jul '17 - 11:35am

    The preamble to the Lib Dem Constitution is not distinctive.

    Which political party is not going to agree with the statement “We seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community”?

    People don’t know what Lib Dems stand for. We need a short form of words which shows what being Liberal means and which other main parties would not sign up to.

    I suggest it is based around freedom – freedom for individuals and freedom for businesses. Free speech, freedom from government interference, free schooling, free health care, free market competition, free trade across borders – and what these freedoms mean in practice when there are trade offs between them.

  • Bill le Breton 24th Jul '17 - 11:38am

    ‘We seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community.’ Indeed we do. And how difficult this is.

    The social anthropologist, Mary Douglas, invented a way of placing and comparing differing societies in a grid which had four or five major categories according to a society’s position on an x measuring ‘group’ (how clearly defined an individual’s social position is as inside or outside a bounded social group) and y axis measuring ‘grid’ (how clearly defined an individual’s social role is within networks of social privileges, claims and obligations).

    This gave quadrants representing four general types of culture. see . Within these cultures social institutions work to reinforce a culture’s position status quo. Doing so by negating the value of alternatives.

    The difficulty and the opportunity for Liberal Democrats is that liberty, equality and community belong in three different types of culture. In ‘pure’ forms Equality is opposed to liberty. Liberty is opposed to community etc..

    Our solution is ‘messy’. Requiring aspects of at least three pure forms. But messy is best. It is just that there is a tendency for people’s gut instinct to reflect one of the pure forms. Messy is rational, but contrary to most people’s instincts which reflect one of the pure forms.

    So talking of Liberty Equality and Community together just gets us into arguments which we lose, unless we are talking to people who have their eyes opened to the value of messy solutions.

  • Sue Sutherland 24th Jul '17 - 11:57am

    Thank you Sam, for this encouraging post. I like the paragraph Liberalism is unique, but would like to reword it slightly.
    Liberalism is unique. It celebrates people’s individuality and recognises they can only thrive when society encourages them to make the best of themselves and their communities.
    I think you have done brilliantly to sum up Liberalism in this way and agree that this message needs repeating over and over again in every communication we make. Policies should flow naturally from this core belief.

  • Bill le Breton 24th Jul '17 - 11:58am

    There was an interesting article by Nick Harvey in Liberator 383 in which he responded to Pack and Howarth’s core vote strategy. You can read it by following a link here:

    But there is also a very good letter in response to Nick’s article by Simon Banks in Liberator 384 which can be read by following a similar trail to Liberator 383. Simon sometimes comments here. I hope he sees and responds to this. He digs deeper than Liberty, Equality and Community (‘overwhelmingly pro-diversity, moderately pro-redistribution’) and he also follows Nick Harvey’s point that we have to be able to win the support of people who hold some of our core values but perhaps not all. He writes that we do this by communicating ‘our approach to issues’.

    This why when the Lib Dems and the Liberal before them were most successful they communicated by campaigning on issues. The message was in the medium. The medium was campaigning. We used to do this a lot. Our communications were all action based. Identifying an issue, stating what we knew about the issue. Asking others to contribute to our knowledge, Sharing the mounting information. Sketching a solution and asking for reactions. Publishing a campaign action plan and involving others in the campaign. Reporting back. Working on the campaign at street level, town level, and national parliament level.

    I was staggered to learn on the members’ forum that many people had no idea that we used to do this. It was the prime task of ALDC and sometimes, when there was a campaigning Chief Whip, it was the prime task of the Whip’s office.

    We have lost so much knowledge over the last 20 years.

  • I agree wholeheartedly what Bill says. Generation after generation of Lib Dem learned from previous generations of Lib Dems and delivered for their local communities. Those that were good often became councillors. Those who were very good and built a large Lib Dem team around them became MPs. Whether they were David Penhalygon, Gordon Birtwhistle, Ray Michie, or Patsy Carlton they all passed on the skills and the message.

    Then we got a leader who didn’t like that approach and wanted to fast track into being a ‘real’ political party like the others. He surrounded himself with yes men. He dropped the approach that worked. He broke a pledge. He trashed the party. And he squandered 50 years of progress.

    He was Nick Clegg.

  • @ Bill Le Breton

    Nick Harvey’s article is in 382 Bill (not 383)

    Incredibly interesting read. You really need to read the whole article to get the full picture and context. Howe er a number of points stood out for me:

    1. Surely by now it is a no brainer to say that we must talk to people about what matters to them, rather than what matters to us?
    2. The needs for “unifying themes” – a narrative/recipe to mix together the ingredients of our policies into something greater than the sum of their parts.
    3. The fact that with the internet age, everything really has now changed. Hiding manifestos under the stairs is no longer an option 🙂

    Getting to the end of the article and then having a quick read of this morning’s parallel thread, which has already started to polarise opinion after the first few comments, reminded me of something Matthew Huntbach said last week around how to address leave voters within a remain party stance.

    “The proper way to handle this would have been to show genuine interest in the concerns that people have that caused them to vote Leave, while gently pointing out that actually leaving the EU would not resolve those concerns.”

    I’m starting to listen to some “old hands’ here much more closely than I maybe have so far.
    Matthew’s approach to me would seem a lot more sensible than the kind of heated thread that will no doubt explode yet again today?

  • Taking Bill’s point further, I think the following would be of great interest to all 650 of our constituencies, especially as some might be re-formed in the last 2 years:
    Can we invite 2017’s successful, current 12 MPs to inform us of their constituency’s campaigning. [And add some of our near-miss constituencies]. Do they still distribute focus regularly? Do they undertake special campaigns – specific to their wards or wider areas?
    This might be better accomplished within one of the party’s closed websites [members only] so contributors can explore campaigning fully. Is it time to update ourselves before we slip into relying on national campaigning only?

  • Phil Wainewright 24th Jul '17 - 2:48pm

    Thanks Sam, great post. So refreshing to read some practical advice about how to get our message across.

    Sue I agree with your rewording. My take is “empowering us all to be stronger together.” The tricky bit, as Bill points out, is summing up that balance between individuality and community in a way that respects the contribution of both, without veering too much towards either inequality or conformity .

    Mike S interested in your comment “I’m starting to listen to some ‘old hands’ here much more closely than I maybe have so far.” Sounds like all that time spent reading and debating on here has been worth it 🙂

    Tony R-W speaking for my own LD-held constituency (since 1997) I can assure you we do indeed still distribute Focus and practise community politics of the type Bill and David speak of. ALDC runs training in co-operation with regional parties but perhaps there’s scope for some kind of grassroots knowledge exchange to go on too, which could help galvanize the enthusiasm of recent joiners into making a difference on their local patch.

  • “We seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community”

    As David Evershed says no political party is going to disagree with that. And as Bill le Breton says it’s difficult.

    For me the problem is that ‘freedom’ is one of those words that means whatever you want it to mean. Meaning is only clarified when you examine not ‘freedom’ as such, but its boundaries and ask where they should be drawn? (Note that in this context ‘boundaries’ includes organisation, inequality, educational opportunity etc., not just geography.)

    Looked at this way all sorts of things are illuminated. For instance Planning law is an attempt to draw and regulate an equitable boundary between individuals’ (especially neighbours) and community’s rights on the one hand and those of landowners on the other which is essential in crowded Britain. Planning laws are probably not exactly right but those who would tear them up most certainly have an agenda to redraw the boundary to their own advantage.

    Similarly and very relevantly, the EU embodies a particular view of how and where the boundaries between the nations (and to some extent, regions) of Europe should be drawn and, in particular, who should do what. Clearly, a majority in the UK are unhappy with how existing EU treaties do that – and with good reason. Polls in other EU countries suggest they are not far behind. With catastrophic youth unemployment in many EU countries that’s hardly surprising.

    But here’s the difficulty: when the Lib Dems argue “everything EU is wonderful” they are making nonsense of their claimed (but invisible) belief in devolution and democracy (a facet of freedom) and saying, in effect, “suck it up peasants – it’s good for you” even as the EU bureaucracy continues on its centralising trajectory.

    So, I absolutely agree with Bill that values are best communicated by campaigning on issues. Had we campaigned for EU reform we might not be in this mess; the Brexit vote might well have gone the other way, we would have done much to establish our core narrative and we would probably have got many more votes.

  • David Evershed 24th Jul '17 - 5:33pm

    Campaigning on individual issues does not a political party make.

    A political party needs a set of beliefs which can be applied across many different issues.

    Any campaign needs to show how it links to the Lib Dem beliefs if it is to be associated with our party.

  • Peter Watson 25th Jul '17 - 8:07am

    @David Evershed “Any campaign needs to show how it links to the Lib Dem beliefs if it is to be associated with our party.”
    I completely agree.
    But the important thing is that it works both ways round. Any such campaign would then show exactly what those Lib Dem beliefs are.

    I’ve moaned a lot recently that the party looks directionless with too much abstract debate about strategy, branding, centrism, liberalism, etc..
    By campaigning on issues in the way Bill le Breton describes, Lib Dems can demonstrate how the party interprets and applies its own particular brand of centrism and liberalism. But I would add the caveat that such campaigning should be positive and for change rather than simply more negative and conservative opposition to changes proposed by others.

  • Maybe not the easiest to communicate, but I think one of our most attractive qualities is our commitment to evidence-based policies, and avoiding being too dogmatic regarding particular policies, just because we said we supported it twenty years ago.

    The problem being that dogma is often easier to sell, and while nuance makes for better policy, it doesn’t make for good slogans.

    We also have to face some tricky questions on getting the balance right between what is good for the country and/or the economy, and what is politically appealing, and what ideas the British media will find interesting enough to communicate to their readers, and appealing enough to them that they’ll communicate those ideas fairly and without sneering.

  • John Probert 25th Jul '17 - 9:38am

    Remember the inspirational wording of the original Liberal Party constitution:

    1.The Liberal Party exists to build a Liberal Society in which every citizen shall possess liberty, property and security, and none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. Its chief care is for the rights and opportunities of the individual and in all spheres it sets freedom first.

  • Things like “we give you opportunity” and “we value you” are what everyone says. They are not unique, and liable to be dismissed as platitudes. I like the three word test though – How about “Exit from Brexit”?

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Jul '17 - 12:12pm


    But here’s the difficulty: when the Lib Dems argue “everything EU is wonderful”

    I have never seen or heard any Liberal Democrat argue that. The line that anyone who thinks that on balance it is better to be in the EU thinks “everything about the EU is wonderful” is constantly pushed by Brexit types as a way of closing down logical discussion on the topic.

    It may well be that the EU could be organised better. That’s no different from the UK government. I believe there is plenty of ways in which the UK could be made better, and the way the UK government works could be reformed. That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to the UK even existing. But not being opposed to it existing does not mean that I think everything about it is wonderful.

    even as the EU bureaucracy continues on its centralising trajectory

    In what way? As we have seen now, the EU is mainly about trade agreements. What the Brexiteers claimed was “control” over us, as if it were a form of imperialism, is really mostly agreements on common trading standards.

    The main issues that seemed to have got people worked up in the general election are
    how to pay for universities, how to pay for social care and how to pay for the NHS. The EU has no control over us of those issues. We are free in this country to have full tuition fees, other EU countries have fully subsidised universities, the EU does not dictate which it should be.

    Maybe things would be better if the EU did have more control over these things … Maybe, that is.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Jul '17 - 12:23pm

    Bill le Breton

    The difficulty and the opportunity for Liberal Democrats is that liberty, equality and community belong in three different types of culture. In ‘pure’ forms Equality is opposed to liberty.

    Well, only if you follow the hard right definition of “liberty” which suggests it is purely about absence of government legislation.

    As we can see, in practice if all assets are controlled by a small number of people, that is a serious restriction on liberty. People are not able to live without making use of what is provided by the elite who control everything. Many people are at subsistence level, desperate for jobs to provide them with a little extra that gives them some freedom. That is wage slavery.

    Taking a million in tax from a billionaire and distributing it to a thousand people won’t greatly decrease the freedom of that millionaire, but will do a lot to increase the freedom of those thousand. However, the hard right claim that taxation is an attack on freedom.

  • Matthew Huntbach

    Saying “everything EU is wonderful” was of course parodying the Lib Dem position; I’m sorry if that didn’t come over in print. But the substantive point remains – a distinctive and workable Lib Dems vision for the EU is missing in action so we are often seen, with some justice, as uncritical cheerleaders.

    For instance, the Lib Dems were (with a few exceptions) strong supporters of the Euro despite good evidence at the time that it would be a disaster as it has indeed turned out. Then again, after the proposed EU Constitution was voted down in referenda, one of Clegg’s first acts as leader was to push it through repackaged with only minimal changes as the Treaty of Lisbon. That looks to me like supporting the establishment over the voters – not a good look for Liberal *Democrats*.

    In fact, the only explicitly Lib Dem campaign to reform the EU I can think of offhand was former MEP Chris Davies’ campaign against expense account fiddling in Brussels.

    For the record I am a strong Remainer and for over 25 years have argued precisely the point you make in your second paragraph – that just like the UK government, the EU could (and should) be “organised better”. My fear was that, if left to itself and with inadequate democratic direction, the EU would ‘blow up’ in some way.

    As for the “centralising trajectory”, it’s not just a matter of current headlines. Yes, trade is big now and, yes, harmonising standards was always going to ruffle feathers. But it started with iron and steel and now there’s the Euro which, according to some (I’m agnostic on this) was intended from the off to force a shot-gun wedding of European nations into a USE headquartered in Brussels. “Ever-greater union” wouldn’t have the bad resonance it does for so many were there not evidence to suggest it is indeed the game plan.

    When our actions convey confusing and inconsistent messages on democracy, devolution etc. then we have no coherent narrative and that undermines all our policies as it erodes trust.

  • The problem with Bill Le Breton’s “just do campaigning!” (I paraphrase) approach is that it leads to the following situation which pertained from c1970 to 2010

    – disparate local groups campaign differently on the same issues, sometimes in opposite directions. Build more houses! Don’t ruin the Green Belt!
    – there is no coherent underpinning philosophy other than “the method”.
    – over time, people project their own interpretation onto this blank cypher

    Then, of course, an event such as going into coalition happens.

    The political wave function collapses as the party can no longer be a multi-state quantum anti-Tory/anti-Labour/anti-establishment vehicle for people”s projected desires.

    There has to be a consistent coherent definition of Liberalism that all buy into and is applied everywhere.

    The only thought leadership at all in recent years came in 2004 and Sir Vincent contributed to it.

    It needs updating for the present situation, but the template is there – and there is nothing but reactionary conservative thinking, as evidenced by the remarkable number of backwards looking posts and posters, ftom anywhere else.

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