Liberals must be clear: the system is broken and we want to fix it

The system is broken. We all know it – voters and politicians alike. And as liberals we must make the acknowledgement of this failure a key part of our message.

Liberals have long argued that the system robs people of their natural rights as citizens. We are against concentrations of power in the hands of vested interests – whether in the private or public sector. And yet these concentrations of power are everywhere we look – whether it’s multinationals or public life.

We want an equitable and accountable political class, but the one we have is elected under a shady form of democracy or appointed by a government elected on minority support. We want a fair tax and social security system that rewards ambition and protects the vulnerable, but we are a long way from it. And we want to reform the economic system that is destroying our environment, but powerful interests are causing that to happen too slowly.

The current political and economic system is preventing all the systemic changes we need. And by doing so it has allowed powerful people with malign intent to drag this country to the edge.

The broken system has encouraged cowardly incompetents to put their own self-interest ahead of public good, enabled Conservatives to hand out public contracts worth millions and high-powered jobs to their pals and allowed powerful union leaders to put incompetent leaders in charge of Labour (though thankfully that seems to be coming to an end). And it’s allowed the degradation of some of the institutions and concepts our country holds most dear: the rule of law, healthcare, the BBC and education. It’s also killed the quality of public debate.

Brexit didn’t get 52% in the referendum because more than half the country shares the values of Nigel Farage, Dominic Cummings and Priti Patel. It happened because so many people saw the injustices we see: a broken system that robs them of power over their everyday lives and trashes the things they value. And we know that in the post-Brexit elections people didn’t get what they wanted: they were forced to choose between candidates for Prime Minister who were leading two muddled, outdated parties that only continue to exist because a broken system locks out other voices.

Sadly, in recent times our message has alienated so many because it has failed to speak to the emotions people were feeling. What we were saying in 2019 also seemed too extreme and far-fetched.

But now we have a chance to let people know that liberals are feeling what they are feeling: the system is broken and we need to fix it. We can have all the policies we want, and I’m sure we will once again have an excellent manifesto, but without a core theme underpinning our message we won’t get through the noise in the intervening period.

People think the system is broken. We think the system is broken. The system IS broken.

Let’s make that a core part of our liberal message.

* Max Wilkinson is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Cheltenham. He’s also a local councillor and cabinet member for economic development, tourism, culture and wellbeing.

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  • Steve Trevethan 2nd Nov '20 - 4:19pm

    Thanks for a start to a relevant manifesto!
    Might it also help if we were put forward our aims for change?
    Might our aims for change recognise the fundamental need for economic policies which are effective in the three components of our economy?
    These component economies are the economy of our natural world, the “real world economy” and the financial economy.
    Might our “broken system” be the result of the first two component economies being exploited to feed the financial economy?

  • John Marriott 2nd Nov '20 - 5:15pm

    The system has been broken for years. It just keeps b*****ing on. People appear at the moment to be worrying more about whether or not they will be getting a normal Christmas this year. Oh dear, if only they would wake up and smell the coffee as a certain (new) Party Leader said recently!

    Given what Mr Wilkinson has written about speaking to the emotions people are feeling, perhaps we could start by wishing them a happy Christmas.

  • The problem is we espoused 4 policies that would go a long way to fix the system for years, but successive leaderships have trashed 3 of them, and are too scared to do the 4th.
    They are:
    PR – trashed by the 2010-15 leadership proposing AV.
    Referendums – trashed by the 2015-2017, and subsequent, leaderships refusing to accept the result of the Brexit referendum.
    Fixed Term Parliaments – trashed by the 2019 leadership by endorsing the Dec 2019 election.
    The 4th is Federalism, where the English Liberal Democrats will not support any definitive federal solution for England.

  • Max Wilkinson 2nd Nov '20 - 5:33pm

    Thanks for the two comments so far.

    @Steve – you seem to be reverting to a policy discussion. I’m talking about a broader message that might underpin our campaigns.

    @Alan – you also seem to be talking about policy. But you’ve compounded that by restricting the debate in two further ways: you’ve written about past errors rather than what might happen in the future; and you’ve only written about policies relating to political reform.

  • Broken is a word used so often these days, that it has lost its impact. If the system was broken, nothing would work, the reality is very different to that.
    Nothing is ever perfect and if we manage 75% of what we seek to achieve we are doing very well. We live in a democracy and all views are important and cannot be roughshod over, therefore we have to accommodate, and that inevitably means some things don’t happen as they should, but broken, no.
    Let’s keep our feet on the ground and remember we have helped to create the present problems in the publics mind, dare I mention the words “Tuition Fees”.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Nov '20 - 8:02pm

    A former member called John Cleese would have called it
    “a statement of the bleedin’ obvious’
    a computer system is as good as the data that are fed in to it
    We call it GIGO “Garbage In – Garbage Out
    The computer firms who accepted the Health Secretary’s money must have been keeping a straight face for a long while, whereas any ordinary civil servant without a PHD, could have said from the the start of the scheme in the Isle of Wight that the computer system depends on what human beings choose to put in to it.
    It seems that even Boris Johnson now understands, but what he said today and the manner in which he said it contains risks to human rights which our MPs may want to oppose strongly
    as Ed Davey MP said in the Commons at the start of this process.
    An American satirist called Tom Lehrer said
    “Life is like a sewer, what you get out of it depends on what you put in to it.”
    He is now putting his life’s work on his system, out of copyright, available free to all.

  • Phil Wainewright 2nd Nov '20 - 8:28pm

    100% agree that people believe the system is broken – a succinct, clear message. So far, so good.

    The hard part is persuading people that we are the party to fix it. Our policies and our history both have a bearing on building that trust.

  • Peter Martin 3rd Nov '20 - 12:00pm

    the English Liberal Democrats will not support any definitive federal solution for England.

    What is the problem needing “a federal solution”?

    We could have a Federal Parliament for the whole of the UK. That might, given the extent of devolution, be a sensible plan. But, however you might want to choose to split up England into its regions, you’ll still end up with around 85% of seats in the Federal Parliament being English. It doesn’t change anything.

    There’s no popular call to have a Federal England being part of a Federal UK. Would we want, for example, a Parliament for the Midlands, which had less authority than a Federal Parliament for the whole of England, which had less authority than the Federal Parliament for the whole of the UK? There is a limit to the number of tiers of government any country should impose on itself.

  • neil sandison 3rd Nov '20 - 12:08pm

    Our real problem is we are just too nice and need to develop some teeth and claws to fight an increasingly corrupt system heavily loaded with those who are financially benefitting from others misery . be it the handing out government contracts, developers land banking with loosened planning rules where local councillors are being treated as no better than nodding donkeys in decision making, to watering down food and environmental policy to enable lower standards of production from the USA to flood our markets . We must challenge a system that enables this to happen aggressively .

  • Innocent Bystander 3rd Nov '20 - 1:10pm

    I can only agree with other contributions here. You restate the problems we all can see but offer no vision of an alternative.
    I agree entirely that our country is coming apart but it needs a “Year Zero” moment to progress and be reborn.
    A bit of hand wringing is of no use.

  • Following William’s comments, and the sad news about David Shutt, I was looking through an old file from my days as ppc for Sowerby back in 1968/69. I find I was reported in the Hebden Bridge Times and the Todmorden Advertiser as demanding a parliament for Yorkshire.

    Interesting to note the HBT was then edited by one Bernard Ingham. Dear old Douglas Houghton MP chastised me saying ‘money makes the mare to go’ but on a personal level was very friendly and encouraging.

  • John Marriott 3rd Nov '20 - 4:34pm

    Let’s not forget, David, that it was the Commission, chaired by Lord Houghton, that awarded teachers their first decent pay rise for years in the 1970s.

  • I absolutely agree @Max – and I fear that our too slow, too deliberate approach to campaigning and policy making is ensuring that we miss a prefect moment to start creating our new offer to the voters and citizens of our country.

    I’ve written on the FB policy group about the need to start rethinking our position on the relationship between citizens, employment and income, which seems an important place to start as we watch millions of people lose their employment and experience for the first time how mean our welfare system really is.

    Meanwhile we appear to be plodding on with a centre led discussion group process to develop to policy paper on UBI – laudable, but way to out of step with the pace at which the world is changing. We must blow-up and speed up what we do, before things start falling to eaten and we are left scrabbling in the ruins with the other parties.

  • @ John Marriott. Yes, indeed, John. Good old Duggy. A thoroughly nice man who actually took time out to help me with some information for my thesis…….. and don’t forget good old Alec Clegg of the West Riding who divvied up for my student grant and Later gave teachers an even bigger Pay rise in the late seventies.

    As for Neil Sandison’s comment about being too nice….. Sorry to disagree. In the Coalition, yes, true – though it was nice and weak to theTories rather than the less fortunate.

    In more recent years far too bland and lacking In any sense of the issues of inequality, poverty or even plain political nous. It’s like watching a Sunday league team having pretensions to be in the Premier League….. and I don’t see any charismatic white knight Galloping to the rescue. Too much introspective identity stuff and not enough considering what needs to change for the better for the mass of the electorate. The electorate aren’t interested in the personal angst of individual Lib Dem’s.

  • On Mark Platt’s Recent comment, a classic example was the Scottish party’s decision to prevaricate And nit pick on the housing of homeless people until next Spring when we’re in a pandemic especially dangerous to said folk at the beginning of a long dark winter. The focus should have been on getting the Scottish government to take immediate action.

    Sir Edward should have banged the drum about that instead of repeating the same old speech for the nth time.

  • Helen Dudden 3rd Nov '20 - 9:38pm

    One comment here, is that there are more concerns about having a normal Christmas than anything.
    I smell the coffee, have for a while. We have the face masks and hand washing, even Bill Gates shows great interest in a vaccine for the world.
    Meanwhile, Boris Johnson fiddles while Rome burns.
    Yesterday, I was watching a zoom meeting, on the problems with newspapers and whistle blowers. That’s one thing that tends to burst my bubble.
    Many years ago, I did write an article on the trafficking of both women and children for one of your magazines.
    Today, at this present time we have people smugglers, charging vast amounts for a trip in a tiny boat across a very dangerous sea.
    I’m still involved with International Child Access and many heart breaking aspects of court actions, that are so wrong. My grandchild now 18 years old and in Spain, he longs to see me.
    I’ve been like many other’s my age confined to my home for months, one of my neighbours in her 80’s was too scared to come out of her front door, Covid was out there. Her son in law told me, there was little he could do to calm her.
    I very much look forward to Hanakah the miracle of light over darkness.

  • The system is broken because there is little meaningful opposition to the Conservatives which allows them to double down on failed policies and move the Overton window further and further right.

    Second order effects for the Tories include (a) that this drives away their better people leaving spivs and the less reality-based in charge, and (b) that the Tory party has succumbed to a takeover by a single faction which is completely against its tradition of being a broad church.

    In Scotland the SNP provides meaningful opposition and the Tories are nowhere. In England, Labour struggles with its internal divisions compounded IMO by the fact that, while much about socialism is praiseworthy, it ultimately has no real answers for the 21st century.

    That leaves the Lib Dems, also struggling with internal divisions but potentially in tune with the times. But the BIG problem, as Mark Platt says, is the plodding and centre-led approach to policy (and the rest) that means Lib Dems can’t capitalise on that opportunity.

    The Thornhill Review detailed the dreadful mess that was the 2019 GE campaign and, inter alia, called for:
    @ 1a – the creation of an inspiring, over-arching and compelling vision,
    @ 2a – the clarification, codification, and communication of the roles & remits of leader, CEO and president,

    To paraphrase, we need a compelling narrative and a nimble organisation but have neither.

    How can it be that after 30+ years LDs haven’t sorted these basics out? After all, we know from history that effective organisation is the key to success. This necessarily includes the ability to identify and promote good leaders, support them and, if necessary, depose them. Organisations that get this wrong finish up tripping over their own shoelaces – as we have seen!

    Moreover, our own organisation is one of the few things we control without reference to others or waiting for election success so there really is no excuse for not prioritising the necessary changes.

    But what, specifically, should those be?

  • In answer to my own earlier question about what organisational changes are necessary, I believe they should be as modest as possible and preserve the much that is good in the present approach. But the first task is to work out what’s going wrong.

    Bureaucracies, even small ones, find change rather difficult for good reason. They are designed to do a specific job with certain (possibly unconscious) assumptions about how that should be done – for example that everyone should be involved. Unfortunately, just as in other spheres, designs don’t always work as intended. So, saying that things don’t work too well is in no way a criticism of those involved.

    AFAIK the organisation devised at the Liberal/SDP merger was intended to create a version of ‘Direct Democracy’ – that is one where all members can have a say (if they want it) in policy before it’s finally voted on and signed off by Conference representing the whole party. Hence the process is run by a series of elected committees.

    Perfect! But…. there are a few snags, including:
    1. It is slow, resource-intensive, and has limited bandwidth so it can’t easily pivot to events or new information as that would mean unpicking a carefully constructed tapestry.
    2. Innovation in all spheres typically comes from the margin but anything that rocks the boat has to be rejected to protect the system, so members actually have limited involvement.
    3. Policy work is split between ‘siloes’. Despite best efforts, there is no “over-arching and compelling vision”, aka ‘Narrative’ and no way to create one has ever been found.
    4. It’s necessarily London-centric and therefore half-blind to regional views (Goodbye Celtic fringe).
    5. On a narrow reading of the constitution, MPs’ formal role is limited. Even spokespeople should, in theory, merely articulate whatever Conference has decided, even if that was several years ago and in different circumstances.
    6. In Coalition we discovered the hard way that the Parliamentary leadership either couldn’t in practice follow official policy or chose not to (take your pick!) and members’ only remedy was to resign.

    All in all, it’s a system that’s clunky and top-down, with neither the nimbleness nor political agility that should be a small party’s strong suit.

  • The key difficulties I outlined earlier all track back IMO to the decision at the Liberal/SDP merger over 30 years ago to adopt a ‘Direct Democracy’ approach but we live in a ‘Representative Democracy’ with good reason – namely that direct democracy doesn’t scale but representative democracy does.

    The classic observation on RD is that by Edmund Burke in his 1774 speech to the electors of Bristol which included the observation that, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

    I like that; it puts responsibility to do the necessary homework and exercise judgement based on it squarely on MPs’ shoulders which is how our (unwritten) constitution works and what electors naturally expect. The Lib Dem approach of mandating MPs to follow a specified course of action via conference resolution conflicts with that and, as we have seen, doesn’t work anyway.

    There is a doable path to sorting this out (subject to the necessary constitutional changes) which involves the least possible change to existing arrangements:
    1. Make the leader unambiguously responsible for coordinating and developing (in Thornhill’s words) “an inspiring, over-arching and compelling vision” across all policy areas.
    Clearly the leader will have to take advice and synthesise (or reject) rival views; that is the essence of leadership. It also follows that if he doesn’t measure up, either MPs or the wider party must be able to evict him from the job.
    2. Make spokespeople (MPs as far as possible) responsible for policy in their area – initiating, developing, amending etc. and when substantial changes are necessary, steering a motion through conference.
    3. There will be times when policy must be changed on the hoof if driven by ‘events’ (exercising judgement per Burke) and hopefully members will be happy with that. If not, a censure motion would, at the least, be career-limiting.
    4. Develop a mechanism to engage interested members and tap their expertise to develop policy and redeploy any resources saved into beefing up a central policy support staff with this as their primary function. (I have experienced a version of this in a corporate setting and it worked fantastically well).

    That’s all for now!

  • Helen Dudden 5th Nov '20 - 11:53am

    Neil Sandison. You can’t blame some one for being able to take advantage of a very weak situation. You can put the blame, on those who have let it happen.
    I believe in a new approach to politics. It’s not like the winning or losing, that can apply to other areas of life too.
    Would you consider an attitude of less political views, more concentrating on sorting out this mess we are in.
    In the US there are some serious issues as we all know, disagree with someone who wants a different path and things become heated.
    I believe a control on MPs salaries could be a start. One MP was donating his pay rise to a charity. All a very nice idea, but not to those struggling.
    I would consider what Farage is saying, I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution, but I can see the reasoning why.
    Unless, we willingly make changes, they can become almost impossible to stop.

  • James Fowler 5th Nov '20 - 3:14pm

    The problem with this slogan (apart from the fact it’s been used X times before) is that for a good third of the population the system is not broken at all, while the remaining two thirds either don’t vote or have contradictory demands about how to fix it.

    Although saying ‘Everything’s sh*t’ is something that initially gets everybody’s head nodding, it then steers us into a detailed, negative and powerless debate about the past where people can’t even agree on what’s wrong, let alone what to do next. We shouldn’t waste time publicly debating what, whether or how things are broken, that’s a diversion. Let people decide for themselves. We should just be saying that, whatever the situation, liberal principals are a better way to run society.

  • “The system is broken and we want to fix it”.

    Very laudable Max, but don’t you think you ought to fix the Liberal Democrat Party as a first step ?

  • Helen Dudden 5th Nov '20 - 4:27pm

    Fixing democracy, and being able to stand your ground in the House of Commons. There is no opposition. How have the political parties reached this point?
    The situation with Care Homes is dire, some may never see their family members again. There is a real lack of treatment for cancer and heart disease, serious illness.
    Anyone, who has had cancer knows the importance of early and continued treatment. Most of us have had that experience.
    Now March, is the next date for the end of lock down. I can’t understand, why we need to worry about council funding or funding of anything, when billions is now being spent.

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