Mods and Libs – who are we?

Some enterprising organisation at our conference, my money is on Liberator, will be selling ‘I’m a Liberal not a Mod’ badges, although I’d be careful not to wear one outside the Brighton Centre for fear of upsetting the Scooter fanatics.

That old rocker Vince Cable has certainly captured the attention of the Party with his March of the Moderates vision, but before it is dismissed out of hand by those who see dangers from opening up decision making powers to non-members, it’s worth looking at how some of this vision is already working in practice, and why fears that Lembit Opik could end up as leader are wide of the mark.

I could not have won four Parliamentary elections in a row without the support of an army of volunteer supporters who were not and would never join the Party. I remember in 2001 friends of my late parents reported that there were more fellow members of the Preston Conservative club delivering leaflets for me than for the Tory candidate.

People prepared to deliver a few leaflets in their area or bake a cake for the summer fete or buy a book of draw tickets in the run up to Christmas ought to be prime prospects for membership but when asked, sometimes repeatedly, they wish to remain supporters and not commit to membership.

It is this fear of commitment that lies behind many of the rejections to membership I have come across. It is not that people don’t wish to be involved as few, if any, in my memory have said no to being kept in touch with events and not signing up has not stopped supporters from turning out at fundraising and political events.

To win we build coalitions of support within the communities we serve so what have we to fear from encouraging a closer relationship with the people who support us.

For sure the members of the local Conservative club who delivered leaflets for me had at some point signed a form to say they were supporters of the Conservative Party but I doubt any of them would have signed up as a supporter of our Party as well. Their support was personal rather than political. Vince’s proposals are aimed at those who are political supporters of our cause and would be happy to declare agreement with the principles and values of the Liberal Democrats in exchange for a say over our governance and structures.

The question I have before widening involvement in our decision-making processes is do we know what our values and principles are? We have a constitution we occasionally quote to one another but seem to keep secret from the public. This is odd because no other Party has such a long-standing commitment to reform and social justice as we have.

Demand better yes, but we sometimes come across as if we just might want to request the odd improvement here or there but nothing to rock the boat too much.

Why are we not shouting from the roof tops that we are not happy with the way things are? That we want to see major changes to how we organise our country, its democracy, decision making processes and where power is exercised, wealth created and distributed. We are a progressive, radical, green, reformist, socially just Liberal Party.

But we can also be viewed as a moderate centrist Party even if many of those of us within it don’t see it that way.

I remember the debate at the special conference to merge the Liberal Party with the SDP. Trevor Jones – not the late Sir Trevor from Liverpool but the one from Dorset the Party has so far failed to gong – argued against the fears of many for what was a far more significant change. He claimed Liberals were worried we wouldn’t be able to campaign in the new party, “Well we’re not going to ask for permission” was his rallying cry.

Vince’s ideas do not threaten our radicalism and as for fears we could end up with the winner of Love Island or Cupcake Wars as our leader, well that’s down to us ensuring the nomination rules remain unchanged.

These are what prevent me from standing for the leadership as it is MPs who nominate the candidates and I cannot see MPs nominating anyone who isn’t an MP. So, while we can change the rules to allow a non-MP to stand, without proposals to change who nominates the candidates we are safe from Lembit’s leadership for a little while longer.

Vince’s idea sounds crazy, it has risks, it doesn’t really capture what we are or wish to be, but if it brings back people who have felt excluded in recent years due to the Coalition, encourages the involvement of the many people in every constituency who support but not join and perhaps pushes a few people in other parties to break from their tribe and lend us a hand, it will help the long process of rebuilding our Party.
I see little to fear and much to gain from building a Liberal Democrat movement and if some describe it as a moderate movement so be it, the rest of us know better.

* Adrian Sanders is a Focus deliver in Paignton, Devon, and was the MP for Torbay from 1997 to 2015.

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  • Bill le Breton 8th Sep '18 - 6:57pm

    Dear Adrian –

    “I see little to fear and much to gain from building a Liberal Democrat movement and if some describe it as a moderate movement so be it, the rest of us know better.”

    Quite right.


  • So any Tom(my), Dick and Phyllis (or Nigel Boris and Jacob) can become a supporter and vote for the next leader of the Party, without any commitment to the Lib Dems whatsoever… sorry to be obtuse but…what’s in it for the Lib dems then??

    Perhaps every “supporter “ should be asked to sign up to voting for the Lib dems in 2020. “I pledge to vote for the Liberal Democratic Party at the next general election, and to campaign against any other party”. That should do it.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Sep '18 - 2:03am

    A finesse of argument or a satirical note, either, but this is a good piece!

    Adrian and Bill herein, might be radical Liberals in bacground, some here who have no past in the Labour or Tory fold do not realise radical moderates that is what this party is like it or not, the two biguns contain extremists and it was ever thus!

    Wake up these are exremely ludicrous political parties, we are radical, great, we are moderates, get it in to your hea…s…….!!!!!!!!

  • Jayne Mansfield 9th Sep '18 - 9:20am

    @ Adrian Sanders,
    I suspect that as a party you are not shouting from the rooftops because as a party you are ‘frit’, frightened of scaring the horses.

    For many of us, moderate, centre party now signifies a party that is trying to find a constituency, that no longer exists in large numbers. It is a ‘blob’ that exists between the two so called political extremes , when people are demanding clear radical visions, not a tinkering round the edges that does not upset the status quo and those who benefit from it.

    I have yet to meet, any individual from either the extreme left or right who did not think that they were the ‘moderates’. As for centre ground, moderates, I have found them to be individuals who pick and mix between the two so-called extremes on individual issues, in my opinion, there is no coherence of a defined set of values that the Liberal Democrats continue to claim that they hold.

    I regret that you personally are no longer an MP. I would like to see a party that you visualise, but I don’t. I want change, but I do not see how your party is up to delivering it.

  • Paul , ok thanks.

    If this is a proposal which is still to be ratified by the membership and cannot happen before 2019 anyway under the Constitution, as I have heard, why is the Lib Dem website inviting people to pre-register as supporters? It’s a bit premature, isn’t it?

  • Nigel Jones 9th Sep '18 - 10:25am

    @Jayne Mansfield “I want change, but I do not see how your party is up to delivering it.”
    We Liberal Democrats are in a weak political position at the moment and as happens to all political parties that fall down, it takes time to come back up again. As I see it, Vince’s proposals are a way of making progress, though I am still thinking through the implications before making up my mind whether or not it is the right way. It is significant that the media are giving it some attention; that is because it is a novel idea, even an odd one, that the leader of a political party wants to encourage influence from non-members while saying they do not have to join. It always has been typical of the media that they give attention to a very small group who are not politically strong only if they say something unusual.
    As Adrian says, we are still working out what currently we stand for and that must be at the core of our activities and the reason for people to support us. We have made a start with some radical proposals (on Ofsted, School Commissioners, Testing and CPD for teachers etc.) in our Education policy and now about to decide on replacing business rates with land value tax. There is much more to do, so my question is not whether we are the party for change; it is whether now is the right time to attract specific influence and support from people who are not intending to be members. Have we yet done sufficient detailed work to identify what we are about for the current situation facing the nation and the world ?
    Is the plan deliberately to choose this as the time to involve outsiders, so that they can help us work on those details ?

  • We all look at the world from our own perspective. Mine is that I joined the Liberal Party in 1959. We lived in a different world. As far as the Liberal Party was concerned the party could only dream of getting into double figures in Parliament. The years passed. Many members adopted a version of community politics. The common thread was keeping in touch all the year round. Listening to people. People like to be consulted. The number of councillors increased. I was active in the party at the time of the alliance with the SDP. I noted that discussions appeared to have taken place by leaders of the party with then Labour MPs as to whether they should join a new party or the Liberals. I wondered why no one appeared to consider asking members. People like to be consulted. Over the years the party increased in local government, still using the slogan about being in touch all the year round. Then we arrived at the impossible. Balance of power. Coalition. I attended the meeting to vote on the issue in Birmingham. I voted in favour. It seemed to be there was no other choice. We needed a government focussed on solving the financial problems. As I went round with Focus I was happy with the response. Many people wanted to put political differences to one side. As time passed as far as myself and many people I spoke to were concerned however there was a failure by the government to listen to the real issues of people. The concept of communication in the party relies very heavily on the AA model. You pay your fee. You get a service. Everything is top down.
    Now we come to the present. The proposals being put forward will do nothing to even start to address our needs. We need a genuine discussion on how we can build a campaigning party. I have seen nothing that will do this. We need to work on building a genuinely listening party. Sending out badly constructed questionnaires is not consultation.
    People like to be consulted. This is simply an issue of accepting the implications of this. The behaviour in the party at the moment is such as to raise the question of whether a group of people who cannot behave in an inclusive way could really do so if they were in positions of power.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Sep '18 - 11:09am

    I don’t know about badges, but there are certainly Liberal not Moderate t-shirts.

  • Tom Harney. Spot on. People like to be consulted. Everything is top down.
    This applies to our party but it also applies to the communities we live in and seek to serve. Becoming a genuinely listening party therefore becomes not only the key to our internal renewal but the basis of our offer to the public.
    Down here on the Isle of Wight local councils fail to engage with their electorate and when the voters try to make their voice heard they are treated with contempt. (Google “police called to Sandown Town Council meeting”). As a party who have long talked about localism and spreading power it’s time we walked the walk.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Sep '18 - 1:32pm

    How come those who always immediately object to something they don’t like, even if in the very core of our belief, yet they are the same ilk that defend the correct right for self identity.

    Liberal but moderate, t shirts about to be worn,as well as, Liberal and moderate , then, wait for this, Liberal is moderate!!!!

    A bit of understanding to fellow Liberals and even, social democrats, might be very beneficial, as well as respect for our leader who is making a real attempt at new thinking.

  • Sue Sutherland 9th Sep '18 - 2:07pm

    Great piece Adrian! It’s good to see some humour still exists in the party. Personally I’d rather be a radical than a moderate so I take great delight in Tom Harney and Chris Cory’s responses. It’s about time the party put its political beliefs into practice in its own organisation.
    Members like to be consulted, they want their voices heard, just as the party wants to give power to the individual over decisions that affect their lives. A lot of members are a tad furious about how this idea of Vince’s has been approached and they don’t feel very moderate about it!
    At the moment we have loads of members wanting to be involved and use their unique talents for the party but they don’t see how to do this because the party structures are disempowering to ordinary members. We have been relying on one member one vote for too long and even that doesn’t apply to Conference where decisions are made about policy and proposals like the one we are all talking about.
    Members could have been sounded out about this idea at a much earlier stage when it was just a twinkle in Vince’s eye and please don’t let anyone talk about leaks because we believe in open government don’t we?
    Instead we have a situation where potential supporters are being contacted and asked to tell the party what they think but there’s no obvious way of doing this. A metaphor for how the party operates. I’d like to see our leaders trust the members before they spend a lot of time and money on a supporters scheme.
    It’s not easy to work in this way because telling people what’s happening rather than asking them is a much more obvious way of working. The first step is to put members at the top of the decision making process so they influence the broad position of the party, constantly ask for ideas not questions and respect their opinions because they live in the real world not the world of Westminster.

  • Nigel Jones 9th Sep '18 - 2:23pm

    @Tom Harney “Sending out badly constructed questionnaires”.
    I assume Tom is referring to the one sent recently about Vince’s proposals for the party. I gave up long before getting to the end, because I found myself answering a string of questions about whether I had any willingness to be involved in the party, when I am already doing so much. If you want people’s views on a particular proposal, surely you just ask them to comment simply on that.

  • Neil Sandison 10th Sep '18 - 8:44am

    One of my big concerns is “the cult of the leader “unaccountable to the membership .We saw it to a degree with David Owen and the Owenites ,Thatcher ,Blair and now Corbyn where if you challenge the orthodoxy of the leadership on a policy issue the leaders zealots who are not members will hound you out of your local party arrange votes of no confidence or blog against you on party web sites .If Adrian Sanders can demonstrate what safeguards will be put in place so that we do not stifle inovative thinking where challenge is not seen as a dirty word if the leadership is taking the membership down a policy cul de sac, i am willing to listen, at least with one member one vote at conference the membership can agree to differ with the leader but if it becomes a leaders cult party like labour where intolerance of a different view is stifled or members threatened for raising a different opinion to those who already have a powerful voice we will undermine the radical edge of social liberalism which makes us stand out from the leadership fan clubs we see other parties .

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