Opinion: Eight things for Liberals to consider

From the crossroads of shock and grief lead two paths: on one lies anger and resentment, on the other, resolute determination to progress.

It is that latter path that liberal-minded people, and the Liberal Democrat party that provides their best home, must now take.

There can be no time wasted on rueful bitterness. As Tim Farron has said, it is vital that anger is now turned into action. And in the spirit of rebuilding from the bottom upwards, I, a humble member, am offering 8 (because this number has a bit of gallows humour to it right now) things that I believe we must collectively acknowledge and keep in mind as we move forwards.

  1. Re-state the obvious: our reason for existence. The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society. Those words have guided the party since its inception and the need for them to be heard loud and wide has never been greater. We live in a time when the notion of “fairness” is at real risk of being lost amidst a muddle of opposing ideologies, left and right, and emptied of meaning through overuse in Tory and Labour brand marketing-speak. Governing ‘fairly’ is difficult to explain – it is a highly subjective term – but people know it when they see and feel it. The Liberal Democrat party needs to embody true, balanced “fairness” in its arguments and policies – we need to show, not tell, what it means.
  2. Resist self-recrimination. We must not be afraid to defend our record in government. It will be too easy, faced with prodding from hostile media, to take the easy option and apologise for the tough decisions. We must be proud of the achievements made – making the tax system fairer, providing extra help for children that need it most, delivering record numbers of apprenticeships, creating the world’s first green investment bank and many more – and hold the line on defending our decision to put ourselves in a position to make them.
  3. Don’t be tempted to draw off to the left. If the election proved anything it was that the political “centre of gravity”, as Ed Miliband termed it, of most Brits has not at all shifted leftwards, in the traditional sense. Be assured that occupying the “sensible centre” is where we will find receptive ears for our policies.
  4. Accept that the party has been changed by its time in government, and nurture this. We are no longer the same protest party we perhaps were a decade ago. We have battle scars and this is a good thing. Retreating back to the purity of opposition will do nothing to help keep liberal values in a place where they can truly influence and engage people.
  5. Recognise that many new members have been drawn to the party because of Nick’s leadership, not because he has now departed. Honour Nick Clegg’s legacy by continuing to make tough calls, even in opposition, and even if at times this means voting with the Tories on certain issues. We need to trust the electorate to be mature enough to recognise this as responsible politics, not skewed by blind ideology or simplistic motives of revenge.
  6. Fight hard – and with no little passion – for continued EU membership. This is going to be tough with a reduced number of MPs in Parliament, but with a Tory government in hock to a Eurosceptic back bench for whom no amount of sensible renegotiation will ever be sufficient, and with a Labour party preoccupied with internal soul-searching and a battle to reclaim voters from UKIP, our voices – no matter how few – are going to be crucial. We simply cannot let the 2015 election result pull us inexorably closer to a Brexit and the damage to our economy that this would entail.
  7. Embrace the opportunity to be creative. The Conservatives are, by definition, conservative. Labour is going to find it difficult to remould itself while it is caught up with the problems mentioned above. We have the breathing space and the freedom from simplistic ‘left’ and ‘right’ positioning to think differently and present new ideas, from further radical changes to the tax system to constitutional reform to ways in which we can protect the NHS from the political merry-go-round.
  8. Finally, celebrate a new, fresh party membership. 6000 new members within days of the election tells a big story; a huge spike in online search interest in the party following the election provides further colour: these are exciting times if one takes the view that out of ashes, vibrant new growth can flourish.
    And so there are eight thoughts from a modest member of the party I believe represents the best political vision for our united kingdom.

We’re standing at a crossroads. Let’s take the practical, resolute path – but do so with renewed vigour and passion. People will respond, have no doubt about that.

* Stuart Lambert is a new member

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  • Steve Comer 12th May '15 - 8:55am

    I agree with much iof this espcialliy the comment “We have the breathing space and the freedom from simplistic ‘left’ and ‘right’ positioning to think differently and present new ideas,” However that is at variance from talk of the “sensible centre.”

    We should be clear that not everything boils down to economics, and not everything boils down to whether one is to the left or right of a moving political axis defined by others. The problem Liberals have with Putin and his ilk is not whether they are ‘right’ or ‘left’ but because they are authoritarians. In tough economic times the economic axis often dominates, but for Liberals a key axis in politics is that of liberty vs authority.
    (See http://www.politicalcompass.org/ for further clarification and an online quiz.)

    I believe our emphasis on liberty will increase in importance in this Parliament with issues like the snoopers charter, pressure from the security services to increase detention without trial, and increasing emphasis on education being run by thiose with no democratic accountability etc. None of these issues fit and easy left/right/centre definition of politics. Neither of course does Europe where both UKIP and the TU Socilaist Alliance and other far left groups oppose the EU.

    Perhaps we should all read some J.S. Mill on holiday instead of a cheap novel. (And as we send the Orange Book to be pulped, perhaps we should blow the dust off the Yellow Book and read that again too!)

  • We don’t have much choice about retreating to the comfort of opposition, you know.

  • I agree with nearly all of this. Well said.

  • David Howarth 12th May '15 - 9:55am

    One thing though, on where the average voter is on a left-right scale. If one looks at the most recent BES data, sure enough, the median voter places herself at the ‘centre’; but if one asks more specific questions about, for example, privatisation, public spending, redistribution of incomes, whether big business takes advantage of people and whether ordinary working people get a fair share, the completely consistent answer is that the median voter takes a ‘centre left’ position.

    The trouble with the simple self-description question is that (a) it is possible that people like to think of themselves as normal and average when in fact they aren’t, and (b) it might be taken by some respondents as a question about their their views on social issues rather than on economic issues, or asking them to run the two together. On social issues the population is on average not very liberal – though the people who might vote for us are, of course, more liberal than average.

  • Stuart Lambert 12th May '15 - 10:00am

    @Steve Comer – you are absolutely correct that people’s (particularly younger voters) political perspective today transcends outdated notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’. It is liberal *values* that matter, though while I agree that not everything boils down to economics, I would argue that economics dictate the overall trajectory of a country’s progress, and therefore the mood of its electorate. Our job as a party is to infuse the macro economic debate with those values that are intrinsically ours – freedom and fairness.

  • Stuart Lambert 12th May '15 - 10:02am

    @Jennie – very true! Though I was of course making a point about the wisdom of accepting the relative comfort of being a protest party. I want my vote to count in a positive way, not be an easily-ignored protest vote.

  • Bill le Breton 12th May '15 - 10:03am

    Stuart welcome to the party and here.

    You write, “There can be no time wasted on rueful bitterness”. CORRECT, but I don’t see bitterness. The Lib Dems don’t do bitterness. They do reason. If you are saying that any analysis of what went wrong over the last 7 years is an expression of bitterness and of no value, then … well, you can’t seriously mean that can you?

    So, if I were you, I’d get on the phone to Nick Barlow and have a long chat with him. I’d also buy a copy of Jasper Gerrard’s The Clegg Coup – 1p plus p & p on certain book-sites.

    It will give you an idea of what Marshall and Laws and then Clegg were trying to achieve. Only takes an evening to read, but it will either confirm you in your views, or set you wondering whether their cultural revolution (for that is what it was) might not have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

  • Bill le Breton 12th May '15 - 10:07am

    David makes a good point.

    We must be careful not to interpret the product of the Tory Lab/SNP/LD scare as more than what it was. A very powerful dog whistle – the equivalent of the ‘orange card’ and very dangerous for (inter)national unity.

  • Stuart Lambert 12th May '15 - 10:07am

    @Nick Barlow Of course, these are opinions, not statements of fact. And I stand by the view that deciding now that everything we did and achieved in government is something to be sorry about or brushed under the carpet will do nothing to gain the respect of old or new voters. We must have the courage to back our convictions, and where those convictions genuinely intersect with a particular policy from the new government, we mustn’t second guess the electorate by choosing not to vote with them out of some misplaced sense of revenge or an elastic recoil leftwards.

  • “Governing ‘fairly’ is difficult to explain – it is a highly subjective term – but people know it when they see and feel it” – and therein lies a problem – in order to become electable again it is critical that we can explain it!

  • I’m a new member, I am enthusiastic and passionate go make a change – but how? What can I do?

  • Jane Ann Liston 12th May '15 - 11:46am

    Welcome, MDH. I would hope that your details will have been passed to your local party and that they will contact you shortly. Then get involved, as much as you feel able, and the best of Liberal luck.

  • Stuart Lambert 12th May '15 - 12:36pm

    @Martin – thanks, I am not advocating a Miliband strategy at all, of course mistakes were made and Nick himself owned up to the biggest one. My point was actually the exact same one you make: that we shouldn’t pretend we weren’t in government and that it was all a total mistake. If that wasn’t clear I apologise 🙂

    The ‘party of protest’ point is one of semantics: clearly we should ‘protest’ against things we disagree with and are opposed to. But to be, in media parlance, a ‘party of protest’ is to assume a position of opposition almost as a means unto itself, which I don’t think will help or inspire people in the positive way we need.

  • Alexander Hegenbarth 12th May '15 - 1:09pm

    I think this is a great and well thought-out article with lists of points to consider. While it may take years (potentially decades) to rebuild the Parliamentary presence of the party it is important to remember that a successful rebuild will rest on the foundations of what we have learned, the talent we can keep and nurture, and the decisions we make over the next few months.

  • Julian Tisi 12th May '15 - 1:27pm

    Excellent article Stuart and I agree completely.

  • Stuart Lambert 12th May '15 - 3:32pm

    @Martin very valid, thankyou. I think you’ve hit on the key insight there – a party of change is still urgently needed. Change will surely not come from a party defined by its conservatism, nor from a party divided and with a fight on its hands to wrest control from Union interests even while it tries to win back working class voters from UKIP. But real change cannot be affected from the vocal sidelines. Or rather, it will take longer to affect from there. We need to recapture the attention of the mainstream public and that will take consistent, calm, reasoned arguments that transcend outdated and artificial definition of ‘left’ and ‘right’.

  • As a new member, I agree with much of this article.

    Defend the good parts of what happened in government, and recognise & apologise for the mistakes. Can’t do a blanket apology or a blanket defense as we’ll get the “Milliband Gasp” (like when he said Labour hadn’t overspent). But then according to most stats they hadn’t overspent, so really is the answer to judge what the public thinks you did wrong and apologise for that?! However perhaps it’s better to move on than try to change the publics perception? There is a real need for forward looking.

    But what happens now, is it to turn to unrealistic policies that a protest party would have, or is it to have realistic liberal policies that can be put into practice? I anticipate one type of policy will get a quick vote and one will get a lifelong supporter.

    In this election the LibDems thought of themselves as a party of coalition only. In the past they have been seen as a protest vote. Perhaps it’s time to re-frame as being a party of potential government, and that’s entirely different… and probably much harder going.

  • kevin colwill 12th May '15 - 5:10pm

    The advantage with a party that defines itself libertarian values rather than economic ones is it can be all things to all voters when it suits. Sadly I think many may conclude it’s exactly what suits the situation now.
    Longer term, however, it really is economic and social issues that define how people vote.
    The nineteenth century Liberals endorsed free enterprise as a mechanism to fight privilege and create a more meritocratic society. We now know markets don’t always deliver for ordinary people and over deliver for an elite. The challenge to create mechanisms that make society more meritocratic hasn’t gone away. It’s that which should define the Lib Dems.

  • Ed Shepherd 12th May '15 - 6:23pm

    I am not sure that the “British public” have not moved to “the left”. The Greens got over a million votes. The SNP took about fifty per cent of the vote on an anti-austerity message. Various “socialist” parties picked up some votes. An allegedly (but not really) left-wing Labour Party increased it’s share of the vote and remains the second biggest party in the British Isles. The classic straw poll of speaking to people in the pub, tells me that many people have a viewpoint that is “left” in some way (opposition to privatisation, dislike of benefit cuts, anti-austerity, resentment of rule by the privileged.) Did Ed Milliband really move to the left? He was way to the right of the Labour Party of 1992. He was clearly way to the right of the Lib Dem Party of the 1990’s.

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th May '15 - 7:09pm

    Ed Shepherd – Well…ok. But I think that this is the election when things moved on. 2015 will likely be seen as the first ‘post-Thatcher election.’ For all the media hot air and talkboard partisanship Cameron’s Conservatives are not head-banging Thatcherites. If you don’t believe me, take a look at what head-banging Thatcherites on Conservative talkboards say on the subject. Similarly Ed M’s Labour was not something out of 1983, however much some want to pretend it was.

    This was the election were the voters moved on from the battles and fremework of the Thatcher era. Cameron seemed to recognise this and, to my surprise, it may well be that, in England and Wales at least, the Cameron Agenda (for want of a better term) may yet have some real and lasting significance. The Conservatives in England have a majority in the region of 100 seats and a vote above 40% – that is real breadth way beyond a lowest common denominator Thatcherism. I might not like it but I can’t deny that there is breadth there.

    Similarly, you mention Labour. Look at Ed M’s three strongest policies. All of energy reference pricing, non-dom abolition and a form of mansion tax registered with the public and all had at least some level of support across the political spectrum, not just on the Labour side. That ties in with an idea that Conservatives aren’t all that keen on rule of the rich and are no longer prepared to unquestioningly bang the privatisation drum.

    In short, left and right is no longer a clean-cut code for ‘Thatcherite,’ and, ‘not Thatcherite.’ In the short term Labour have most to lose in that their classic supporters in Scotland and England appear to be diverging.

    Whether there is space in a post-Thatcherist landscape for liberalism, time will tell. But no, Ed M did not move left and Cameron did not move right – both moved to a post-Thatcher politics, just Cameron made a much better job of it.

    The next ten years will, in my view, not be defined by looking at it through a Thatcher-determined idea of left and right and Labour/Tory – the electorate 30 years later has moved on and I don’t think it will go back.

  • “From the crossroads of shock and grief lead two paths”

    And the one suggested by this article leads straight back to that crossroads

  • How I read the above:
    1) Our positioning worked so well for us on 7 May, why should we change it now?
    2) Don’t examine the causes for the disaster. Looking at what brought us here only encourages people to question our choices, and it is far more important to never admit having made signficant errors.
    3) Repositioning the Party as a centre-right, socially liberal free-market vehicle, even though hardly anyone holds thos views and most of them vote Tory, is more important than winning elections.
    4) Even when we’re not in Government, we can still brand ourselves a “Party of Government” and that’s much better than associating ourselves with some dirty protest movement.
    5) Let’s spend a lot of time trying to convince everybody that our most unpopular leader ever is really much better than sliced bread.
    6) Let’s stake everything on policies that are deeply unpopular with one section of the public and regarded with indifference by almost everybody else.
    7) Very well, we can have one small change: let’s call ourselves the “Neoliberal Democrats.”
    8) What all those new members really want to see is big signs saying “More Of The Same” and “Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss.”

  • Stuart Lambert
    For an ordinary humble member you have written a very sophisticated and calculated article.

    Some of the earlier comments casting doubt on your general direction coincide with my own views so I will not repeat them.

    Could I simply ask you a few short questions?
    if your various points are all correct, how do you see the party ever getting beyond 7% support from the voters?
    Do you think 355 lost deposits is an acceptable result in a general election?
    If not — how do you think carrying on in exactly the same way as before will improve things?

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th May '15 - 9:29pm

    JohnTilley – One thought. The Cameron majority looks to me to be a product of a very successful targeting operation. There is though one group that I’d like to see all (stress, all) parties look to to increase their vote and that is the non-voters. Turnout was higher in Scotland, and from memory something in the order of two thirds in England and Wales. So that’s a pretty big pool to look to. But if, as I believe, we are starting to move to a post-Thatcher politics there is an opportunity to show something different to the non-voters and to look beyond divides informed by the 1980s.

    Inevitably the non-voters will have a pretty wide range of beliefs and of course some of those beliefs will be contradictory. But that could perhaps be more easily accommodated in a post-Thatcher set-up. As I said in my earlier comment, I can’t deny that Cameron has a breadth in England and Wales that looks to have some credibility.

    In particular I’d like to see some real effort put into the youth non-vote, accepting that tuition fees makes that harder for the LDP.

    All parties might find moving away from the Thatcher certainties hard. For the LDP I suspect that a long, hard look at the traditional pro-EU stance is likely. For Labour, the link with the unions, already under pressure, looks like it has a stronger past than future. For the Conservatives there are several aspects of their manifesto that are some way from Thatcherism and I think that trend will carry on.

    But as old certainties fall away, new votes can be found and it’s no bad thing. Cameron has got himself a head start and the LDP will start from a low base. But Cameron has shown it can be done.

  • LJP You mention “Post – Thatcher” in your analysis, but trends you identify pre-date Thatcher. The Liberal Party has been pro- supranational European structures certainly since the war, and carried those beliefs into the Lib DEms through merger. Ironically, the “continuing” Liberals gave up a pro – EU position, while insisting they are the Liberal tradition! The Trade Union links with Labour, of course, go right back to the founding of the Labour Party, and “denationalisation” the forerunner of privatisation was popular with the Tories 15 or more years before Thatcherism hit the scene. So I think your view that they should be left behind and moved away from will only happen with immense opposition within their base parties. As the recent experience of our party shows, principles are abandoned at great electoral cost.

  • Welcome to the party Stuart. These are my comments on your first five things to consider

    As you identify in your first point “Fairness” can be problematic. Nick Clegg said we brought fairness to coalition, but the public don’t seem to agree. We are more about liberty or freedom and reducing inequality and freeing people from ignorance, conformity and poverty. We want to enable all citizens to attain what they desire.

    Your modified second point that we should remember what we achieved in government but apologise for our mistakes is fine and that we should aim to be in government to implement our policies if the opportunity is right.

    However we can’t be a party of the centre. Freedom and liberty have to be for everyone including the poor. Therefore we have to include the poor and the disadvantaged but this is not a move leftwards it is being more inclusive.

    I don’t know what we have gained by being in government except some experience. The country has gained from those of our policies which were implemented.

    We should support those Tory policies we agree with, but we must oppose those things that don’t increase the freedom of everyone including the poor and disadvantaged. I hope you are aware we are an ideological party.

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th May ’15 – 9:29pm

    Yes I agree with you about turnout. I probably disagree with you about the EU. There is of course an even bigger democratic defecit with the EP elections which is how UKIP can appear to do well — because the turnout is so low.

  • Stephen Hesketh 12th May '15 - 10:33pm

    Martin Tod 12th May ’15 – 12:59pm

    Excellent points Martin!

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th May '15 - 10:33pm

    Tim13 – To be clear, I’m not saying that the histories and influences will be left behind. What I’m saying is that the political environment has now changed since Thatcher. She’s not been PM now for 25 years and the certainties of that era have, in my view, started to move on. Of course parties have histories that predate the Thatcher period and those histories will always be there. It is the environment of society, politics and political issues as much as anything that I mean, along with wider changes in society.

    The Conservative Party at the moment has moved on from what I think of as hard Thatcherism and this is not the Labour Party of the 1980s. And that’s natural I think. I don’t think either Cameron or Ed M would say that they are in the 1980s mould. Times and people move on and the polarisations of the Thatcher era have changed. Not disappeared I stress – but in a post-Thatcher politics they are different. Just one small example, my local Conservative MP made a name for himself being critical of a private train company.

    Of course none of this will be easy and many won’t like it. Take a look at Labour and Conservative talkboards!

    On the EU specifically the 2016/17 referendum will be on an EU that is very different to the one that faced Thatcher/Kinnock/Foot and Liberals of the 1980s. Things do change and so too can parties. If (for example) someone took the view that an EU IN/EZ OUT status was not the same thing as the EEC then I for one would see that as not only reasonable, but sensible.

    It is, of course, good fun to have internet knockabout that harks back to the 1980s and the easy certainties of that over-studied era. But what we have now, for good and for ill, is not the 1980s. Cameron has just got himself ahead of the post-Thatcher game. Similarly UKIP, at least in terms of votes rather than seats, have found ways to appeal across the pro/anti Thatcher divide.

    I don’t think that voters are looking at politics through the simple Thatcher for/against lens any more. I think that the parties would be well advised to follow.

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th May '15 - 10:46pm

    JohnTilley – Yes. The lack of youth participation is simply terrifying at the moment. That we are about to have a triple locked pension (supported across the political spectrum) in the middle of a massive fiscal consolidation is simply jaw-dropping.

    Similarly Euro election turnout is disappointing, but as the saying goes, decisions are made by those that show up.

    On the EU and supranational institutions more generally I simply take the view that what we have now is qualitatively different to what we had even 20 years ago. Things change – what one makes of that and how one reacts is another matter. Just I think it’s reasonable to acknowledge that what we have now is not what we had in the past.

  • Martin Tod – I agree completely with your comments above. Are you the same person as the Martin Tod who spoke up after the EP Elections last May? If so, please can we have you as the next Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party.

  • Jane Ann Liston 12th May '15 - 11:30pm

    Unfortunately ‘Tories’ and ‘Thatcher’ are still virtually synonymous in Scotland, with both words almost being used as expletives – remember the First Minister saying how she would never work with ‘Tories’ (almost spitting out the word). Many appeared to vote for separation last year because they were afraid of the return of a Tory government and Thatcherism. To nearly quote ‘MacBeth’:

    ‘Margaret’s dead; she cannot come out on’s grave,’

    but many Scots still see, or think they see, the ghost all too clearly.

  • Little J P
    “…decisions are made by those that show up.”

    Well up to a point.

    4 million people turned up and voted UKIP last Thursday but they ain’t gonna make many decisions.

    Prince Charles does not even have to turn up to vote but he can still influence decisions.

  • SIMON BANKS 13th May '15 - 4:45pm

    I agree with most of that, but what is the “sensible centre”? Centre of what? On many issues we’re nowhere near halfway between Labour and Tories, but perhaps between Labour and the Greens. Why assume a half-way position is sensible? For example, our Trident policy was impossible to explain simply and got laughed at by not unsympathetic audiences.

  • At least Clegg has gone … and thank God not to the House of Lords. Cleggism and Orange Bookism are dead!! Amen!

  • Although I agree with the central positivist thrust presented here, you must allow for some of the bitterness and resentment (not with the election result, as the electorate spoke), but with some of the crass mistakes over the prior 5 years.

  • Just telling people not to be angry does not help! It usually has the opposite effect. At least Clegg’s honourable resignation drained away a lot of anger – he could have done much worse. Actually I take my hat off – better than another false pledge by Paddy Ashdown to eat his hat … only out-trumped by Farage!!

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