Opinion: Individual freedom and power should be our distinctive Lib Dem identity

It seems that every few days there is another soul-searching LibDem blog or newspaper article asking: “what do we believe in?” “What do we stand for?” “What’s the coherent narrative behind the string of ‘Lib Dem achievements in government’?” What we need to do is urgently define ourselves in contrast to – not in relation to – the other major parties.

What we need to do is build a strong national identity.“Individual freedom and power” should be the phrase that the Liberal Democrats adopt to assert their distinctive identity for three reasons.

First, the phrase encapsulates our political ideology. Lib Dem philosophy derives from two strands of political thought: liberalism and social democracy. Liberalism is essentially about freedom. But untrammelled absolute freedom – a completely free market and an “everyone for themselves” culture – will entrench inequality based on wealth and privilege, and won’t deliver our social goals. That’s why we also believe in social democracy. Social democracy is also about freedom, but it’s a ‘positive freedom’ – it requires positive intervention and policies to make sure no-one is left behind. There’s nothing new here but this would be a simple and powerful way of communicating our beliefs to anyone who asks.

As a party, we also believe in “community politics” – the creation of a political system in which individuals, and individuals working through communities, take and use power. Finding a form of words and creating an identity that will capture our political heritage would project us as a party that is rooted in history and would help us shake off the perception that we’ve suffered for so many years (and which, despite being in government, I don’t believe we’ve shaken off): namely, that we have no distinct identity and are simply the beneficiaries of protest votes from right and left.

Second, the phrase “individual freedom and power” is memorable. This is essential for building a strong national identity or “brand” over future years. But it would also be a ‘flexible brand’ that could be moulded into a number of strap lines. The absence of pithy straplines has rightly been seen as a barrier to conveying our beliefs and identity to the public. Straplines of the moment are often weak, easily forgotten, ridiculed, imitated or hijacked by other parties. Nor do they speak to the future. As a party we are failing to articulate and communicate our core beliefs.

The idea of individual freedom and power however could permeate every Lib Dem policy announcement, speech, and manifesto, and could be a ‘litmus test’ for every decision:
• £10k tax allowance – for those who can least afford to pay, this policy gives freedom from the burden of tax, and power to control the money back in their pockets
• Pupil premium – for those who, through no fault of their own, are bright but poor, this policy provides freedom from ignorance and poverty, and the power to achieve

Third – and most importantly – I believe that “individual freedom and power” is a powerful phrase that would resonate with everyone, could be quickly communicated on the doorstep, and which above all would inspire a new generation of Liberal Democrat voters.

By the time of the next General Election, we should ensure that no-one need ask “what do the Lib Dems stand for?” Instead, every household should know that the Liberal Democrats are the only party that stand for – and that will deliver – individual freedom and power.

* Daisy Cooper is the Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans.

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  • Andrew Suffield 29th May '12 - 7:05pm

    The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.

  • Simon Hebditch 29th May '12 - 10:36pm

    If I remember it rightly, Andrew Suffield has quoted above from the Preamble to the party constitution. It also means more than Daisy’s limited exposition of individual freedom and power. But we are not very good at giving practical examples of how power can be “taken” and used both by individuals and communities. The phrase “power to the people”, often used by Liberals and other radicals, is also espoused by David Cameron. It will only mean something when we can give concrete examples of this happening. What about our own Liberal Democrat local councils? How different are they in practice and are they involved in encouraging communities to rise up and take power from them?

  • Grammar Police 29th May '12 - 10:38pm

    I think all parties struggle to articulate what they stand for in relation to their actions, I just think that people assume they know what the Conservatives and Labour stand for, and so it’s less important. IMO we need to have strategic objectives (of which, “promoting individual freedom and power” could be one) – but Daisy is right that these objectives need to be the litmus test of every speech, every announcement, every leaflet, every campaign: how are we articulating the strategic objective and how are we forwarding it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th May '12 - 12:07am

    Yes, but which party would say it does NOT stand for individual freedom and power? It is hardly distinctive if no-one much would disagree with it. A particular problem is that the extreme economic right would say “individual freedom and power” is precisely what they stand for – and they believe it means absence of state services and absence of taxation.

    It seems to me the phrase we already have “Freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity” is better because it establishes more clearly that we see barriers to freedom other than the existence of the state, and indeed the existence of the state may work to enhance freedom where brutal “might is right” extreme free-market ideology if let rip takes it away.

  • Richard Dean 30th May '12 - 1:02am

    What a very interesting article, thanks! I agree that a distinct identity is needed – as well as a cohesive and consistent face – and I suspect that “Liberal Democrat” is not enough – may even be offputting. I also agree with Moggy that responsibility has to be there if power is – responsibility for each other, and for the environment, the future, oursociety, ….. Respect for others too. I know we support individuals against groups, but there must be limits to this – we wouldn’t want to support bad people, so there has to be some sort of collective judgment. What many people say to me is that Britain needs a “strong leader” – Clegg is disrespected because he allows debate, Cameron is distrusted because he gives way and seems corrupt, Miliband is disrespected because he says anything to make trouble.. Honesty is an important part of the mix, but a bit of brutality may need to be in there too..

  • Paul Reynolds 30th May '12 - 4:57am

    An excellent article. Thank you Daisy ! We all have our leanings over what the party stands for. Mine is that we stand for liberalism and democracy. Hey ! That’s a good brand idea. However I confess to being ab advocate of kiberalism and democracy more than an advocate of the UK Liberal Democrats, but that is perhaps splitting hairs !

  • Ed Shepherd 30th May '12 - 7:29am

    This phrase “Individual Freedom And Power” could be used by any party. No doubt even the most extreme party would say that it somehow fits with their beliefs. I fail to see how the so-called “free-market” promotes much freedom. A person made redundant has no freedom and no power. A young worker shut out of the job market has no freedom and no power. A person working for long hours on minimum wage has no freedom and no power. The examples given of the £10k tax-limit and the pupil premium are poor examples of giving people freedom and power. The £10k tax limit is outweighed by other tax rises on the poor and the pupil premium is outweighed by the abolition of the EMA.

  • Good piece and I hope Libdems take it up. You encapsulate why I vote Libdem, but also why I’ll probably never join. The idea that the corrupt cliques that run UK local government (not ‘communities’ – they don’t represent communities) empower anyone but themselves is farcical.

  • Richard Swales 30th May '12 - 8:05am

    @Ed Shepherd.
    Thousands of years ago, some people hunted, some people farmed, some people made clothes or pots or tools, but everyone was self-employed, The reason that someone who can’t find a job working for someone else is now shut out is that they believe that becoming self-employed and offering their skills direct to the end users of those skills (as I did wwhen I was unemployed) is simply beyond them. What has changed over the thousands of years is that we now have governments who impose a complicated administrative burden upon businesses, particularly small businesses. Government has made men small.

    It is interesting if you rephrase Ed Shepherd’s text to be about sexual rather than economic freedoms “I fail to see how so-called ‘free love’ promotes much freedom. A person who is dumped has no freedom and no power. A young guy who can’t get a girlfriend or boyfriend has no freedom and power. A person who is unattractive to potential mates and has a partner they don’t really want has no freedom and power.” Of course anyone who said that would not be considered to be a liberal (and we would ask why seeking “power” is a good thing in sexual relations). All the parties now are “liberal” in terms of how they view people’s free “associations” with each other between 10pm and 6 am – they don’t seek proof of social benefit, they don’t seek to restrict, they just let people get on with it on the basis of free choice.

    Basically none of them are genuinely liberal in terms of how they view people’s free associations between 9am and 5pm. They are inherently suspicious of the world of private enterprise – not surprising given how few have ever done anything for real paying customers.

  • Richard Swales 30th May '12 - 8:51am

    To continue, I would rejoin if Individual Freedom and Power were the party identity. That isn’t what most people in the party seem to believe in (as the comments will show fairly soon). What they believe in seems to be “Making sure that everyone who arrives at the shopping centre on a Saturday morning has roughly the same amount of money in their pockets.” They are willing to claim a bigger share on people’s time in order to do it (the 9am to 5pm time, not the rest) through taxes. They would not support “no-fault divorce on demand” for employees and employers who wanted to try entering a (work) relationship lightly with no commitment to each other. Nor would they support liberalising the use of “contracting” on paper for what would otherwise be employment relationships. Between 9am and 5pm they want to define the types of relationships that are allowed, the rules of those relationships and how they are started and finished. A party whose policies and presentation flowed from belief in individual freedom and liberty would also be united behind a liberal drugs policy.*

    You are right that there needs to be a distinctive identity and policy base that the policies flow from though.

    * By “liberal” drugs policy I mean, for example, allowing the farming, sale and consumption of cannabis. I write this because many people use the adjective “liberal” to mean whatever Liberal party policy was in the 1950s.

  • Daisy Cooper 30th May '12 - 8:56am

    I’m certainly not trying to re-write our constitution! The point is that we need a pithy, memorable strapline that resonates with people. I genuinely don’t think that “liberalism” “liberal democracy” or “freedom from conformity” etc mean a great deal to most people and certainly don’t meet these criteria. 
    I’m not trying to re-define what we believe in – I’m suggesting a way of communicating it and building an identity.

    Yes, other parties may *claim* to believe in this but that’s why it would be incumbent on us to use the phrase as a litmus test to show TO WHOM their policies give freedom and power. For example:  

    • £10k tax allowance – for those who can least afford to pay, this policy gives freedom from the burden of tax, and power to control the money back in their pockets
    • Pupil premium – for those who, through no fault of their own, are bright but poor, this policy provides freedom from ignorance and poverty, and the power to achieve
    • Proportional representation – for every voter, this policy would provide freedom from the stranglehold of larger political parties that can win control of parliament with a very small proportion of votes, and power for every individual to affect the outcome of an election.  
    • ID cards (Labour) – freedom taken from every single person living in the UK; power to faceless centralised government
    • Married couples tax allowance (Conservative) – an attempt by government to manipulate the freedom and power of individuals to choose how to live their personal lives (as well as a subsidy funded by those individuals who do not conform to an outdated and conservative-driven concept of ‘family’)  

  • Daisy Cooper 30th May '12 - 9:00am

    Ps thanks for all comments!

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th May '12 - 9:45am

    Richard Swales

    The reason that someone who can’t find a job working for someone else is now shut out is that they believe that becoming self-employed and offering their skills direct to the end users of those skills (as I did wwhen I was unemployed) is simply beyond them. What has changed over the thousands of years is that we now have governments who impose a complicated administrative burden upon businesses, particularly small businesses.

    Oh, come on. What has also changed is the development of large national and international corporations who are able to exploit the economies of scale to squeeze out smaller competitors. I couldn’t make a living running a bookshop, for example, because Amazon has made that unviable. In fact if I look at the ways in which many of my ancestors were able to make a living working for themselves, almost all of them have become unviable because the market for that sort of product or service now is dominated by big companies.

    The investment required and risk factor to get a business going in today’s market very effectively shuts it off for most people. When one reads of people doing it, one finds almost inevitably they come from wealthy backgrounds, so they can afford to take the risk in a way most people can’t, and they can exploit their contacts to get into the sort of expensive niche market where it’s easier for small providers of bespoke products and services to operate.

    To discount this and put it ALL down instead to administrative burdens imposed by government is laughable, and the way this kine is so often put is an example of the way commentary in today’s world has become so biased to the wealthy and privileged and so out of touch with the world as ordinary people experience it. We have now had over 30 years of this “cut the state, let enterprise flourish” type government, yet it has produced is ever growing inequality in this country and the sort of small scale business which I remember from my youth has mostly been driven out of existence rather than flourished.

  • I suggest we also posit a belief in the “Balanced State”; we understand that there are certain areas in which the free market is preferable, e.g., making trainers. We also understand that there are areas in which markets are not appropriate; e.g., the provision of healthcare. Unlike the Tories and Labour, we are not ideologically inclined towards one or the other, rather, we are focused in providing optimal outcomes.

  • It’s all very well arguing for the “spirit of free enterprise”, which I could (and do) argue is the major force against individual power, freedom and responsibility. The problem has become that no-one, and certainly not our main political parties will stand up to the power of big business. Every day of Leveson makes that ever more clear. It would be lovely to think in terms of Leveson’s outcome being a real recasting of that relationship, but I am not holding my breath! You only have to look at the comments about why we can’t change economic policy (“we mustn’t spook the markets”) to realise that we are ruled by over mighty forces. Frankly, unless we are prepared to take on those markets on behalf of the powerless in society, we can make all the noises we like of being in favour of individual power and freedom, but it won’t be true. If we have a slogan, it must at least be apparent to those reading it that it approximates to the truth. I congratulate Daisy on her efforts here, but she would be better trying to bring some change to party day to day policy than fiddle with the words.

    £10k allowance doesn’t affect those least able to pay. Pupil premium doesn’t necessarily help those least well off, it’s a formula adjustment on a micro level at present. Although headlines are that we have removed the threat of ID cards, plenty of database stuff going on underneath.

    I am sure Daisy would not say we want to mislead people with easy words, but I am afraid that is what headlines very often do.

  • Christian – no, over the years since NuLab was invented we have been the more anti free market party. That is what we are now throwing away, in a cavalier manner. We fought strongly under Thatcher, and under Blair, but now? Labourhas had no anti business bias since about 1988.

  • Tim, I agree that Labour has embraced Tory market fetishism. I also agree that we need to rein this back – the markets are not rational, they represent a magnification of the beliefs, prejudices and feelings of individuals – and thus need to be treated with as much scepticism as the application of state power.

  • I don’t think many parties would disagree with ‘individual liberty’, but I think what our constitution clearly sets out – in easy to understand terms – is the centrality of education, creativity, diversity of opinions and innovation in promoting liberty. Much of our philosophy also rejects a community if it is not liberal (open to new opinions) and democratic (ie inclusive of all opinions).

    I can remember someone jokingly asking for a 140 character tweet-able ‘what we do’ and I came up with: “Stop government, business, society and others from taking liberties and ensure that society includes you and invests you with equal power.” I think Labour would have difficulty in stopping society from taking liberties, whilst the Conservatives would have difficulty in stopping business from doing so.

    And as I keep obsessing about these quotes from JSMill, they rather neatly set out a distinction:
    1. A government cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede, but aids and stimulates, individual exertion and development. [So we are not Conservative.]
    2. A State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished. [So we are not Labour.]

    Incidentally, I would say that freedom from conformity means a lot to quite a few people…

  • Pointless having high ideals, if you have no idea how to acheive them.
    Most of the current coalition policies are in fact, moving away from the ideal, lib-dem policies are not a deal better.

  • David Allen 30th May '12 - 5:39pm

    “Individual freedom”

    Yes but, the Tories also say they believe in that, and Labour wouldn’t go out of their way to claim they opposed it. Also, some of us agree with Matthew Huntbach that the existence of the state can importantly enhance freedom, while others would vehemently disagree. So, not an entirely unifying slogan, then.


    Well blimey, show me a political party that isn’t interested in power, and I’ll show you a weird bunch (the Natural Law Party, perhaps?) So we need a bit more information as to what we might mean by “power”! The article gives us:

    “As a party, we also believe in “community politics” – the creation of a political system in which individuals, and individuals working through communities, take and use power. ”

    Yes, we have had this wish, that Focus campaigners would take over the local council and revolutionise the way it works, for a very long time. Just how practical does it still appear to be? Come on, community politics enthusiasts, what examples can you give us of big successful achievements to date? Or is the truth that councils have steadily been drained of power and political interest?

    All that said, there may be some mileage in reinvigorating participatory democracy. But after the failure of AV and the demise of council power, we need new ideas in that area.

  • Andrew Duffield 30th May '12 - 9:27pm

    “Less government, more choice.”

  • Richard Swales 30th May '12 - 11:23pm

    @Matthew Huntbach

    Yes, some ways of earning a living independently are no longer possible, but new ways emerge all the time – for example you have computer skills you could offer as work, turn into software, teach to others or use to gain a competitive advantage in some other field of business. Also, like many businesses based on skills it doesn’t have to require the kind of gambling startup capital you imagine – the main risk is that you don’t make as much money as you could have simply working for someone else (if true then the boss organising your work for you is earning his keep too).

    Yes, I agree that those stories of “self-made men” who “got their start” doing things like “buying and selling hotels” are ridiculous, I mean where did they get the money for the first hotel or factory? However that isn’t the case for the vast majority of businesses and tradesmen you would find in your local yellow pages. There is also much greater risk in being an employee rather than a business owner, because if your business has to cut staff, then the owner cuts an employee not himself – again it depends on the kind of startup capital you need to put in. But the risk element is also partly government created – for example the maternity leave lottery (paid maternity leave is good but the costs should fall on all businesses collectively, not just on whoever forgot to discriminate hard enough against women the wrong age), the lottery of a legal system based not on written law but on judge-created precedent applying from the current case onwards and so on.

    It is true that larger companies can have economies of scale, but part of the problem is that large businesses are protected from their diseconomies of scale: they need to publish carefully prepared accounts to make sure that none of their shareholders are cheated. Small businesses also need to produce legally compliant accounts to make sure that the other millions of shareholders in the business (the other citizens) don’t get cheated, whereas for their own internal use (depending on the business/tradesman) something simpler or bespoke, or next to nothing at all would suffice. If we moved taxes onto resources and away from human activity then we would go a long way towards evening up the field.

  • If I might appropriate Andrew Duffield’s comment: As Lib Dems, surely we do not care about the size of Government as the central issue. What matters to us is liberty and whilst we inherently a sceptical of Government, the liberal (as opposed to libertarian) philosophy doesn’t deny its uses:

    So how about this: “more choice”

    Tories don’t support this, fail to challenge mergers, do not support education and a broad horizon-expanding education in the way that we do; and Labour believe in a one-size fits all state/community, oppose local-ism, and deny individuals choice in favour of appeasing communities.

  • Michael Clements 1st Jun '12 - 12:00pm

    We will never win elections if we cannot define what we stand for and what we stand for must be both realistic and distinctive, not appearing to be a rehash of what other parties are claiming
    I would not change a word of the preamble to our constitution but I wish be had a simpler version to take with us to use on the doorstep or in the pub or other social gathering place. A one-liner using monosyllabic words wherever possible that will sink into the brain of a person who is only half interested in politics
    Secondly I think we do a good job in boasting of our achievements (lower tax. pupil premium etc) but we are weak on proclaiming our ambitions for the future. A boxer is only as good as his last fight and and the same applies to politicians. The public have short memories and we cannot live on past achievements alone.
    If we are to get back on our feet , reclaiming lapsed members and winning back seats in by-elections party activists must have a ready answer to the question “What do the Lib-Dems stand for and how are you going to achieve it” No “umm…..errrr….well….” We will lose their attention if we cannot eply without hesitation, short sharp and to the point with no flowery words that people, particularly those of modest education, can relate to..

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