Opinion: It’s time to restate who we are and what we stand for

For those of you fortunate enough to be at the special conference in May 2010, you may remember my visual aid. For those fortunate enough to miss it – my point was that we had had a choice between one clapped out old guy who would never deliver and a bright young thing who was whispering sweet nothings in our ear but before we knew it would have us locked into all sorts of things that would turn our stomachs.  My visual aid?  A pair of pink fluffy handcuffs.

Unsurprisingly my view hasn’t changed, yes Stephen, the bed of roses has turned into a bed of thorns, the pink fluffy handcuffs are beginning to chafe.

Our elders and betters are telling us that “grown up” politics is all about the art of the possible, that “grown ups” compromise rather than retreat to the “comfort of opposition”. This in my view confuses compromise with capitulation.  Ironically these same defenders of our policy in government return to that theme again and again, while ignoring what was the real compromise, the Coalition Agreement. While I didn’t support it, at least it appeared to have some commitment to “protecting the most vulnerable” – how quickly that has evaporated. Pivotal

So the lesson I believe we should take is the need to be true to our values and to ensure that any compromise is firmly rooted in those values. I may compromise with my partner on a choice of sofa; the colour, the pattern, the style; but if I am a vegetarian I will never compromise on leather.

Our party’s capitulation on so many issues, betraying what we say our aims and values are, has done little to further liberal democracy in this country. Government by focus group and/or opinion poll, takes us down the road of discredited Blairism. And the constant mantra about moving to the “centre-ground” appears to be the new objective that has replaced our stated aims. “What do you stand for?” “Oh that doesn’t matter, it’s where we’re standing that’s important.”

I am reminded of the Biblical story of the wise man who built his house upon a rock – the foolish man building on sand. Our values and principles are our rock, abandoning them leaves us on the shifting sand of public opinion, vulnerable to the first big wave.

I am reminded of a pal who used to say, “we need to be tough on values then we can be loose on everything else, all too often we are loose on values and tough on everything else.”

So please, let’s learn the lessons, let’s restate who we are and what we stand for. We all joined this party because we believed in something, we believed in creating a freer, fairer more equal society where “no one is enslaved by poverty ignorance or conformity”, we believed that our party was the only one that could deliver that society, do we believe that still?

* Linda Jack is a former youth worker and member of the party's Federal Policy Committee.

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  • Helen Tedcastle 16th Aug '13 - 1:38pm

    Agreed, Linda. Education is a particular disaster area.

  • I agree, although I would emphasise that part of our constitution which seeks to create a “free, fair and OPEN society”, balancing the fundamental values of freedom, equality and community, not just a “freer, fairer and more EQUAL society”.

    And the need for openness is surely the whole point.

    If we really believe in freedom, democracy and local accountability, Lib Dems and their representatives should reject whipping and other constraints on individual judgement except where these impinge on our fundamental values, which should be expressed explicitly in a CODE of liberal democratic principles that we can genuinely put to voters as pledges.

    Some suggestions for these principles/pledges:
    – a commitment to fair play and personal integrity, including only making promises we can keep, declaring any conflicts of interest, and being open about mistakes
    – a commitment to protect individual freedoms, human rights and free speech which does not enslave or unfairly victimise others
    – a commitment to protect the environment
    – a commitment to consider and pursue policy proposals on their merits, having regard to the need for proportionality, fairness and the wider public interest
    – a commitment to fight corruption, cruelty and torture wherever it occurs
    – a commitment to uphold democratic values and be fearless in challenging authority and tyranny
    – a commitment to tackle poverty, ignorance and enforced conformity
    – a commitment to put the interests of the community we represent ahead of personal, party or other vested interests

    I am sure others can do better, but these are examples of the pledges I would like to be presenting to voters next year and in 2015. And it is this code that we could then use in internal discipline, including decisions whether to withdraw the whip etc.

    Finally, here are some examples of principles we should definitely not adopt, based in this case on the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward faction (my inverted commas added), which I am sure the North Korean government would have no difficulty in supporting:

    Freedom = for ‘responsible individuals’
    Democracy = the exercise of political power, with the ‘consent’ of the people

  • Simon McGrath 16th Aug '13 - 1:51pm

    Slighty puzlled by this. You are the Chair of Liberal Left who beleiev that we should only do deals with Labour. So to take your analogy when faced with the “clapped out old guy who would never deliver and a bright young thing who was whispering sweet nothings in our ear ” we should reject the bright young thing and go with the old guy.

  • Clear Thinker 16th Aug '13 - 2:05pm

    Maybe here there’s a reason or two why LibDems are not overly popular …

    A “clapped out old guy”? – Goodbye to all our older voters.
    A “bright young thing … turn stomachs”? – Goodbye to all our keen younger voters.

    What’s left? The bulging middle?

  • lloyd harris 16th Aug '13 - 2:24pm

    Anyone got a copy of policy paper 50 from September 2002? There is a very good summary which explains our core values. The title of the policy is ‘It’s About Freedom’ I was looking at my copy and found one of the people who write it was Nick Clegg MEP! Its worth a read if you can find a copy – it sets out what we believe and its findings should underpin every policy and decision we make as Liberal Democrats.

    It goes on to say this on poverty:
    ‘1.10 … What Liberal Democrats focus on is the extent to which poverty and lack of opportunity restrict freedom. These things can justify the use of public expenditure, redistributive taxation, social insurance and active community provision. The objective of such measures is to make people free, not to constrain them into economic equality, which is unachievable in practice…

    Many of the decisions that the government take can appear to conflict with the above – however there is plenty of room for manoeuvre for Liberals, Social Democrats and Conservatives to compromise without abandoning our core principals.

  • This article is first of all offensively ageist, talking about “clapped out” old guys.

    Secondly it is rooted in nothing very much other than the carping from the sidelines school of politics.

    What if the electoral system delivers a result where the only possibility is to go into coalition with a party whose principles and what they stand for are largely incompatible with those of your own party, eh, clever clogs? What do you do then? And what if your party has a lot less power than the other party due to parliamentary arithmetic?

    And what if the arithmetic of the public finances means you have to deliver swingeing cuts whatever party is in control?

    This article proposes NO answers to any of the questions posed in May 2010. I can’t say how much it irritates me.

  • David Allen 16th Aug '13 - 3:26pm

    “This article is first of all offensively ageist, talking about “clapped out” old guys. ”

    On the contrary RC, it’s offensively antiyouthist, continuing as it did to castigate the “bright young thing who was whispering sweet nothings in our ear”.

    Then it referred to “pink fluffy handcuffs”, which is clearly a piece of subliminal anti-gay, and probably also anti S&M, propaganda.

    Have you had enough of my humourless, tendentious political correctness yet? Because I’ve had enough of yours!

  • Simon Bamonte 16th Aug '13 - 4:08pm

    What do the LibDems stand for? Well most people I know think the LibDems stand for this:

    The Bedroom Tax
    Making promises to the electorate about tuition fees and then breaking said promises
    The persecution of the sick and disabled via ATOS, the DWP and the utterly unfit for purpose WCA
    Tax breaks for the richest
    NHS “reforms” which the public were against and are already negatively impacting patient care
    The further proliferation of Zero-hour contracts (which helpfully hides the true state of un/underemployment)
    An unprecedented rise in food banks
    Proposals to bring in internet censorship
    Arbitrary and cruel sanctions on jobseekers
    Tax breaks for the lowest paid which are simply negated by cuts in other areas (see the bedroom tax, for example)

    I could go on, but I can’t be bothered. It’s as if Labour never left power. It’s as if all three parties are pretty much the same these days and offer no real alternative to neo-liberalism, the rule of international finance, blaming the poor for their lot and a general increase in nastiness in society.

  • Clear Thinker 16th Aug '13 - 5:01pm

    I do suggest that we need to be careful with words – not everyone will necessarily understand things “in the spirit it is intended”, as indeed has often been pointed out about me . Even humour can be vicious, or be experienced as such. PC is not all nonsense, it’s a matter of respect as much as anything else. 🙂

  • David Allen 16th Aug '13 - 5:06pm

    “What if the electoral system delivers a result where the only possibility is to go into coalition with a party whose principles and what they stand for are largely incompatible with those of your own party, eh, clever clogs? What do you do then?”

    Well, smarty pants (if we must hold our discussions at playground level), since when did an electoral system enforce a sole option? Since when did it insist that we should sign up to a programme which went against all our principles, which we believed would be harmful?

    We could have walked. We didn’t even threaten to walk (a negotiating option which commonly provokes an improved offer). Had we simply walked, government would have been no worse, and we would have retained our integrity and the right to fight.

    “And what if the arithmetic of the public finances means you have to deliver swingeing cuts whatever party is in control?”

    The assumption that There Is No Alternative in economic policy is of course false, but yes, clearly cuts were coming. Actually, Cameron and Osborne’s May 2010 rhetoric about financial crisis could have been the basis of a less bad option for us, had we considered it. We could have taken Osborne at his word, and offered him carte blanche to tackle the economic “crisis” as he saw fit, provided only that the Tories dropped all major new initiatives in health, education, welfare and benefits “reform”. That would have been broadly similar to the way Steel propped up Labour in 1978. It would have been far from perfect, but it wouldn’t have caused our disintegration in the way our actual course of action has done. And by now, we would have been able to conclude that Osborne had no better ideas on the economy than his predecessors, that there wasn’t a crisis as such, and that a 2013 General Election could have been a perfectly reasonable option.

  • Clear Thinker 16th Aug '13 - 5:24pm

    Whingeing about what we “could have done” is probably not going to change much, is it? Linda is absolutely correct that voters respect parties that are true to their values and principles. Even if the likely outcome in 2015 is coalition, it’s surely a better starting position in negotiations if we assert a separate identity, and gives a better chance of getting to negotiate, rather than campaign on the basis of expecting to bend our values to the wishes of whatever other party nearly wins.

  • Ruth Bright 16th Aug '13 - 5:26pm

    Simon Oliver – far from “leavening the dough” with 20% Lib Dem niceness, at times it seems as though we have been taking the lead in making the bread as unpalatable as possible. How about Clegg’s championing of immigration bonds applied in a discriminatory way?How about abolishing the health in pregnancy grant without a single female Lib Dem expressing a word of concern? How about the new disability benefit regime where people with dementia have to be complete the work capability assessment even though they will have the humiliation of forgetting what they have done minutes later?
    What are these things about if they are not about Liberal capitulation?

  • Whatever we stand for, we should pick out 3-5 stand out policies that differentiate us from the other parties – and in particular from our coalition partners.

    Ideally these should not be policies that we chuck in the bin once the lure of ministerial cars proves irresistable, e.g. Opposing tuition fees, nuclear, etc.

  • David Allen 16th Aug '13 - 6:02pm

    “Even if the likely outcome in 2015 is coalition, it’s surely a better starting position in negotiations if we assert a separate identity, and gives a better chance of getting to negotiate, rather than campaign on the basis of expecting to bend our values to the wishes of whatever other party nearly wins.”

    Spot on.

    Now, in 2010, a Coalition Agreement of 31 pages was published five days after the election. Clearly an advanced draft must have existed at Tory HQ long before the election, or there just wouldn’t have been time to produce such a critical, complex document in a publishable condition. (In fairness, Oliver Letwin is recorded as having made strenuous efforts to incorporate the Lib Dem input during the five days negotiation.) Clearly, the Tories served themselves well by preparing so carefully. Why didn’t the Tories publish their draft before the election? Well, obviously because they didn’t want to tie themselves down, and also because they wouldn’t have wanted to play up the possibility of coalition. They would have preferred to convey confidence in an outright win.

    But we’re in a different position. We should be delighted to play up the possibility that we will be part of government.

    So why don’t we do as Linda suggests, and further, publish our restatement of principles in the form of a draft Coalition Agreement for 2015?

    We should, of course, leave plenty of room for negotiation. But we should make a shot at declaring what we think the next government should do. We could, if we wanted to, produce two versions, one explicitly directed at a Con-LD coalition, the other at a Labour-LD coalition. Of course, the big parties might pooh-pooh our efforts and refuse to negotiate. In which case, we would just wryly observe that they were being rather unconstructive, and that we looked forward to doing the negotiating after the election.

    At least we’d be taking positive steps to spell out our principles and stand up for them.

  • What I have realised recently is that the only narrative on which we can fight the next election is one of failure. It is pointless, as so many people have said, to keep repeating all our successes in government because the obvious rejoinder is, “Ah yes, you might have got the income tax threshold increased to £10,000 but what about all the people who weren’t earning enough to pay tax anyway”, and so on throughout all the good things that we may or may not be able to claim depending on how much spin you think is acceptable. However, if we have a manifesto that says, “We got the Tories to agree to increase the income tax threshold to £10,000 but we failed to get benefits uprated at the level of inflation. Liberal Democrats believe that government has a particular duty to see that the poorest in our society …” etc.
    Or (admittedly an easy one), “Liberal Democrats believe that a 21st century democracy should have no place for an appointed/hereditary second chamber. Our Conservative colleagues in government reneged on the Coalition Agreement with us to reform the House of Lords and we failed to persuade Labour to support us. Liberal Democrats will not abandon the fight for democracy in our country”. And so on. We can only be convincing if we admit to what we have failed to do but would have done had we been able to. That way we restate (rediscover?) our values and principles and perhaps persuade some of our disillusioned former supporters that we still actually believe in the same things. It won’t happen though.

  • Tony Dawson 16th Aug '13 - 6:54pm

    “Our elders and betters are telling us that “grown up” politics is all about the art of the possible, that “grown ups” compromise rather than retreat to the “comfort of opposition”.”

    Aha! After the next election THEY get the comfort. WE get the opposition. 🙁

    I presume you meant ‘betters’ as in ‘gamblers’. They have bet OUR house on their project.

  • I agree with much of Linda’s sentiment, but whilst we have made mistakes in the last three years I still can’t see what other government was possible.

  • Andrew Suffield 16th Aug '13 - 8:11pm

    This article is long on anger and short on policy. Precisely what would you do differently and how would you achieve that?

  • Andrew Emmerson 16th Aug '13 - 8:15pm

    Oh god the horror of those handcuffs – that was my first Lib Dem national event, and my first introduction to you Linda.

    I remember some wise old sage sitting next to me warning me that i was about to be in for a treat. They were correct.

    As for asserting our values – I may be alone, and I don’t think it’s perfect, but I think we’re doing a pretty good job – to go into coalition isn’t capitulation – it’s a result we’ve hoped for since we supported a PR electoral system. It’s taken some time for the media to catch up – and for us to find our feet in government, but those are things we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about – that we should take and learn from, and use it going forward. We have 2 years left of coalition – we can either persist with a message of doom and gloom, or we can excel. It really is up to us.

    As for values and principles- they’re nice and as far as we can I want us to stick to them – but let us not pretend that a rigid path will win us the election. it won’t. There’s hard work and relentless message pushing that will.

  • I agree totally. But for three years+ the LibDem leadership has had a very different view. Irreparable damage has been done to the Party. I am sorry, but it is far too late.

  • “Our elders and betters are telling us that “grown up” politics is all about the art of the possible, that “grown ups” compromise rather than retreat to the “comfort of opposition”.

    In my view, “grown ups” are supposed to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead. On that most basic function of a grown-up, this government have failed miserably. They’re rubbish! Useless! What ARE they for?!

  • I respect the fact that you opposed The Coalition from the start, I wish more members had done that instead of sitting on their hands.
    However you were in a minority then & you are still in a minority, what is the point of constantly restating the arguments of 2010 ? What do you have to say to the majority who still back the Coalition ? On the basis of your article, nothing new. Dont take the long list of comments agreeing with you as meaning you are being listened to, most Coalition supporters would have skimmed the first half of your piece then gone on to something else, I nearly did myself.

  • Our achievement is ostensibly that we got the Tories to water some policies down very slightly. Meanwhile Clegg swallowed the key for the handcuffs.

  • After getting some much needed help from my local Liberal Democrat councillors a few years ago, I joined the party for a few years and did the Focus leaflet drops as payment in kind for help given.
    I still have great admiration for Liberal Democrats at a local level. But I’m just not convinced by the last 3 years of performance, that LibDem(erism), scales up, to the national level. Without a shadow of a doubt, Clegg has given LibDem reputation a hammer blow, from which I think you will be a decade in recovery.
    I constantly read phrases on these threads, like ‘getting back to core principles’, ‘a clearer narrative’, ‘better communication and a more coherent message’. All of which are utterly meaningless.
    When economic growth was good, what people wanted was a ‘proportionate’ bite of that sandwich. And now times are tough, whilst they don’t welcome it, they will shoulder a proportionate ‘hit’, on their living standards. Unfortunately, the mood music from Westminster, is that the poorer, deserve a pay cut, whilst the political class, and their wealthy mates, deserve a pay rise.
    Constant political chatter, about ‘fairness in society’, is merely an irritating and grating noise, if it is not matched by policy on the ground to achieve it.

  • Hi Linda. Great post … agreed. Still believe that we made the right decision to go into the coalition (in my view, the alternative would have been a Tory minority government, a follow-on election within 6 months, leading to a Tory majority largely at our expense) … the problem was all the miss-steps the leadership took subsequently. This is where we need to learn and act accordingly in future.

  • I’m in the group which wants open dialogue within the party for our principles, and key related policies, to be set out now. It must be possible to arrange suitable conferences early enough, indeed some have been held already – but there are more needed. The principles are those which will never be compromised without a further open conference being called. Detailed policies can follow later and be tied to the fundamental principles and key policies.

    To those who say that Lib Dems are too concerned with decision-making around conferences, I suggest the alternative has been tried, behind closed doors, and failed too frequently. It is this failure and its process which has lost us more supporters than open discussion could ever do because we have become secretive about who makes the policies, and worse – the principles. One last point: it is possible to discuss and move one’s position without becoming personal. This last principle takes much control but is preferable to falling out.

  • @John Innes: the alternative would have been a Tory minority government, a follow-on election within 6 months, leading to a Tory majority largely at our expense) .

    That’s true , but even in that event ..of another election, with a cash strapped party, LD support wouldn’t have fallen that much. if at all . It may even of course, have risen . As the tabloids pretty much went to war on Clegg and the LDs, after he won that first leaders’ debate.
    Right now, you’d have the Tories with a small majority, facing defeat… alone , with the LDs possibly poised to rival or overtake an unpopular Miliband’s Labour party.

    The Tory govt would have probably only got one very bumpy term . Whereas now, the LDs could face years of electoral rebuilding , if they can come back at all after 2015 . You were only saved in Eastleigh, by the postal vote. If Labour had a more popular, liberal minded leader, it’d be over.

  • @ Simon Oliver,

    “Our party’s capitulation on so many issues”

    “I keep hearing phrases like this, but they are seldom backed up by a list of issues. Can you provide one Linda, together with some evidence that the resulting implementation in each case did not have a reasonable (say 20%) level of Liberal and Social leavening to the tory dough?

    Because I can’t think of a single one.”

    The mass abstention on the Jeremy Hunt vote?

  • Caractacus – “Even increasing the tax free allowance on income to £10,000 is a policy without a clear principle behind it. ”

    The principle is clear – that those going out to work should be better off than those not going out to work. The problem is that we can’t articulate it because too many people in the party and the vote base don’t support that principle.

  • What you mean, then Richard S, is that people, who for whatever reason, are out of work, either for short periods, or longer, should be condemned to penury, even worse than on current tight budgets. No wonder lots of Lib Dems don’t support it. The issues for people working not making enough money, has for years been poverty wages, payable in more and more jobs (the zero hours controversy is just one aspect of this, and the steep nature of marginal tax changes etc, the impact of NI when combined with Income Tax. The reduction in the tax take involved in upping the allowance also means that the level of services provided from the public purse reduces – this disproportionately hurts people on lower incomes, who rely more heavily on the services provided. I am sure that is one of the core principles that Linda encourages us to stick by. I for one think we as a party should be re-endorsing our principles as stated (in both Liberals and SDP, and in our Preamble to the Constitution). We should wake up to the fact that we are being led away from those principles to some mythical “Centre Ground”. We are a radical party, and we should support radical beliefs, which, yes, Richard S, most of our supporters believe in, including many who have left the fold, thinking we have abandoned those principles.

  • @ Tim13, – in my post I don’t state what my own opinion is – my point is merely that the principle behind the policy is one that many of the members don’t agree with so cannot be explicitly stated. You are correct in surmising that I also personally think there should be a significant differential between the poorest full time workers and richest non-workers – for more details than that please define penury.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 18th Aug '13 - 12:19pm

    This is in my most ‘umble opinion’ an excellent article by Linda.

    Power for the sake of power is pointless, and we have to convince the public that we are truly committed to our core tenets of equality, freedom and fairness.

    Turning our back on these principles has brought about ‘The Bedroom Tax’, erosion of the Equality Act, silence regarding the Tories Immigration stance, etc, and that image that we put political expedience before everything else.

  • Simon Hebditch 18th Aug '13 - 2:51pm

    Linda’s post is a very helpful addition to the debate about both the record of the Coalition government and the future direction of the Lib Dems. In a properly open and democratic society it is the electorate which should consider how it wishes to vote based on the various manifestoes put in front of it. Therefore, the Lib Dems should draw up a manifesto for 2015 which sets out the central policy programmes which would have to be included in any future Coalition Agreement – whether following negotiations with either Labour or the Conservatives.

    The principal policy programmes would be non-negotiable – the rest of any Agreement would be negotiable. Setting out this stall would show the electorate exactly which policy areas would have to be included in any future agreement rather than what happened in 2010.

    We know the principle outlines of an economic strategy that the Lib Dems would pursue with the Tories because that is part and parcel of the current government’s economic policy direction. However, none of know what the chances would be of coming to an agreement with Labour – despite the fact that most polls of Lib Dem members seem to show that the majority of such members would prefer an alternative alliance with Labour if it could be achieved.

    That is why a joint task force of Lib Dem and Labour activists is being put together now in order to see if a draft Coalition Agreement between the parties would be feasible or not.

  • David Allen 18th Aug '13 - 7:59pm


    If the Party is concerned that Simon will establish a task force that is unrepresentative of the Party as a whole, why doesn’t the Party set up the task force itself on an official basis?

  • A Social Liberal 20th Aug '13 - 12:07am

    Well said Linda.

  • David White 22nd Aug '13 - 1:18pm

    A splendidly excellent Opinion piece. I applaud you, Linda Jack, and I both support and echo your views.

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