Opinion: The Lib Dems should pursue more populist policies

So, an elected House of Lords; a massive victory for our party from a historical viewpoint, and a good reason for longstanding party members to feel warm and fuzzy as our support collapses in the north. Yet is it the badly-needed policy victory that we can take to the electorate as a compelling reason for voting Liberal Democrats? Not by miles.

Call it the dissatisfied carping of a relative newcomer to the party, but I can’t help but notice our distressing tendency to be insular and self-obsessed at times like this, giving critics’ barbs of ‘liberal elitists’ extra sharpness. It’s most certainly not Nick Clegg’s fault; it would be endemic in any political party regaining power after a century without. Yet he is as guilty as any grassroots member of putting party before country at the moment, blindly driving us into a rut that seems set to continue as the wins of our participation in the Coalition are ever more drowned out by failures of communication.

Compared to the Labour and Conservative party machines, our amateurishness is being exposed again and again in brutal fashion. We’re wonderful at talking to ourselves, no doubt about it. Yet tuition fees, income tax reform, the pupil premium, and electoral reform are all policies we had genuinely positive influence on, and when it came to telling the public something went seriously wrong. Let’s face it; if we can’t make a big deal out of taxing the poorest workers less, then we’re not going to get anywhere telling people about how exciting it will be to elect the Lords!

If we learn anything from AV’s crushing defeat it should be that we’re wasting our time using hard-won political capital on electoral reform. Putting it bluntly, not enough people care to make it worth spending significant time and energy on. It’s long past time to put it at the back of the manifesto and focus on something that the general public do care about. Populism is an oft-derided term, something that the tabloids and New Labour do, yet remember: millions read The Sun and over ten million voted for Tony Blair! House of Lords reform should be something akin to fox-hunting being banned, a small side gift to party fundamentalists but certainly not a central policy objective – and especially not when we are as politically damaged as we are at the moment.

So, we need to change our priorities if we ever want to be in power again. The course of action we are on now is showing us up as out of touch, out of date, and placing our interests before those of voters. Securing the decriminalisation of cannabis or a referendum on EU membership (supported by Tim Farron, I was interested to note) would be much more popular wins than House of Lords reform. Both are easy to explain, both set us apart from the Conservatives, and neither would compromise on our liberalism one iota. Of course, being realistic I doubt either will happen soon, but we need better evidence than House of Lords reform if we are ever to present ourselves and the Coalition as a positive force in normal peoples’ lives.

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39 Comments

  • @Richard E – the problem is, when you then say to the Great British Public “OK, but we’ll need to raise tax to pay for all that” then answer is inevitably a resounding no!

    We did have a populist policy once – we wanted to abolish tuition fees. We ditched that.

    I understand what you mean, though. There is an large tendancy towards constitutional geekery in the Lib Dems which often filters through in our policies. One of the things the SNP have managed to do in Scotland is get past their obsession with independence and reach out to non-independence voters, even though it lies behind their every action. We need to do the same with electoral reform and the House of Lords – neither of these are really big issues for the country.

    The vote on continuing membership of the EU would be a good one. It won’t happen, though, because (a) it will split the Tories, though probably not as much as it would have 10 years ago, and (b) the fact we’d almost certainly lose would be disasterous for the economy.

  • Talk about the economy. The Party should find something it can agree on with the Tories about improving the economy, and then make a Really Big Thing about it.

    Free trade, deregulation, anything that will not requite a blazing row in the heart of government.

  • I don’t think the Lib Dems will never be able to harness popularism. The party has too many guardian readers that believe they’re right and the public are wrong. Populist policies make the average Lib Dem nauseous.

    Labour and the Conservatives took the populist liberal vote (along with the politicians) long ago. Winning it back would take more than championing a few choice causes, especially considering the toxic legacy of the tuition fees fiasco.

  • Apologies over the typo, I of course meant ever rather than never.

  • Well said, and I have argued the same points (less cogently) for ages.

    As a lifelong liberal/democrat, I frankly couldn’t give a monkeys about Lords reform and the wider electorate is going to weigh “betrayals” on the NHS and tuition fees against any constitutional change and find us wanting.

    I no longer know what our MPs stand for; we seem far too comfortable with the Tories .

  • David Allen 27th May '11 - 6:21pm

    The word “populism” spolis an otherwise good posting. You don’t really support “populism”, which implies things like bring-back-hanging, bobbies-on-the-beat, short-sharp-shocks, bread-and-circuses, etc. What you really mean is that you oppose things that are grossly non-populist, or as jedibeeftrix neatly puts it, pointy-headed obsessions. And there you are right!

  • Denis Cooper 27th May '11 - 6:39pm

    The author seems to have forgotten that David Cameron says he is “fully committed” to this reform.

    You can read it on page 6 here:

    http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files/resources/house-of-lords-reform-draft-bill.pdf

    above his signature, alongside that of Nick Clegg:

    “We look forward to the report from the Joint Committee which we will consider with great care. We are both strongly persuaded that this is a unique opportunity for our country to instil greater democracy into our institutions and are fully committed to holding the first elections to the reformed House of Lords in 2015.”

    You may suspect that even so he’ll look for ways to delay it and eventually wriggle out of doing it, but for the LibDems to now say

    “Actually, we’ve lost interest in this”

    would be madness.

    What you need to do is build the case for reforming the House of Lords on its potential practical benefits in terms of improved government, rather than just relying on abstract arguments about fairness and democracy – important though those principles are, of course.

    My essentially pragmatic approach has long been and still is that the primary purpose of a reformed Second Chamber of Parliament should be to compensate for the serious and inherent defects of the first chamber, as described in my rather long comment here:

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/dpmqs-groundhog-limbo-dancing-24249.html

    Which I believe would give the people of this country significantly better laws and government, and so would be of real practical benefit to them.

  • Phase out income tax by raising the starting threshold, replacing it with a levy on unearned wealth.

    Practical, progressive and populist.

  • There is much to agree with here. I’d certainly agree that it is time for people to accept that there is no silent progressive majority. I think it is reasonable to say that some policies, such as Lords reform, resonate with the purists rather than the majority. And it is refreshing to hear someone treat populism as something other than a dirty word. Being the third party does not mean being professionally contrary.

    But some of this does come over as a bit, with all due respect, naive. Tax thresholds are well and good, but in the context of everything else (not least VAT) it doesn’t really offer a stand out win. Fees and pupil premium were in no way a triumph in any real sense of the term. And let’s not forget that there is still Libya ready to go wrong.

    A populist, distinctive policy that would put the Conservatives on the wrong side of the argument, and would be awkward for Labour. I’ll make a suggestion and let everyone shout me down if need be – look for ways to reign in buy-to-let property. It would make the Tory opposition look like them as the party that cares for the rich and propertied alone, and would drive a wedge between old and new Labour.

  • I thought that reforming the broken apparatus of state was populist – it seemed so in the wake of the expenses saga last May. I’d suggest that fixing the economy, educating our young people properly and not engaging in expensive, wasteful and illegal wars would all be popular, if not exactly populist. It’s not the message that’s muted, but the messengers. The trouble is the messengers don’t have credibility because of tuition fees and so we look like part of the wider problem now, not a solution.

    Fix that, and popularity will return. Populism can stay buried.

  • John Mc –

    ‘I thought that reforming the broken apparatus of state was populist – it seemed so in the wake of the expenses saga last May. I’d suggest that fixing the economy, educating our young people properly and not engaging in expensive, wasteful and illegal wars would all be popular, if not exactly populist. It’s not the message that’s muted, but the messengers. The trouble is the messengers don’t have credibility because of tuition fees and so we look like part of the wider problem now, not a solution.’

    I realise that it is heresy in these parts – but the expenses thing was rather bigger on the internet than off it. Libya should have been left well, well alone, so the boat’s sailed on that one.

    I think though that the point being made is that your suggestions are good in the way that motherhood and apple pie are good.

  • My only problem with this is that the voters who have been lost (whether that turns out to be temporary or permanent) have gone elsewhere partly because of policies that have been dropped or perceived to have been dropped.

    A free education up to first degree level, enabling anyone who has the ability to reach their potential was hugely popular, avoiding the VAT bombshell was popular too as was a pupil premium made up of “new” money. All also had sound basis in the principles of the party.

    Popular policies are not what’s needed, but popular policies that keep to the principles people vote for are. Those who want an exit from Europe will not vote Lib Dem even if they are the party to provide the means of exit through a referendum.

  • A few people have raised issues with the use of the word populism here, and I would have to add my serious concerns. The job of a politician is not to do what the public wants, but what they need. The Liberal Democrats should be developing policies from the first principle of “what will improve the well-being of the people of this nation and beyond?” The moment that good policy is secondary to popular policy is the start of the slow descent of this country into dysfunctional misery. People don’t trust politicians any more. They don’t join political parties in order to change the world. Why is this? I believe it is because politicians never ask for their trust. Most policies since the dawn of New Labour have gone through the test of populism, and been targeted at the middle ground of potential swing voters. What is actually required to rebuild trust is for politicians to devise policies that will create strong benefits regardless of their initial popularity. The task of a good politician is then to persuade the public that this course is the best one, a task made all the easier by the fact that the politician believes it to be the case.

    Better PR is of course always useful, but it is massively helped if politicians can appear on television presenting policies they are passionate about with enthusiasm and confidence, without having to resort to failing to answer questions with prepared lines they don’t believe.

    The irony of this rejection of populism and reduced requirement for spin is the fact that it might just be the means for politicians to regain people’s respect and so might be the most populist stance we could take.

    Rant over.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th May '11 - 10:58am

    The author, like several recent Op-Eds in this forum, appears to take his view of what the Liberal Democrats are and do almost entirely from what is reported in the national press – most of which is hostile to us, the rest is at best neutral, and absolutely all of it is ignorant, preferring to report it in Westminster bubble terms rather than in terms of the wider party. The press in general reports us by making up what it thinks should be our story, and then reporting its opinion as if it were fact, if it really has to doing so by making use of a few Wesztminster bubble contacts it has in the party, who are mostly people who have their own agenda. I have been a member of the party for over 30 years, this is how it always has been, I remember for example how what the press reported as “news” about the Liberal/SDP alliance bore little resemblence to what was really happening but rather reflected what it wanted to see.

    What the author suggests is alread largely covered by what the party has been doing since the 1970s under the name “community politics”. Perhaps he ought to read a little about it.

  • I believe passionately in drug policy reform but I don’t think it’s “populist” by a mile. Whomever decriminalises cannabis in this country can expect to surrender a chunk of the vote for a generation.

  • @jedibeeftrix

    I’m not sure. The Labour core vote is about 30%. I don’t think much headway can be made into that because that could quite easily represent the statist vote. How they want government to behave is fundamentally at odds to liberalism. At the last election the Lib Dem’s probably managed to take about as many votes away from Labour as they could.

    As for the non-statist vote the Lib Dem’s have the Conservatives as their opponent, which means their biggest problems are in fact caring Tories. While Conservatives can hold the caring reformist ground there’s not much to attract non-statists to the Lib Dems, not unless you’re die hard anti-nuclear or pro-electoral reform.

  • @Richy

    It was the pro-cannabis stance of the Lib Dems that made me switch from them to the Conservatives back when I was 15, that and sitting next to a paranoid cannabis user in class. I didn’t buy the claims that legalising drugs would help to protect children then and I don’t now.

  • How about standing up for the Disabled? you know the most disadvantage section of society…… we certainty need help atm, or do the LDs think the Disabled ‘popular enough?

  • @Nige:

    Afraid it probably won’t happen. All three major parties now see the sick and disabled as the sacrificial lamb. Instead of properly going after the cause of the financial crisis (the banking sector and their greed) the Coalition sees fit to put the biggest burden onto the backs of the most vulnerable in society. We all hear about how horrible it is when pensioners have to decide between food and heating in the winter, but society now seems to expect the sick/disabled to face the same choice and be happy about it at the same time (because we’re all feckless scroungers, you know). The sick and disabled face the largest cuts of any group in society and we have all been branded as scroungers and fakes by the Coalition and their misleading (and sometimes downright wrong) stats to the press. The disabled charity SCOPE released figures a fortnight ago that showed disabled hate crime is up as well as random violence and verbal abuse from strangers (many accusing disabled people of being scroungers) based on tabloid lies. This major report was ignored by all the press (except the Guardian) and the biggest march of disabled people in history a couple weeks ago was also ignored by the press (again, except the Guardian).

    Yet nothing but silence from all three main parties.

  • @Squeedle

    Yes, I fear you are right. the plight of the disabled is being ignored, maybe when the full repercussions of these reforms (especially the change in WCA descriptors that were made on 31 march) are seen in full by others and if sufficient people feel enough pity, there maybe support for the disabled.

    “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are” Benjamin Franklin

  • Kevin Colwill 29th May '11 - 7:40pm

    Why do people define themselves as Lib Dems? Simple question with a lot of answers.

    I’d argue that a good few of the answers would be of the “pointy headed” variety. More so than when you ask the same question to Tories or Labour members/supporters.

    Therein lays the rub. As has been pointed out by more eloquent voices Lib Dem core concerns can seem like frippery in times of economic hardship.

    Tying yourselves to the economic right will, however, not prove populist. It will prove that we all might as well vote Tory and have done with it.

  • Kevin Colwill 31st May '11 - 12:38am

    @ Dean Clouston…which particular phone box in Wolverhampton?

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