Opinion: Themes for a radical manifesto

Yesterday, George Potter blogged about the need for the Liberal Democrats to have a radical manifesto for the 2015 General Election. Today he sets out his suggested themes:

I suggest that we limit our 2015 manifesto to two main themes. The first should be the proper implementation of community politics – and we need to emphasise what this means. Community politics is not just a strategy for winning elections; it is a philosophy for empowering communities and giving people control over their lives. It is about giving people freedom from dependence on the council, and the government and the rest. And it doesn’t just apply to geographical communities, it applies to other communities as well, such as workplaces. We need to develop the ideas of community politics and emphasise how they can be implemented. This policy, as it happens, isn’t too hard to develop. There is a wealth of thought and writing about community politics in the party’s collective memory so we need merely look around us for ways in which community politics can be translated into a manifesto.

The second theme, however, should be something far more radical. I advocate that we make our key theme the creation of a sustainable economy.

For years, governments have focused on GDP as the key means of measuring economic success. And it’s all based on the idea that as GDP goes up, living standards will improve and things will get better for everyone. Unfortunately, it’s a lie.

Global GDP has been on the up for decades, as has Britain’s, and yet what do we see? We still see poverty, inequality, disease, hunger, poverty and want. 20% of the world’s population lives on less than $1 a day. 90% of the world’s wealth is owned by less than 1% of the population. For decades in this country we have emphasised economic growth and what have we got? The poor are still poor, poorer in fact. The rich are richer. People aren’t happier. Sure, we have more things – I for example, have a shiny new smartphone, but I’d hardly say that makes up for the poverty and inequality in this country.

And what do we see? Every decade or so we go through a cycle of boom and bust. People lose their jobs, services are cut and people suffer. Is it really worth it? And even if it was worth it, it’s all built on a house of straws. Quite simply, our economic system is based on the concept of extracting resources, processing, selling and then disposing of them. But the Earth’s resources are finite – sooner or later they will run out. Ultimately, the economic model of the consumer society is doomed. Sooner or later we will be forced to switch to a sustainable economy. Now, I’m not an economist, I’m an engineer. I can’t profess any special knowledge as to how this switch should be made. However, there are plenty with that expertise – there is a wealth of writing on this subject, for example.

We should make the case for a sustainable economy in 2015. Since switching to one is inevitable anyway, we should argue that we should do it now. We should make the case for the UK becoming the world’s first, modern sustainable economy – and with it we should focus on how such a switch would help remedy some of the great injustices that have continued for so long that many now take them for granted. Economic prosperity, without boom and bust and without entrenched inequality – that should be our vision.

Now, this may all sound far fetched – but so did the idea of a welfare state, so did the idea of an end to slavery, so did the idea of equal rights for everyone regardless of sex or sexuality. A sustainable economy is possible and we should be the first major party to make it a priority.

If we want to do well as a party then we need a vision and we need a blueprint for a better future. We don’t want to continue the argument between the failed economic doctrines of the twentieth century, we want to do what we do best – change the rules of the game. We need to lay out a vision so bold and radical that it forces our opponents to respond to us and one which draws the attention of everyone to the failings of the ideas that Labour and the Conservatives both espouse. If we want to win elections, we need to prove to the public that, not only do we have a clear vision for the future, but that we also have one that will lead to a fairer, less volatile, more sustainable society and economy for all.

George W. Potter is a party member and stood as a candidate in the Guildford borough council elections this May. He blogs on politics and engineering at thepotterblogger.blogspot.com

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  • On the community politics theme – reform Buy To Let!!! Radical and distinctive, what’s not to like? What could be more empowering than giving people some actual control over thier shelter.

    All leaseholds to rule out properties being let on BTL terms, acknowledgement in Council Tax in a way that punishes BTL landlords, and a return to something like pre 1989 terms.

    And before anyone jumps on me yes, it may put some granny’s nose out of joint. Tough.

  • I’m with you on the community politics bit. Personally I think that devolution of power in the workplace has the potential to be a great deal more radical than you might suspect. Bringing the hugely inflated salaries of top executives down to earth is something that could be achieved if employees set salaries, for example.

    I’m not sure what you mean by a sustainable economy. We already have a wealth of objectives on renewable power. Are you talking about steady state economics?

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st May '11 - 1:42pm

    I think you have perhaps misunderstood community politics. You are quite right to say that it is not just a strategy for winning elections, but it is still more a way of operating for a political party rather than a policy for a government to implement. The cartoon Mark Pack cites today hints at the issue. However, community politics as properly envisaged is not the second pane (which I suspect many will think) but rather the link between that and the first. The idea was to get people thinking about politics by starting with the issues that immediately surround them, and then showing how they link into wider more abstract political issues of the sort where most people would switch off if you went to them immediately with them. Refocusing local elections and turning them back into being about local issues rather than a statement of loyalty for a national party was meant to be just one possible first step – the idea was to awaken the idea that you could actually make things different through the ballot box, you could do more than ritually cast a vote “because we always vote that way”, and that politics could be a homely thing involving people very much like you, rather than being about “politicians” who seem remote and detached. That is why early Focuses deliberately used a rather amateur style, and deliberately did not make a big thing about being from the Liberal Party. The intention wasn’t to deceive, but with the idea that if you did something different, people would think about it rather than just think “party political leaflet” and bin it.

    The problem with community politics is that it worked so successfully as a tactic for winning local elections that this became a goal in itself rather than a stepping stone. It did not manage to move on from just discussing local council issues as it ought to have done. It became more overtly party political, and far too formulaic.

    Now, when you write about “Giving people freedom from dependence on the council, and the government and the rest”, you sound very much like today’s Conservative Party. They use these words and what they mean by them is making people more dependent on the services of the big private corporations instead. Perhaps this is what you meant by “the rest”, but if so you would have done well to make that more clear. To me, it is very obvious that “making people free from the council and the government” is 20th century politics, and we are now in the 21st century. It is fighting yesterday’s battles. The days when the council and the government were the dominating powers are now over. Councils have almost no room to manoeuvre, and governments are tied down by big business treating “we’ll pull out and bankrupt the country if you try to control us”. To me there is something very suspect about the way the political right will go on and on about people being made docile and unable to do things for themselves thanks to the welfare state, but will say nothing about how people have also become docile passive consumers of food and entertainment and everything else now provided by big private companies which I see as having very much the same effect.

  • I am in favour of a stakeholder society – the idea being that each citizen becomes entitled to a cash slump sum when they reach a certain age, say 21. The amount would have to be significant say £40,000 and they would be allowed to do as they wish with it. It would create economic independence and empower individuals.

    There is a book called The Stakeholder Society which outlines it.

  • As others have said, ‘growth’ has been an incredible force for good in the world. ‘The poor’ generally are not poorer in absolute terms.

    That growth has been on the back of costs that are unsustainable – GHG emissions, pillaging the oceans, loss of biodiversity, use of fossil fuels – and we do need to find ways to make all people ‘richer’ without those costs.

    But as an engineer, you should appreciate that the only resource we really need is energy. Ultimately, with energy you can make clean water, food, oil, and recover metals. None of the earth’s elements are going to “run out” (except maybe Helium) and there’s no reason why we should in the long-term – despite the current lag – be short on energy..

    Finally, I do think LDs should be supportive of Cameron’s passion for developing this ‘happiness’ metric to go alongside GDP.

  • Tom Papworth 31st May '11 - 3:37pm

    I utterly agree that we need to get rid of GDP as a measure – if only because it counts VAT as productivity! However, your suggestion that the increase in global or national wealth has not helped most people, or the poorest, is not just wrong; taken to the conclusion that you are tending towards, it could spell disaster.

    Let’s just take a few points.

    1) “Global GDP has been on the up for decades, as has Britain’s, and yet what do we see? We still see poverty, inequality, disease, hunger, poverty and want.”

    That depends on how you measure poverty. In the UK and many other countries, poverty and inequality are (literally and deliberately) interchangeable. Poverty = >60% of median income. Thus we could increase the amount of wealth in a society ten times, but if the wealth of the poorest half increased by just nine times while the richest half saw wealth rose slightly above average then we would say that poverty had increased. That is just nonsense.

    On that note, the poor are not “still poor, poorer in fact”. They may have a smaller share, but they still have a lot more. Even Joseph Rowntree recognised this, which is why by 1945 he considered much of the work of poverty elimination to have been achieved.

    As for disease and hunger, these have been dramatically reduced in the UK, and globally affect a far smaller proportion of the world’s poor than ever before. (Your final two are a repetition of poverty followed by want, which is surely also synonymous with poverty!).

    2) “…the Earth’s resources are finite – sooner or later they will run out”

    This is too simplistic. Individual resources may run out – we can’t burn hydrocarbons forever – but most resources (e.g. water) are renewable, and the most crucial one (human ingenuity) is limitless. If, as you suggest, “Ultimately, the economic model of the consumer society is doomed”, it will be because of cultural change rather than resource limitation. In fact, the idea that “his switch should be made” and can be made, deliberately and by politicians, is extremely dangerous. Attempts to quickly, fundamentally and from on high change the way that the economy works, and to change the way that humans behave, have usually ended very, very badly. I don’t think I need to explain how and where.

    3) “Economic prosperity, without boom and bust and without entrenched inequality – that should be our vision.”

    Absolutely. Never a truer word spoken!

    May I suggest that we being by guaranteeing that no Liberal Democrat government will inflate the money supply, manipulate interest rates and run reckless deficits just so as to create a feel-good boom to get them through the next election? There are very good reasons why people who see themselves on the Centre-Left don’t join the Labour Party!

  • I couldn’t make head or tail of this thread until I got to the bottom of it and saw that the sequence of comments has been reversed. Why?

  • I must say that David’s idea of a “slump sum” of £40,000 at the age of 21 seems rather felicitously mis-written!

  • David Allen 31st May '11 - 6:56pm

    If we could just wind back the years to the time BC (Before Coalition), then the broad overarching principles of this manifesto would mostly sound pretty good. However, the manifesto for any party of government has to begin by boasting (if possible) about things that have been done well, putting forward a programme to build on what has been done, and explaining away those things which have been done less well. As a junior coalition partner, we will have only limited scope to argue that on our own we might have done things differently.

    How well we use that scope will be crucial to how we are seen by the public. We shall have to find something to say about tuition fees which tries to minimise the flak. On the ex-NHS, I suspect we shall have to explain that we never did mange to turn around the Lansley juggernaut, and so the chaos which is now happening is largely the Tories’ fault. If there is an upturn, we shall be boasting about our brilliance at economics. If there is not, we shall be arguing (more truthfully but less effectively) that markets are just a law unto themselves. If we think we are on a hiding to nothing on all of this, then we should be doing something about the Coalition. Now.

    All of this will leave very little space, in the news and in the minds of the voters, for promoting big philosophical “new” ideas in a manifesto which we have not implemented while in government. It follows, therefore, that if (for example) we wanted to make sustainability a big theme, we would have to have tried to implement it in government. We would have to have either a record of achievement we share with the Tories, or a record of pushing for more than the Tories are prepared to implement, or both. We cannot just ignore sustainabilty while in govenment, and then credibly make it a big feature of the 2015 manifesto.

    And what do we expect will actually happen? We shall probably do what all Western governments have always done. Pay lip service to environmentalism, and carry on burning those fossil fuels, because they’re cheap. (A civilisation that lasts beyond 2050-2100 would be a nice-to-have, but the voters think it is too much of a short-term sacrifice, so, we probably won’t get to have it.) Everybody in the business would like to claim that they are a climate hero – Ed Miliband did it under Labour, Chris Huhne can try to do it for the Coalition, Obama would like to do it in the US. I don’t think there are many governing politicians who have yet convinced either the public or the environmental lobby that they are climate heroes.

    Our party in Coalition is in dire straits, because of the bad and unpopular things which it is doing now. It may feel better to stop thinking about those things, and turn our minds to writing high-sounding manifestos for the distant future. But it’s not really terribly useful. I fear that the main thing we get from it is a comfort blanket which soothes our troubled minds and helps us forget about our real and immediate problems.

  • So we expect to win an election promising not to promote economic growth? Can you imagine how that would be presented by a hostile (mostly Tory press)?

    What we need to do is create a parallel measure. We could call it Sustainable Domestic Product – SDP (!) We also need to focus on the median, not the mean as Dave Page says. This expresses much better the welfare of the overall population, although statistically this would be quite difficult, I think.

    Although George Potter’s objectives are fine and admirable, politics is the art of the possible. Policies that actually lead to sustainability and equality will hurt the living standards of the better off, drivers, people who want to fly to long haul destinations, people who want cheap petrol and household energy, to name but a few. Making sustainable living an attractive, practical and aspirational alternative to what we have now is the mountain we have to climb.

    While we should keep these objectives in mind all the time, winning in 2015 will be all about everyday things like increasing the personal allowance even further, education, public finances etc. We will be lucky if we have significant GDP growth to talk about and even luckier if we get any credit for it at all. Winning back all the deserters to Labour is not going to happen if we go all “woolly Liberal” on the electorate. The crucial problem is, how do we persuade them we are not just a party of cuts and Tory apologists? With a rating of 9-10% in the polls we have not even begun that task.

  • Simon McGrath 1st Jun '11 - 4:14am

    @David “I am in favour of a stakeholder society – the idea being that each citizen becomes entitled to a cash slump sum when they reach a certain age, say 21. The amount would have to be significant say £40,000 and they would be allowed to do as they wish with it. It would create economic independence and empower individuals.”
    We actually have a version of this but it involves everyone getting a share of the national debt. When they get to 18 people get their share of Labour’s debt -currently -14k a head and rising.

  • David Allen 1st Jun '11 - 12:25pm

    Your own share of the debt? So that’s why you called it a “slump sum”!

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