Opinion: Three things the Lib Dems can ‘own’


It seems to me that elections are fought not in the currency of policies but actually perception.

I feel that in the election campaign, where we actually talked about ourselves (on those rare occasions) we tried to take credit for the economic recovery. However, given that the Tories have always held that ground, they won that argument before it even began. As a result, voters who wanted a continuation of the past five years didn’t think to vote Lib Dem, they instead thought to vote Tory. It shouldn’t seem so baffling after all that people who voted Lib Dem last time chose to vote Tory this time if they were so thrilled about the outcomes of the coalition.

On a swingometer between Fairness and Stability, the Tories have the ground on competence and we didn’t get that credit. With our messaging of ‘Stronger Economy, Fairer Society’ we’re trying to steal the other parties’ clothes and then wear both, and we simply validate the perceptions that people already of them – although for the record I don’t trust the Tories to create a stronger economy or Labour to create a fairer society. We need to find our own ground, and although the valence is not with us because people see it as a zero-sum game between fairness and stability, there are still issues not ‘owned’ by either side that we can win on.

Human rights/civil liberties (and constitutional reform)

By protecting the Human Rights Act and blocking the Snooper’s Charter we led better opposition from inside government than Labour did from the opposing benches. We got credit for this just a little too late, but it’s still our undeniable ground and we need to keep talking about that. Additionally, Lords reform (not abolition, bicameralism works as long as it’s accountable), PR and Federalism are all home ground for us too. We can win this ground by simply being the people that keep it at the top of the agenda, which I feel was lost in the coalition and the election.


Our record on reforming tuition fees isn’t one we should shy away from, and the pupil premium is more evidence of a strong record. To take this ground though we have to take control of the debate, we have to be the party always seen talking about how we improve education, cut class sizes, make sure every child is looked after and heard from a young age. We have to show that a strong economy is dependent on an education work force, and a fairer society is dependent on the opportunity granted by education. This extents to apprenticeships too, not just School, College and University.

Education is integral to opportunity; opportunity is integral to liberalism.


With our credentials on Green energy we can be the competent answer to the Greens. Energy is also becoming a big issue in people’s lives; North Sea oil and gas won’t last forever. We should be spear-heading the rising prices, risk of job losses and campaigning for alternatives for the sake of, not just the economy and the environment as we most frequently talk about it, but also our energy security.

Just like education, we need to set the terms of the debate. What’s fair about not being able to afford your fuel price? What’s so good about an economy where fuel prices are rising and less people can afford them? What about the job losses? Offering a robust economic package by maintaining our energy security and jobs from the oil and gas sector, as well as offering a fair deal on lower energy prices and protecting the environment has a big yellow liberal stamp all over it – we can and have to take this ground.

If we are serious about a stronger economy and a fairer society, we need to start talking about things the other parties aren’t. Equally, these need to be things that are part of the day-to-day discussions in people’s lives. We already have a better grasp of human rights/liberties and constitution issues; we just need to talk them up more. We need to do more on issues that have more obvious impact on people’s lives, issues that really matter to people that can affect their lives in a positive way with our input, I believe a bit more liberalism in everything would be a good thing but Education and Energy is a good start.

* Jonathan Waddell is a History and Economics student at the University of Aberdeen and President of the Aberdeen University Liberal Democrats.

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  • Adam Coomer 1st Jun '15 - 11:16pm

    I absolutely agree that there needs to be more ownership. A sense of primary identity.

    The last campaign focused too much on making the party an adjective: vote for us and you’ll wind up with a less awful incarnation of the majority party. Vote for us if you want thinking socialists and feeling Tories. In these cases, the modifier is always the secondary priority.

    The strategy might have been effective when there were only three credible parties, but the increase of single-issue/narrow-issue parties means that a third generalist party won’t gain ground. I’m not sure that Education is going to be realistic for the Lib Dems, but HRs and energy are interesting suggestions. I might also suggest viable candidates in Arts & Culture, Science & Technology, Animal Welfare and Norman Lamb’s existing credentials in Mental Health.

  • John R G Bland 2nd Jun '15 - 12:39am

    I voted Lib Dem for the first time in 2010 and it was the personal tax allowance that did it, because I could see how it would take people out of the tax system who could ill afford to be in it. I can well remember David Cameron saying that he would love to bring in the policy but that the country could not afford it. It really rankled with me that the Conservatives increasingly claimed credit for the policy and a lot more could have been made of the statements in the 2010 leaders debate. A key policy fought for and delivered.

    I agree though that there should be key areas we can claim as our own but if we are to be considered as serious option we must be able to cover all aspects with Liberalising ideas if the opportunity presents itself. The political agenda can be very fluid.

  • Gary Fuller 4th Jun '15 - 2:57pm

    Just a point on education. We need to delineate ourselves from the prevailing Instrumentalism in successive Government’s approaches to the education system, and especially curriculum design.

    It has become accepted wisdom that education exists in order to deliver a skilled, and thus empowered, workforce for society. Whilst this is a valid aim within education, it should not be the sole aim of education.

    Education should be about empowering individuals on every level, about tapping their full potential, and about improving the human experience for everyone. To simply boil it down to economic benefits is dangerous.

    At their worst the Tories see education as a means to supply fodder for the rich, and Labour to supply fodder for the state, but we can be different. Where we can lead on education is by making it all about individual empowerment.

  • @Gary Fuller good point. We need to be less prescriptive in delivery mechanism too, consider the individual over a lifetime, and look at reintroducing some of the delivery mechanisms (Polytechnics, Grammar Schools) that have been removed.

  • Helen Tedcastle 4th Jun '15 - 4:31pm

    @ Gary Fuller

    I couldn’t agree more with your comment. In fact, it reminds me of old Liberal Party ideas about education – about unlocking potential in each person and giving them access to a broad and balanced curriculum.

    The writer of the article does not mention the curriculum, yet this was one of the major planks of Michael Gove’s self-styled revolution. A return to 100% examinations and focus on a narrow group of academic subjects will no doubt, please those with academically able children. The core of maths and English remain essential for every pupil. The others like computer science or geography could remain as part of the wider curriculum.

    My question is, what about the rest outside the EBac? What is the government and indeed this party offering the less academic but still talented children at post-14?

    The answer: a probable failure to attain all of the chosen academic subjects to fulfill Gove’s EBac (making it harder to get into traditional universities. Gove engineered these changes in collusion with the Russell Group, a group of only 24 universities well known to favour middle class pupils) and a deliberately engineered group of ‘second class’ subjects deemed by the Tories not to be academically rigorous enough for the EBac itself: All the Arts subjects, technology and design subjects, plus a few others deemed unworthy by Gove and his former SpAd Cummings. As these will remain assessed according to the current A-G grades, as the EBac shifts to a number system, there is a design-built imbalance or return to a two-tier subject system.

    This curriculum is designed to separate sheep from goats – it is divisive, narrow and elitist – antithetical to a liberal curriculum.

    With a nephew just completing his GCSEs this Summer, part of the last cohort studying the ‘old’ GCSE, I am getting pretty tired of Nicky Morgan doing down the hard work of pupils by promising on TV that the Tories have a created a new ‘harder’ set of exams – with all the implications of that statement for current pupils- that tells us all we need to know about the contempt the Tories have for young people and their teachers.

  • Helen Tedcastle 5th Jun '15 - 10:41am

    @ TCO
    ‘… look at reintroducing some of the delivery mechanisms (Polytechnics, Grammar Schools) that have been removed.’

    Definitely not. A return to a selective system will create less social inequality and less social mobility, not more.

    Thankfully, the party has never been favourable to a return to it anyway. Indeed a proud fact is that it was Lib Dem peer Shirley Williams (as well as one M. Thatcher) who helped get rid of the grammars. Some held on in pockets of the country – areas where there is still less social mobility when compared with areas that went comprehensive eg: Trafford and Kent.

  • Helen Tedcastle 5th Jun '15 - 10:43am

    Correction to my previous comment: ‘ A return to a selective system will create more social inequality…’

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