Opinion: “Values” and Party

There has been a lot written about the importance of “values”. I’m not convinced.

Talk about values reinforces the idea that one can pick and mix principles and ideas – just as with policies, one can put together a package which suits your pocket or your likes and then decide which party at any one time best meets your need to vote. Or, indeed, you can just campaign on one or two which happen to strike you as most important.

This view encourages the idea that party is an outdated concept and often inconvenient if there happen to be some bits of your party’s policies which you don’t like – which there always will be in an open and democratic community. In this world of values, party affiliations are worn loosely and are often transient. I want to proclaim the importance of both party and philosophy.

A party with a defining philosophy is important because it is the only way to organise to have an effect across all the ways in which government and society work and affect us and others. It applies a coherent set of ideas to challenges. Without it, we are ideological drifters, perhaps occasionally changing something, but always within an overall structure and system, which may itself be oppressive and stifling of individual freedom and development. What happens, for instance, when the values of liberty, community and equality offer different answers to a problem? Philosophy is about how these values are balanced and implemented, derived from a shared view of humanity and the world. The traditional definition of politics is “the allocation of scarce resources between different uses”. Party is how we apply an overall perspective to those choices.

A government of independents would be a cacophony ruled, in a modern state, by the people who should be the servants of coherent government. In general, civil servants do a good job – but their view of policy options is limited by the need to answer each question separately on the basis of what is possible in the light of a welter of popular prejudices – often misinformed – and the most expedient short-term response to each issue. If a party loses its underlying philosophy, it acts like a collection of independents, united only by the attractions of power and an emphasis on “delivery”. Remember Tony Blair?

Philosophy matters because it joins together a set of principles and ideas about how the world works and how I want to change it. Policies and acts by governments have consequences which go beyond the individual decisions. The surveillance state might (might!) deliver a few specific outcomes, but if the result is a less open and less free society, that is a net loss to humanity.

Big change needs a social movement and not just a party. A party is needed to deliver social change, but it needs a wider movement around it, campaigning, persuading and using its own communications to counter the conventional wisdom – particularly when that wisdom is shaped by media owners with agenda of their own.

Philosophy is about society as well as government. The common attitudes and prejudices of those around us can be oppressive – whether of our freedom of thought or the wellbeing of individuals and groups. It’s what Mill meant by the “tyranny of thought and opinion”. Movement and party are places in which opinions are formed, tested and applied in many everyday contexts, not just through government. It’s the basis for changing people’s prejudices and comfortable assumptions and then going on make a difference.
The challenge for liberals is to create and shape such a movement; not just to compete for office by aping the prejudices of swing voters. We have a philosophy – one of the world’s greatest and most effective sets of beliefs which hang together and give us direction. We need to be much more confident in it as the basis for action.

* Gordon Lishman is a member of the Federal Board.

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19 Comments

  • Always good to read something from Gordon Lishman.
    Especially when he limits himself to 7 paras. 🙂

  • I remember we went through a debate something like this over 40 years ago we put together a little booklet on Liberal ideology. I argued then that Liberalism was based more on “gut reaction” to political situations and that too much focus on ideology brought with it the danger of over-intellectualising what was essentially much more emotional than rational. I understand all your arguments, Gordon, and appreciate their importance, but I’m still not convinced. I suppose it’s the basic difference between Romantic Liberalism and Enlightenment rationalism…

  • I am an emotional Liberal (Democrat). I feel at home being one. Always have. Sometimes I think of it as “they’re my team”. During Question Time a few weeks ago, Danny Alexander explained at length the philosophy in a way that summed it up rather well, but could almost have been something that fellow panelist Andy Burnham could have said to rapturous audience applause. As it was, it was received in stony silence.

  • The article puzzles me because much of the time and mostly on sites such as this, reference to ‘values’ is a reference to ‘philosophy’. Admittedly reference to ‘values’ can be vaguely unspecified, but the same can be said of the use of the term ‘philosophy’.

    For an article that advocates a strong philosophical line there is, apart from a passing reference to Mill, little account of what that philosophical line comprises.

    Whether we refer to ‘values’ or ‘philosophy’ it is important to specify strongly what we are referring to.

  • Martin Thomas 14th May '15 - 11:54am

    Party is also important because of the trust it engenders between its members. No one can be an expert in every aspect of public policy. But working with colleagues who are informed on issues you know nothing about but with whom you know you share liberalism gives strength and meaning to the concept of party.

    Martin Thomas

  • Can it not be argued that the development of values has been encouraged by political parties themselves in their bids to win the votes of undecided voters? This in turn has created more undecided voters (as people feel less connected to a specific ideology) which only exasperates the problem still further

  • Martin is right – we’re struggling with words here.

    I think the fundamentals of political belief start at the top level with a “philosophy”, which might equally well be called a “set of values”, by those well disposed to it. (Meanwhile, as a cautionary aside, opponents will use the term “ideology” if they want to be somewhat rude, or “dogma” if they want to be very rude!)

    Below that top level, there should be a set of current policies, the menu being offered to the customer today. So, the political chef may have a “philosophy” of (say) Cantonese cooking: and a “policy” menu of chicken chow mein for today’s lunch.

    The problem with Blairism, and all the subsequent politicians who have been driven by focus groups, is that they have done everything at the lower level, the menu level. They have sought to identify what meals would sell to the public, and cooked up those meals. The Cantonese chef has been told that the public wants fish and chips. Not surprisingly, the Cantonese chef gets hopelessly muddled about his culinary philosophy and starts to produce bad meals, while the public decide they don’t like the strange version of fish and chips which the Cantonese restaurant lands on their plates!

    The Lib Dems have abandoned philosophy, and gone for flavour of the month, for far too long. We need to regain our philosophical roots.

  • Geoffrey Payne 14th May '15 - 1:27pm

    I see values and philosophy as the same thing. If they are not then this needs to be explained.
    The bigger point is the need for there to be a broader political movement of which the Liberal Democrats can be part of if we can hope to flourish – that is where there is a lot of work to do and where I agree with Gordon.

  • Gordon Lishman 14th May '15 - 1:31pm

    Thanks for comments so far. I agree with Alex and Martin.
    For my further thoughts on philosophy, with more references, see my forthcoming piece on “individualism”, including class, nation and family. It is longer than the article above (sorry, John) so that LDV will be a shorter version of something that later appears on the SLF website.
    As a group of working definitions, values are “good things”, but not necessarily connected and not necessarily thinking about tensions between them; a political philosophy is a set of ideas about humanity and relationships between people and the world in which we live; ideology is a set of ideas combined with a more thorough analysis of current times and with prescriptions for the future. None of that is absolute and prescriptive; I just find it useful to work on the basis of specific words meaning specific things.
    I am definitely on the Enlightenment rather the Romantic side of liberalism (Voltaire rather than Rousseau, as Simon Schama argued). However, a rational view does not have to exclude a commitment to gut reactions. It just puts the feelings into context and coherence, even when that’s uncomfortable. I emphasise coherence rather than instinct, but that’s because I think that’s where the deficit is at present.
    I think the greatest challenge for liberals and Liberal Democrats currently is a need for much greater self-confidence in arguing, debating and presenting our core beliefs – much as the ordinary working people who founded the Labour movement did in the late nineteenth century. You don’t need a degree to understand and promote liberalism – sometimes, it seems to be a disadvantage – you simply have to think, read and practise argument.

  • By the way, I have just tried a search for “tyranny of thought and opinion” and the only result was this article!

    This is really poor: at the very least the quotation marks should be removed if it nothing is actually quoted.

  • The nearest that I can find is from Chapter 3

    “Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric.”

  • Tony Greaves 14th May '15 - 2:02pm

    The shallowness of “values” is shown by the nonsense of the Tory stuff on “British values”.

    Tony Greaves

  • But Tony, it is surely a visceral, emotional rejection that one feels with regard to such things as “British values” and going into coalition with Tories rather than some intellectually finely crafted philosophical position…

  • I agree with Gordon but find David Allen’s formulation more accessible. For myself I think of it as being rather like the Earth; there are many layers; crust mantle and core and each of these is further differentiated in some way. Although not obvious on a daily basis, slow currents in the mantle push the continents slowly about like pack ice – in some places tearing them apart to create new oceans, in others crashing them together to create mountains.

    If we study only surface processes we will never understand the deeper forces at work. That’s the great shortcoming of opinion poll-driven politics. I think voters want politicians who will give a lead, not in the sense of just finding a parade and getting to the head of it with a megaphone, but in explaining to them how and why the world they experience is so screwed up and what can be done about it. If the explanations resonate with their own experience then they will trust the policy prescriptions. Conversely, if they don’t resonate then no amount of shrill proclaiming the virtues of this or that policy will do any good at the ballot box.

    So, to return to my model, I think Gordon’s ‘philosophy’ is represented by the inner core but, being solid, that is pretty unchanging so arguably not very interesting politically though a honeypot for academics. The political interest starts with the liquid outer core where currents create the Earth’s magnetic field and rising radioactive heat drives continental drift. How that heat is transmitted through the mantle ultimately and with a time lag drives the big-picture developments on the surface far above.

    The political ‘inner core’ is about power, both political and economic (they are largely interchangeable) which is, of course and rightly so, a traditional liberal analysis. The odd thing is that for as long as I can remember Liberals have banged on about perceived abuses of political power (e.g. agitating for PR, House of Lords reform etc.) but largely ignored economic power (e.g. the way supermarkets and privatised oligarchs overcharge on a routine basis without facing serious political challenge) yet it’s the latter that is far more important in most people’s lives. For farmers and small businesses who must try and compete on a tilted playing field and workers who have little choice this is the daily reality. For me that speaks to a Party apparatus more concerned with winning a share of power than managing it for the greater good.

    It’s the mantle that transmits inner heat to drive continental drift in the crust. How that happens in the Earth is physics; in politics it’s economics which isn’t science so much as political propaganda. For over three decades the only version on offer in the public square has been the neoliberal version that used to be called Thatcherism which is really about justifying the greed of a few. It has demonstrably failed but liberals have failed even more in not coming up with an alternative.

    So I find myself in the slightly unusual position of being a ‘social liberal’ by most measures but believing that we need a different economics from that on offer from the Tories (or some ‘economic liberals’) if we are to progress. Such an economics does exist but it won’t be exhumed without a determined collective effort.

  • Keith Browning 14th May '15 - 6:33pm

    “These are my values.. if you don’t like them, I have others! Groucho Marx

  • Tom Maclean 15th May '15 - 8:13pm

    Interesting.All I can say is i WAS a Lib/Dem party member from 1987 to 2010.Perhaps you can guess why I quit the party in 2010?.This time I voted for the best person in my view,who would represent the interests of the constituents of the area I live in.As it happens,the outgoing TORY MP matched that criteria for me.So he got my vote.I DID NOT vote for his party.I voted for HIM.Its who serves the constituency best,in my view,that counts.Oh i DONT agree with many Tory policies,BUT,I do agree with quite a number too.How that all works with the above piece I dont know.I voted for the person I thought would be a good MP for my area.We elect constituency MPs at general elections.Sure they are,in the main,Party men or women.BUT I found it liberating not to just vote on the basis of any party.Looking at the record of the outgoing MP,looking at the other candidates pledges and connections to my area and considering who to vote for on that measure was much more invigorating for me.After all,we use the first past the post system.We can only elect ONE MP for a constituency.So getting the best person possible to do that job for OUR area was my focus.

  • I agree with Martin Thomas as I have always trusted others in the party who are experts in environmentalism as to what I should be doing to help the planet. Unfortunately that trust is easy to lose in our present circumstances and it quite often gets lost on Lib Dem Voice posts maybe because it’s also open to members of other parties so harsh criticism may come from those who do not share our philosophy at all and cannot understand why we behave in certain ways.
    I think that coalition would not have happened if our party had not been led at the time by ” men in suits” not because of their political philosophy but because they shared a set of values with the Tory leadership. These values were based on their belonging to the same elite class and led to the downfall of their political party because they undermined it’s philosophy .

  • David Evershed 19th May '15 - 11:12am

    We need to re-state our liberal philosophy and show how our policies derive from it.

    This way people will start to understand what the Lib Dems stand for and which should not be classified as either right wing or left wing but liberal.

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