Opinion: What’s your prism?

The perennial question cropped up again the other day, on the beach this time: “What do the LibDems stand for?” I replied that the Tories and Labour view British society through the same prism of class or socio-economic groups, but that the LibDems see individuals.

We don’t believe that your gender, the colour of your skin, religion, social background, the number of parents you have, your weight or body shape or ability, your education level or bank balance say anything at all about your compassion, your willingness to get involved in your community, your intelligence, your wisdom, your sense of humour, your creativity, your common sense, how content you are, the strength of your relationships, whether people smile when you come in to the room, your latent talents or your courage.

“Ah” came the reply. “But is that what the LibDems think or is that just you?”

And I was surprised to find myself a bit stymied. After all, that is what all LibDems think, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

Let’s assume it is. Because if it is, there are some things we could be doing to free ourselves of the general sense that all policies from all parties look like educated middle class people trying to do things to other people who are less fortunate than themselves (for their own good of course).

First we could be banging the drum about the ideological difference between us and the other two parties and not just our policies and achievements in government – and finding a “one liner” to crystalise that difference. Any advance on my prism line much appreciated.

We shouldn’t be afraid of spelling out an ideology; of painting a very big picture. After all, policies are just a means to an end: what’s our end and how is it different?

So when it comes to Nick’s speech at Conference I hope he concentrates not on appealing to groups such as “alarm clock Britain” but on spelling out what we actually mean by the points he makes in his foreword to “Facing the Future” – our faith in people, distribution of power, capacity of the individual to make the lives they choose and our optimistic forward view.

In a rapidly changing world, we need to promote a vision of our society which makes sense to everyone and to which they are more likely to actively want to subscribe. And we should be looking voters in the eye and saying “we see you, not the boxes you tick”.

There is a holistic positive picture of Britain to be drawn, one where we have evolved a system which enables us to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘thus far and no further’ to bankers, journalists, MPs, rioters. We have a society in which people do not face famine or horror as a matter of routine. We face huge questions but we are equal to the challenge. We are not a country in decline, we are dealing with accelerating change in social evolution and international development but we have a framework of values, the basis of which is the sanctity of human life, the rule of law and democratic government, which has seen us through thus far and which will continue to see us through.

The other things we could be doing when writing and communicating our policies is to be mindful of the subliminal messages which go along with them and how we balance the much policied freedoms from poverty and ignorance with the freedom from conformity. For instance if academic education is so important, are we saying those who are less educated are worth less? If social mobility is so desirable, does this mean the community you are from is undesirable? (And what’s the impact of social mobility on community breakdown?)

Most of all, if people need empowering it must be because they have no power: a personal bugbear – please, please can we stop trying to empower people and instead tell them that in a democracy, they already have the power? We believe our role is to ensure they understand what it is, how to exercise it and remove any barriers but the power is already theirs: legally we are all equal and each vote carries the same weight.

We’ve all been looking through the Tory and Labour prism for too long. Let’s tell people what the world looks like through ours.

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11 Comments

  • Excellent, refreshing article – thank you.

    And I like your prism one-liner. I also like the constitution wording, and while I think both Labour and the Conservatives would agree with the aim of a society where no one is enslaved by poverty or ignorance (with perhaps a slight question mark over the latter in some cases), I’m not so sure they’re striving for a society where no one is enslaved by conformity.

  • I would point out a few things. Over on Lib Vision Angela Harbutt did a piece on “Yellow Roadblocks” ( http://www.liberal-vision.org/2011/09/05/who-is-nick-clegg-talking-to-these-days/ ), one of the points she raised was

    “No wonder so many of my friends tell me that the Lib Dems stand for nothing – and everything – according to what suits them at the time”

    A lot of people don’t really have a clue what the Lib Dems stand for, it’s not helped by certain actions e.g.:

    “our faith in people, distribution of power”

    Yet you also believe in further integration with the EU, I’ve also seen an OP on the site that is against Police Commissioners with one reason stated as the people may elect a far right candidate.

    So those 2 points alone seem to show that you don’t always have faith in people and that the distribution of power isn’t always on the top of the list. Perhaps it’s not enough to spell out an ideology, perhaps there should also be policies/actions that match them, thus avoiding confusion?

  • “And I was surprised to find myself a bit stymied. After all, that is what all LibDems think, isn’t it? Isn’t it?”

    Sorry, not me.

    We live in a society facing gigantic problems: falling educational attainment, stagnant economy, vast unemployment, rising income inequality, challenging globalised market place, government with a deep budget hole, cuts in social spending, uncertain future.

    In the midst of all this, all we have to say what we stand for are these fluffy, cuddly values? Do we have any substance to add?

  • @Stuart Wheatcroft Posted 11th September 2011 at 6:42 pm

    I may have a new slogan for you – “Trust individuals, not society”

  • Karen Wilkinson 12th Sep '11 - 12:24am

    Dear All, Thank you for reading and commenting. (Particularly Catherine!)

    As a first time poster and someone pretty new to the whole politics business, I’m deeply aware of my ignorance on a vast range of issues. However I have one use: as one example of how the LibDems can inspire someone with my concerns about life from being a passive “consumer” of politics to an activist.

    Uday: “In the midst of all this, all we have to say what we stand for are these fluffy, cuddly values? Do we have any substance to add?” – I think it’s *particularly* important in the midst of all that to say “this is what we stand for, this is the framework within which we generate our detailed, substantive answers to these complex issues.” And actually, these are not fluffy, cuddly values – there is something very radical in a major political party in the UK saying that they trust the uneducated as much as the educated, that success in life is not calculated by economic achievement.

    If we are to tackle climate change, diminishing global resources, the shift in economic power to the East and so on, we have to have seismic changes in our culture. This requires challenging the way we think about pretty much everything. Perhaps if we free ourselves from thinking in terms of class and economic status, we can start to re-define what national and individual success look like & free ourselves from linking these to resource usage.

    But then, that’s just my view. I’d obviously not advocate conforming to it 🙂

  • This is an excellent perspective on how social thinkers can pursue movements which, despite their best intentions, separate the intended beneficiary from their individual identity. I like your idea that ‘when writing and communicating our policies [one could] be mindful of the subliminal messages which go along with them and how we balance the much policied freedoms from poverty and ignorance with the freedom from conformity.’ Indeed, nuanced terminology, or the avoidance of it altogether, allows for greater inclusivity.

  • Nigel Quinton 22nd Sep '11 - 12:39pm

    Stephen W’s quote was from Sir William Harcourt in 1872 http://tinyurl.com/3posl9d

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