Opinion: You say you want a revolution …?

Jeremy Hargreaves recently launched Engage, the Liberal Democrats’ “new policy network”. Its goal is to give party members “the chance to talk about ideas, about policy and politics.” A welcome objective – but is this the right way to go about it?

The trouble with this initiative is that it emphasises process rather than politics. The ‘instant policy discussion kit’, in particular, reminds me of the sketch in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life in which a couple of middle-aged American tourists enters a restaurant and is offered conversational topics instead of food. Whenever did we lose our spontaneity?

Jeremy rightly highlights the lack of debate in the party but this problem goes beyond the narrow question of involvement in policy-making. Healthy political debate should be the lifeblood of the party. It supplies vitality and a sense of purpose to inspire and motivate our members and supporters. It supplies rigour and vigour to our ideas and policies.

But debate is also the lifeblood of democracy because politics is ultimately about making moral choices. You can’t revive politics without having real debate about those choices, which means argument about competing ideas, not a heavily managed process.

Advocates of ‘consensus politics’ stigmatise debate as ‘yah-boo politics’ but it is a myth that people dislike political argument. Substantial argument is what differentiates parties and politicians, and provides people with a real choice. It is the absence of argument and thus choice that has driven down participation and voter turnout, because it makes politicians sound the same and politics seem irrelevant. And when the mainstream parties (of which the Liberal Democrats are now one) can’t be differentiated, it is the parties on the fringe that stand out and benefit from our reticence.

The mere fact that ‘Engage’ is deemed necessary tells us that something has gone horribly wrong. Political debate has declined because, since the 1980s, our political life has been hollowed out and drained of ideological content. If ‘Engage’ plans to address this state of affairs, it must first understand how and why de-politicisation happened. There are several reasons, many of which are common to British politics and not specific to the Liberal Democrats:

The ‘end of ideology’ – Following the end of the cold war, the basic ideological questions were assumed settled. The argument within the political mainstream was confined to a debate about nuances or replaced by personality issues.

Moral relativism – It became unfashionable to express clear moral or ethical opinions. There were no longer any universal values, no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Anyone failing to observe this proscription was accused of being ‘judgemental’.

Managerialism – Politics implies the existence of alternatives. But since the big questions were assumed settled and morality was derided, politics was replaced by managerialism, with its talk of ‘efficiency’, ‘targets’ and ‘delivery’.

Followership – With no great causes to fight for or any distinguishing ideas to set them apart, politicians resorted to followership rather than leadership. Instead of engaging in ideological argument with one another, they competed to agree with public opinion.

Marketing – To achieve followership, politicians imported American election campaign techniques modelled on the psychoanalytical methods employed in advertising and marketing. Focus groups and opinion polls were used to determine policy, which often amounted to little more than superficial ‘initiatives’ contrived to capture the next day’s headlines.

Spin – Politicians dared not risk communicating uncomfortable information to the public because they feared it would be rejected. So they tried to tell the public what they thought the public wanted to hear. The political culture of spin is simply a logical outcome of the belief that all communication must be attractive.

These trends have emptied politics of meaning. Mainstream politicians no longer stand up for what they believe in (assuming they still believe in anything). Instead of genuine debate, we get a litany of sanitised and banal slogans.

As if this were not bad enough, the Liberal Democrats added some methods of their own for suppressing debate:

Merger – When the Liberal Party and SDP merged in 1988, the new party’s leading figures were terrified that the merger might unravel. They responded by centralising power and making ideological debate taboo. The party conference was effectively neutered by confining debate to ‘take it or leave it’ motions endorsing green papers.

Demonisation of the membership – Since the 1970s (if not earlier), what might loosely be termed the party’s ‘right wing’ has never really been an ideological project (its ideological fads have come and gone). Instead, it has been characterised by a belief that a Westminster-based elite always knows best and has an entitlement to power; and that the duty of party members is to accept what they are told uncritically. This attitude was reinforced at the merger by the SDP leadership’s paranoia rooted in its experience of Labour Party in-fighting. Hence the perennial attacks on the conference and grassroots members, the smear stories about ‘beards and sandals’ and the idiotic demands for a ‘Clause 4 Moment’.

‘Middle ground’ strategy – Successive leaderships have believed in the folly of converging on the same crowded territory as New Labour and the Tories. As a result, the Liberal Democrats have spent more time trying to avoid causing offence to voters who don’t share their values than they have trying to enthuse and mobilise voters who do. (The honourable exception was Charles Kennedy’s opposition to the Iraq war – consider how the party benefitted by standing out from the crowd, and how much more it might benefit if it did likewise in other areas of policy).

Parochialism – Community politics, which began with noble aims, rapidly degenerated into an obsession with electoral tactics, based on a conviction that the party could advance solely by exploiting local grievances. This enables the party to duck moral choices. There is no incentive to debate when the party is fixated on parochial issues about which there is no argument. After all, everyone agrees that dog shit and pot holes are a bad thing.

‘We can win everywhere’ – If everyone agrees that dog shit and pot holes are a bad thing, it follows that the party can appeal equally to every demographic in every location. But this strategy inhibits the party from saying anything controversial that might capture people’s imagination, because there’ll always be someone in somebody’s ward somewhere that might be offended.

Anti-intellectualism – The party’s local campaigning style demands a Stakhanovite work ethic, producing a culture of ‘mindless activism’ that prizes brawn over brain. People who debate political ideas are disparaged as dilettantes (“They should be out delivering leaflets!”). This is why too many of the party’s MPs and PPCs are ‘casework kings’ lacking the intellect to grasp the bigger picture.
If Jeremy Hargreaves and his team want ‘Engage’ to achieve its stated aims, they must recognise and tackle these issues. They should ask themselves why previous initiatives, notably ‘Meeting the Challenge’, ran into the sand and had no lasting impact. And they will face some stiff opposition:

• They must confront the arrogant and snobbish elite in and around Westminster that holds the party’s membership and internal democracy in contempt.

• They must confront the marketing men in the leader’s bunker who would back a policy of slaughtering all the first-born if their focus group feedback suggested it might play well.

• They must confront a leader who thinks the best way to introduce a profound change to tax policy is to slip a couple of lines into the pre-manifesto while nobody’s looking.

• They must confront the national media and its tendency to vilify all debate as a ‘row’, a ‘split’ or a ‘challenge to the leadership’.

• They must confront ascetic party activists who believe that the human soul is redeemed by delivering leaflets in a force 10 gale.

It is clear that encouraging real debate will require more than arranging some extra ‘pizza & politics’ evenings. Restoring political content and meaning to the party needs a radical culture change. And when British politics is at an historic turning point, it is an urgent task. At this time of crisis, with the economic and political systems thoroughly discredited, the Liberal Democrats should be brimming with bold ideas about the way forward – but where are their vision, clarity and passion? Where is the evidence of strategic thinking, original insights or ideological coherence? Not in ‘Make it Happen’ or ‘A Fresh Start for Britain’, that’s for sure.

The party should be articulating a compelling political vision of where we want to be heading and how we might try to get there. How could ‘Engage’ stimulate this? Here are a few practical ideas for getting some real debate going:

Local ideas – The Liberal Democrats control or share control in many local authorities. Here, political debate is not academic but a real exercise in using power. The ‘Engage’ team, together with ALDC, should conduct an audit in places such as Sheffield, Camden, Newcastle and Bristol. How is the party’s membership involved in local policy-making? How are local communities involved? How are Liberal principles applied in practice? Let’s find out and get the best ideas circulated more widely and adopted around the party.

Book clubs – Book clubs are very popular throughout Britain and the party should exploit this trend. In recent years, three important books have been published about Liberal Democrat ideas – The Orange Book, Reinventing the State and the IPPR’s Beyond Liberty. Yet how many party members have read all three books? Perhaps a hundred at most. Or what about the significant booklets published lately, such as the ALDC’s The Theory and Practice of Community Economics and Community Politics Today, or the booklet edited by Graham Watson and me, Liberalism – something to shout about? Or major Liberal works, from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty to Vince Cable’s The Storm? ‘Engage’ should organise a network of local book clubs within the party, bulk-buy and circulate these books, and get members reading and arguing.

Thinkers’ panel – ‘Engage’ has produced “a list of potential guest speakers” but how many of these are simply bog-standard spokespeople who would probably only trot out the party line? Treating party members to a passive experience is unlikely to provoke much debate. Instead, ‘Engage’ should be encouraging local parties to invite the party’s more stimulating and provocative thinkers, to lead discussions not deliver speeches.

Stop framing debates – The outcome of political debate is determined more by the way a debate is framed than the actual debate itself. The party’s Federal Policy and Conference Committees have had an unfortunate habit of ironing out differences before conference, to present a pre-digested compromise for rubber-stamping. Instead, ‘Engage’ must ensure these differences are aired throughout the party – at meetings and online – then brought to the floor of conference. Let’s see some genuine debate at conference instead of a stage-managed series of stock speeches by MPs and PPCs.

Stop apologising – ‘Engage’ must draw the poison by removing the contrite and conciliatory tone from the party’s policy statements. No matter how healthy the debate ‘Engage’ fosters, its achievements will be neutralised if the party continues to express its policies in mealy-mouthed terms. There is no point having any policy unless we are prepared to argue for it passionately.

Above all, ‘Engage’ must promote the idea that political debate is more than merely permissible or a luxury you can fit in if you’ve got time. Debate is essential otherwise the party loses its ideological purpose.
We’ll know ‘Engage’ has worked when political debate is normal; when our members think nothing of going down the pub for a good argument without any prompts from Cowley Street; when the resulting grassroots opinion counts for something; and when our party argues its case in the honest language of liberal values instead of the doublespeak of marketing slogans.

The last thing the party needs is another safety valve. If ‘Engage’ is to be of any lasting value, it must take risks and encourage genuine debate because, as D H Lawrence said, “it would be fun to upset the apple-cart and see which way the apples would go a-rolling.”

And if that prospect unsettles you, remember Voltaire’s words: “Doubt is an unpleasant mental state, but certainty is ridiculous.”

* Simon Titley is a Liberal Democrat activist who does what he can to provoke debate by helping to write and produce Liberator magazine.

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9 Comments

  • Chris Keating 27th Jul '09 - 3:38pm

    link to the Engage post is a bit broken, surplus ‘ in it

  • Well I welcome it for one. It is high time we talked about policy critically again, even if we have to be reminded to do so.

  • Engage, to my mind, is necessary, if not sufficient. We should congratulate Jeremy Hargreaves and co on this basis.

  • I completely agree, most especially with this bit:
    As a result, the Liberal Democrats have spent more time trying to avoid causing offence to voters who don’t share their values than they have trying to enthuse and mobilise voters who do.

    and this bit:
    Community politics, which began with noble aims, rapidly degenerated into an obsession with electoral tactics, based on a conviction that the party could advance solely by exploiting local grievances. This enables the party to duck moral choices. There is no incentive to debate when the party is fixated on parochial issues about which there is no argument. After all, everyone agrees that dog shit and pot holes are a bad thing.

  • Julie de Souza 27th Jul '09 - 10:40pm

    HELP ME PLEASE…CALLING EVERY PERSON WHO HAS BEEN CHEATED BY THE LLOYDS TSB’S MISSELLING INSURANCE PPI’S- TO DEMONSTRATE AGAINST THEM TO FORCE THE LABOUR GOVERNMENT TO BRING IN NEW LAWS TO PROTECT ITS CITIZENS FROM THE BLATENT ABUSE OF THE LAW BY THE BANKS AND THEIR AGENTS…TO DEMAND JUSTICE AND A OVERHAUL OF THE ENTIRE FRAUDULENT /
    INCOMPETANT BANKING SYSTEM THAT HAS BROUGHT THE ECONOMY TO ITS KNEES AND THOSE THEY HAVE SOLD INUSRANCE PPI’S TOO! I LIKE THE MILLIONS was cheated out of around £6000/- on two PPI one for my credit card and other personal loan both non secured loans after a hit and run car accident the mistreatment and harrassment from their agents and London Edinburgh that nearly put me on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I was given both unsecured loans without the proof of income/ a £4000/- overdraft limit and a £250/ cheque garantee card. There was no defaults on my account until the car accident. Them not honouring the PPI made me default on the monthly installments, they then took me to court and have recently have obtained a charging order against my home for the amount/ by deception. I am now in the process of suing the LLoyds TSB for FINANCIAL NEGLIGENCE TOWARDS AN INSURED CLIENT / blatant VICTIMISATION / HARRASMENT/BREACHES OF Consumer RIGHTS during critical period of illness immediately after hit and run accident/ Fraudulent, negligent or incompetent Payment PROTECTION INSURANCE sold for the credit card under Section 13 Supply of Good & Services Act 1982, Principle of business under the Financial Services & Markets Act 2000 & Misrepresentation Act 1967/ CONTINUAL IGNORING REQUESTS FOR detailed statements since 2005-2009- Under Fraud Act 2006 / recent loss of my files as by their own admission to the courts as they tried to postpone a case/breaches of data / Ignoring requests to resume token payments prior going to court. They confused the Judge into believing that my problem is with the Insurance company London Edinburgh and not themselves when this is blatent lies I COULD NOT PROVE WHAT I WAS SAYING WAS THE TRUTH BECAUSE THEY FAILED TO SEND ME ALL THE DOCUMENTATION I NEED TO FIGHT THE CASE/HOPING THAT THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS KICKS IN TO PREVENT ME FROM OBTAINING THEM. The BANK got into the Insurance Contract between themselves and added it to the monthly installments as with every card that has been issued till date. No insurance contract was sent to me for my consideration and approval during the whole period from the inception by the bank/there was no contact or contract from the Insurers either / I WAS NOT TOLD WHO MY INSURERS WERE UNTIL THE ACCIDENT THREE YEARS LATER… They continue to play cat and mouse games with me and failed to inform me of the court hearing to be heard on 14th Oct 2008… THEIR LEGAL TEAM denied any knowledge themselves of the court hearing when asked by me. I was told not to go for the hearing by their legal team. I am suing them for misleading the court/ obtained the Charging Order by concealing the truth/ and further damaging my reputation with the credit rating agencies. I am awaiting dates and will post the dates on this site.
    I am shocked that this Bank is allowed to trade at all. I am representing myself and am preparing to take my fight to High Court and later to European Courts if I don’t get the Justice I am looking to get from the British Courts. Could any Journalist please contact me ASAP. I am considering to organise demonstrations in front of the Courts in Manchester and later in London. Millions like myself have been cheated and the Labour Governement has allowed this abuse to continue for the last decade and a half. The Banking sector has a very important role to play in the protection and promotion of the rights of their clients and societies at large to whom they sell their services to for monetary gain, and if it fails to ensure that high standards are maintained across its range of activities, it has to be made responsible. They cannot be allowed to abuse the rights of the clients during periods of long illness brought on by hit and run car accident or illness if they have paid for Insurance to protect them during times like this. This is nothing but psychological abuse. THEY TRIED TO GET MY CASE THROWN OUT ON THE GROUNDS THAT THEY I DID NOT ADD ‘PLC’ AND ADDRESSED THEM AS ‘LLOYDS TSB GROUP’…AS FAR AS THE WORLD KNOWS THERE IS ONLY ONE LLOYDS TSB. It is time for a overhaul change in this unethical Banking system and the unethical Labour Government whose empty promises has now become a farce. I am livid with anger at their audacity and lost my faith in the Labour Government a very long time ago and now in the Banking system. Reporting any matter to the FSO and the FSA DOES NOT PAY THE MONTHLY INSTALLMENTS OR PREVENTS A PERSON FROM GETTING BLACK LISTED…AND THESE ORGANISATIONS DO NOT HELP ONCE THE MATTER IS IN THE COURT… THIS CONCERNS EVERY CITIZEN IN THIS GREAT COUNTRY…
    ENOUGH IS ENOUGH…I need as much as support I can get. I have just lost my mother and even though I am under a great deal of stress I have to plod on…Please help…Julie de Souza Manchester.

  • And there was me, on the “right wing” of the party, feeling permanently villified by large sections of the grassroots, and more specifically, writers of Liberator magazine.

    Familiar and oft-repeated comments like Simon’s seem designed to marginalise those of us on the so-called “right” of the party, rather than encourage political debate.

    Speaking of which, as far as I’m aware we still have the most vibrant debate of any of the three main parties and the only membership with a genuine voice in policy-making/approval.

  • Alix Mortimer 28th Jul '09 - 8:43am

    I noticed that, mark1. It is ironic isn’t it.

  • “we still have the most vibrant debate of any of the three main parties”

    Being the most vibrant doesn’t mean it is very vibrant though.

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