Party reform can re-capture the liberal spirit – and change Britain

Constant dissatisfaction is an essential part of the liberal spirit.

That which, over the decades, has characterized liberalism is the constant search for progress. Progress that seeks to create open societies that welcome diverse views and allow, in Popper’s formulation, constant challenge from below. Progress that breaks down imposed power from the top and liberates the disadvantaged and those that do not have a voice.

The essential flip-side of achieving progress is a constant dissatisfaction with the status quo. The ability and determination to imagine that a better world is possible. As Robert Kennedy’s very liberal statement put it: “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

In this regard, I was very encouraged by reports that Vince Cable is considering significant reforms to how the party works. A direction intended to make the party more open in different ways.

Political parties today, especially in the UK, are anachronistic. Membership of political parties is a small minority sport. It should shock and worry us that the overwhelming majority of people in this country (actually, almost everyone) would rather have pins stuck in them than join a political party. The way parties are structured is also undermining our democracy. We now have the infuriating spectacle of constituency associations made up of a few dozen members dictating to Conservative MPs what they should or should not support as regards a final Brexit deal. Decisions that affect the lives of everyone in Britain and beyond.

Rather than pointing fingers, we should all take note that all the major parties in Britain operate by and large in the same ways. Direction is driven by a few people at the top of a byzantine bureaucracy of endless impenetrable committees and then endorsed or otherwise by a small, select group of people – the party members. Where is the voice of the broader voting public in all of this?

Neither should we kid ourselves that our structures are ‘democratically elected’. Personally, I have stopped voting in any of the internal elections for party positions because, for me, the idea that I can pick which candidates to support solely on the basis of one single sheet of A4 paper is an insult to the word ‘democracy’.

Party reform is well overdue. It was obviously necessary following the 2015 election. But nothing was done. The forces of the status quo were too strong. Just like they are always very strong in wider society. And why, to break them down, liberalism will always have work to do.

But I suggest that such reforms offer an opportunity that goes far beyond the narrow electoral interests of the party. Far beyond the desire to attract some stardust into the party leadership.

This is an opportunity to change the face of British politics. To explore how to move beyond the disdain in which most people hold political parties today. To see if there are ways in which politics can attract the interest, the involvement and the voice of more than the few hundred thousand people (out of a population of 65 million) who choose to carry a party membership card. To see what ways are available to change the mood of cynicism about politics in the country today. A cynicism that grows by the day as we see senior ministers (especially now ex-senior ministers) clearly more interested in their personal ambitions than in the direction of the country. As we see party whips continue to pressure MPs to put the party interest ahead of the national interest. As we see constituency associations continue to believe that, under threat of deselection, they, not the wider voting public, should be the arbiters of what MPs should or should not do.

In today’s world of social media, personal empowerment, the interconnected society and a huge amount of innovative thinking outside the political establishment, traditional political parties are dinosaurs out of step with the spirit of the times. And that is dangerous for our democracies.

The reality is that only a truly liberal party can lead the way to achieve change. Because liberals are about progress and a constant dissatisfaction with the status quo.

But if reform is to happen; if it is to mean anything other than a narrow focus on how we might gain a little bit of electoral advantage, then it requires a bold vision. It has to take the entrepreneurial approach of imagining a different world and then working backwards as to how we get there rather than starting from where we are and making a few incremental steps that risk much cost to achieve nothing. I have written before that parties should consider how they select parliamentary candidates by making the process more open and less tightly controlled by constituency associations. And about what is necessary for a modern political party to be successful in today’s world. I don’t know whether these ideas have any merit. But we need to generate, consider and debate ideas that can change the future rather than dismissing anything new on the basis that that’s not how things have been done in the past.

There will doubtless be people who will resist any reform except, maybe, for a bit of cosmetic tinkering around the edges. Some will come up with the favourite riposte of those who resist change: ‘but we’re already doing much of that sort of thing.’ Some will try to stop progress because of the natural human fear of change – not having the impossible to achieve cast iron guarantees that the outcome will be universally positive (which it never will be). Others will fear that their own position of power will be diluted. Others still will simply be unable to imagine the new. Others will feel it personally – as a rejection of the ways of doing things on which they have built their careers to date. All this is the perfectly natural human reaction to change. And it can only be overcome by bold and inspiring leadership.

There is little doubt that the party is under existential threat. Many in the country have, for a while, been hoping for the emergence of a new centrist party that can shake up the political landscape. There is no reason why the Lib Dems cannot become that party. A party built in a contemporary mode; in tune with contemporary culture and expectations – not only in terms of its policies but in terms of how it operates and relates to the public. To achieve that will require boldness and significant change that has no untouchable sacred cows. It will require that the proposed party reforms are not held back by timidity and lack of imagination.

It is not only the future of the party that may depend on it, but also the future of a thriving and meaningful British democracy.

* Joe Zammit-Lucia is a co-founder and trustee of the think tank and a Lib Dem member

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  • Tony Greaves 31st Jul '18 - 12:22pm

    Well I have read this but sorry, I cannot understand a word of what it is suggesting should happen. Except that the author wants a “new centrist party”. No thank you.

  • I agree with Tony. We are not and never have been a centrist party. Let’s hear from the author how he wants to bring more people into politics, how he wants to make party elections more democratic and how he sees bringing in more people to elect our candidates, without permitting entryism by supporters of other parties.

  • @micktaylor. Heavens ! We know that Labour have disappeared stage left, Tories are in the grip of their right wing and now I am told that the lib Dems have never been a centrist party. That will come as very bad news to many, as we are now truely homeless.
    Incidentally, I believe we can be more democratic, more open to ideas from outside the party, more “bottom up” rather than “top down” but still present policies that are broadly centrist.

  • I think it is vital that any political party is controlled by people who agree with its philosophy, therefore to just try and have a larger membership is a recipe for the party to become a popularist party and not one rooted in a philosophy. So yes party members of constituencies should choose their candidate to ensure their candidate holds views compatible with the philosophy of the party and will represent the interests of the constituency.

    As you say Zoe, we seek to create a society where no one has to confirm, where ‘diverse views are welcome’, that ‘liberates the disadvantaged’ (that takes people out of poverty), where everyone can maximise their potential, that ‘breaks down power’, that controls power and restores power to those who feel they ‘don’t have a voice’.

    We could reform the way we elect members of our Federal Committees: we could publish minutes and recorded votes after each meeting; we could include the voting record in the election literature; we could make it compulsory that candidates give an email address for voters to contact them; and we could make the elections annual.

    In your Radix article you set out what is needed for a successful ‘centralist’ party:
    “1. It must be credibly seen to be radical and disruptive. Bringing forward fresh, new ideas to old and intractable issues.
    2. It must have an effective leader fit for our media dominated world. One who authentically embodies the spirit of insurgency, is seen to be strong enough to upend the status quo and is largely untainted by previous association with the establishment.
    3. It must be able to communicate effectively, concisely and theatrically to capture people’s emotions rather than trying to engage them in complex policy discussion.
    4. It must be clear on which constituency it is appealing to and ensure that its ‘package’ is clearly directed at that constituency.
    5. It must have a credible chance of winning.
    6. Once in power, it needs to move quickly with a couple of headline-grabbing policies that can deliver rapid impact.”

    If these are the necessary ingredients we could have them.

  • Sorry Joe for the spelling mistake. It should have been Joe not Zoe.

  • paul barker 31st Jul '18 - 2:31pm

    Yes, most people dont want to join Parties. Equally, 95% of Voters vote for Parties, not individuals. The exceptions are Parish Councillors where an activist candidate can actually meet a significant proportion of Voters & jobs like London Mayor, largely seen as symbolic.
    Getting elected as a Councillor or MP means getting elected by a Party & especially by the activist core of that Party who do all the legwork. Why shouldnt those people choose their Candidate ?
    What we need to is recruit more Members & involve those who want to work for us but not join, both those things are being talked about & worked on but I dont see how this article helps with either.

  • John Roffey 31st Jul '18 - 2:44pm

    I would like to see a poll taken of all of the membership on its key policies – particularly Brexit. It does seem bizarre that a party of 100.000+ members [with DEMOCRATS in its title] appears to allows its 12 MPs [0.012% of the membership] more or less dictate this most important aspect of a political party.

    It seems likely to me that if the key policies a party has are supported by the majority of its members – not only will they be energised to work at the local level to convince others to vote for the party – but are also likely to have policies that appeal to many others outside of that party.

    I am not al ong-term Lib/dem – so the above may be inaccurate – but that is how it seems.

  • William Fowler 31st Jul '18 - 5:09pm

    With modern technology it would be easy enough to monitor LibDem MP’s to make sure they spent an hour a day reading a forum like this, they would at least be directly exposed to the ideas of members which in turn would encourage more members to take part.

    Taking things like NHS, social care, schools, emergency services etc out of the political arena would be an interesting concept for LibDems to ponder, the eventual aim to turn parliament into little more than a debating society that would only be needed in times of emergency… surely the next step has to be making people independent of the State as much as possible rather than expanding the State until almost everyone is working for it, Labour’s great idea.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 31st Jul '18 - 5:11pm

    Some members here are being a little contrary, a few constructive.

    The contrary do not need to be. To query the usual are we centrist line, is pointless and outdated. You might not have been, as a member of this party, in the centre when the Labour government was off to the right and the Tories too. Anyone in our party who is not what I would call the centre, between Corbyn and Rees Mogg, is in my view in the wrong group! Centre left or right is centre today, the nonsense that we cannot align with Chukka Umuna or Anna Soubry in these dreadful extreme situations in our political scenario, is absurd. We are not all Centrists, but we are all centrists now!

    The constructive should see that Joe is a really valuable contributor to our movement and Radix a rather fine and quite recent development , they having come up with some excellent papers and have good people like Nick Tyrone and David Boyle on their books.

    I would like to work with them and hook up

  • Katharine Pindar 31st Jul '18 - 6:09pm

    Reform, not revolution, is what the British people will accept. Talk of insurgency and of upending the status quo won’t produce a party ‘with a credible chance of winning’. I think our country needs healing, policies to bring people together, co-operation of the progressive and the liberal-minded in the political classes, to work for the empowering and advancing the welfare of ordinary people. There is an enemy, entrenched power, wealth and privilege, which we must co-operate gradually to restrict and diminish.

  • Jayne Mansfield 31st Jul '18 - 7:12pm

    If there is a vacuum in the centre of British politics, I assume that it is because the electorate don’t want the centre space that has previously been occupied, nor a return of those who occupied it. My own view is that the moveable feast of a centre ground is reactionary in its acceptance of an unchallenged status quo.

    @ Martin,
    I agree with you on the use of the term ‘reform’ with no explanation of what ‘reform’, means and might entail.

    In the minds of those at the sharp end of so called ‘reforms’ , the word has simply become a euphemism for cut backs, loss of essential services etc. It no longer has entirely positive connotations.

  • Jayne Mansfield 31st Jul '18 - 7:33pm

    @ Katharine Pindar,
    We have had experience of years of focus groups, triangulation and centrist ideas, and some improvements did arise from those years.

    However, entrenched power, wealth and privilege, remain, as far as I can see, unchanged. Sadly, a child’s life chances are still overwhelmingly determined by an accident of birth.

  • Peter Watson 31st Jul '18 - 8:23pm

    @David Raw “Frankly, if we get any more Lansley type NHS reforms from I’ll ……………………….. ????”
    Sadly, they appeared to be “Lansley & Clegg type NHS reforms” 🙁

  • Peter Watson 31st Jul '18 - 8:30pm

    @Joe Otten “As long as we aren’t leftist or rightist, I don’t really care whether we call ourselves centrist or not.”
    I think the biggest problem is that people’s “centre” (as well as being distorted by how they perceive themselves politically) often seems to be defined by averaging out their own personal combination of leftish and rightish positions on a range of issues, and the overlap between two notionally “centrist” people might not be as great as one would expect. One thing I’ve learnt from visiting this site over the years is that the relatively short diametrical distance between two Lib Dems sitting slightly to the left and right on any given issue can lead to disagreements that appear no less heated than those between people much further out on the political spectrum!

  • Personally I don’t claim to be a centralist. It is a meaningless phrase, what I would claim to be is an non idiolgist. What do I mean by that? Well I have a set of principles but I really don’t care how they are achieved. I’m not wedded to the fantasy of socialism or the equally fanciful libertarian Ayn Rand twaddle. I don’t believe in the hidden hand of the market or the command driven economy. I believe by our very nature we are imperfect but given the right options and a bit of give and take we can achieve great things. Pragmatism should be our aim, but only if it achieves a better Britain and one that actually pays more attention to the people and less to idiolgical theory.

  • Katharine Pindar 31st Jul '18 - 11:53pm

    @ Jayne Mansfield. True, Jayne, that the powerful, wealthy and privileged have carried on unchecked – my point being that there has been no chance of checking them with the sheer waste, misdirection or standstill of these two years since the Referendum. If Brexit is stopped, there will be a chance for the progressive forces to regroup, perhaps with some conscious acknowledgement such as attaching Progressive Movement to their party label as has been suggested on another thread, and work together for the country’s healing. When there is no longer cause for the current deep divisions, if we have the right result this winter, work can then begin on undermining the enemy and developing the general welfare of our people. Our party should prepare to lead such a forward movement with energetic unity at its autumn Conference.

  • Liberalism does not conform to the political philosophies of either the Left or the Right.

    Liberal and social democratic philosophy is distinct from capitalism and socialism. It is a comprehensive social theory on a par with public choice theory or socialism. Our major aim has to be to enhance the visibility and credibility of Liberalism as a pragmatic and viable approach to analyzing and resolving modern day social problems.

    Liberal values are the foundation from which evidenc based policies spring.

  • Innocent Bystander 1st Aug '18 - 3:11am

    “and work together for the country’s healing.”
    The nation was torn apart by the first referendum. Since then the losing side has accused the winners of racism, bigotry, stupidity and being easily hoodwinked dupes.
    The delusional notion that a second one would be characterised by Leave voters admitting they were wrong and the Remain voters graciously forgiving them followed by tearful hugs and kisses is an extremely dangerous naivety which will take the nation to a dark and irrecoverable place.

  • Whenever I hear that political parties are an anachronism and therefore we need something new, I think about how tables are very old-fashioned but do the job of keeping my dinner off the floor rather well.

  • Peter Martin 1st Aug '18 - 8:00am

    @ JoeB,

    “Liberal and social democratic philosophy is distinct from capitalism”

    Is this really true? Whenever, and wherever in the world, has there been a society which has been anything like Liberal, or liberal, which hasn’t also been capitalist?

    The Liberal Party emerged in the 19th century as the party of commerce and trade as distinct from the Tories who were more representative of the traditional, and more reactionary, landowning classes.

    There’s nothing wrong with capitalism per se. There good capitalism, the capitalism that produces the goods and services we all rely on, and the not so good capitalism that seeks only rental income (as you would put it) and capital gains. The asset strippers the predatory capitalists etc.

    They do need a strong national democratically legitimised government to keep them in check. The Govt can also take a share in the ownership of key industries and services, like the banks for example, to further keep them in line. We can have a mixed economy which still largely capitalist in nature. The ownership of the railways, for example, in part or in whole, by the state doesn’t change the balance in society very much. If the State buys shares, that is always at the market price. So isn’t that more State Capitalism than socialism?

  • I read the thread (including the attachments) and, far from saying nothing, what it does say is anything but democratic.

    ………………………..Item 3. It must be able to communicate effectively, concisely and theatrically to capture people’s emotions rather than trying to engage them in complex policy discussion……………………..

    Donald Trump could have written that bit. Let’s wave flags, print soundbites on posters and play with ‘smoke and mirrors’. The masses are far too thick to understand so let’s keep real politics for us, the elite.

    ………………………………….Item 4. It must be clear on which constituency it is appealing to and ensure that its ‘package’ is clearly directed at that constituency…………………………..

    We don’t actually believe in anything but we want to get elected. So, we’ll support fracking (‘cos it will mean cheaper fuel costs) in an area unaffected by the threat of fracking and condemn fracking (‘cos it blights the environment) in an area where fracking is likely?.

    Who writes this nonsense?

  • William Fowler 1st Aug '18 - 8:40am

    As asinine and removed from reality as Corbyn’s policies are, he must be commended for actually responding to voters’ emails and even quoting them in parliament. More of this interaction with the voters is needed, most have no interest in joining committees etc.

    The Really Sensible Political Party is probably a good idea but will equally have large swathes of the public falling over in a fit of boredom.

  • Geoffrey Payne 1st Aug '18 - 1:18pm

    It is a remarkable achievement by the author to write such a long article without saying anything.
    I am surprised that LDV allowed him to exceed the 500 word limit that the rest of us have to stick to.
    The party of course has it’s own internal democracy and long may it continue until someone proposes something better – which they never do.

  • Peter Hirst 1st Aug '18 - 5:16pm

    Another slant is to make more use of independent systems such as vote match that allow an electorate to match their views against each of the Party’s. People want to make informed choices with limited time. It is not sufficient to make voting easier and fairer. Many want to feel they can make a reasoned decision, free of political pressure.

  • Joe Z-L is right to take aim at the complacent view that party structures are “democratically controlled” and the numbers back him.

    In the Federal Committee elections for 2017, the directly-elected members of the Federal Board won an average of only 370 first preference votes, well under 0.5% of the then membership while the comparable figure for the Federal Policy Committee was under 0.4% of the then membership. Directly elected members are around half the total voting membership on both committees. These were, so I’ve been told, a big improvement on earlier years but I don’t have that data.

    Moreover, if you dig down into how policy is officially made things don’t improve. The number serving on active Policy Working Groups at any one time is tiny – circa 100. Of course, Local parties and others can also put in policy motions, but few do – it’s very much a minority sport.

    Strategically, a small party with limited resources should aim to be nimble, learn to do more with less and utilise the skills of its members. Yet we have burdened ourselves with a “byzantine bureaucracy” at least as impenetrable as the big parties and, arguably, even more so.

    After three decades’ experience, we know without a shadow of doubt that all this doesn’t work.

    So, I agree with Joe Z-L that we should be VERY dissatisfied with the status quo. However, I’m not persuaded by his hints on how it might be changed.

  • After the 2015 GE the party published consultation papers on (a) Policy-making and (b) Governance. The first was rather good, clearly based on experience; the second was dire, not even getting to first base IMO.

    Four things struck me:
    Firstly, that, as currently constituted, policy-making is very much a top down activity and, moreover, one dominated by party insiders and those from London and the SE.
    Secondly, it’s a slow and clunky process with very low bandwidth and few policy papers to cover the entire policy waterfront – the opposite of nimble.
    Thirdly, that it delivers the lowest common denominator of policy, thereby squeezing out innovative thinking and vision.
    Fourthly, that, formally-speaking, the leader and spokespeople have no power to make policy on the hoof outside the official process yet in practice they must which is not fair on either them or the party.

    These are serious shortcomings and the consequences for the leadership are particularly severe IMO. Leadership candidates must spout the official party line, reducing elections to a formulaic beauty competition. As rising stars, they get no practice in learning to discriminate good advice from bad (a key leadership skill since time immemorial) and no experience of integrating policy with practical politics. Instead they are, in effect, mandated to go on Newsnight or QT and argue for some depressingly staid policy with little or no vision and all the bite of leftover lettuce.

    So, we should ask what we mean by ‘democratic’ in the context of party management.

    It strikes me the Party organisation is designed for political hobbyists. That would have made a lot of sense (been necessary even) when the whole Parliamentary party could travel in the same Mini (and may be again at this rate!) but most people simply aren’t that interested. They just want good government by those who see the world as they do and who can be trusted to deliver.

    For my money, the key to a properly democratic party is that it’s easy to fire politicians who prove to be out of their depth, lose the support of colleagues or go off-piste without good reason. That points to a very different approach to organisation, one that gives more freedom to leaders/spokespeople – but only in return for less job security.

  • Joseph Bourke,
    “Liberals are not egalitarian levelers; the only equality sought is equal freedom of opportunity”.

    Liberals do not just seek equality of opportunities, to me that this Conservativism as advocated in the 1970’s and from time to time since. Liberals seek equality of liberty and equality of freedom and recognise that there has to be a more equal society economically to make this happen. This is why as a Liberal I want the party to have policies to abolish relative poverty in the UK.

  • Michael BG,

    actual Libdem policies are focused around maintaining an adequate safety, eliminating homelessness, reducing inequality and achieving child poverty targets. Relative poverty (defined as income less than 60% of median) is a constantly moving target and hence appears more of an aspiration than a policy that can be delivered by legislation.

    As Mark Pack notes in his infographic balancing social and economic liberalism is at the heart of the party’s approach. Social liberalism is focused on inequality and promoting democracy as a means of empowering people. Economic Liberalism is more concerned with constraining the power of the state and ensuring people have the freedom to access to free markets.

    As Mark puts it “All Power (be it government, business or other people) can both protect and threaten Liberty. Economic and social Liberalism puts different emphasis on the best defences and biggest bullies, as well as the relative importance of equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome.

  • @Gordon. Quite shocked to know that the Federal board/policy committee are elected by so few people. Forgive my ignorance, but who are the electorate in this case. I don’t remember getting my voting papers ? And only 100 people involved in policy work ? 2011 was the 100th anniversary of Robert Michels Iron Law of Oligarchy. Plus ca change !

  • @GeoffreyPayne. Somewhat complacent ? Internal democracy fine and no one ever suggests any changes anyway, apparently. Ok, here’s one change. Local policy forums to become part of the official policy making process. Forums formed at constituency level, with smaller constituencies coming together (eg to form an East Dorset P.F., to give just an example). They would look at policy papers, make recommendations which would have to be considered by the policy working party at regional/federal level.
    Even the Conservatives have local policy forums. It’s coming to something when they can teach us something about internal democracy.

  • OnceALibDem 2nd Aug '18 - 8:47am

    The thrust of Vince’s idea of a non-MP leader seems to be about having Gina Miller as the new party leader.

    That would be the Gina Miller who said “British voters want Brexit and we must bring it about as successfully as we can.”

  • Peter Martin 2nd Aug '18 - 8:48am

    @ JoeB,

    I think you’re confusing capitalism with Conservatism. The supposedly socialist post war period was essentially a mixture of socialism and capitalism. The NHS, and other measures to bring about the welfare state, were socialist. But the nationalisations were more the state becoming involved in capitalism, state capitalism if you like, than socialism.

    We can have a societies of the left, centre or of the right; Socialist, Lib Dem or Conservative, which will all be capitalist to some extent. I’ve no problem with that providing that capitalism is working for the greater good rather than we, as individuals, are working for the capitalists.

    I’d have thought that could be a Lib Dem interpretation too, but it’s not exclusive to Lib Dems.

  • John Roffey 2nd Aug '18 - 9:43am

    @Peter Martin – “providing that capitalism is working for the greater good rather than we, as individuals, are working for the capitalists.”

    If that is what is wanted by the Party – it will have to oppose the Global Free Market. Previously there was a supposed ‘trickle down effect’ which meant that everyone benefited from capitalism. Since the Global Free Market was introduced there has been an upwards flood of wealth to the very wealthiest.

    Richest 1% own half the world’s wealth, study finds

    “The globe’s richest 1% own half the world’s wealth, according to a new report highlighting the growing gap between the super-rich and everyone else.

    The world’s richest people have seen their share of the globe’s total wealth increase from 42.5% at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1% in 2017, or $140tn (£106tn), according to Credit Suisse’s global wealth report published on Tuesday.”

  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd Aug '18 - 1:23pm

    The party of Liberals should do as the philosophy of Liberalism advocates, get rid of unnecessary waste and bureaucracy, put the emphasis on people as individuals and in society.

    Slimline and effective structures, eliminate these committees and make conference once a year more of a networking convention and festival of ideas, policy decided as a result of local groups input and individuals as the party members, votes online.

  • Joe, you were not discussing Lib Dem policies but Liberalism. I note that you now admit that reducing economic inequalities is a Liberal policy. Of course a government can ensure than no one has an income less than 60% of the median. It can peg benefits at the 60% rate for each household type and ensure no one is paid less than 60% of median earnings (National Living Wage 2020 rate). This would cost less than increasing the Income Tax Personal Allowance from £6475 to £10,660 did under the Coalition government which cost £24.6 billion. It could be done over five years just like the increase in personal allowance. It would mean increasing government spending by less than a fifth of a percentage point of GDP each year.

    Chris Cory, all members can take part in the consultation exercise, however I like your idea of local policy forums. The issues would be when it would take place and how much influence it would have. It could take place before the final paper is produce when it is in draft form and perhaps it should be the Federal Policy Committee who decides which ideas from the local policy forums get included rather than the policy working group.

  • Chris Cory – the electorate is the membership. Those figures were for elections held in December 2016 but there may be a delay before new members get on the list.

    The 100 involved in policy work is based on about 25 members per Working Group with usually about four active at any one time. There might occasionally be more, and one might add a few staffers etc. but I can’t see that making a big difference.

    Policy-making is an odd beast. It’s imperative to get the best input from as near to the ‘coal-face’ as possible and somehow merge all that knowledge into a coherent whole that makes strategic sense and isn’t pulling the wrong way or in multiple directions at the same time.

    In practice, that means that someone (usually a small group) at the centre has to sort through an immense pile of ‘good ideas’ (some of which are actually bad and some of which are good but just don’t fit) coming from the all directions – the ‘coal-face’ obviously, but also academia and elsewhere.

    There will be many ways to compile these ideas so that they add up to a thoroughly Liberal platform, but they will vary in appeal to various groups. Hence one of the key tasks of the leader should be to oversee a selection of ideas that cohere well and support a winning ‘big tent’ platform.

    Unfortunately, in the Lib Dem system, the leader is only a mouthpiece for the ideas of others who are unknown to and unaccountable to the electorate.

    It also fails because it tries to work by passing ideas upwards through layers of (inevitable) bureaucracy to the centre. Politics intrudes, and the ideas that arrive will lack coherence however good they may be on a stand-alone basis. It’s not for nothing that it’s said that when a committee sets out to design a horse it finishes with a camel.

    Hence the party is organisationally incapable of coming up with a ‘narrative’ on the one hand, while on the other, ideas from the margins MUST be ignored (in practice, although lip-service is OK) because it’s inconceivable to undo any part of the carefully and laborious work of the policy bureaucracy. So, this isn’t and shouldn’t be construed as a criticism of the people involved; it’s about the organisational structures and dodgy assumptions that underly them.

  • Joe Bourke (comment: 1/8 @ 4:25 pm)

    ”Modern Liberalism is built upon the foundations laid by the classical economists.”

    Just so! And that is part of Liberalism’s problem today; it needs an new economics that creates a paradigm shift in its understanding of how the world works.

    Victorian economists were inspired by contemporary physics which was advancing fast. It seemed the physicists were uncovering a world governed by rules like very superior clockwork; once you understood those rules all sorts of important insights and predictions followed. What was not to like?

    So, building on some of the work (see footnote) of early pioneers like Adam Smith, they came up with classical economics whose descendant, ‘neoclassical economics’ is by far the most dominant school today.

    Like the physics of the 1870s it sees a world driven by simple rules. In place of the physicists’ gravity it proposes supply and demand meeting at a point mediated by price and hence, like the solar system, capable of mathematical modelling.

    Unfortunately, it’s all nonsense. The economy is not like clockwork; rather it is a ‘complex system’ as is the solar system and they are fundamentally unpredictable, non-linear and unforecastable. The difference from clockwork is comparable to that between the Ptolemaic solar system with the Earth at the centre and the Copernican one orbiting the Sun.

    Just imagine, if you can, if NASA believed in a Ptolemaic solar system. They might succeed in getting a spacecraft to the Moon (which does indeed orbit the Earth) but those to other destinations would never arrive. That is a big part of why economic forecasts are so rubbish.

    So how come economists didn’t all abandon the neoclassical school? The answer I think is that it happens to suit the interests of powerful people in that it says, in effect, that equilibrium rules – hands-off and things will come good by the power of markets. Meanwhile, those same powerful people are, quietly behind the scenes, very much hands-on, tilting things to their own advantage.

    Hence, neoclassical economics fills the same role today as the Divine Right of Kings did for Charles I – a pseudo-religious justification for what he wanted.

    Footnote: ‘some of’ because where Adam Smith’s thoughts are inconvenient they are ignored.

  • Joseph Bourke, you are incorrect the National Minimum Wage is planned to reach 60% of medium UK earning by 2020 which George Osborne forecast as £9 an hour. At £7.83 an hour it hasn’t reached that target yet.

    Did you not read the first half of “It can peg benefits at the 60% rate for each household type and ensure no one is paid less than 60% of median earnings (National Living Wage 2020 rate)”? The pegging of the benefit level would be excluding rent and housing benefit would be reformed so housing benefit actually pays the cost of the rent people pay. Less than 20% of pensioners live in relative poverty. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation “14 million people live in poverty in the UK – over one in five of the population. This is made up of eight million working-age adults, four million children and 1.9 million pensioners. 8 million live in families where at least one person is in work”.

    My three suggestions would remove most of the 8 million people who live in families in work from relative poverty and if we include pensions in “benefits” all pensioners too.

    Increasing Child Benefit and ensuring that the Universal Credit rate for each and every child is £66.90 per week linked to inflation would I think along with the above remove all children from living in relative poverty as well.

  • Neil Sandison 4th Aug '18 - 1:24pm

    It is interesting to note that in a poll recently publish by Mark Pack most voters put themselves into the social liberal bracket and not in the socialist or capitalist bracket .Thankfully there were only a few openly fascist ,nationalist or pro- Trump /UKIP types .This says to me when they voters dump Theresa May and her Brexit damaged government there is a huge pool of moderate socially aware and responsible electors to play for i will not define them as centrist that is an inadequate badge to label them with or explain their reasonable and decent outlook on life..

  • Simon Banks 1st Oct '18 - 10:04am

    Because something is unpopular does not mean it’s anachronistic. The unpopularity of joining political parties is mainly down to two things:

    1: The deliberate rubbishing of democratic politics by commercial interests to make it harder for governments to rein them in;
    2: A growing dislike of making a firm commitment to any organisation on individualistic grounds that it restricts freedom (wrong, I believe) and that you’re likely to be asked to do more than you planned (right). This does not just apply to political parties.

    Yes, we can learn a lot from more modern movements, but we shouldn’t turn off our critical faculties. Movements like Avaaz and 38 degrees are not democratic. They don’t tell their armies of activists how the key decisions are taken, by whom, how chosen. We should learn from En Marche! but remember it’s very new, it hasn’t had to face the loss or deep unpopularity of the leader around whom it was formed and the French have a history of today’s-marvel-tomorrow’s-nothing-left political movements. Judge it in ten years’ time.

    Similarly, agreeing as I do with the statement that the Party needs to reform should not equate to supporting detailed proposals uncritically. To think a supporter scheme is a very good idea is not to assent to nil-subscription supposed supporters choosing a celebrity leader who doesn’t understand politics or activists, to take a worst case scenario. And while we’re reforming, how about that often-stated position, that the party has too many levels? I agree. Yet the last (now rejected) proposals just took the democracy out of one of the levels.

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