Radical, distinctive and quite possibly the start of something big

How do we get off 8%? We’ve been at or around that figure in the polls since well before the 2015 election, and despite our very clear and principled stance on Brexit, we’re still stuck.

Maybe we just need some ‘events, dear boy’. We’ve had precious few parliamentary by-elections, which were the lifeblood of the party’s momentum in the 1960s, 70s and 90s, and we haven’t had the kind of Iraq War issue that puts us on the right side of public opinion and leaves the Conservatives and Labour on the wrong side. But do we just wait for such an event to arise?

No, we have to grasp the nettle and do something, and if you’re going to be in Southport for the Lib Dem conference, please come to a fringe meeting that involves doing just that. It’s only for an hour, and at 6.15pm on the Saturday night before the alcohol starts flowing. But it’s aimed at starting the ball rolling towards the party finding a handful of policies that can define us as a caring, distinctive and radical social force in British politics.

Entitled ‘Radical Liberalism – defining what we stand for’, it builds on a paper Paul Pettinger and I wrote in the autumn, and which was the subject of a piece we jointly wrote on LDV on 27 October. Many of the responses from LDV readers were very helpful, and have helped shape the meeting we’re organising in Southport in association with Social Liberal Forum and Compass.

The two central thrusts of that paper – which are also the two thrusts of our meeting – are that we need to be defined in policy terms, not in relation to other parties, and we need to frame our policies so others who support what we stand for in elections where we can win (and their preferred party can’t) feel able to vote Lib Dem. There is also an implied willingness to work with people of other parties who have a similar mindset to ours, be it pre- or post-election, public or behind-the-scenes. As elections get closer, the media will try to present a Lib Dem vote as a closet vote for another party; we will find it easier to rebut such coverage if we can say ‘We’re clear what we stand for – if you agree with it, just vote for us!’

If you baulk at the word ‘radical’, don’t worry. We’re not talking about extremism, just about change from the roots. But we do need Lib Dem policies to be distinctive so we can easily define what we stand for, so if you prefer the word ‘distinctive’ to ‘radical’, you’re still on the same page as us.

Do come along and help us get the ball rolling in Southport. You could be in at the start of something big!

* Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate. He writes on cross-party cooperation and in 2021 was the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.

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  • Chris, I share your concern that in elections it is often framed that a vote for the Lib Dems is a de-facto vote for someone else. I therefore do not understand your support for a “progressive alliance”, as surely this would ensure that a vote for the Lib Dems is a de-facto vote for Labour? The appears to be a disconnect between the two ideas.

  • Michael Cole 23rd Feb '18 - 12:30pm

    I agree with Andy. Advocating the need for a ‘progressive alliance’ is perceived to be a call to unite behind the Labour Party.

    Chris: Yes, we certainly need to define what we stand for in policy terms. Not only a comprehensive paper but also a brief statement of Liberal Democrat beliefs and aspirations.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Feb '18 - 12:50pm


    With our colleagues , here, there are some issues with this.

    You do not define radical. Too often when good colleagues call their views radical centre, they are criticised, oh, that is a contradiction. No, as you feel necessary, to be distinct from extremist, is itself radical if the left and right are the populist and default direction at times wrongly in our view.

    You talk of distinct. This word, is like,weather, there is good or pleasant, and bad and unpleasant whether, and thus distinct is the same. Nazis were distinct , as were various lunatic fringes originally. We are distinct if we are mainstream and too few are.

    Why is everybody here ignoring Renew, the new spoilers ?! They are making a pitch for those we already have, they would be admirable if this party had collapsed, but it has not.

    Are we to be in alliance with others ? That is not distinct.

    Why so many contradictions and conundrums ?!

  • I, too, agree with Andy

    “6.15pm on the Saturday night before the alcohol starts flowing”

    Oh my sweet summer child…

  • Phil Beesley 23rd Feb '18 - 1:16pm

    Chris Bowers is spot on that Lib Dems need distinct policies based on liberalism.

    “Maybe we just need some ‘events, dear boy’.” Or maybe a top place in the ballot for Private Member’s Bills? It’s OK to have some good fortune, but the party needs something different to offer for when it gets lucky. It could be a quick win, something that liberals across all parties support; or a slow mover of public opinion.

  • Phil Beesley 23rd Feb '18 - 4:33pm

    Lorenzo asks, “Why so many contradictions and conundrums ?!”

    The term ‘radical’ means so many different things… In the context of Lib Dems, one might use ‘radical’ to describe anyone who thinks that the party is insufficiently liberal — a bit stuck in the centre.

    Stuck in the centre is a dreadful position for Lib Dems, philosophically or strategically. But it is where the party exists — with a few edgy policies — in order to survive under FPTP. If there is an idea that differentiates Lib Dems for a generation, I haven’t head about it.

  • John Marriott 23rd Feb '18 - 4:52pm

    Why did first the SDP, then the alliance and, more recently, the (Social and) Liberal Democrats, make inroads in terms of votes and, despite FPTP, some seats? Because the old ‘two party’ hegemony was seen by many floating voters to be wearing thin. So, what went wrong?

    Well, there would appear to be many people who really can’t get their heads around pluralism as reflected in multi party politics, which means parties working together, either in coalitions or in areas such as confidence and supply. So, at the first setback, they revert to the status quo ante. Welcome to the world of black and white, or rather red and blue, with apparently no place for gold (or whatever shade of yellow, gold and orange seems to be the local favourite).

    In Germany, the Lib Dems’ sister party, the so called business friendly FDP used to be known by the term “Das Zünglein auf der Waage”, the ‘little tongue’ that tips the scale either to the left or to the right. Over many years after WW2 a succession of coalition governments involving the FDP, not forgetting a generous injection of the mighty dollar from across the Atlantic, brought stability and economic progress to a country whose post war devastation was far worse than ours.

    If only we had PR that could be the Lib Dems’ rôle.

    That’s what

  • John Marriott 23rd Feb '18 - 5:47pm

    the Lib Dems should be trying achieve. (The end of the sentence was missing)

  • Neil Sandison 23rd Feb '18 - 7:39pm

    Perhaps rather than define ourselves by late twentieth century standards we should look towards the radical liberalism of David Lloyd George,Maynard Keynes,William Beverage and Roy Jenkins .The tired politics we have seen since John Major and all those who have followed him lacked the cutting edge of radicalism and social reform ,has largely been about maintaining the status quo, and has left many behind as little more than the tools of global capitalism and progressive politics has harked backed to a romantic 70s vision of state ownership which failed in its own time let alone equips us for an an increasingly automated global market . Liberty and social justice must come with rights ,community enpowerment and a greater say in how we shape a modern liberal democracy from the parish council to our parliament .

  • Rob Parsons 23rd Feb '18 - 8:00pm

    To my mind the above comments illustrate how difficult we make it for ourselves to make progress. Of course other people frame us in terms of the two main parties, and of course FPTP works against us. Should we just give up and go home because the playing field is not level?

    We need to take into account other parties’ positions and other people’s perceptions. They are, after all, the real world. But we need to stop using those ourselves to define what the LibDems are for, and we need to stop seeing them as immovable objects.

    To my mind, the word radical is not all that helpful. It is used far too differently and far too loosely by far too many people for anyone to know what it means in any given context. But I think in the case of this article, it stands for the option to make a coherent and convincing statement of what we stand for in our own terms. So perhaps instead of constantly saying “What about the others?” we might give the author credit for trying to start the debate that we need to have: what do *we* think we stand for?

  • Peter Watson 24th Feb '18 - 9:15am

    “Radical, distinctive”
    I agree with the thrust of the article, in particular the need to “grasp the nettle and do something” and the “need to be defined in policy terms”. but obviously the challenge is determining those “radical, distinctive” policies!

    Barnaby makes his point strongly and focuses on Brexit, but I think he touches a nerve when he highlights how very conservative Lib Dems have appeared in the last 5 or more years. So much time and energy has been spent on simply attacking the policies of Labour, Conservative, SNP, UKIP, etc. that Lib Dems just look like the party of “no change”.

    My own particular bugbear is grammar schools. To me, the Lib Dem policy of opposing the expansion of the grammar school system while simultaneously refusing to do anything about removing it epitomises a fence-sitting approach that prioritises maintaining the status quo instead of consistency and principle.

  • John Roffey 24th Feb '18 - 9:48am

    As an ex member – who left because of the Party’s support for Osborne’s ‘austerity measures’ whilst in coalition – it seems to me that Lib/Dems real strength is that it is ‘Not paid for by trade unions or millionaires’ – although ‘millionaires’ no longer seems appropriate at a time when it is mostly global corporations who fund the ‘right’ in the UK and both the ‘left and right’ in the US.

    Having spent nearly a year as a member of Labour – I was struck by the ‘top down’ management of the Party – that the membership seemed to have little real say in what policies are adopted. This appears to reinforce the fact that it is ‘paid for by trade unions’.

    These are tough times for the smaller parties – with Brexit centre stage – and likely to remain so for some time. It seems to me that the Party would be wise to remove itself from the Brexit debate now – Vince Cable did try to make it the focus for the Remainers – but it is now clear that there is little chance of us remaining in the EU – it is only the form of our departure that is in doubt.

    On descriptions such as ‘radical’ and ‘progressive’ – I would suggest that ‘stable’ is probably the adjective the electorate most crave – with the horrors depicted by either side if ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit is the eventual outcome

  • John Marriott 24th Feb '18 - 11:05am

    Rob Parsons asks (I assume rhetorically) “ Should we just give up and go home because the playing field is not level? “. Of course not. There will be generations of people coming along with the idealism and energy I thought I had once.

    Frederick Herzberg, a US behavioural psychologist, spent many years studying motivational factors in the workplace. I came across him in the 1980s when studying for a Diploma in Educaton Management at the then Trent Polytechnic. From the multilayered plethora of research data emerge two types of people, those who are motivated to achieve more, if you like, to work outside the box and to challenge the system and those for whom happiness can be defined more simply as having a roof over your head, food in your stomach and enough money to get by (what Herzberg called ‘hygiene factors’).

    It probably sounds rather esoteric to those of you still reading this. However, if you compare Liberals to the ‘motivators’ and those who are happy with the status quo politically as the ‘hygiene factorists’ you might see what I’m getting at! The latter just want to get on with their lives and do not challenge the system. A vote for Tory or Labour, if they bother to vote at all, is good enough for them. They might just get motivated by the odd issue, usually when their financial or emotional comfort zone is about to be invaded, such as someone planning to build in the field behind them, or to build a bail hostel nearby. It might be their inability to get their child into the school of their choice etc. etc. The usual response is “what’s it going to do to house prices?” However, that doesn’t mean, of course, that they are bad people. Why, often in local elections many are prepared to look past the binary choice of blue and red, especially if the alternative is local, vocal and active and somebody you don’t just hear from at election time. That’s basically how I rose ‘to the top’ in true blue Lincolnshire.

    Clive James famously wrote in his Observer column the Sunday after Mrs Thatcher swept to power at the end of the 1979 ‘Winter of Discontent’ something like “ Well, now that greed has become patriotic”. For the Tories it’s ‘vote for us and you will all pay less’. For Labour it’s ‘vote for us and some people will pay more – but not you’.

  • John Roffey 24th Feb ’18 – 9:48am………Having spent nearly a year as a member of Labour – I was struck by the ‘top down’ management of the Party – that the membership seemed to have little real say in what policies are adopted. This appears to reinforce the fact that it is ‘paid for by trade unions’…………

    I suggest you look at the way our members’ views were treated when our leaders were in a position of government…

  • John Roffey 24th Feb '18 - 1:02pm

    expats “I suggest you look at the way our members’ views were treated when our leaders were in a position of government…”

    Yes – if it is not clear from my post – it is the reason that I left the Party during that period.

    However, I must assume that a more pragmatic approach will develop before a Brexit deal has been finalised as it seems unlikely that enough Tories will vote against the Party to cause a GE before 2022. If this is the case – the Lib/Dems will start to lose support if they continue with the ‘remain in [or rejoin] the EU’ theme after the bird is flown.

    Policies that will be pertinent after 2022 with the UK out of the EU [whether through a hard or soft Brexit] – are needed. Climate change seems a likely candidate as the Greens seem to concentrate on social policies – and have paid the price in the polls as a result.

  • Rob Parsons 24th Feb '18 - 1:29pm

    Peter (24th 9.15 a.m.), Barnaby is just trolling, and is best left to his own devices. He is determined, like many Leave voters, to have his own truth, regardless of reality. He is a very good example of the framing problem, though. He says what other people say about us, and will go on saying it loudly, regardless of what we actually do. We are just a Europe party is what many people say about us, but that could not be further from the truth. Look at the work we have done in just the last few weeks on mental health, education, housing and all sorts of other things. It is very tempting to be sucked into Barnaby’s world, but it is not true. So the first thing we need to do is to keep telling ourselves that Barnaby’s world is not true.

    Ater that, we need to hone our policies. I think your example of grammar schools is a good one. In my view it is how principle gets tempered into reality. I dare say a lot of people thought this is the best we could do in terms of presenting what we want to the public. It is also a difficult one because of clashes of principles. For instance, we believe in localism. If a local authority chooses to have a selective system, how much right does central government have to interfere? If you look our whole policy on education it tends in the right direction. (https://www.libdems.org.uk/education and look at the section on driving up school standards) In that context, I can live with half a policy on grammar schools. You could say it is about priorities – my priority would be to increase funding for all our schools (effectiveness), have them all inspected under the same regime (fairness) and give local authorities realistic powers to determine need and meet it (fairness and localism). But my overall point is that these are all good Liberal Democrat principles which we can be proud about. We don’t have to listen to the Barnabys even though many other people are.

  • Peter Hirst 24th Feb '18 - 1:55pm

    Our policies in the manifesto need to be targeted at all the seats where we were second as it these that provide the immediate springboard for further success. If voters are going to support us, they must feel that their vote will achieve something. I think a more vigororous attack on the other two, making them out, as they are, as identical Parties in all but name might help.

  • John Marriott 25th Feb '18 - 8:31am

    @Rob Parsons
    Agent provocateur he may be, but ‘Barnaby’ is right about at least one thing, namely the Lib Dems’ inability even to be a critical friend of the EU. For me and many others, this was epitomised in the Clegg/Farage debates, when the former reckoned that the EU would be “more or less the same in ten years’ time”. If only he had left out the “more” and concentrated on the “less”.

    As someone who has studied in France and Germany and also briefly earned my living in the latter, I have now seen the ‘Common Market’ from the point of view of the citizens of at least three of its constituent members. Having lived and worked in Canada in the early 1970s I’ve also had the benefit of seeing European developments ‘from outside’, as to speak. Many of them are aware of the many mistakes made along the way and most are equally patriotic as we Brits claim to be. The UK could have done far more to harness those fears in a constructive way, indeed taking the lead its politicians claim to want to do. The Lib Dems, as probably the most europhile party, could have been first ‘over the top’. How sad for them and all of us, who see the economic benefits of membership but do not want the trappings of burgeoning federailism as apparently preached by those whose ideals were forged in a different age when Europe really did appear to be the centre of the Universe.

  • John, I agree with you. Nick’s “more or less the same” was the biggest mistake he made in his tenure as leader. The EU needs to change and we should be articulating how we want to change it. But that also needs to be seen in terms of framing. The EU is seen by many people in adversarial terms, us versus them, instead of in terms of co-operation. Sovereignty is one of the key issues there – it is portrayed as our sovereignty being given up, or even surrendered, rather than sharing our sovereignty with the other member countries and having a share of theirs. That is another area where we start by being clear about what we believe rather than what other people would have us believe.

  • Peter Watson 25th Feb '18 - 11:39am

    @Rob Parsons “Nick’s “more or less the same” was the biggest mistake he made in his tenure as leader.”
    Hmmmm. I think you could start a very long thread about which was the biggest but probably best not to! 😉

  • Peter – yes, I new I’d get that response from someone 🙂 But, yes, I think it was his biggest.

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