Restating our political identity through a new liberal manifesto

Do you remember what you were doing on the evening of 16 April 2015? The chances are you were in front of your telly, as I was, watching the seven leaders’ TV debate in the run-up to the general election. I have a distinct memory of that night: I became aware I could sum of what six of the seven parties stood for in three or four seconds, but the one I struggled with was my own party.

We must be careful not to make too much of the ‘Do people know what we stand for?’ line, as politics is more about which parties feel right and trustworthy. But in a political culture dominated by two main parties, and a media culture governed by two sides to a story, it’s very hard for a third party to create an identity in the minds of the average voter. As a result, the Lib Dems have become in many voters’ eyes a compromise between Labour and the Conservatives, an image we have not shied away from encouraging with slogans such as ‘Stronger economy, fairer society’.

But we are not a compromise, we stand for something! The problem is that what we stand for is not easily summarised, the way being pro-environment is for the Greens or being anti-EU was for Ukip. So, we need to find a way of encapsulating what we offer.

We have the advantage of a political philosophy going back 400 years – liberalism – but to many people that’s just a crusty historical term long since mothballed.

Therefore, the first thing we need to do is dust off liberalism and reinvigorate it for today’s world, and that’s what a group of five of us have done in publishing ‘The New Liberal Manifesto’. It’s not a pre-election manifesto the way we understand the word but a restatement of the party’s liberal creed in relation to the major issues of the 2020s. It should serve as a forerunner of the Lib Dem manifesto for the 2023/24 general election, but essentially it’s a discussion document aimed at saying: this is where we come from, now let’s formulate an identity and a programme.

The New Liberal Manifesto sets out what liberalism has been historically, why it needs revitalising, and which issues need to feature most prominently in a Lib Dem party programme or conventional manifesto. Because we are talking about the principles of liberalism – some of which are valid even when we have no electoral benefit from being liberal – we have been able to go further than a ‘normal’ manifesto would go, but we have still been conscious of Realpolitik.

The five who have put this together embrace just about every level of Lib Dem activity, from grass roots activism to ex-MP and council leader, through federal party membership, academia, civil service, and liberal history. It doesn’t mean we’ve ‘got it right’, and we fully expect some party members to disagree with certain passages. But what’s important is that we have a discussion about where liberalism leads us in terms of how we present ourselves to the electorate.

And a better understanding of the Lib Dems will help both liberals and non-liberals. Those weighing up whether to vote for us who don’t naturally gravitate towards the Liberal Democrats may be encouraged to find there’s more that unites us than divides us. And if we end up with a hung parliament where some form of cooperation is necessary with other parties, those parties are entitled to know what floats the liberal’s boat.

So are we any closer to summarising the Lib Dems in three or four seconds? We don’t go there in the New Liberal Manifesto (we thought about it but felt that was a debate for another day), but having worked on the project for the best part of three years, I would say any summary must include individual liberty. Yet we need to make clear it’s a different liberty than the Tories’ ‘I’m all right, Jack, so to hell with the rest of the world’ – we need to get our compassion in there somewhere. ‘A compassionate society where the individual comes first’? Well, it’s up for discussion.

The New Liberal Manifesto can be downloaded free of charge from its own website, www.newliberalmanifesto.org.uk. An accessible (text-only) version is also available.

* Chris Bowers, a former director of the Environmental Transport Association and communications consultant to the European NGO umbrella Transport & Environment, oversaw the development and writing of the transport chapter of the 2019 review of the Liberal Democrats’ climate change policy. He is standing as a target seat candidate in the East Sussex County Council elections.

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59 Comments

  • John Marriott 3rd Dec '21 - 11:43am

    Politics is really show biz by another name. By all means refresh your manifesto; however, whatever becomes your script, you need the right people up front to deliver it, people with whom the voters can easily identify, people with knowledge of real life and with a sense of humour when required at times. It’s first impressions that count; not a load of policies and earnest faces telling people what’s good for them. It’s like David Penhaligon’s FOCUS advice, which went something like “you’ve got about ten seconds from the moment they pick it up to grab their attention before it ends up in the bin”.

    I thought Wendy Chamberlain’s performance in last night’s ‘Question Time’ was the type of mature performance the party needs. I particularly liked Fiona Bruce’s faux ‘surprise’ when she wished Labour well with its recent Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. A bit of reciprocity would be welcome now, because it’s only by working together that the opposition parties are going to be able to beat the Tories. The key will be when senior Labour politicians start using the words ‘Liberal Democrat’ instead of just ‘Liberal’

  • @ John Marriott Spot on, John. Time for a change used to be our slogan.

    Wendy Chamberlain did well in a no nonsense way that cut through. Maybe it’s time for Lib Dems to consider following the example at Old Trafford recently (especially after getting just 2.9% in a constituency next door to what we remember happened in Orpington in our youth). Oh for another Jo Grimond and a Pratap Chitnis.

    Almost felt sorry (but didn’t in the end) for the Tory ex Bradford Girls Grammar School lass who drew the short straw to be sent to the trenches as a sacrificial lamb for the Xmas partying General Melchett Johnson back in his Chateau.

  • Barry Lofty 3rd Dec '21 - 1:16pm

    I did not watch Question Time but according to John and David Wendy Chamberlain did the party proud, I am not surprised because,as I have told my daily newspaper, the Liberal Democrats have a group of very able MPs in Parliament and the media should give them more of a chance to promote that ability, I know with the predominance of the right wing press there is not much chance of that happening, but never the less ???

  • nigel hunter 3rd Dec '21 - 2:30pm

    The words Libertarian and Liberal and Neo (non)Liberal,I believe,confuse the public as to who we are. Libertarian (Ayn Randism) is a way to describe the Tory version of liberal. We need to spell out CLEARLY and REGULAR what OUR word means

  • Changing your policy on PR might help a bit. Of course it goes without saying that the principle of endorsing fair votes is the right one and must be continued by your party as Britain needs a modern political system more than ever however your stance of only believing in the most obscure system of the Single Transferable Vote doesn’t maximise support for the needed principle. Being open to systems such as an upgraded version of Germany’s Mixed Member Proportional ie one with regional open lists instead of that country’s closed ones could help you gain support for PR, beat off the threat to you from the Greens and get more votes for your party.

  • Anthony Acton 3rd Dec '21 - 4:16pm

    I hope the New Liberal Manifesto gets the attention it deserves. Thank you to those who have produced it. When I renewed my membership recently I asked myself why. This paper goes a long way towards giving a credible answer. Coalition with the Conservatives destroyed the LIbDems as a national political force, just as William Hague forecast it would when he had negotiated the coalition agreement in 2010. The damage to our country since the Conservatives achieved that aim in 2015 has been catastrophic. This paper provides a much needed vision of a better way forward.

  • Rob Parsons 3rd Dec '21 - 4:21pm

    I find that a slightly odd thing to say, Steven. STV is certainly not obscure – it’s simple and quite easy to understand. Secondly, it’s policy, yes, but nobody is saying it’s the complete answer to democratic reform. There’s a lot else to be debated and decided – there needs to be a proper conversation with the voters about it.

  • Chris Moore 3rd Dec '21 - 4:26pm

    PR is desirable but it’s not a vote-winner. There are multiple lines of evidence that support this view.

    Fortunately, I believe the lesson of past failed GE campaigns centred on PR has been learnt.

    Almost none of the electorate give a fig about which PR system the Lib Dems favour. (Except Lib Dem members perhaps). Such obscurities do not decide their vote.

  • Chris Moore 3rd Dec '21 - 4:32pm

    David, we got 2.9% in Bexley because we only ran a token campaign.

    Labour are partially returning the favour in North Shrop.

    This is what co-operation between anti-Tory parties looks like. And you’re in favour of that.

    Our aim is to win N Shropshire and not squander very limited resources on a seat where we’ve been a distant also ran for several decades.

  • John Marriott 3rd Dec '21 - 4:55pm

    Oh, please, please, lay off PR for a bit, chaps. As for STV, it still means ‘Scottish Television’ to me (remember Lord Thompson of Fleet’s claiming that owning a TV station was “a licence to print money” in the good old days?).

    Look, most ORDINARY people are just not going to get excited about the voting system. Of course FPTP doesn’t reflect the plurality of politics today, where black and white have given way to multitude shades of grey. Chris Moore is 150% correct. Stop hiding behind semantics, if that’s the right word, unless you are afraid to discuss REAL issues that affect ordinary people. It’s time to learn a few lessons from history. What about a slogan to take the party forward? Here’s one for starters: “It doesn’t have to be like this”.

  • Rob Parsons 3rd Dec '21 - 5:15pm

    John 4.55pm I only mentioned PR because somebody brought it up in unflattering terms. The Manifesto itself is 24 pages long and has about 3 lines on PR. There’s a lot else to talk about 🙂

    And I agree that it takes a lot to get the great British public interested; but a lot more people are interested now than have been in the past, and also, it’s the right thing to do. If they’re still not interested, we have to find a way of selling it to them.

    *Disclaimer: I’m one of the reference group for the new manifesto project.

  • We are indebted to the reference group and should recognise the careful hard work that has gone into it. Not everyone will agree with every clause and we should be clear as to what the document is not. But at first reading it looks like a very good tool for holding the party together with philosophical integrity and a compass for our furure journeys together.

  • Denis Mollison 4th Dec '21 - 10:16am

    John Marriott (and others)

    If you can’t see that our disproportional electoral system is a major cause of our broken politics, there’s no helping you.
    And Chris Moore, can you tell me a bit more about our “past failed GE campaigns centred on PR”? I can’t remember any. What I remember is that we had a negotiating group with a chance in May 2010 who sold electoral reform down he river.

    Of course campaigning for electoral reform, and more broadly for fixing our political system, has to be linked to all the issues affected by that system. But since the structure of politics affects everything from diversity through health and education to climate change that shouldn’t be an insurmountable task.

    And as to system, it would be silly to weaken in our advocacy of the voter-centred STV system, when it is working successfully in Council elections in Scotland (thanks to the Liberal Democrats in coalition with Labour in 2003), and when the Welsh Senedd is actively considering changing from MMP to STV.

  • John Marriott 4th Dec '21 - 10:58am

    @Dennis Mollison
    You just don’t get it, do you? For your average voter – and these are the very people you need on your side – there are many things in life much more important than how they vote. Yes, how we vote is important to me and undoubtedly other members of that rather small coterie, presumably your good self, known as ‘political anoraks’ by those, who have better things to do.

    We’ve had the best part of thirty years (certainly since the emergence of the Lib Dem’s as a significant force) to try to convince the voters that many of our country’s ills stem from how we vote and we haven’t been very successful. Now I tend to agree that many of these ‘ills’ are a reflection on how we are governed, and I am sure you do as well. However, if that’s the case, how come we are where we are?

    It’s time to come up with policies to which many more people can relate and to find a group of politically motivated people – call them ‘politicians’ if you must – who can articulate these policies in a way people can understand. Sometimes, it may be a case of actually agreeing with other parties, even the Conservative Party – and why not, Ms Bruce? Why should politics always have to embody confrontation?

  • Denis Mollison 4th Dec '21 - 12:14pm

    @John Marriott – “You just don’t get it, do you?”

    There is no need to be rude. I know as well as you how hard it is to get the importance of electoral reform across to the average voter. That’s why, although it’s a key issue, we’ve never to my memory had a “GE campaign centred on PR”; in our last manifesto it got a para or so on page 80-something.

    We have some eloquent advocates in our party though who can get across the connection between how politics works and all the issues that directly affect voters – Wendy Chamberlain and Hina Bokhari for example – and we should support them. I agree very much that communicating the need for change to voters is more important than just talking among ourselves!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 4th Dec '21 - 1:23pm

    Chris, a terrific piece, on an effort I think looksfrom reading some of it, now, to be excellent.

    I think you could have given it a more individually oriented name. It is not THE, it is a, manifesto, and it is actually not even that, as it is not advocating many policies.

    Old Russell Conrad did something similar, as well as Michael Meadowcraft as well as me creating the website I link to here .https://theartsandhumanityscause.com/the-arts-and-humanitys-decree-the-statement-of-our-purpose/ I think you need a better name. What Is Liberalism?! Why it’s essential!

    That is nearly what you have written.

  • Rob Parsons 4th Dec '21 - 1:47pm

    It is yet another broken promise after the 2019 dossier pledged to keep the triple lock on pensions, not hike National Insurance, give 0.7% of national income in foreign aid, and ensure no one would have to sell their home to pay for care.

    The 2019 manifesto vowed to double the minimum PIP award, before claimants are reassessed for benefits, to 18 months.

    John, Dennis and others

    I think we’re shouting at each other two things that we actually agree on:

    a) voting reform is vital for our democracy,
    b) the public at large don’t care much about it.

    But I think an opportunity is shaping itself up given the corruption of the present government, which results directly, though only partly, from our broken voting system.

    The public is beginning to notice that there is something rotten in our politics. It’s embodied by Johnson but it goes much further than him. He is only there because a bunch of Tories and others thought that he could achieve their ends regardless of the wishes of the British people.

    We can sell voting reform as part of the solution to fixing the corruption and criminality that people are beginning to notice. We don’t need to have it as the headline – the headline is “Let’s fix this country”. A subheading some way down the text is “this also includes fundamental reform to our electoral system so that your vote always matters”.

    (As an aside, this is also – in my view – the best way for us to deal with the issue of the EU. The reality is we will not be back in the EU for a long time and not before we have indeed fixed this country. They won’t want to have back a country as corrupt as ours. Maybe for us the EU should be like Fight Club. The first rule about the EU is don’t talk about the EU. But talk about fixing our country. That takes the fight to the corrupt, and it does something we want to do and that is necessary, regardless of our relationship with the EU, or indeed any other country.)

  • Andy Boddington 4th Dec '21 - 1:48pm

    A reminder to not attack each other in comments. We need a rich debate on this very important topic not people criticising each other. Thanks.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 4th Dec '21 - 1:52pm

    Well put Andy, I wanted to say it, one or two above are going to much at the level not appropriate on a discussion re:philosophy !

  • Chris Moore 4th Dec '21 - 2:02pm

    Hello Dennis

    1987 and 1992 GEs, we led for many days on PR.

    1987, the Tories and Lab party were mundane enough to have an enormous debate about the health service and talk about wages and crime. We positioned ourselves as being above such vulgar sniping. All those issues were secondary to sorting out the voting system.

    We even dedicated one of our precious TV slots to a well-known comedian being “amusing” about PR. (Can’t remember when precisely). Total waste of air time.

    We had a serious chance of a breakthrough in 1987 and it was thrown away by our egg-headed dislike of getting stuck in on bread and butter issues.

    The campaign in North Shropshire looks really effective because we are not getting distracted by LD pet topics.

    PR just switches ordinary voters off; it marks us out as uninterested in their concerns. John Marriott is quite right about that.

  • Just read through the doc. It’s interesting, and I certainly respect the extraordinary effort that must have gone into producing it, especially as the work of just 5 people. It’s well written and very thorough.

    I’m coming from a perspective of, a roughly classical liberal philosophy who is unsure about supporting the LibDems – which I think makes me one of the target audience 🙂 But I have to admit to being a bit conflicted after reading it. On the one hand, the principles in the manifesto seem to me really good. There’s some stuff missing, and inevitably I disagree with a few details, but overall it forms a very good summary of what I understand a liberal society should be, and what we should aspire to, with the balance of liberty, community, internationalism, environmentalism, a strong defence of free speech, and even – I’m very glad to see an explicit acknowledgement of the importance of patriotism. Overall, it’s the kind of thing I’d love to get behind and campaign for.

    But then I look at the kind of stuff that LibDem MPs are saying, at the 2019 manifesto, and at many of the articles and comments here on LibDemVoice and I see something rather different: Yes, much that is good (including a very healthy but respectful debating environment that seems to be absent from the other parties), but I also see constant Tory-bashing, continual unrealistic calls for the Government to fix – it seems, every problem under the sun – by throwing money at everything, a reluctance to move beyond Brexit, free speech that seems to disappear whenever identity politics comes up, and the rather obvious hostility of many towards private enterprise and towards our cultural heritage. And I’m afraid that all tends to repel me.

    So I guess in a way, I’d like to know, which of those is the real LibDem party?

  • Tristan WARD 4th Dec '21 - 3:40pm

    Liberty equality and community, and making sure no one is enslaved by reason of poverty, ignorance or conformity is what the Liberal Democrats stand for.

  • James Fowler 4th Dec '21 - 4:44pm

    @Simon R. I’m very much in agreement. I think the LDs exist at several different ‘levels’. The voters base is very transient, hence documents like these being somewhat inchoate because of the legacy/requirements of re-building the Party from the grass roots up (i.e. via local or by elections) rather than from first principles at a national level. The membership is quite conservative, the activist base is radical, and the councillors and MPs are (mostly) pragmatic. None of this makes for much consistency.

  • Phil Wainewright 4th Dec '21 - 4:52pm

    The New Liberal Manifesto joins my virtual bookshelf alongside several other recent attempts to define what we stand for, including, among others, the autumn conference policy paper What LibDems Believe, Tom King’s The Generous Society, and Michael Meadowcroft’s Principles of Liberal Democracy. There’s a clear determination abroad to arrive at a definition. Let’s hope all this work is not in vain and that we’re collectively getting somewhere!

    What I welcome here is the approach of linking values to policy. If the public at large are going to have a chance of understanding what we stand for, then we have to get in the habit of explaining our policy stances in terms of our values (preferably in short, memorable soundbites!).

    My one suggestion to strengthen the document is that I think more should be made of the intersection between individual liberty and community as the foundation of our values. We are not libertarians, we believe in the citizen’s responsibility to those around them, and that when people are free to be themselves then their communities prosper.

  • Peter Hirst 4th Dec '21 - 5:24pm

    It is in the other Partys’ interests to maintain our level of political debate at its current low level. It is probably also in some of their politicians’ to do so also. We have long argued for politiical education to be throughout the schools’ curriculum. Explaining how electoral reform is vital to so many issues relies on this higher level of political understanding.

  • Peter Watson 4th Dec '21 - 6:07pm

    @James Fowler “The membership is quite conservative, the activist base is radical, and the councillors and MPs are (mostly) pragmatic. None of this makes for much consistency.”
    That’s an excellent summary.
    It helps me understand why I’ve long felt the party gives the impression it lacks a clear sense of purpose and direction, especially when I compare some of the more interesting and radical views on this site with the way a by-election seems to have everyone rallying around a very small-c conservative flag.
    It has also felt like the party has tried to cover that up in recent years by trying to unite around anti-Brexit and then around anti-Boris without putting enough effort into defining exactly what it is for.
    I’ve also learnt the word “inchoate”, so that’s a bonus! 🙂

  • Peter Watson 4th Dec '21 - 6:29pm

    @Simon R “I’m coming from a perspective of, a roughly classical liberal philosophy who is unsure about supporting the LibDems – which I think makes me one of the target audience”
    I’m also unsure about supporting the Lib Dems and am probably “one of the target audience”, and I agree with most of what you say though I might be looking at the party from a more “lefty” perspective. Which perhaps sums up the problem for the party: the political centre is not well-defined and people here seem able to disagree over whether a policy is too left or too right with just as much passion as those with more extreme positions.

  • Well done to the five who have put this together. Summing up what LibDems stand for in three or four seconds is always a tough ask.
    I would focus on the factors of production. While the Conservatives represent Capital and Labour workers, the focus of LibDems is on sharing the economic benefits of land rents and natural resources equitably across the population as a whole. The investment income from Norway’s North Sea Oil fund covers a quarter of their public spending while UK oil production is in sharp decline. A UK sovereign wealth fund as proposed by Vince Cable https://www.cityam.com/liberal-democrats-announce-plans-create-uks-first-sovereign/ may still be possible.

  • James Fowler 4th Dec '21 - 10:05pm

    @ Peter Watson, thank you!
    @ Joe Bourke, linking Parties the factors of production, I’d suggest: The Labour Party – well, the clue is in the name. The Conservatives origin and true allegiance is to landowners, and the Liberal Party should represent Capital and the Entrepreneur.

  • John Marriott 5th Dec '21 - 8:02am

    @James Fowler
    Which is more or less the rôle the FDP undertakes in Germany. They are lucky to reach double figures in % terms and get most, if not usually all their MPs from Regional Lists rather than ‘direct mandates’.

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Dec '21 - 9:16am

    @James Martin
    “the Liberal Party should represent Capital and the Entrepreneur.”
    Who stands for ordinary human beings?

    Who in your desired ‘capital and entrepeneur’ version of liberalism is responsible for ensuring that ordinary human beings aren’t exploited by those with the power and influence in that system?

  • I’d have thought a decent party should be there to represent everyone, not picking out some subset of society that it represents. After all, everyone, no matter what their occupation, inheritance, or political viewpoints, and no matter how rich or poor, is a human being, with concerns, fears, aspirations, and a role to play in society. (@Nonconformistradial: I’m assuming that the way your post came out was unintended, but worth pointing out that entrepreneurs are ordinary human beings just as much as anyone else).

  • James Fowler 5th Dec '21 - 12:33pm

    @John Marriott. The FDP has been in government 1949-56, 1961-66, 1969-98 and 2009-13. As such, it’s been able to defend and propagate liberalism from a position of power. It’s a highly enviable record in my view.

    @Nonconformistradical. As Simon R says, entrepreneurs are ordinary people. The plumber who fixed my shower recently was an entrepreneur. The small barbers shop where my kids get their hair cut is run by a couple of entrepreneurs. Millions of people work in businesses with 10 or fewer people are directly dependent on very ordinary people risking their homes as security to keep small businesses going. This should be a natural liberal constituency (amongst others). I disagree with the ‘Bien Pensance’ assumption that the private sector is synonymous with exploitation and the state as axiomatically benign. It seems intrinsically Labour to me. They’ll certainly always be able to represent those views more credibly than any other Party.

  • Barry Lofty 5th Dec '21 - 12:52pm

    Being part of a family business started by my grandfather and grandmother in 1904 and carried forward by my father and his siblings through to myself and my wife until the 1990,s the Liberal/Lib Dems were always seen as the party who represented the home of small businesses, I hope that continues because they certainly need a champion during these hard times!

  • John Marriott 5th Dec '21 - 2:09pm

    @James Fowler
    Yes and it achieved this as a coalition partner with a fraction of the percentage of votes obtained by the two major parties with most of its MPs indirectly elected.

    It will be interesting to see how the latest ‘traffic light’ coalition fares against a background of COVID and tension in eastern Europe.

  • Neil James Sandison 5th Dec '21 - 4:18pm

    Reading through the New Liberal Manifesto it certainly marked us out from our opponents as a modern social liberal party . I would have liked to have seen a little more about changing the culture of trade unions to industrial unions and partners in the countries prosperity in a new transitioning economic order . Not much on social mobility in terms of a hand up rather than a hand out in terms of training and education for life . Perhaps we should learn from from the New Liberals of the early 20th Century . We however should have the ambition not to mirror Labour but to replace them as the main opposition to the Conservatives .

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Dec '21 - 9:16pm

    @James Fowler
    “Millions of people work in businesses with 10 or fewer people are directly dependent on very ordinary people risking their homes as security to keep small businesses going.”

    Not all owners of such businesses will necessarily be risking much. Some of them may be running businesses which require very little capital and hence very little borrowing. I believe they are sometimes referred to as proprietorial businesses rather than entrepeneurial.

    They might be very well run businesses treating their employees well (maybe recognisable by their stable workforces i.e. people want to work for those businesses and staff turnover is low) – or they may be run quite badly and exploit their employees – but in times of desperation some people might have nowhere else to go.

    I ask you again – who stands for ordinary people? Including those who for whatever reason are unable to work at all, never mind run their own business? Don’t they count?

  • It was John Prescott – the former ship steward and deputy prime minister – who said in 1997 that “we are all middle class now“. Research in America concludes “Almost Everyone thinks they Are Part of the Middle Class” https://observer.com/2018/05/everyone-identifies-as-middle-class-definitions-explain-why/
    if it’s the middle classes that decide elections then that includes almost everyone. Where does that leave political party positioning?

  • Phil Wainewright 6th Dec '21 - 10:03am

    I cannot fathom why anyone would want to define our mission in terms of class struggle. That is a Labour Party / Marxist view of politics, not a Liberal view.

    Liberal Democrats are about bringing people and communities together, not dividing them or pitching one group against another. We aim to build a society in which everyone is empowered to play a full part, no matter what their background and role.

  • David Evans 6th Dec '21 - 2:13pm

    I think the most perceptive comment on this thread is that from John Marriott where he said “The key will be when senior Labour politicians start using the words ‘Liberal Democrat’ instead of just Liberal.”

    I would take it one stage further and point out that our period of greatest success came after the Social Democrats came and joined us, thereby making us much more than just a Llberal party mainly made up of nice liberals who hoped (optimistically) that nice things would happen to other nice people, As we rapidly learned, it was a lot easier for nice things to happen if we were tough, worked hard together, won seats and then we could make nice things happen.

    Sadly we subsequently voted in a nice young chap as leader who optimistically hoped that nice things would happen to other nice people if he was nice to the Conservatives. We all know where that got us.

    What is essential is for long standing members who regard themselves simply as liberals to learn the lessons of history, and accept that most people regard the UK as very liberal already and don’t think we/they need any more – especially if it means having to smoke cannabis or even worse being lectured to by people who have somehow now decided that pronouns are cool and it would be a good use of all our time if we all had to learn a whole raft of new ones!

    The one thing we need to accept is that being liberal in itself is not enough any more and hasn’t been for over 90 years. We need the pragmatism of the social democrats and what will be key will be when long standing members start using the words ‘Liberal Democrat’ once again instead of just Liberal.

  • @ David Evans I’m afraid some of us were winning Council seats as a Liberal (in Kendal, Fell & Strickland, no less) in three cornered fights when the SDP wasn’t even a twinkle in Shirley Williams’ eye….. and before young Nick went to school.

    There’s nowt much wrong with radical Liberalism of the Keynes, Beveridge, Hobson, Masterman New Liberal school – it’s more to do with current team’s policies and tactics.

    PS As usual, Martin gets it right.

  • I would attribute the high % votes in the 1980s in part to the fact that the then Lib/SDP alliance was very heavily pushing itself as a pragmatic centrist group that avoids the ideologies of both left and right – and with both Labour and the Tories moving far from the centre at that time, there was a huge space for such a group. The social democrat element may have helped, but more because the defection of senior Labour politicians made it easier for previous Labour supporters to also switch sides.

    That’s in marked contrast to today where, despite there being once again a huge gaping hole in the centre-ground of politics, the LibDems today – instead of trying to occupy that gap – are largely presenting themselves as a radical party, closer to Labour than the Tories, and therefore making it much harder for centre-right people to vote LibDem. That’s obviously not the only reason why LibDem support is so much lower today, but I’m sure it’s one of the factors.

  • Neil James Sandison 6th Dec '21 - 11:24pm

    Liberalism has evolved over the centuries with many different names and alliances .That is good in terms of development of progressive politics . We are clearly on a social liberal course and capable of attracting like minded people who reject the meaningless labels of left or right and state versus private sector when both are required for a mixed and viable economy . A New Liberal Manifesto however needs champions to progress it ,untainted by the false start of the coalition years , Will that leadership emerge under our current management i doubt it . We need it to grow from within our roots and emerge with a dynamic spirit of renewal .

  • Peter Watson 7th Dec '21 - 8:46am

    @Simon R “the LibDems today – instead of trying to occupy that gap – are largely presenting themselves as a radical party, closer to Labour than the Tories, and therefore making it much harder for centre-right people to vote LibDem”
    Funnily enough, it appears to me that the party is chasing those centre-right voters, actively targeting soft Tories who don’t like Johnson, which is why it gets much more excited about some by-elections than others and seems to avoid talking about its big ideas like UBI for fear of frightening voters (and in the case of Chesham & Amersham, appearing to actively campaign against the party’s support for HS2 and more house-building). However, this contrasts with the much more radical and redistributive policies that often seem to be discussed here, and that is why I think James Fowler is probably right to characterise different sections within the party.
    I think that the party lost much of its centre-left support because of the way it presented itself in Coalition, appearing comfortable as Cameron’s wing of the Tory party. And I think its support has remained low because it has failed to communicate a clear identity: it’s all very well trying to unite around being anti-independence, anti-Brexit, anti-Corbyn, and then anti-Boris, but that does not define a political party and it simply makes Lib Dems look conservative and opposed to change. It is also a strategy that is likely to unravel under the scrutiny that will come with presenting the party on a national stage in a general election, especially if the Tories have dumped Johnson by then.

  • James Fowler 7th Dec '21 - 10:15am

    @Nonconformistradical. I think when you say ‘Ordinary People’ you really mean, or are thinking about, people who are very marginalized, or not working – which can be for a variety of reasons. Hence your struggle with self employed plumbers or hairdressers in small businesses as ordinary people. Very marginalized people certainly deserve representation, but my view is liberalism doesn’t have as much to offer these people as socialism, which is why we will always be outflanked by Labour in our appeal here.

  • Peter Hirst 7th Dec '21 - 12:06pm

    We could do worse than become the Party that states what people are thinking and not saying. Stary eyed idealism could become a vote winner. People want solutions even if they are not entirely feasible. Hope is a great winner of elections.

  • Nonconformistradical 7th Dec '21 - 2:32pm

    @James Fowler
    “I think when you say ‘Ordinary People’ you really mean, or are thinking about, people who are very marginalized, or not working – which can be for a variety of reasons. . Hence your struggle with self employed plumbers or hairdressers in small businesses as ordinary people.”

    No I am not thinking just about very marginalised people – those people who appear, as far as I can see from your postings here, to be less worthy of your consideration than anyone running a business – whatever it’s size. You just appear from your postings to want to discard very marginalised people as being of no concern to Liberal Democrats. That comes across to me as your having a feeling that some human beings just don’t matter in your scheme of things.

    By the way – I’ve known some excellent self-employed tradespeople who I’d be happy to receommend to others. I’ve also known some who really don’t deserve to be in business and have been a blight on their customers’ lives.

  • Peter Hirst,

    you may not like “what people are thinking and not saying” https://www.involve.org.uk/sites/default/files/field/attachemnt/final_-_what_people_want_from_parties_today_5.pdf
    Political parties are a vital part of contemporary democracies, but they are often viewed in negative terms. Whether in government or opposition, big or small, old or new, parties are almost uniformly described as unrepresentative, corrupt, untrustworthy organisations. For anyone invested in the political system these views are of concern.
    In this report, we take a step back from current events in party politics to consider how parties are viewed.Asking the public what they think about political parties, we find significant evidence of discontent, but we also find patterns in what people want.”

  • David Evans 7th Dec '21 - 11:45pm

    Martin & David Raw, I’m sad to disagree with you both on this but facts speak for themselves.

    1910 – 272 Liberal MPs,
    … Four elections later …
    1924 – 40 Liberal MPs
    … Four elections later …
    1945 – 25 Liberal MPs (all sorts)
    … Four elections later …
    1959 – 6 Liberal MPs

    Then a small recovery
    … Four elections later …
    1974 – 14 Liberal MPs
    … and a small decline …
    1979 – 11 Liberal MPs

    Then the SDP turned up to help us …
    1983 – 23 Lib/SDP Alliance MPs
    1987 – 22 Lib/SDP MPs
    1992 – 20 Lib Dem MPs
    1997 – 46 Lib Dem MPs
    2001 – 52 Lib Dem MPs
    2005 – 62 Lib Dem MPs

    Then we went back to having a classical Liberal leader …
    2010 – 57 MPs (down 5)
    2015 – 8 MPs (down 49)

    and since then …
    2017 – 12 MPs
    2019 – 12 MPs

    Indeed we can all say things like “So Liberalism was all very good in the past, but now we have had enough of it?” but that is simply rhetoric and not a counter to my point that “most people regard the UK as very liberal already and don’t think we/they need any more.”

    Equally many of us can say the Liberals were winning council seats before the SDP came on the scene and it is true and vital that we did, but over 20 years it led to just 5 extra MPs. At that rate of growth we might just replace the Tories by about 2250. 🙁

    These days being liberal in itself is not sufficient to win enough votes anymore and hasn’t been for over 70 years. The chill winds of political climate change began to blow through Liberal ranks a century ago and we needed to change to survive. We did that from the 1980s to the late 2000s with substantial help from our social democrat friends.

    Sadly some of us prefer to remember the summers of our liberal youth, when summers were always warm and evenings convivial, but turning back rapidly took us back to the 1950s. We and our country cannot afford that we remain there. We really do need the pragmatism of the social democrats.

  • Alex Macfie 8th Dec '21 - 8:13am

    David Evans: “1945 – 25 Liberal MPs (all sorts)”
    But the National Liberal Party of the time was just a Conservative satellite party, destined to be fully assimilated within the next 25 years, the way the Liberal Unionists had been in the early 20th Century. Thus it was “Liberal” in name only, and in the fact that it split off from the old Liberal Party. You might as well call the Japanese and Russian LDPs “liberal”, or call Viktor Orbán’s party liberal because it used to belong to ELDR (before taking a sharp turn to the right).

    I also don’t quite agree with your analysis about SDP vs Liberal. The strong Lib Dem performance in 1997GE (going from 20 seats to 46) was under a leader (Paddy Ashdown) who came originally from the Liberals and won his seat in a classic Liberal-style local campaign. Charles Kennedy, while he came from the SDP, also won his seat in a style that is recognisably from the Liberal campaigning playbook; also his seat had previously been Liberal not so long previously during the 1960s mini-revival.

    I’m not sure when Nick Clegg joined the party, but it could have been post-merger, in which case you can’t say whether he was SDP or Liberal (a distinction that is now largely irrelevant to pretty much everybody). Some prominent so-called Orange Bookers actually came from the SDP (e.g. Paul Marshall). The Clegg-era Lib Dem positioning sounds to me a lot like that of the Owenite SDP from the mid-to-late 1980s. And many Owenites ended up in the Tories (most notably Danny Finkelstein).

    The SDP brought into the modern Liberal Democrats a degree of political professionalism that was certainly lacking in the old Liberal Party. It also brought political talent that would otherwise have been missed (including Charles Kennedy and 3 of the Gang of Four). But its ideological impact is less clear. During the Alliance rifts in the 1980s it was often the SDP that took the more right-wing, “classically liberal” positions. But there were also prominent Liberals who, while being excellent community campaigners, weren’t exactly liberal in their politics. The picture is too complex to make any sweeping statements about the ideologies of the two parent parties, and its also irrelevant in an age when the vast majority of current Lib Dem members were never in either of them (and many weren’t even born when the merger happened).

  • @David Evans: An analysis based only on number of MPs is never going to give you a good picture because of the distortions of our electoral system. How many MPs the LibDems get depends not just on how popular the LibDems are, but also on how effectively they target seats and also very much on how unpopular the Tories are: Because most LibDem targets are Tory-held, the LibDems will invariably get more seats for a given share of the vote if the Tories are doing badly. That probably explains the huge increase in MPs in 1997, despite the LibDem share of the vote falling. Meanwhile, in 2010 you seem to implicitly blame the small fall in seat numbers on having a classical Liberal leader – but the LibDem vote share actually increased from 22% to 23%. The fall in seats was probably because the Tories were much more competitive in 2010.

    Also people seem very ready to blame classical Liberalism for the debacle in 2015. But my memory of the coalition period is that LibDem support held very solid in the polls after 2010 – until the tuition fees vote hit and was perceived by so many voters as a complete betrayal which overnight totally changed many people’s perception of the LibDems. And I’m guessing that by 2015, the LibDems’ support for the EU – unpopular in many LibDem seats – would have been becoming an issue too. It’s far too simplistic to try and exclusively blame ‘liberalism’ vs. social democracy for the electoral defeats.

  • @ David Evans “The SDP brought into the modern Liberal Democrats a degree of political professionalism that was certainly lacking in the old Liberal Party”.

    With regret, I must tell you as someone who fought a parliamentary election in 1983 in North Yorkshire, in my experience they did not……. although many of them thought they did. I suggest you research the Darlington by-election. Sorry to say this, David, and I wish it was otherwise.

  • Laurence Cox 8th Dec '21 - 1:04pm

    Yet another manifesto, but where is the reference to “The Theory and Practice of Community Politics”? http://www.rosenstiel.co.uk/aldc/commpol.htm This short document tells us all we need about a Liberal ideology that is in opposition to the statism that is characteristic of both Tories and Labour; a ‘free market’ where big business dictates is just as much statist as are nationalised monopolies. A close reading of both side-by-side would undoubtedly find common ideas, but it is not policies that really matter; another party can easily steal our policies (as they have done many times in the past), but they cannot steal our ideology without giving up statism itself. It is only the one-dimensional Left-Right axis of politics that puts us in the middle; on the orthogonal axis they are together at one end, while we occupy the other.

  • Alex Macfie 8th Dec '21 - 1:43pm

    @David Raw: I wrote that, not David Evans! The Darlington by-election appears to show the danger of ‘celebrity’ candidates. A famous candidate isn’t an automatic ticket to electoral success.
    I can’t comment on your experience in Richmond (Yorks), but it seems to have been an area where the post-merger “continuing” SDP had some local success. In the 1989 by-election, unusually in Parliamentary by-elections held soon after merger, it was the SDP candidate (someone who was well-known locally in politics rather than as a celebrity) who won the tussle with the SLD (as I think we were still called then). The result was something of a bitter pill to swallow as the combined vote of the SLD and SDP candidates was 9,000 more than that of the victorious Conservative (one William Hague).

  • @ Alex Macfie I’m sorry if I misattributed a comment made by you.

    I assume you weren’t around during the Darlington by-election, though I certainly was. To say the SDP candidate was ‘a celebrity’ and ‘famous’ stretches the elastic. He was a perfectly decent but politically inexperienced local TV journalist handicapped by an overconfident SDP hierarchy with very little local knowledge who ran a top down campaign – many of whom I collected off the Kings X train at Darlo station- because they thought they knew best.

    @ David Evans, David, I can assure you I don’t have a rosy view of the disintegration of the old self-destructive (and often neo-conservative) Liberal Party post WW1, nor do I think the sun always shone in the winters of my youth in the Pennines – when Jo Grimond appeared to stand for something radical and different.

    I remain a radical concerned about inequality and social care wanting a very different sort of Westminster Government to the ones we’ve had post 2010. Whether any party or combination of parties can achieve this remains an open question. Whether Scotland will stay content with the present constitutional arrangements is another open question which Lib Dems would be well advised to approach with an open mind.

  • David Evans 9th Dec '21 - 10:09pm

    It is good to get a substantial response to a post that deals with facts, evidence from the real world, rather than personal opinion which while important to each of us as individuals, is no basis for coming to any sort of constructive debate which could lead to greater understanding in the wider Lib Dem team. Hopefully being able to discuss objective facts about matters that affect Liberal Democracy may lead us to a greater mutual understanding of the viability of our personal ideas and lead to a position where we are closer to an objective critique of where we are and where we are going as a party.

    So in the interest of clarity and helping the debate do forward, here are a few responses, which I hope will help.

    @Alex Macfie – “1945 – 25 Liberal MPs (all sorts)” But the National Liberal Party of the time was just a Conservative satellite party,”

    Indeed, the 1920s and 30s were a time of great upheaval for the Liberal party partly driven by the decline of liberalism we are discussing. To a significant extent from 1931 many of the National Liberals/Liberal National Party were slowly on a journey that took them into the all embracing tentacles of the Tories, but not absolutely all. After all Clement Davies our leader until 1956 was in the National Liberals until 1939. I chose to use the term “Liberal MPs (all sorts)” to avoid getting into all those technical issues. Our problem is that the trend has been downhill whatever definitions we choose to adopt.

    “I also don’t quite agree with your analysis about SDP vs Liberal. The strong Lib Dem performance in 1997GE (going from 20 seats to 46) was under a leader (Paddy Ashdown) who came originally from the Liberals and won his seat in a classic Liberal-style local campaign. Charles Kennedy, while he came from the SDP, also won his seat in a style that is recognisably from the Liberal.”

    Again Agreed, but my argument doesn’t hinge only on leaders (indeed I didn’t specify leaders, partly because most of our progress has been based on local campaigning by local people which included ex-Liberals and ex-SDP working together, not just based on a particular leader). Quite simply the SDP brought a lot of good people over (and a sizeable number of poor ones, but they fell away quite quickly once the scale of the task became apparent post merger). My point is that the success was not because we were pure liberal, but because we were more than liberal at that time.

  • David Evans 9th Dec '21 - 10:14pm

    Your final paragraph I also agree with to a significant extent, except I disagree with you when you say that “The picture is too complex to make any sweeping statements about the ideologies of the two parent parties, and its also irrelevant in an age when the vast majority of current Lib Dem members were never in either of them.” I am afraid that politics is always complex and even medium sized parties like the Liberals and the SDP are broad churches with many flavours. This means that it is always possible to identify outliers from any general trend or trait. However, I don’t think we should allow that complexity to hide the clear facts that:
    a) Our party was in long term decline from the 1920s to the late 1950s
    b) It had a slow but only slight recovery started by Jo Grimond which had got us up by 5MPs by 1979,
    c) Our recovery then accelerated with our alliance with the SDP and subsequent merger and by 2015 we had 62 MPs,
    d) We then collapsed under Nick, who adopted a more pro Conservative/Classical liberal stance in Coalition and we are now down to 12 MPs at the last general election.

    My view and the view of the majority of political academics is that the Liberal Party was broadly liberal throughout its existence. Even more certainly, most people associated the Liberal party with the liberal philosophy over that period. It declined for many reasons, but a key one was that the liberal philosophy was nowhere near popular enough to keep it strong. It recovered when we allied with the SDP, which broadly is agreed to have a social democratic philosophy. The merger of those two parties and their philosophies was good for our electoral success.

    Now we have so many Lib Dem members of the old liberal persuasion, pretending that success can be achieved by returning to that philosophy, to the extent that they are willing to drop the social democrat aspect almost entirely (or even worse pretend that it was liberal all along!).

    I’m sad to have to tell them that parties succeed by broadening their appeal not narrowing it and the decline, recovery and fall of liberalism over the last 100 is a prime example of it. We need to learn from success, not retreat from it.

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