Rising above politics as usual

The decision to not rush the leadership election has allowed a welcome space for a discussion on the strategy and philosophy of being a Liberal Democrat in 2020. I am a new member having joined just last month. I do not pretend that my views carry any more weight than any other member, and probably less than those who have worked so hard for the party. Nonetheless, the opportunity to contribute ideas to the direction the party should now take was part of the reason I joined.

Post-Brexit we have a clean slate. The challenge is to apply the timeless principles of liberal democracy to the challenges of today. I would propose the following priorities:

  • Competitive free markets and free people at a time when our economy risks being dominated by a handful of personal data hungry multi-national businesses;
  • Modern solutions to climate change rather than the false choice of either environmental or economic devastation;
  • Support technology to empower rather than to enslave;
  • Offer a sense of place in a fast-changing world;
  • Appreciating that with national wealth and power comes international responsibility.

However, I also think there needs to be an over-arching change. I have long admired the way in which Lib Dems create and debate policy. It is a unique selling point which sets this party apart. The problem is that too often in the heat of the campaign Lib Dems resort to the same tactics as everyone else. It is then no surprise that to many voters it is easy just to see us as part of the problem – “they are all as bad as each other”. Rising above this is a challenge, but it is also the best opportunity for the party to grow. A commitment to honest open democratic accountability can win voters’ trust for the long-term.

The need to rise above the current debate is not just a matter of campaign tactics. We are in the midst of a culture war. Liberalism itself is under threat. It is understandable that liberals want to respond, but how we do so does matter. The nature of the culture war is that it empowers the extremes of arguments and in the process entrenches division.

Furthermore, the two sides provide fuel to one another. Our opponent should not be those who seek argument with us, but the culture war itself. If we engage in the fringe arguments of the extreme, we do a disservice to the sensible mainstream majority who are looking to us to support progress towards greater equality and inclusiveness.

Over the last five years we have seen an apparent return to the politics of left versus right. It is an illusion. There is considerable consensus around the principle of competitive free markets and the trajectory of social liberalism. Detail is debated, but the direction of travel is clear. Discussions over equidistance from Labour and Conservatives, or the ill-advised idea of the Lib Dems becoming a ‘soft-Labour’ movement are accepting the constructed narrative of Westminster over the reality of modern Britain. We should rise above right versus left to respond to the challenges of today.

In conclusion, we should not view Labour or the Conservatives as our core opponent, but rather oppose ‘politics as usual’. We should,

  • Offer an alternative to campaign skulduggery;
  • Bring people together rather than succumb to the narrative of a culture war;
  • Respond to the challenges of today, not out-dated left versus right politics.

What I propose is not a short-term fix. This is a long-term challenge to rise above the noise to deliver a better politics.

* Nicolas Webb is a member of Newport and Severnside Liberal Democrats in Wales. He is a policy and communications professional. His voluntary work includes being a trustee for a refugee charity and a board member of a non-partisan think tank.

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29 Comments

  • Alas, a breakthrough will need a charismatic leader with popular policies that people understand instantly, such as moving the burden of council taxes on to companies with a transaction tax and, perhaps, a basic living allowance for everyone but low enough to encourage them to work to top it up rather than mirror the largesse of the current welfare system (one of the most expensive and yet unsuccessful in the world).

  • We could fix a big lot of the cost of our welfare system if we fixed the housing crisis.

  • Looking back over my political lifetime, the change in our current circumstance is clear. Until recently, we have been ahead of the curve; the causes we have adopted, even when unpopular at the time, have matured to become part of the political mainstream.

    Right now we find ourselves in the opposite position. The tide on liberal thinking is going out, and we need to be disciplined in identifying the cores of our beliefs that need to be defended, whilst resisting the temptation to get distracted by new ultra-liberal positions that will simply leave us stranded in the political wilderness for a generation. Or more.

    So far the ability of our party’s leaders and politicians to objectively assess the position we are in appears woefully inadequate.

  • Until the party can connect with Non Uni citys , and deprived communities and not the wealthy elite (the LD core vote so much vaunted ) , it cant become a mainstream party .

    Look at Sheffield Hallam (Clegg’s old constituency) , you couldn’t even take that back from O’Mara (the disaster that was )

    HOW

    The only question I have ?

    Malc Poll

  • @malc poll

    To be fair O’Mara wasn’t standing and Labour won by under a thousand votes.

    There are plenty of university seats for us to win and there’s the possibility that Labour may leave them behind in chasing winning back the “red wall” seats especially if rejoin is popular and they don’t support rejoining the EU.

  • I like the title ‘Rising above politics as usual’ but much thought is needed as to what this means, how we do it and that applies within our party as well as outside.
    I would suggest it needs to be centred around Economic policy which will return as the key element in the next General Election. Nicholas is right to put the Environment high up and right to link it to how we improve the efficiency of business, as Lord Stern did in 2006. I would put Inequality next, since that involves quality jobs, quality of life, education and skills as well as health (including prevention of ill-health) and welfare. Third comes strengthening of local government in various ways.
    I suggest also that it is time to have more joined up thinking rather than just separate individual policy areas. I was unhappy in 2018 when FCC rejected an amendment that linked Education to other local services, in spite of the fact that there is loads of evidence that what a school can do is limited by what goes on outside the school. Whoever becomes our next leader, really must show some good detailed thoughts on Economics, Inequality, devolution to the people in local government and joined up thinking. These areas were very low down in the last leadership election, when they should have been big questions at every hustings.

  • @ Nigel Jones. Great to hear you place such emphasis on inequality, Nigel. I hope you can link up with Katharine Pindar and Michael Berwick Gooding at Conference to press the point.

  • @Nicholas great article. Absolutely your views hold as much weight as any other; spending decades posting leaflets through letterboxes does not give you any special intellectual ability or preference over any other subscription paying member.

    You’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head with competitive free markets too (though a vocal minority on this board will take issue, don’t worry – you are correct here).

  • Kathy Erasmus 18th Feb '20 - 8:19am

    Exactly so. I have been a member for over 3 years , I and many activists agree with you, far too much time is spent slagging off Labour and Conservative when we should be spending time putting forward our view for the future and what we stand for.

  • @Kathy Erasmus whilst I agree with you, we have to be vigilant against a tendency within certain sections of the party for what can only be described as “over familiarity with the Labour Party. Indeed, some are worryingly open about their friendship with Labour MPs.

  • Peter Watson 18th Feb '20 - 9:34am

    @Kathy Erasmus “far too much time is spent slagging off Labour and Conservative when we should be spending time putting forward our view for the future and what we stand for”
    The problem seems to be that whenever Lib Dems try to do that, other Lib Dems accuse them of being too much like Labour or the Conservatives!
    In recent years the party seems to have defined itself almost exclusively by what it is against so from the outside I am no longer certain it does know what it is “for” in a way that distinguishes it from other parties.
    What you call for here though should be a priority, but I don’t think it is helped by the current lack of leadership and direction which seems to create a vacuum to be filled by the left-right squabbles that were hidden by unity over opposition to Brexit. Elsewhere the Conference agenda seems pretty insipid so it looks like #libdemfightback is suspended until the Autumn!

  • John Probert 18th Feb '20 - 10:17am

    Jen 17th Feb ’20 – 1:52pm
    “We could fix a big lot of the cost of our welfare system if we fixed the housing crisis.”

    Spot-on, Jen! Lack of affordable housing is surely the root of many social evils. Let’s launch a Housing Crusade.

  • Principles are all very well, but they have to lead to policies somewhere along the line.

    “Bring people together rather than succumb to the narrative of a culture war”

    Topically, one of the PM’s advisors has just resigned, after pro-eugenics comments he had made earlier were publicised. How should the Lib Dems react, based on this principle?

  • Peter Watson 18th Feb '20 - 11:18am

    @TCO “we have to be vigilant against a tendency within certain sections of the party for what can only be described as “over familiarity with the Labour Party.”
    I don’t know if you’re on the LDV naughty step with a delay before posts appear, but I wrote “The problem seems to be that whenever Lib Dems try to do that, other Lib Dems accuse them of being too much like Labour or the Conservatives” before I saw your post, so it was prescient rather than a response!

  • Richard Underhill 18th Feb '20 - 3:15pm

    17th Feb ’20 – 10:38pm
    Channel 4 did a Labour leadership event on 17/2/2020 at 2000 with the there survivors.
    In the audience of Labour members and former Labour supporters was one man who said he voted Liberal Democrat at the previous general election. The panel was asked who was the greatest Labour Prime Minister in the previous 50 years? which they noticed conveniently prevented them saying Clement Attlee (1945-1951) The audience member who had voted Lib Dem expressed a preference for Keir Starmer, next. Lisa Nandy wanted a female leader. Keir Starmer wanted party unity as the route to electoral success.
    A word about the Irish, who have named storms beginning with a C and a D, while bypassing A and B and ignoring J.
    Events, dear boy, Events. as Harold Macmillan said, while Con spin doctors emphasised that as a young MP in the 1930s he had wanted free milk on doorsteps. Perhaps this PM could be challenged as to whether he agrees? or has a history of wanting the same. The FT has said today that ‘liars have small brains’ so maybe they have less to remember? Should this cabinet be compared with Mrs Thatcher’s vegetables?
    The first elected tory leader wrote memoirs which seemed timed to be published after his successor’s memoirs and emphasise the support he received from a predecessor who had served in the army in wartime and understood the political consequences well enough to apply for the UK to join the EEC, despite the inevitable opposition of the then French President.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Feb '20 - 3:32pm

    Nicolas Webb
    We do not, now, have a clean slate, except that we will elect by STV, a new leader, who will choose a new shadow cabinet and propose to federal conference.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Feb '20 - 3:35pm

    “Post a Comment” THE SLOGAN OF THE DAY IS Be ‘KIND.’

  • Peter Watson 18th Feb '20 - 4:22pm

    @Richard Underhill “THE SLOGAN OF THE DAY IS Be ‘KIND.’”
    Be kind of what though? 😉

  • Hope everybody’s watching Panorama tonight, featuring that Coalition ‘achievement’, Universal Credit.

    BBC 9.00 tonight : Universal Credit: Inside the Welfare State.

  • marcstevens 18th Feb '20 - 9:52pm

    No thanks, social liberalism is not about unfettered free markets and more of your privatisation. Which multinationals risk dominating the economy? I’d love to know your views on the NHS, Police and other public services. In a mixed economy we should also be stating the case for some nationalisation including public ownership of the railways. Sometimes on here, I might as well be reading a policy briefing for Ukip or the Brexit Party.

  • marcstevens 18th Feb ’20 – 9:52pm:
    In a mixed economy we should also be stating the case for some nationalisation including public ownership of the railways. Sometimes on here, I might as well be reading a policy briefing for Ukip or the Brexit Party.

    Meanwhile, the EU is forcing Norway to privatise their railways…

    ‘Norway: Rail workers hold national strikes over EU rail privatisation’ [October 2019]:
    https://labourheartlands.com/norway-rail-workers-hold-national-strikes-over-eu-rail-privatisation/

    Trains across Norway stopped for two hours on Thursday as employees walked out to protest against the implementation of the EU’s 4th Railway Package, a set of legislative texts designed to complete the single market for rail services. Protesters said the rules would weaken train services in Norway and have announced more strikes for 31 October. Norway is bound to follow EU rules due to its EEA membership.

  • @Marc Stevens “we should also be stating the case for … nationalisation”

    I’d be interested to see how you score on this! https://www.idrlabs.com/communism/test.php

  • David Evershed 19th Feb '20 - 3:21pm

    Marcstevens and Jeff

    The railways in Britain are already 100% owned by the government via Network Rail.

    It is the trains which run on the railway that are mostly private businesses contracted to the government.

  • marcsteven – “No thanks, social liberalism is not about unfettered free markets and more of your privatisation. Which multinationals risk dominating the economy?” – not to mention that we are not going to catch up with other countries in the upcoming Industrial Revolution 4.0, nurturing and growing indigenous startups, as well as to soften the blows from Brexit to industrial sector, by free-market policies, but by active state industrial and R&D policies (and this is true even with the rise of Silicon Valley – which is often mischaracterized as a free market miracle, I mean, that idea has been debunked multiple times).

  • You know, the recent Thuringia debacle makes me even more skeptical of those centre-right “classical liberals”.

  • I mean, the “classical/economic liberal” FDP made deal with the f**king Nazis. The Thuringia AfD is a bunch of Nazis in the classical sense of the word.

  • Neil Sandison 23rd Feb '20 - 11:42am

    Welcome Nicholas and thanks for your thought provoking article .Not sure if you are not falling into your own trap by rejecting some of the consensus thinking developing on new economics and environmental sustainabilty . I think you and the party are under estimating the enabling and enpowering role of a transiition economy for our small cities and towns, the value of the circular economy can bring in reducing and eliminating waste and polution in our environment .already being practiced by many existing companies but below the radar of many party politians .We aso overlook the ” Common Wealth of Good Citizenship” Telling people to do the right is not the same as showing them how their community will benefit by their actions,

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