The future and practice of garage politics

Oh no! Here we go again – another year, another leader.  Still we cling, the drowning man, to a way of doing politics that is so very Noughties or perhaps even very Nineties – Eighteen Nineties even.

In response to the 2010/15 disaster we  devised a Board, which is frankly very ‘grown up’ but totally unimaginative in the light of the huge alteration to our reputation, status and standing, as well as being culturally inappropriate to Liberalism.

WANTED:  a politics for the 2020s or even the 2030s, shipped today.

We need to predict the future.   “Hey, if you want to predict the future, make it”?

Good advice. Who said that?

Steve Jobs.

You see, in 2015, I began to wonder how Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX would approach the problems we had.  Watch Musk on some wicked issues here.

People like Musk and Jobs disrupt entrenched thinking. That’s what we need.  

Jobs started the biggest corporation in the world in his Dad and Mum’s garage. The secret of his successes (which included a fair few ups and downs) was that he kept faith with the Garage Culture. That is how he took on Big Blue and how he dwarfed Sony.

As Jobs said Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”  We have just got to steal from Musk and Jobs.

From the grave, like Hari Seldon in the first Foundation novel, Jobs gives us this direction, “You have to imagine a world not yet in existence.”

Want to make a dent in the universe? Well stop emulating, start disrupting. Be the counter-culture. Put it in the product and make art. Adequacy is insufficient. Repeat,

is insufficient. And boy have we been trying to be “adequate”.

WANTED: a leader who can help us imagine a world not yet in existence.

Then make it happen.


With this Reality Distortion Field I have right here.

An RDF, what’s that?

Its the way the aliens in ‘The Menagerie’ created their own new world through mental force. It’s even got a Wiki page. It’s the new FOCUS newsletter.

WANTED: a leader with own Reality Distortion Field?

No, Garage Politics is about helping each and every person on the globe build their own RDF.

Jobs says, “people who are serious about software need to make their own hardware”.  Lib Dems are generally  REALLY REALLY serious about software (that’s my metaphor for policy) but they want to leave hardware – a.k.a. building kits that help people create their own RDFs – to others.  That’s why we are where we are, i.e. in political terms, back living with Mum and Dad.

At least the house has a garage.

WANTED: a Leader who thinks the Theory and Practice of Garage Politics is cool.

Well, here’s the dent in the universe: sooner than you think, it will be as likely as not that a person in this country will be a Liberal Democrat.  Read that carefully. That’s 50% but none of whom is a core vote. A core vote spells B-O-N-D-A-G-E and bondage is a double-edged sword.

Do you get that? Is my RDF reaching you?  No? Let me try again.

Jobs says, “the future isn’t what it used to be.”

Back in the Nineties, Sony (well Labour actually) started using market research to hone policies to match what people wanted.  You know what Jobs said when asked if he used market research?  He said, “Useless. Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” 

And it’s not as illiberal as it first appears.  Quite the reverse when you think about it. Remember, a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time. A politician is someone who takes your power to give you a tenth of what you could achieve yourself. More B-O-N-D-A-G-E.

WANTED: a leader who helps us make politics so easy to do that everyone realises they can do it for themselves and, in so doing, becomes an active citizen. Tasting freedom.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Everyone connected like PCs in a network – open access, jointly maintained, equal power, the sum greater than the parts, myriad life chances.

WANTED: a leader like Berners-Lee?

* Bill le Breton is a former Chair and President of ALDC and a member of the 1997 and 2001 General Election teams

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Jenny Barnes 24th Jun '17 - 9:27am

    Momentum?…I think it’s already happening, just not here. Occupy..alt blogs..

  • Andrew McCaig 24th Jun '17 - 9:43am

    I see Steve Jobs as the business equivalent of Tony Blair personally! Convincing people that style conquers substance and paying three times as much for something that does the same thing makes sense! Is that really what we want? (Sorry to all those Apple users!)

  • Richard renaut 24th Jun '17 - 10:38am

    I like the analogy – but mainly because it explains the unexpected appeal of Corbyn. His garage/allotment for the past 30 years really does have a “reality distortion field” around it. And his software / policy we know has lots of bugs in it, meaning it doesn’t work but will blame user error when it fails. That said the hardwear and packaging looks appealing compared to what’s on the market now.

    SO for the Lib Dems…yes, imaging a different future, being garage based, but we need to focus on Liberal policies that eventually connect with the liberal majority, who don’t yet know how much they want the products and approach. But that’s begins with us acting and leading in a different and better way. Quite a challenge for the membership (and the new leader).

  • Bill le Breton 24th Jun '17 - 10:56am

    Andrew, Jobs was a strange and conflicted person, but some of his strategies have huge relevance to people trying to take on established ways of doing things.

    He mixed creativity with technology. He understood the power of metaphors to help people see their potential and he brought people together to create tools with which millions have been helped to realise potential they never thought they had.

    That is what we need to take from him. You don’t need to be a Liberal to produce something that helps people take and use power. It is being a LIberal that helps us ensure such opportunities are seized and seized for Liberal causes.

    Frankly, it is only *imagination* that is going to get us out of the position in which we are in. Doing politics the way it has always been done won’t take us further than a snails pace.

  • David Evershed 24th Jun '17 - 11:00am


    Are you urging self help upon us?

    Incidentally Steve Jobs was a very tough task master and sought perfection and total commitment from his managers. Not sure the Lib Dems are ready for that. 🙂

  • Phil Wainewright 24th Jun '17 - 11:22am

    Bill, I have been thinking along similar lines. Our community-based approach to politics is thoroughly in tune with the social media activism of the millennial generation, our belief in diversity, freedom of thought and intolerance of social injustice is in line with their values. And even if you may not agree with the economic liberalism of an Elon Musk, you have to admire his tenacious determination to change the world. We should be as determined to capture the 50% of the electorate that share our thoroughly modern view of the world. We just need the courage and self-confidence to challenge the conventional wisdom.

  • This article seems to be urging upon us two diametrically opposite courses of action simultaneously.

    One of these approaches is the Steve Jobs philosophy “Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” Fair enough in terms of the I-Phone, but, which politicians have adopted that kind of philosophy? Well, Stalin and Hitler did! As, relatively respectably, did Salmond, Farage, and Corbyn. Does that sound like Liberal Democracy?

    The other approach, the Berners-Lee philosophy “open access, jointly maintained, equal power, the sum greater than the parts, myriad life chances” could hardly be more different. However, translated into political terms, it seems to boil down to the conceit that, if you get the whole town to come along to a town hall meeting and seek a consensus, they will all work around to deciding they will join the Lib Dems.

    As Jenny indicates above, Momentum come a lot closer to achieving this philosophy than we do. But they also fail. They haven’t persuaded the whole town to get involved, they are really just one more activist sect, and insofar as they have had some success, it has come on the back of (a) doing conventional politics with a manifesto and a leader, and (b) looking good because they have not yet been tainted by having to implement anything in practice!

    Yes, we need new thinking, but I fear this isn’t it.

  • Bill – agree entirely
    When I first started contributing here, my impression was of lots of silos all obsessed with their own little projects, group or passion who have found the Lib Dems as the best fit because it’s so tolerant of diversity and range of ideas. However, it leads to the impression of being all over the place with no direction or clear identity, no matter how worthwhile those causes.

    One of the young new dynamic young members wrote this last week:

    “The Liberal Democrat party is such a big church of conflicting viewpoints that it is too overweight with competing opinions to ever get airborne. By contrast, we make the Tories and Labour appear as ideologically tightly knit units. I think that we try too hard to accommodate too many different positions and it just doesn’t work. Our poor results speak directly to being overweight on too many different opinions and underweight on slick electioneering.”

    This is my view in a nutshell. It simply does not work at the moment.

    A leader with vision needs to be a conductor of their orchestra, pulling together the best ideas into a coherent razor sharp vision who with a top team of loyal lieutenants who then it ‘sell’ it to the electorate.

    Steve Jobs communicates in a very particular way to illicit that all important emotional response:
    Everything we do is about challenging the status quo, the way we do that is by……………
    Are you the kind of person who wants total control,over your life, boy have we got a vision for you………………
    Start with Why, get peoples attention and give them a vision that will change their lives. Then they will listen!
    Watch him launching the iPhone or the macbook air on u tube for the first time if you want a masterclass in communication of a novel idea that no-one had even thought of before.
    That’s what we must do!

  • “However, translated into political terms, it seems to boil down to the conceit that, if you get the whole town to come along to a town hall meeting and seek a consensus, they will all work around to deciding they will join the Lib Dems.”

    No it doesn’t – that is where you confuse Community Politics as an idea in and of itself and Community Politics as a technique to win votes and seats for a party.

  • Jenny Barnes

    “Momentum?…[…] Occupy..alt blogs..”

    These all so far look like a rebranded version of old approaches. I don’t think there are any game changers there.

  • Peter Martin 24th Jun '17 - 12:20pm

    People like Musk and Jobs disrupt entrenched thinking. That’s what we need.

    Certainlly we do need that. But Lib Dems don’t seem to be any better than anyone else when there is an obvious need for some lateral thinking to help us cure our economic woes. It’s these woes which lead to Brexit and have created the conditions in the EU which have brought the EU into disrepute.

    Just the last part of that sentence doesn’t go down too well with Lib Dems. They’d much rather blame the lies of the Tory Right and UKIP for the outcome of last year’s referendum than any EU failings. Isn’t that entrenched thinking?

    Similarly with other economic issues. When anyone argues that it’s natural for Government to run a deficit, it’s what we do anyway, and that its perfectly OK providing that inflation is under control then they are considered quite weird. They are labelled deficit deniers even. Of course budgets should be balanced. A child of five knows we should neither a borrower nor a lender be. All campaign promises need to be “properly costed” and approved by the so called Institute of Fiscal Studies is the entrenched view and the Lib Dem view as far as I can make out.

    The problem with looking to people who have been successful in business is that we can end up with someone like Donald Trump. It’s early days yet, but if he measures economic success for the USA in terms of its deficit or surplus, in the same way as he would for his own business, then the outlook is going to be bleak for not only Americans but the world economy too.

  • Then the party must offer a proper industrial policy with a strong focus on the renovation of regions that are suffering from de-industrialization like the North. Neither Corbyn nor May offered such a policy in the last election. Only tax and spend. Industrial policy is completely neglected.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Jun '17 - 1:27pm

    Bill , as often, tries for real and practical, as well as different and interesting solutions.

    Recently, Bill, you spoke with forked tongue on a possible leader we are missing.

    I wanted Norman Lamb. I like and rate him.

    Or a complete change. Layla Moran . One to believe in tomorrow.

    I wonder if Tom Brake could be Everyman as the man.

  • Lorenzo
    Hi my friend.
    Just a challenge back.
    You keep sending out names, but to my mind names is not the name of the game here?
    Does anyone know how these 3 would act and think in terms that are any different to anyone else?

  • Sue Sutherland 24th Jun '17 - 2:15pm

    Really enjoyable post Bill. However, I don’t think we as Lib Dems want a leader to do all that. I think we already want to do it ourselves and find a leader who speaks for the party.
    Yes we’re a party of 100,000 or so with a 100,000 different views but why are we members of the Lib Dems for heaven’s sake? Because we value freedom. We don’t want dictators like May and Corbyn, we want a leader to follow us, to recognise that each person in the party has an equal value no matter what position they hold and that they deserve respect. Humility is a quality that’s much underestimated in politics.

  • Bill le Breton 24th Jun '17 - 4:54pm

    Well, all in all, it’s a better reaction than I thought likely.

    What I am urging is that all of us ‘activists’ should be working towards turning politics on its head: instead of politicians using people we need to construct a process – even a social product – where people can and do use us – the Liberal Democrats.

    David E – is this self help? sometimes, but the more frequent character would be joint action.

    David A – you make the obvious point – it sounds at first illiberal. But I am suggesting that, just as the electorate (I shall use that word temporarily) don’t know what they want, nor do we know what would be best. It must be a voyage of discovery. All of us destined to become (what I think Asristotle) meant by ‘citizens’ and what others more recently have described as ‘active citizens’. We need to be really imaginative and disruptive.

    If you think the electorate knows what it wants, then, you must also accept that they want Labour politics or Tory politics. Of course you can hang out by saying ‘we know best’ and it is the ‘centre’ that you want if only the red Tories and the Blue Labourists we courageous enough to break free of their Parties. But that is even more self-serving mush from a managerial class that feels entitled to decide.

  • Bill le Breton 24th Jun '17 - 5:12pm

    Phil – yes, yes, yes. And this is why the ‘garage’ is a symbol of a place where we experiment, build prototypes. Imagine that social media is like where computer technology was before the mouse! And politics the way it is done (and has been done for 5,000 years) is like computering before the Mac and the metaphor of a desk top and the analogy of windows. That people people are as isolated as they were before Berners-Lee stared linking machines. There could be a huge leap forward around the corner. Let’s go discover. Build it. Share it.

    Mike S – you said it – it simply doesn’t work at the moment. And we are about to set off down the same oft taken route.

    PSI – I was counting on you being constructive – where’s that capacity for lateral thinking you normally sport.

    Peter M – it is not their business skills that I think we should emulate, it is there disruptive skills and their invention and their ‘have go’ attitude. They had Moore’s law to give them confidence. Political capacity has not changed, has not increased by 1% in a thousand years.

    Lorenzo – I was coaching. I was attempting to make my Reality Distortion Field work here. Mike S gets it.

    Sue I agree. But we have to have a leader who does not produce a bow wave against it. Note – I said a Leader who thinks an RDF is cool – not a Leader who has the one and only RDF that is allowed to operate in this garage. Look around. Who are at the work benches?

  • Bill le Breton 24th Jun '17 - 5:32pm

    Sue – my last point before I am muted for x hour:

    Have you come across the Your Liberal Britain stuff?

    Calling David Menarsch!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    The report is fascinating – it is not just that there are 100,000 people saying different things. It sounds like that because this report proves that lots of Liberal Democrats think they want in order abcde)but when they write a list of what they want, they want cedba.

    The Party presently practices the Politics of Cognitive Disonnance. It is no wonder people don’t understand us, don’t bother to listen too carefully to us, still don’t trust us (remember those recent and appalling You Gov figures on our lost voters) or think we say one thing to one person and something else to another.

    Textual analysis of those who contributed to You Liberal Britain (for which many thanks) reveals that we are conflicted. How? Why? Would love to read David M on this.

    Anyway off to the Pyramid …

  • Have we already legalised cannabis?

  • Paul Murray 24th Jun '17 - 7:22pm

    It’s a well known story that when Musk first launched paypal in 1999 it was voted one of the 10 worst business ideas ever. Why? Because what it did was basically to “beam” money from one palm pilot (remember them?) to another in line-of-sight. And Jobs had failures too. After all he went off from Apple to start NeXT which was a wildly innovative platform that nobody bought (although there was one on the desk next to me at work in the early 90’s). But concepts from NeXT informed the direction of subsequent Apple products.

    I recall once hearing Bill Joy- the CTO of Sun Microsystems – refer to the growth of the open source movement with the words “innovation happens elsewhere”. This now seems so obvious as to be self-evident but at that time – in 2004 – it was a revolutionary idea.

    The key takeaways I’ve had from years spent dealing with Silicon Valley is that failure is often just success deferred, that today’s heresy become tomorrow’s orthodoxy, and that you should not be afraid to reach beyond your organizational boundaries to look for actionable innovation.

    I think it takes more than fundamental shift than just another round of musical chairs at the top table for the Lib Dems to turn failure into success.

  • @Paul Murray – “failure is often just success deferred”

    Thank f**k for that……….

  • tonygreaves 24th Jun '17 - 8:01pm

    I don’t think I understand any of this thread. Is that a problem for me or for the contributors?

  • An interesting article and thread as have been those by Tony Greaves. Many Lib Dems throughout the length and breadth of this land have been creating their own “reality distortion fields” by getting out there and achieving things for their communities and winning elections in the process often where we barely existed 30 or 40 years ago.

    Politics needs massive optimism and massive realism at the same time especially with FPTP. Delivering 20 leaflets when we thought 1 was enough. But may be also halving the number of target wards.

    But undercurrents and trends can be slow to emerge at individual elections. The Tories all powerful in the late 80s barely surviving in 1997.

    Let’s go out and throw our metaphorical stones in our communities to achieve change. We may or may not win electorally but we will have fun! And we will not win if we don’t! And electoral success can be slow. It was slow for us in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. But our electoral successes especially in 97 built upon the shoulders of those who actually went out and did things. Building strong grassroots is something we can all contribute to.

    The one thing you can guarantee is that no one will predict the next 50 years politically or if they do they will not be listened to.

  • Bill le Breton 25th Jun '17 - 8:22am

    Michael, wonderful comment. Thank you. I agree. Soul-mate.

    Tony – original Garage Man – says he doesn’t understand. Tony you were Stephen Wozniak in this story.

    Nick – great comment – but our failure has been from lack of imagination, not too much imagination. 2007 and with technology buzzing and our way of life changing dramatically – the Lib Dems reach back to a philosophy from 1876 – the year Bell patented the first telephone.

    Paul – Jobs with Pixar is a case in point. He sunk millions into trying to sell the
    animation hardware but sunk 100,000s of thousands into Lasseter’s actual animations when no one else knew why. Eventually sold to Disney for $7.4 billion.

    Open source is a great metaphor – wish I’d have thought of that. Yes, the way campaigning has been taken back to the centre and in many cases ‘proscribed by template’ or worse is Jobsian integration and plain wrong, wrong , wrong. Maybe Gates would have been a better metaphor, but as Michael writes above – it’s the Reality Distortion Field that we need in our present ‘fix’.

    David – no we haven’t but we’ve institutionalised failure.

  • Bill le Breton 25th Jun '17 - 8:26am

    @ Paul Murray writes “I think it takes more than fundamental shift than just another round of musical chairs at the top table for the Lib Dems to turn failure into success.”

    Worth a special tribute that. (see line one of original OP)

  • Peter Martin 25th Jun '17 - 9:08am

    @ Bill le Breton

    “it is there (sic) disruptive skills and their invention and their ‘have go’ attitude. ”

    I don’t know about you, but when I’m sick I prefer to have a doctor who knows what he’s doing! Nor some gung-ho scalpel wielding incompetent. To cure a sick economy we need the right kind of economics. The right kind of politics is secondary. We can be sick or healthy with both large and small govt sectors.

    We need to ditch neoliberalism, ( ie all this we-must-balance-the-budget nonsense), and get back to sensible Keynesianism.

  • Sue Sutherland 25th Jun '17 - 12:44pm

    Thank you for reminding me of Your Liberal Britain, Bill, I was afraid the GE had put this great project off track. Yes it was very exciting to see how much we all agreed, particularly about inequality. It was a pity this didn’t seem to inform our campaign in any significant way.
    Certainly our new leader should give a guarantee that this continues and influences all policy making groups.

  • Sue Sutherland 25th Jun '17 - 12:46pm

    Peter the problem I remember with Keynesianism is that it failed to deal with stagflation in the 70s, otherwise I agree.

  • The thoughts of Bill Le Brexit. A man who thinks leaving the EU is a good idea.

  • Bill – you start by suggesting that we are still doing politics in the same way is we were in the eighteen-nineties. In many ways, would that we were. The voters then knew that the Liberal Party stood for morality: for loving thy neighbour as thyself; for the Sermon on the Mount; for the ordinary working man (OK, pity about universal suffrage) and against the Establishment – the Church of England, the brewers, the Lords. Yes, of course we were part of the Establishment as well – many leading Liberals were amongst the richest men in the country – but it was only when the actions of the Liberal Party in government began to clearly contradict that perceived morality (the use of troops to suppress striking workers, force-feeding sufragettes, conscription, profiteering from war supplies, the selling of honours, etc.) that our supporters began turning to a party that offered a more moral approach to politics – the Labour Party. Alas, history repeats itself….

  • Peter Martin 25th Jun '17 - 9:25pm

    @ Sue Sutherland,

    You’re right that there was a problem in the 70’s with stagflation. And there are justifiable criticisms that can be made of Keynesian based economic policy at the time. I do agree that there was a tendency to let inflation get out of control and once that happens it isn’t easy to pull things back to where they should be. But there were mitigating factors at the time. Not least the economic shock caused by a quadrupling of oil prices.

    Governments of both main parties in the 60’s had a policy of full employment. It hardly ever went above 2%. That 2% was based on fair counting too. There’s been so many changes to the way figures have been compiled since that I would say the present figures do seriously understate the extent of unemployment.

    But in any case I’d argue that 2% was too low. There was as close to 0% in the prosperous region of London and the SE as it was possible to be. Vacancies far outnumbered the available workers. It isn’t surprising that there was an inflation problem.

    But Keynesian economics was shown to work. We should have learned from the mistakes. Instead we threw the baby out with the bathwater. There were powerful ideological motivations behind the change to monetarism. The Tories gleefully seized their opportunity when they could.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Jul '17 - 7:13pm

    Bill le Breton 24th Jun ’17 – 10:56am: Historically we have prospered when bigger parties are heavily committed to an unpopular and unwise policy. The Poll Tax for instance (and the lady was not for turning) or the Iraq War (although it was in Saddam’s interests that Iraq’s neighbours, such as Iran, should believe that he did have weapons of mass destruction, whether he did or not, and that he would be willing to use them, as he had done before.
    DJ Trump now wants support for his policy on North Korea.
    Will Theresa May do what Clement Attlee did in Korea?

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