The Greatest Story Never Told

As we enter the start of the Liberal Democrat leadership contest, we confront the question again of what direction the new leader will take the party. We ask, what will be their platform? Their vision? Who are we going to appeal to? What issues are we going to champion? What is the policy that will reverse our fortunes?

With the quick turnover of leaders since the resignation of Nick Clegg, we have never come up with any lasting answers to the big questions, and that’s because we are missing the point. Our biggest failing is thinking that we are missing one great policy that will overturn centuries of two-party rule, or that by opposing everything an awful Tory government is doing we can somehow break through electorally. Policies change from election to election and do not last, and by opposing everything, no one knows what you positively stand for.

I will grant you that the party has gained some success in opposing the government or being anti things. The Iraq war, under the leadership of Charles Kennedy, or the opposition to Brexit to name a couple of these. Yet, after entering government in the Coalition in 2010, and as sentiment fades from single issues, opposing them does bring enough support. But this action never built up a strong enough vote that could last through many elections and issues.

Tony Blair notes in this autobiography that the Labour party have a base level of support in the 25-30% range of people who will vote Labour no matter what. The Liberal Democrats do not currently have such a group that can help prevent election wipe out or be the basis upon which to build a broader coalition of voters to win more seats.

We should never understate how differently the general public consumes and react to political messaging, and never assume that they are as interested or have as much time to be engaged with it. Most people will struggle to tell you what the Liberal Democrats stand for. Perhaps they know we are anti-Brexit or may like a past leader, but nothing fundamental to our values or beyond oppositionist stances.

In the collective consciousness of the general public, there is a sense of where the two main parties sit. The Conservatives are the business backing managers of the economy that run things efficiently and protect our institutions, are tough, low taxes, and will back aspirational people. The Labour party have become synonymous with the NHS, with welfare and social justice, higher tax but higher care. You are never going to beat that without people knowing what the alternative is for!

There’s a wealth of examples from our history from Lloyd George steering us through the First World War, Lord Beveridge and the NHS, or the Same-Sex Couples Act of 2013. Therein lies the start to our story, combine it with our values of liberty, community, empowerment, environmentalism, equality, and internationalism, and you have your narrative framework. This must be something simpler and more identifiable than the long-winded and wordy start to our constitution. From this, our policy choices and positions should be obvious.

The liberal history of Britain is the greatest story never told, and it’s about time the public knew it.

* Chris Hudson is a party member in Southwark, former Chair of Southwark, and co-founder of Liberal Pitch

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  • I read this article as a plea for a return to traditional liberal values (increasingly being described as “old fashioned liberalism” by writers) – a position with which I have considerable sympathy.

    The challenge however is that liberalism is in retreat, confronted not only by its traditional opponents of resurgent nationalism, but by an emerging new vision of what progressive politics should look like, struggling for a label but often described as identity politics, or ‘wokeness’.

    While the traditional liberal dreams of a society where everyone has opportunity regardless of their background or circumstance, and therefore identity diminishes in significance, the new progressives build their political thinking upon the politics of identity. The roots of this new politics draw more from ideals of socialist solidarity and equality of opportunity than from traditional liberalism, but even those firmly on the left, such as many radical feminists, are finding assumptions they have long taken for granted now being challenged by the newer politics of gender self-identification.

    I don’t know where the home for the classical liberal might be nowadays, but looking at our party and the way it is run, it seems to me that traditional liberals are becoming homeless without a space in any of the main political parties.

  • Small typo, in the middle of my third para I meant “equality of outcome”, not of opportunity.

  • Jenny Barnes 17th Jun '20 - 3:50pm

    “The conservatives…run things efficiently.”
    You’re having a laugh. Have you noticed what s been happening the last few months?

  • This is a very good article that goes to the core of the issue of narrative.
    Put yourself in the place of a floating voter. What are the Libdems known for? Is it Electoral reform? Does that mean coalition governments? Coalition with who? If it is the Labour party only, under PR why would I not vote Labour in the first place? How are the Libdems different from the Tories or Labour? Are they pro-business like the Conservatives.? Are they more like the Labour party and consider themselves as representing the working class and unions? Who represents the great mass of ordinary people who don’t identify themselves by class – teachers, nurses, the self-employed, those working in financial services, hospitality and retailing?
    A political party has to be able to do politics. That means necessary compromises in building a coalition of voters to win elections. It means sometimes having to sit back and listen to what people think and framing your message accordingly while appreciating that no single party has all the answers. That message has to resonate as much with socially conservative white working-class males worried about identity as it does with minority groups, middle-class professionals, social liberals and the younger generation. It has to be a forward-looking narrative based on a vision of a better future for everyone in the UK regardless of social class, ethnicity, religion or region.

  • John Marriott 17th Jun '20 - 5:52pm

    Blair was right, Chris. I would go further. The Tories have a ‘core vote’ of over 35%, Labour a ‘core vote’ of around 25%. And the rest? Well, you take your pick. I reckon the ‘core vote‘ for the Lib Dems might nudge 10% in a good year. After all, anything between 5 and 10% is a pretty fair result for most European Liberal Parties, as I have said many times. So, the ‘third party’ inevitably starts from a lower base, certainly at General Elections.

    People like Jo Bourke will analyse this for you – too much, perhaps. (How does he get so much stuff past the editors, I ask myself, when I often get back the ‘too long message’?) He’d certainly win the prize for explanation – again, too much, perhaps – but how many elections has he actually won?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Jun '20 - 1:43pm

    A good point here, but that Liberal history is not about now or recently other than a coalition many want to ditch, not , pitch, as relevant or reasonable!

    Christopher, history as study, fine, but history as living, how? Decent old friends on here love chapter and versing on Asquith or Churchill, Gladstone or lloyd George, but that;s fine and yet so what?!

    What, is needed is interest in a Liberalism or social democratic idea for now and next decades. I see much going for this as a possibility, but not electorally, now we have Starmer, who even at his worst of dull, is better than Corbyn.

  • roger roberts 18th Jun '20 - 1:51pm

    People write that we need to look for causes Is not true that causes are searching for those who will fight for them I asked friends recently what comes first party affiliation or the “cause ” As a youngish candidate some time ago I’d find many causes and share them with others’ Now as a member of the House of Lords there are causes that cry out for people ready to champion them – one of mine is the reform of the Home Office and the way its Immigration procedures undermine the very dignity of the most needy and vulnerable,

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Jun '20 - 2:11pm

    A commentary here, a viewpoint, as ever, sensible and sincerely held, from Lord Roberts.

    We as a party are too obsessed with causes that most cannot get behind, or can, but alienate.

    Most would welcome rfeform of that hideous organisation.

    dwp though ought to be abolished after a ubi is implemented!

  • From the article: “… we confront the question again of what direction the new leader will take the party.

    If only!

    The hustings for both contested leadership elections of recent years (Clegg/Huhne & Farron/Lamb) shared a curious feature; none of the candidates stood on a platform to lead the party in a particular direction. Both contests were really just ‘beauty competitions’ judged on who could please the crowd more and were nothing to do with ‘leadership’ as is commonly understood.

    Once in office, a new leader must respond to ‘events’ (as MacMillan famously put it), of necessity making policy on the hoof but they are on constitutionally thin ice in so doing (as are the departmental spokespeople who must also respond to ‘events’). Moreover, when elected, most policy is inherited and officially settled until next revisited by Conference – likely to be several years away for most policies.

    The leader does have considerable informal influence ex officio but that falls very short of the authority wielded by, say, a new Conservative leader. He or she certainly does NOT have a mandate to lead in a new direction.

    In short, the leader’s constitutional role is really just that of ‘chief spokesman’ for policy that’s mostly decided by Conference – although that too is a polite fiction; most of It is decided by the FPC and rubber stamped by Conference.

    Does this matter?

    Absolutely! And in several ways. The big one is that it implicitly relies on the FPC and FB to give a strategic lead, but they are not set up to do that as their 30+ year record proves. Another is that is largely divorces policy from politics – not a good idea! Yet another is that the Lib Dem’s top-down policymaking works against the ‘hundred flowers blooming’, the diversity of thought that even Mao pretended to believe in.

    Good strategy is always a synthesis achieved by one person or a very small, tight group so the Lib Dems would do far better if contenders competed on the clarity of their strategic vision on the basis that, if elected, they would have a mandate to implement it. Candidates would then have to think about leadership, take advice, make decisions, build coalitions and more that recent ‘leaders’ have all signally failed to do. In short, they would have to develop all the skills they need in office and which they don’t practice now.

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