The Infinite Game: Finding a just cause for the Liberal Democrats

Sustained success is attained not through obsessing with winning in the short term, but focusing on a higher purpose. That is the idea put forward by Simon Sinek in his recent book The Infinite Game, which looks at how institutions from tech companies like Apple to the founding of the United States itself were built on a just cause, a future vision for which we are willing to make sacrifices.

This is the critical challenge I believe the Liberal Democrats need to engage with now as we search for our way forward in the new political landscape. It may be useful to understand why we didn’t win another six seats or the impact of certain policy or strategy decisions. We can debate our concerns about a drift right or left, economic competence, the merits of a rejoin versus EFTA campaign, or who the next leader should be. Ultimately, though, this lacks a longer term perspective; we need to play the infinite game.

How do we stay in the game? What is our just cause?

Here are three headline thoughts I would like to put on the table that I believe we need to address.

One. We should start by workshopping out our vision for a fair, free and open society and the values model that will underpin it.

It requires us to go beyond the tactics of winning elections and Brexit to look into our liberal, social democrat and progressive souls to shape what that better country and world looks like, the change we want to see – to define our just cause.

Two. We should now devote as much energy to changing the electoral system as we have to stopping Brexit.

Our country will never realise its full potential whilst its political system is not optimised for dialogue and collaboration. The need for electoral reform is no longer about the simple matter of how we make votes count. It is about who gets access to power, whose voice is heard, what issues are tackled, social cohesion and how (if) we constructively solve our collective problems; it is, in essence, the very heart of our Liberal Democrat values of liberty, equality and community. We understand the urgency; we have the passion to lead; we need to find the right words to take our fellow citizens with us.

Three. We need to develop a radically unifying platform.

Our country is facing a series of emergencies: in housing, climate change, our education and youth services, mental health, the future of work and so many others. We already have many policies that address these issues and could offer people hope; but have we yet figured how to communicate these as a compelling and radical offer? Edward Maxfield, in an article last month,  was right to question whether the Lib Dems have forgotten their roots at the expense of chasing a perceived high return segment. We urgently need to redefine ourselves as a party that can cut across divides and identities: rural/urban, geographic, income, leave/remain and demographics.

A leadership contest is not a proxy for an aspirational quest for our future direction. It will not answer questions about how we can find ways to implement our policies, how we build a vibrant base in communities and local government, and who we need to work with to deliver a society where no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity.

Strong, successful organisations of the type Sinek describes know what their cause and values are. It is the wrong time to be distracted by a leadership election and the decision to delay it until the summer should be welcomed; personally, I would have supported holding off even until after the Autumn Conference.

We, all the members, have not just the right but the responsibility to define what kind of political movement we want to be. Then we can choose the leader for that movement.

Let’s find our bold just cause. Let’s play the infinite game.

* Doug Buist joined the Liberal Democrats in 2015. He works as a cultural marketer and is currently chair of Lambeth Liberal Democrats.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Peter Martin 23rd Jan '20 - 3:13pm

    A just cause?

    I’m not the first to suggest this but you need look no further than the GND:

  • Innocent Bystander 23rd Jan '20 - 3:59pm

    I appreciate the effort but that is not the way round that great change happens. The “group” does not come up with the cause and then looks for a suitable leader. It is the Mandela, Thatcher, Blair, Jobs, Farage even, who raise the banner and calls “Follow me!”.
    You used the word ‘value’ three times, and it as a word adored by the party. It is meaningless to voters. No party is campaigning for the opposite. All claim (sic) to share them.
    Can you put ” Just Cause” into words that are more than the unspecific vapidity that has been used by politicians for ever?
    Finally, I have said before, fight for PR if you like but it could be the end of the LibDems. There will be a host of new entrants many of whom will have a far more concrete set of proposals to offer than the LibDems and their, if you will forgive me, ethereal “values”.

  • spot on.

  • ‘This election will be about fairness and change and the Liberal Democrats is the only party that will deliver both’
    Danny Alexander 2010.
    That simple message was very effective was repeated again and again by the party and was successful enough to cut through the noise and get people like me out to vote for the party. The vulnerable and weak sure paid a huge price for people like myself and many others being so naive. NEVER AGAIN.

  • Oh please, not another plea to use our energy to change the electoral system. Look, we all know that FPTP is rubbish and understand how it distorts politics and leads to poor outcomes for the country, but the electorate don’t care or just see our argument as being self-serving. Our raison d’etre is there in the Preamble to our Constitution: those are our core values and we need to campaign on policies that implement those values.

  • Paul Barker 23rd Jan '20 - 5:32pm

    We have to distinguish between issues that are important & Issues that interest The Voters, at least a big chunk of them. The Climate Emergency comes in both categories, Electoral Reform comes in the first but not the second.
    We are only going to get Electoral Reform after we form or lead the largest group in Parliament & that means winning over a third of the Voters, thats why we need a Big Issue & an Alliance with at least The Greens.

  • I am sorry, but this article is simply misguided. By our own party’s actions since 2010 we have done more than anyone to set back the prospect of reform, and this is not going to easily be undone however much “energy” we might decide to direct toward it now.

    Indeed the comparison with our anti-Brexit efforts simply highlights that strategy, good judgement and tactical decision making are as if not more important than energetic campaigning. Rather like good and coherent messaging and is actually more important than the quantity of paper put through someone’s door.

  • David Evans 23rd Jan '20 - 5:58pm

    Doug, as you say ‘Sustained success is attained not through obsessing with winning in the short term, but focusing on a higher purpose’.

    Sadly Sustained failure is attained through obsessing on a higher purpose very few other than you are interested in.

    Sadly your one, two and three are things that obsess Progressive, Generation Clegg Liberals, but turn off Traditional, find something and fix it Lib Dems.

    Suffice it to say that the Traditionalist Lib Dems, like David Penhaligon, got us from 11 MPs in 1979 to 62 MPs in 2005.

    Generation Clegg Liberals, who make up so much of the current party establishment, Liberals took us from 62 back down to 11.

    People vote for people they trust. Trust has to be earned, not theorised about in policy workshops. Get used to it.

  • Katharine Pindar 23rd Jan '20 - 6:46pm

    Silvio, they forgot about fairness, that was the trouble. Fairness for everyone, including the poorest and most disadvantaged Fairness was forgotten again lately by party leaders concentrating on the hoped-for gains in London and the south-east, on the Metropolitan elite, on the wants of the middle-class in cities like Edinburgh. Fairness should still be our genuine watchword, and its implications pondered on.

    Fairness and community. Community has always been at the heart of our political theory and practice. No good waiting for a leader to give us an inspirational burst forward – we just tried that and it didn’t work. We have our values, we have and continue to develop our policies, and we can offer them to our people, under, I suggest, the banner, Fairness and Community .

    Of course, Doug, reform of the voting system does belong under the banner of Fairness.

  • Slogans to ponder for us to go forward-
    Rejoin ,fairness for all not just those with money (for Brexit seems to be beginning to have problems )
    Save the Planet (for we all need it)
    Fairness and Community (for all the values it entails that people can fight for)
    They can all be intertwined for we need a vibrant economy to produce GOOD jobs and wages not minimum wage levels etc. A planet that we can all cherish that produces new jobs,new ways of doing things and fairness for all in the community where all can play a part supporting each other.
    Yes. It sounds idealistic and over the top but we have to start somewhere. They are all valid . A movement that can put them all together could be a start.

  • @ William Francis. Yes, changing the electoral system has been a party issue since the 1920’s…. indeed before that.

    David Lloyd George could have had it in the 1918 Representation of the People Act. Unfortunately he failed to press the point when it was waiting on a plate for him. He had other fish to fry …….. and to collect.

  • Peter Watson 24th Jan '20 - 12:23am

    Important as electoral reform is, I don’t think it can be a priority for the party for the foreseeable future.

    The biggest outcry over electoral unfairness in recent years has been UKIP’s failure to have MPs in Parliament that reflected their support outside it. Similarly, the Lib Dems first need to build public support for their party’s vision and its policies so that the lack of proportional representation in the House of Commons looks just as outrageous to more than just the party faithful.

    Better to put that energy into the third point, the “radically unifying platform” (whatever one of those is). The preamble gives the party its vision, so agree whereabouts you want to be on the economically liberal spectrum in order to define and communicate a coherent set of policies best able to deliver it. Simples. Apart from the “agree” bit. And maybe the rest.

  • Changing our electoral system – I entirely agree with Doug Buist on this. This does not simply mean that we change how we count votes. If it is to be real then it must be an answer to the question as to how a system can be designed which enables people to participate in the decisions which affect their lives.
    The New Economics Foundation published a book called “Participation Works – 21 techniques of community participation for the 21st. Century”. My copy does not have a publication date, but it was the last century. I recognise that to apply the ideas in that nationally to our country would not at present be possible. It would be useful to see which of these, and other ideas, could be applied to our own party to make it one where all members could participate in a real way in decisions making.

  • Jack Graham 24th Jan '20 - 8:56am

    The problem can be seen in the preamble of your revered constitution.

    The only thing that stands out is the capitalised STOP BREXIT, which is then followed by paragraphs of vacuous waffle including this:

    ” We believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people. We therefore acknowledge their right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs and commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. ”

    Would anybody care to have a go and make the argument why both of these positions are achievable when they are in direct contradiction to each other. Perhaps far more importantly, how can you even claim it as a constitution in the first place if you pick and choose whether to apply it to your politics. The idea of a constitution is that you stick with it on principle through thick and thin, and only change it through extensive debate and discussion.

    Brexit has clearly shown that you no longer believe in the extract above, or only when it suits your prejudices, yet it is still in your constitution, and despite the furore around it in recent years, there appears to be no interest or will, to amend or change it to reflect your current party thinking.

    I have had a go at redrafting the above extract to reflect your current thinking, feel free to use it if you wish.

    ‘We believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people, as long as they agree with us. We therefore acknowledge their right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs, as long as they agree with us, and commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, as long as they agree with us, and that the EU ultimately should reign supreme over all UK internal governance’

  • @ Paul Walter

    I know it is not in your constitution, but the first thing that hits you in the face when opening the preamble page is Stop Brexit. If it is no longer the policy why is it still the generic logo.

    “If we were actually ‘picking up a rifle’ (as Nigel Farage said he might do) to overturn the elected government, then I think you might have a point.”

    War metaphors and idioms, when did they become non compliant in LibDem speak.

  • I do agree with Doug’s point one. At some point we are gong to have to have a very large and a very serious discussion about what it is that actually separates us from the other parties and what the Liberal Society that we are asking voters to sign up to would look like.
    The variety of responses to the article reinforces my suspicion that the only thing that really unites us Lib Dems is a dislike of the two main parties and an awkward streak (to which I plead guilty myself). Yes, I know, we all subscribe to the preface to the constitution but how many people wouldn’t say they believe in a “Fair, free and open society” ?
    A do think we need to have a 12 month moratorium on the use of the words “radical” and “progressive”. They have become almost meaningless, indeed they have come to signify almost the opposite of their true meaning. Radical means offering fundamantal change. It follows that selling off parts of the NHS is radical, simply pumping more money into it is not. Similarly, progressive simply means in favour of change or reform. I could go on, but you get my drift.

  • “You seem to have missed the point.”

    I haven’t missed the point.

    What is the purpose of a constitution based organisation, if the constitution is optional. A constitution is a set of basic rules that an entity believes in, and which it organises and works to.

    “We have not sought to overturn democracy by illegal means. We have used the tools of free speech and the legislative tools which have been put at our disposal by the democratically elected legislature. ”

    I never said you did, but you happily drove a coach and horses through the preamble to your constitution to try and stop Brexit. You did use the tools of free speech and legislative mechanisms, you even used your over-representation in the un-elected Lords, to try and overturn a democratic decision of the electorate. But is that an honourable position to hold.

    This is all semantics.

    If you don’t stand by your own constitution then have the decency to change it, but please don’t hide behind what you did was somehow in the spirit of democracy, because you are kidding yourself promoting that idea. The last general election punished those who spoke with a forked tongue, perhaps a lesson to be learnt, not ignored.

  • Innocent Bystander 24th Jan '20 - 11:46am

    I commend Doug for trying to get a productive discussion going in the face of “Who is to blame for our electoral disaster?” that is everything else.

    Incidentally, what disaster? It is the focus of all this grief only because the party had psyched itself up to 100+ seats. It was actually pretty much on trend as elections were going.

    The problem I have with the oped is that (like all the rest of the LibDem offering) it was more sermon than manifesto.

    When are the proposals arriving?

  • We must predict the future and adjust to become the voice of it. We have climate change, the post Brexit era and a myriad of social and economic issues to address. If we can show that we have policies that will enable businesses and society to adapt to change and maintain our quality of life we will succeed.

  • richard underhill 24th Jan '20 - 3:33pm

    Imagine a tank laying a rolled up carpet in front of itself as it proceeds up a beach in Normandy in 1944.
    In a brainstorming session such an idea should be put on the board and not ignored when it comes to analysis.
    Then compare the numbers of casualties on a British or Canadian beach with US beaches and thank the open-minded attitudes of Defence Minister W. S. Churchill and General Sir Bernard Montgomery.
    Go and do thou likewise.

  • Katerina Porter 24th Jan '20 - 5:05pm

    We are living in a country where can children come to school unable to follow lessons because there was not enough money at home to pay for food for breakfast. Teachers help out from their own meagre salaries. There is plenty to do.
    If the referendum of 2016 had not been “advisory” the Electoral Commission said it would have called it void.

  • “Two. We should now devote as much energy to changing the electoral system as we have to stopping Brexit.”

    Right idea, wrong target.

    Soon after the Lib-SDP merger I asked several party members if they could give me a single reason for PR that the big parties couldn’t easily represent to their own supporters and floating voters as merely self-interest on the part of the LDs. None could.

    There IS actually a very good reason. Elections are a market for power in which the currency is votes. FPTP represents a huge barrier to entry, an almost insuperable one for parties with spread out rather than concentrated support. With PR the barrier to entry is lowered, making the political market more competitive by enabling nimble and innovative newcomers to challenge inept incumbents.

    So, if PR were ever introduced LDs would win more seats. But, in the slightly longer term, would they be nimble and innovative enough to sustain their lead over the new parties that would certainly emerge?

    I thought not; the LDs are ultra-conservative in the small ‘c’, stuck in the mud sense of that word. Of course, that’s nationally. Successful local parties have always been nimble and responsive to voters’ aspirations – as proven time and again in real elections.

    I never expected to see this theory tested but it has been twice, arguably three times. And each time the outcome was indeed initial success followed by collapse. First was the Scottish Assembly where SNP ultimately triumphed, then European elections where UKIP/Brexit won. Then, although the 2010 GE wasn’t fought under PR, the outcome – a coalition – was the same. And the party again flopped big time, totally trashing its brand.

    So, PR isn’t the panacea many believe. And in any case, it’s beyond reach for the foreseeable future. But there is one thing the party can and should do that’s completely within its power to deliver – REFORM ITSELF to become fighting fit, able to force bad government to be better and, when elected, to deliver good government.

    I feel this strongly because I once worked for a company that was in an equally big mess until a new MD made some very slight changes to the way it was run – so small that most hardly noticed – but ways that mattered. Within four years of its near-death experience the accountants were joking the money was coming in faster than they could count it. That could be the LDs.

  • Paul Walter 24th Jan ’20 – 9:26am:
    If we were actually ‘picking up a rifle’ (as Nigel Farage said he might do) to overturn the elected government, then I think you might have a point.

    Farage’s phrase in context “…if they don’t deliver this Brexit that I spent 25 years of my life working for, I will be forced to don khaki, pick up a rifle, and head for the front line.” was a metaphorical allusion to those who had previously been called upon to defend our democracy. At the time, the Liberal Democrats policy was to destroy our democracy by subverting a democratic decision of the British people.

    Paul Walter 24th Jan ’20 – 10:35am:
    We have not sought to overturn democracy by illegal means.

    Neither did President Putin, but “no serious scholar would consider Russia today a democracy”.

  • “Three… Our country is facing a series of emergencies: in housing, climate change [etc.]”

    Indeed, it does. But why so many simultaneous emergencies?

    When a great river like the Mississippi reaches the sea, it deposits its sediment load, building a delta. Year by year, as it pushes further out its gradient decreases, the current slows, and sediment increasingly chokes its channel. Something has to give; eventually it must make a dramatic course change, that is to ‘avulse’, and find a shorter way to the sea.

    The Mississippi would have already avulsed and abandoned New Orleans were it not for epic interventions by US Army engineers. They are preventing it for now but eventually the river will win.

    That strikes me as a perfect metaphor for current politics. Whatever good neoliberalism ever did (very little, IMO) was done long ago. Since then the contradictions, the fallacies, the greed and above all, making money the master, instead of the servant of people means everything is falling apart, becomming unbearable for most.

    The people MUST have change so politics WILL avulse. Tragically, the only alternative on offer has been Brexit so that’s what we got.

    The Lib Dems long ago gave up trying to be a radical party in public and quietly dedicated themselves to becoming acceptable to the (thoroughly neoliberal) establishment. Long years of disappointment that should have forced a rethink of how the party managed itself instead caused it to turn towards irrelevance.

    So, it’s about direction – and the leadership to find it.

    But it’s not clear to me that the LDs get that. All the contested leadership elections I can remember were more like beauty contests than anything else. Policy was regarded as settled and candidates didn’t disagree about it one jot.

    Contrast that with the Conservatives (who DO know how stay relevant to their base) and whose leadership candidates DO promise to go in different directions.

    A good leader doesn’t have to be a policy wonk, but they must have the instinct to choose the best of several possible policies and articulate them in a joined-up way – that is joined up across disparate policy areas. The ability to find the best advice and to inspire are the hallmarks of great leaders down the ages.

  • John Roffey 24th Jan '20 - 6:44pm

    Gordon 24th Jan ’20 – 6:06pm

    “Whatever good neoliberalism ever did (very little, IMO) was done long ago. Since then the contradictions, the fallacies, the greed and above all, making money the master, instead of the servant of people means everything is falling apart, becomming unbearable for most.”

    Spot on. Greed is not good. One of the three fires in Buddhism [along with Anger and Delusion] that stand in the way of enlightenment – seeing things as they really are.

  • Innocent Bystander 24th Jan '20 - 7:44pm

    The LibDems did nothing at all to undermine democracy. They only campaigned for what they believed in. To compare Tim Farron with Putin is a surreal argument indeed.
    (They misjudged the public mood though, but that is different).

  • So, some right-leaning members here still want to stick to the failed Orange Book platform. It failed, and its failure is clearly illustrated by the fact that our party lost 49 seats between 2010 and 2015, and hovered around 10-12 seats since then.

  • Would it be radical to suggest focusing on:
    1. liberalism
    2. democracy

    I am not a Lib Dem member. I have been consistently voting for you since 2014 when I realised that our EU membership was under threat. I have come looking on this website to see what your plans are, now that Brexit seems inevitable.

  • David Evans 25th Jan '20 - 9:30am

    William Francis

    I think you have fundamentally misinterpreted my post, for which I apologise.

    My comment was about the very difference you are emphasising, between on the one hand the ‘Find something and fix it,’ moderately left of centre approach with its focus on poverty and injustice that David Penhaligon adopted and, on the other hand, the current ‘Generation Clegg’ approach which is much more focused on personal rights and labels itself “Progressive” (with its emphasis on identity politics) but ultimately has delivered not progress but collapse for our party.

    The difference between the Liberal manifestos of the 1960s and 70s, and those of the 80s, 90s and 2,000 onwards is very compelling – quite simply the earlier ones were much more inspiring, the latter dull but worthy.

    As you intimate, Nick Clegg was very clearly on the right wing of the party, generally being very comfortable supporting David Cameron and George Osborne with austerity, the bedroom tax, massive cuts to local government etc. On personal liberties he was more Progressive (but only so far as David Cameron was progressive) as with equal marriage, but he still sided with the political establishment on matters like Secret Courts.

    Whether you agree with me wholeheartedly on this or not, I hope there is one thing we can agree on is my final point – People vote for people they trust. Trust has to be earned, not theorised about in policy workshops. We have to get used to it.

  • Peter Martin 26th Jan '20 - 12:22pm

    The EU have a plan to stimulate faster growth in the Euro area through a commitment to faster decarbonisation…

    Sounds good! But what about the euros needed? This is where it starts to sound not so good. There’s just €7.5 billion of “fresh money”.

    According to my arithmetic €7.5 bn is just 0.04 % of the total GDP of the EU which is €17 trillion. This is also using the very favourable, and highly unrealistic, assumption that €7.5 bn is a continuous annual amount to be spent!

    And this is intended to produce just how much growth exactly? I’m sceptical of the idea of fiscal multipliers, but even if we’re ultra optimistic and assume a factor of 3 the end result is still neither here nor there. A trillion-euro ‘Green Deal’ financial plan? They are dreaming!

    They are either economically illiterate to a degree which is, frankly, beyond belief. Or they are lying.

    It’s just greenwash at its worst!

  • James Fowler 26th Jan '20 - 5:21pm

    @innocent bystander – spot on with all your comments.

  • James Fowler 26th Jan '20 - 8:21pm

    The Lib Dem already have just, coherent and logical causes – social and economic liberalism. If only we would fully embrace them both. They’re also pieces of political ‘real estate’ that have been mostly vacated by Labour and now the Conservatives.

    Edward Maxfield calls us: ‘A coalition of the disgruntled priviledged’. I that’s a superb description. Unlike him, I don’t think it’s such a bad place to be. We can never hope to outflank the emotional lock the Labour Party has (especially not in its current form) on being the representatives of the truly dispossessed, and people who are happy with the way things are have got the government they want already.

    I think that there’s a fairly secure future in being ‘Aggrieved of St Albans’ and ‘Browned off of Bath’. Paul Walter has helpfully given us a list of where we came second and Electoral Calculus shows a score or so of Tory marginals that (unlike post 2017) now only need a minor shove.

    A mixture of sweet moderation and cogent liberalism will catch these and hold those what we have. It will also make us real and growing pain in the Tory flank as it forces them to decide which wing of their big new Party they’re going to appease/sacrifice. Leave radical posturing to Labour.

  • Brexit has hardly started. We used to warn that it would mean decades of disaster. Now that it is beginning, we have gone quiet. Everybody wants to talk about something else. Why?

    Back in 2003, we warned that to invade Iraq would be a disaster. When Blair invaded nonetheless, we didn’t just shut up and accept that it was yesterday’s decision. We continued to campaign against the invasion. When the invasion went wrong, people recognised that we were the party who had found the right answer. It was too late to put it right, but it did gain us a lot of supportive votes.

    Why are we not doing the same again? Because Britain’s biggest headline issue in 2020, in 2021, in 2025, quite possibly 2030, will probably be … Brexit. The “move on” brigade will not be able to move on. And this time, sticking to Brexit as a campaign issue wil not only gain us votes a few years hence. It may also gain us the chance to influence the forthcoming revolt against the Brexit disaster.

  • John Probert 27th Jan '20 - 11:12am

    We need Bricks-and-Mortar Liberalism. Make tackling the acute housing shortage our number one priority. Lack of a proper home lies at the root of so many social, mental, physical and educational problems and it hits the younger generation particularly hard. We must hold the government relentlessly to account on the housing front.

  • Peter Martin 27th Jan '20 - 11:42am

    @ John Probert,

    Expensive housing isn’t a phenomenon that’s been imposed on us by forces beyond our control. As wages and salaries have risen it’s natural that house prices also rise with them. However, the increase has been much greater than that. Average house prices have risen from a multiple of around 3 times annual income, in the 60s, to 8 or even 10 times now.

    It’s not just caused by immigration. There were high immigration levels in the 60s too.

    It’s been a deliberate policy of successive governments, including the Lib Dem/Tory coalition to force up house prices. High house prices provide the collateral for high levels of private borrowing. Governments don’t want to be seen to do the borrowing so they’ve pushed the requirement on to the private sector. A country like the UK which runs a large current account deficit will always require someone in the UK to fund it with borrowed money.

    So don’t hold your breath waiting for any Govt to move voluntarily towards more affordable housing. It would probably burst the credit bubble and crash the economy. That might well happen anyway but the Govt will fight tooth and nail to prevent it. The official position is still of wanting more affordable expensive housing.

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