The Lib Dems need answers, not just anger

Well, you have to hand it to the Tories. When it comes to brazen reinvention in an attempt to hold on to power there is nobody quite like them.

The Tories have rarely been more on message at an annual conference. “A Country That Works for Everyone” was not just in every camera shot but in every speech, whether it was Amber Rudd (yes, that one-time Remain campaigner) insisting companies employ more British workers or Angela Leadsom, in surely the most curious environment speech in British political history, imagining a future of happy youngsters breathing in rural British air as they reconnected with rural communities.

Combine lip service to a vague industrial strategy to benefit all hard-working Britons with some populist and reactionary thinking drawn from the lexicon of some – even many – of the 52% who voted for Brexit. Job done.

It is tempting as Lib Dems for us to think that to rail against the prejudice is enough. To feel just a little morally superior. To congratulate ourselves on our decency.

But it would also be dangerous to do so. Theresa May’s adoption of UKIP rhetoric – and, indeed, UKIP policies, can eat substantially into the 12% or so support that UKIP still commands. With Labour heading ever leftwards, she will anticipate some further slippage from their fast-declining vote from that element of traditional Labour voters who have never made their reactionary opinions a secret. As my wife observed today: “I can see my dad, if he was still alive, switching now.”

So where does this leave the Lib Dems, awaiting the political churn, post Brexit, that will sweep our vote into double figures and beyond into the sunlit uplands?

To continue to champion our internationalism differentiates us. To remain a proudly pro-European party advocating that we remain in the single market above all other considerations is a good call. But the outcome is likely to be very different.

So we are arguing for something we will not win – and there will be a time lag, perhaps beyond the next election, before we are proved right.

There will come a time – as we make progress in council elections, as hopefully we make a major statement in Witney – that we will be dubbed as the party that doesn’t get it, the elitist party, the middle-class dreamers out of touch with the times.

Committed Lib Dems know that would be nonsense. Many who have successfully committed for years to community politics at local level – I freely admit, as a new member, unlike me – might imagine that the charge will be laughed out of court.

But we live in curious times. We live in times when even media sympathisers contend that maybe liberalism is dead. We must accept that our recent failures to understand the tensions in society, and find answers, have partly led to our undoing. We are in danger of being denounced as liberal elitists who treat “ordinary people” without respect.

Firstly, as liberals, we must resist the temptation to recoil at the prejudice, once largely dormant, all around us. Instead, we must find the answers – social and economic – to defeat it. If reason does not work then we must not be afraid of emotion. We must lay our beliefs on the line.

If we are to have Pub Bore politics then we have to take on the Pub Bore.

Secondly, and more importantly, we need a positive narrative for the future that crosses everybody’s lives.

We have rejected the path of bigotry. We have restated our internationalism in nationalistic times. But, as just one example, as a party committed to fairness we have already missed an open goal on the subject of tax evasion and sat and watched as the Tories have warned tax dodgers “We are coming to get you?” That should have been us.

We cannot miss many more open goals. We need the confidence to paint our vision of the future.

* David Hopps is a journalist who spent 20 years on The Guardian and is a new Liberal Democrat member in West Yorkshire.

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23 Comments

  • Couldn’t agree more with:

    “It is tempting as Lib Dems for us to think that to rail against the prejudice is enough. To feel just a little morally superior. To congratulate ourselves on our decency. But it would also be dangerous to do so…we will be dubbed as the party that doesn’t get it, the elitist party, the middle-class dreamers out of touch with the times…. We must accept that our recent failures to understand the tensions in society, and find answers, have partly led to our undoing. We are in danger of being denounced as liberal elitists who treat “ordinary people” without respect…. Instead, we must find the answers – social and economic – to defeat it.”

    Tim Farron is very good at the railing. But where are the answers, the policies, the ideas?

  • Squirrel Nutkin 6th Oct '16 - 4:47pm

    Agree 100%. I found most reports from their conference literally infuriating, up to and including that well crafted but fundamentally deceitful speech by May. Particularly in view of the polling that showed self-identified LibDem voters being 48-37 in favour of the foreign workers register, we have plenty of work to do to pull the electorate back from the dark side. Abusing them won’t work; triangulating our way NewLabour style serves only to make their illiberalism seem acceptable. We need a clear, consistent, true-to-our-roots message from the party that supports us in local campaigning and in our individual face-to-face discussions.

  • Bill le Breton 6th Oct '16 - 5:41pm
  • Joseph Bourke 6th Oct '16 - 5:57pm

    David writes “we must find the answers – social and economic – to defeat prejudice we see all around us.

    One of the key economic themes emanating from the orations of the Chancellor and PM in recent days is the shift away from the transparently failed policies of monetarism and reliance on central banks to deliver economic recovery toward a more active state engagement with investment in infrastructure (but not Skills?).

    James Callaghan signalled the end of the post-war Keynesian consensus when he announced in 1976 “We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step”

    Philip Hammond and Teresa May have in turn signalled the end of the laissez-faire ideas of Hayek and Friedman’s silver-bullet monetarist approach to control of the economy, but offer little beyond tinkering by way of an alternative approach.

    Liberal Democrats have long advocated the collection of economic rents from land and natural resources – as a means of tackling tax avoidance; funding investments in public infrastructure and services; and as a method of freeing business and workers from the dead-weight of taxes on employment and productivity.

    If we are looking for social and economic answers to what ails the UK body politic today, we will need to start with the basic structural issues that have led us to the housing crisis, record levels of debt, low productivity, stagnant real wages, lack of international competitiveness and the gross inequality of opportunity that abounds across the land.

  • David Garlick 6th Oct '16 - 6:01pm

    Well said and we have made a start by setting in train the Beverage Commission on the NHS.
    Given that we have now such a ‘little voice’, the bringing in of respected players to work together with us in this way is a model that could be employed in the development of policy across many key policy areas. This would ensure a sound proposal(s) results in credible and achievable policy that carries sufficient weight to be impossible to ignore.

  • David Hopps 6th Oct '16 - 6:14pm

    Couldn’t agree more with David Garlick about the need to work with “respected players” to grow the voice. With so few MPs, use prospective MPs. Growing the voice can also involve the best candidates in the most winnable seats. Help get their voices heard.

  • Katharine Pindar 6th Oct '16 - 7:17pm

    Fine article, David. Four suggestions:
    1. Spread the word on the excellent policies we have, such as those on Social Security , inland security and green investment which were passed last month at Conference, and the others on which those built – and yes, let us hear more about the proposed Beveridge Commission.
    2. Leaders, begin private talks with Labour MPs who feel they can’t back Corbyn and are Left of Centre (as Owen Smith now says he is), to propose that certain constituency parties be approached to see if there can be joint action to defeat the most vulnerable sitting Tory MPs at the next election, with some form of progressive alliance at that local level.
    3. Accept that, much as we ourselves like unrestricted EU immigration, it appears that a majority of our citizens do not, and therefore consider how planned immigration for particular national needs such as seasonal farming, the care and hospital services and the catering industry could be developed.
    4. Nail the proposals which come from the Government which derive from us – as for instance, the (Green) Investment Bank.

  • paul barker 6th Oct '16 - 7:36pm

    The tone of this strikes me as way too pessimistic.
    The new Tory line will probably get them new voters from UKIP & Blue Labour types but it will lose them voters from their liberal & conservative side. Mays rhetoric isnt just illiberal, its Anti-conservative too. This new Toryism is likely to find it a lot harder to raise money & they depend on money far more than other Parties.
    Labour are making themselves irrelevant to the political mainstream. If there was a Snap Election I could see Labour getting a result in the 20-25% range but a lot of that is down to inertia. A 2010 Election would see them below 15%, presuming they can hold together.
    We are already doing well in actual votes, week after week & so far, the improvement seems to be continuing. Of course all that is below The Medias Radar but that can be to our advantage, at some they will have to admit that we arent dead anymore & then we will be “The Story.”

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Oct '16 - 9:33pm

    I agree with you David Hopps, but I’m almost tired of repeating myself. It is a long battle. A few years ago I said the “Blue Labour” crowd had it right. It’s been clear for some time that the British public are not economically and socially liberal, even though they sometimes move in that direction.

    On tax avoidance I have objections to some of the measures because I think they can unfairly criminalise people, but yes the whole system needs reform so headlines like “Amazon and Starbucks pay less tax than a sausage stand” don’t gain traction, regardless of how true these statements are (they need to pay more tax too).

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Oct '16 - 9:35pm

    PS, people will say “If this party isn’t going to be liberal then what’s the point of it?”, but liberalism is fine if it is not mixed up with libertarianism. There needs to be a break with libertarianism within the party. People don’t want “hands-off” government.

  • @ David. I’ve made a couple of short posts on LDV saying something similar. The shrill railing has to stop, I follow the leadership and the Lib Dem Press Office on Twitter and it’s all “this is shameful”, “that’s disgusting” the other is “hypocrisy”. The words are losing their meaning.

    @Katherine I wasn’t at Conference but where we have strong, well-researched policies we need to to somehow get the message out there. People want answers, action and hope on the things that matter to them, both at home and internationally.

    Its good ideas, workable policies, and remembering why people voted for us in such big numbers before, that will get the Lib Dems back on track,

  • Good article.

    And I miss your cricket stuff on the Guardian. Even if you are a Yorkie.

  • I agree with David and Judy. Lots of people on social media are also saying the same thing. If you focus on how the LIb Dems would be different from your opponents and stop just sniping from the sidelines, that would be a good thing. It’s no good you saying ” The Lib Dems are the only…..” if people out there do not feel the truth of what you say.

  • Barry Snelson 6th Oct '16 - 11:32pm

    David,
    I commend your piece and agree whole heartedly. I joined less than a year ago because I felt I was staring down the barrels of 20 years of Tory rule and felt the LibDems were the only party with the capability to derail that. I am now certain that the party has that capability with its limitless intellect and passion. What I am less sure of is whether that compelling narrative can emerge from that resource.
    Politics has become more assertive, even aggressive, as voters lose faith in the middle of the road, predictable, politicians who seem overwhelmed by events. Bricks get thrown through windows these days and politicians get thumped. Language is more strident and hostile and the reasoned argument of the LibDems will have to be even more convincing to be heard.
    My belief is that British politics is won from the centre ground but that idea, itself, riles some voices here. I further believe that a centre ground party is obviously not one that sits on EITHER the right or left. But it is not a party that sits on NEITHER the right NOR the left, in some precarious mid point.
    Rather, a successful centre ground party is one sitting on BOTH right and left.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th Oct '16 - 12:29am

    David

    Excellent , got it just right, glad you joined us. We need to be the radical moderates, indeed to me that is what our name should be as a euphemism. We must have radical and moderate policies, and Marcus Aurelius should be in our Liberal Hall of Fame ;

    ” All things in moderation, including moderation itself .”

    We need style and substance , positioning and policy. We have got to get the common sense and common ground back, of the fact that May can talk the talk on the centre conservatism, she esposes, but it is conservatism that is UKIP heavy not light, even they, UKIP, have had some red UKIP and right libertarian elements !

    Eddie Sammon, stick with it , Katharine Pindar, your’e so right, Barry Snelson, good as ever !

  • Giovanni Sechi 7th Oct '16 - 8:35am

    I agree wholeheartedly with Barry. I remember once playing football and the manager saying to one of our players to “play in the hole”. At half time I said to the player in question that he wasn’t having one of his better days, to which he replied “he told me to play in the hole, but I’ve just spent the last 45 minutes trying to find where the hole actually is”.

    As the Liberal Democrats, we’ve been searching a long time for this magical centre ground. When the Tories are in power we move slightly left and when Labour are in power we veer slightly right. And when either of these parties decide to move to the centre, they push us aside and take a chunk of our support. But Barry is correct, being centrist should mean we get to pick the best from both worlds. Both the Social Liberal Forum can be right and the Orange bookers can be right and it’s our job to mold both these sets of ideas into election winning strategy.

    But rather than searching for a middle ground that differentiates us from those parties, we are missing what it actually is that makes us profoundly different from both. It is our liberalism. Unlike Labour, we do not just look to provide for societies most needy. We look to provide them with the means to turn their lives around and have choices in which direction they wish to take. And unlike the Tories, there are no conditions on when we provide that help. We have a fundamental belief that every member of society deserves the chance to have aspirations in life and to see them fulfilled.

    So I believe it is time to ditch the talk of centre-left and centre-right and embrace what it is that really makes us different. We should look and draw inspiration from those great Liberal governments of the past and embark on a series of truly Liberal reforms that look to change people lives. I believe Norman Lamb and the Beveridge report are embracing this brief. Let’s see it right across the party.

  • Paul J Carroll 7th Oct '16 - 12:26pm

    Thanks to David for a very thoughtful and well crafted article.
    I agree entirely with the sentiment and like David I am a recently joined member.
    What I find disappointing is that the LibDems seem to have conceded the argument on our exit from the EU, settling for a fight for a soft Brexit. Nobody has found the narrative to confront the result of the referendum and stand up for the 48% of people who voted remain. Yes the reason 52% voted to leave needs to be listened to, understood and responded to, but the LibDems current policy is just the sort of fudge politics that I feel David is alluding to. It’s OK to say that we believe the country is making a mistake and that we need to think again. That if we had our way we would have a second referendum. That if the LibDems secure enough seats it is what will happen. That the disillusionment that many Leave voters feel will not be alleviated by our exit from the EU. That the party is standing up for all people in this policy because it believes that they will be worse off with the current course of action.

  • David Evans 7th Oct '16 - 2:24pm

    There is a lot of good sense in David’s article.

    What we need to realise is that the Conservatives are absolute masters at clinging to power. Their Party conference was a tour de force of disowning their disasters of the last six years and painting a fiction of a new, better future to invite the disillusioned into their welcoming arms. Although Paul Barker is right when he says “May’s rhetoric isn’t just illiberal, its Anti-conservative too,” he is mistaken when he says “it will lose them voters from their … conservative side. This new Toryism is likely to find it a lot harder to raise money,” because he has forgotten one thing – The Conservative’s don’t mean it, and their supporters know it.

    The core conservative vote will hold on, await the goodies given out nearer to 2020, just like George Osborne’s 4% bonds for over 65s in 2015, and vote Tory once again. The question is

    How do we disown the disasters of the coalition years?

    or are we all to proud to ever admit to the public we have ever made any mistakes?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th Oct '16 - 2:39pm

    Giovanni mio amico ! Bravo !

  • Steve Trevethan 7th Oct '16 - 4:07pm

    Perhaps we could start with a set of analyses which are rigorous and objective to the point of discomfort.
    Power = Muscle + Persuasion.
    We have little muscle nationally. [The increasing local and membership muscle is great and encouraging!]
    Develop the quality + quantity of our persuasion.
    Analyse the impartiality and/or bias of the Main Stream Media, including the BBC.
    [A look at Media Lens is a good start. http://www.medialens.org/%5D
    Look at non MSM sources [http://www.globalresearch.ca/ and/or https://www.google.fr/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=rt (Global Research: RT is a start.]
    Develop turns of phrase and texts which are reasonably accurate and independent of current political cliches whether they coincide with mainstream politics and the MSM or not.
    Promote them and listen attentively.
    “The media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent. —They control the minds of the masses.

  • Barry Snelson 9th Oct '16 - 5:45pm

    David,
    I do not know if you are still picking up these threads but I thought your piece deserved more debate and reflection than it got here.
    I found it much aligned with my own thinking and shone the light onto the questions that the party needs to confront but which it seems reluctant to do.
    I only joined last year as I generally disapprove of one party states and the LibDems seemed to have the passion and the intellectual firepower to depose the Tory dynasty.
    My fear is that many in the party are too intelligent and are the types, who, on being given an exam paper, cross out the question and say “That’s not the right question at all and what the examiner should have asked is this……”.
    My own theme would be “National Reform” where our localism reputation would be a good foundation for a revival.

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