The Lib Dems: We need to fight back for the many, not just the few


I am really pleased that Tim Farron won the leadership election, because of his energy, commitment and strong sense of social justice – and I am really impressed that Tim went to Calais to see for himself what is going on there – but I do have some concerns about where the Party may be heading. Of course, it is early days, but over the summer the coverage of the Lib Dems in the media has been mostly around ‘fringe’ issues such as Tim’s comments about the SNP and his faith perspective. That may fit in nicely with the media’s ‘Lib Dem agenda’, but we shouldn’t be boxed in as a minority party that has little to say to the wider electorate. Having just read Tim’s policy priorities in Caron Linday’s article posted a few days ago, with the exception of housing, I remain concerned.

I believe that politics should be about developing policies which bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people – the most economically disadvantaged absolutely, but also other people who, nonetheless, have their financial and other struggles. During the Coalition Government and in our Election Manifesto, we rightly shone a light on mental health, but to the exclusion of almost all other aspects of health policy; we talked a lot about the pupil premium, but didn’t talk enough about the wider problems in the education system, including disillusioned teachers leaving the profession and too many young people leaving school without any meaningful qualifications; we had a well-publicised focus on cycling, but not a comprehensive transport policy; and we had relatively little to say on foreign policy, even the crisis in Syria. I’ve also yet to meet someone – apart from a Lib Dem – who is really that bothered about the Snooper’s Charter!

The Lib Dems will not be taken as seriously as we deserve to be, if we do not have credible policies which acknowledge that every person and every family counts – and the media report accurately what we have to say. To be fair, we did have some really good policies in our manifesto, but only a few of the broader messages seemed to reach a wider audience.

We need to demonstrate that we have strong ideas across the board: on the economy and business; on all aspects of health, including primary care and the management of our hospitals; on developing a better and cheaper rail network so rail travel doesn’t increasingly become the preserve of the well-to-do; on planning and housing, so there is a limit to money-spinning housing developments which offer little in the way of homes for ordinary families, especially in London; on regional development, so the South-East doesn’t swallow up the lion’s share of the wealth and jobs; and on restoring the employment rights which have been so badly eroded.

We need to make sure people in social care are properly looked after – and their carers decently paid – and the benefits for those with a long-term illness or disability are protected and restored These are scenarios which affect us all sooner or later – and we should be a party that is there for the mainstream as well as interest groups.. We need to be inclusive to be electable.

There is much that is wrong in our society – including health inequalities and real deprivation (just take a look at some of the run down areas in our major cities). We must have an agenda for the bigger problems otherwise we risk being relegated to the fringes.  Once we can demonstrate we have credible policies, rooted in fairness and progress – on the economy, health, education and jobs – it is more likely that people will listen to what we have to say on climate change, restorative justice and human rights – which are, of course, just as important.

* Judy Abel has worked in the health policy field for around 15 years, including at the British Medical Association, for the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group, and in policy roles at Asthma UK, the Neurological Alliance and Versus Arthritis until the end of 2021. She was also the Constituency Office Manager and Senior Caseworker for former Lib Dem MP, Sir Simon Hughes from 2012 to 2014. All views are her own.

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  • I expect many of us can agree with Judy Abel –that we should try to publicize our “credible policies, rooted in fairness and progress – on the economy, health, education and jobs”. I read our manifesto but can’t remember what they were in these areas. I recall a policy being publicized regarding wage increasing for those working in the public sector, but don’t recall reading it in the manifesto. We could have had a policy of removing people from paying National Insurance is they earned under £11,000 but we didn’t have it. Hidden in our manifesto was our wanting to change the system of assessing the sick and disabled for benefits but I don’t recall it being pushed. Also we had some good housing policies which we managed to keep secret. Our policy on health was based on the amount of money we put in over five years without addressing that this amount means the NHS has to make huge savings. With education I am not sure people understood the pupil premium and I am confused how it works when all children of certain ages get free school meals. I am not aware of our policies to motivate and retain teachers. I am not convinced we have workable policies on unemployment. The focus is on those who are unemployed, but we should focus attention on the employers and ensure that they do employ the more challenging workers.

  • Jacqlyn Taylor 10th Aug '15 - 4:14pm

    Completely agree. I feel the best way to achieve recognition and support for issues that affect a minority is by getting the majority to care enough about an issue that doesn’t directly affect them, a good example of this I would say is the outcome of the vote in Ireland in favour of gay marriage.

  • Well said, Judy. We do live in a divided society with a widening gap between the ‘haves’; and the ‘have nots’. I note – with real respect – your connection with the Liberal Christian Forum. It minds me to say that, despite some Coalition achievements and ammeliorations, there was much that calls for a bit of humble penance by the party I first support over fifty years ago. Like you, I hope for better things from Tim – but the sooner we put distance between ourselves and this appalling Tory Government the better.

    I know from experience with my local foodbank, Citizens Advice Bureau and as a Convenor of Social Work, there are real needs out there. There is also real anger. For example, Scottish Daily Record 24 JULY : –

    “SECRETARY of State for Scotland David Mundell was in Dumfries to launch the Trussell Trust food bank this morning when he was greeted by a 150-strong crowd. Angry protestors chased Scotland’s only Conservative MP out of town after he turned up to open a food bank. Protestors shouted “Shame on you” after he sneaked out the back door of the Trussell Trust-operated facility in the Dumfries and Galloway town.

    We need to pump financial life back into local authorities because they have been used as the instrument by proxy for cutting so much of the personal services needed by older people, the disabled and the needy. The welfare of older people is in a critical state.

    We need to rediscover our radical soul.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Aug '15 - 4:36pm

    I agree Judy, but I am only a commentator. However, one thing I don’t want to happen is for people to treat Tim how many treated Nick and basically never accept him as leader. Tim and others need to be won over on the moral and the strategic alternative, even if it is only a bit different.

  • David Raw. Your party was in the coalition that caused the rise in food banks because of LibDem support for the welfare reforms and companies such as ATOS removing money from sick and dying people. Your Front Bench cheered them in 2010. Crocodile tears.

  • Anne…. I happen to agree with you on all those issues….. and you have every right to make your point.

    The party was captured by the Orange bookers in the coalition. No crocodile tears on my part – but a real feeling of anger and betrayal. Thousands like me felt the same – and we saw what happened at the polls. I shed no tears when the Orangistas got their deserved come ‘uppance in the election, (as, sadly, so did some of the good guys).

    I make no apology for trying to get my party to rediscoverand to return to its traditional radical roots under a new leader unsullied by what you say. Plenty of other folk feel the same. Time will tell.

    I don’t know which party you support, Anne (though I can guess)……. but whichever it is be on your guard against feet of clay and the vanity of power. It might happen to you too. It won’t be much fun..

  • @Eddie. Absolutely. Tim was elected fair and square and we need to support him as our new leader. I only make these points because I think we will be missing a trick if we don’t come out with strong, fair policies on the things people really care about at the moment.. Jeremy Corbyn is all too ready to step into the breach. Many young people are paying almost half their salary in rent. High tuition fees and the extortionate prices many students pay for their accommodation are simply not fair. The cost of rail travel in the UK is the highest in Europe and our outcomes on cancer treatment are generally not as good as in the rest of Europe. And of course benefit cuts have taken their toll on some really disadvantaged people.

    We must address these issues and show we have competent policies to deal with the problems people are facing in their day to day lives.

  • Peter Bancroft 10th Aug '15 - 11:09pm

    As a third party, if there’s not a stand of liberalism in our policies we really have little home of breaking through. Whilst I am all in favour of being a party of policies to help all kinds of people in all kinds of ways, without ideology we are just another group of well-meaning micro-managers and the country only really has space for two at the top table.

    Given where we are in the polls, just having a few interesting “ideas” on some matters like some particularly bright civil servants is going to get us nowhere.

  • David Evershed 11th Aug '15 - 12:25pm

    Whilst I can understand our media tactic of focussing on some specific policies to cut through to the media, we need to be much clearer about what the Lib Dems stand for. People form a general impression about what the Lib Dems believe and that is what we need to influence in our communications.

    If people knew that Lib Dems stand for free markets, free trade and minimum government intervention in the lives of individuals and businesses, as well as help for those who cannot help themselves, then the public would have a different and more correct image of us.

  • @ Anne

    “Your party was in the coalition that caused the rise in food banks because of LibDem support for the welfare reforms and companies such as ATOS removing money from sick and dying people.”

    You do know that ATOS was brought in by Labour and sacked by the Coalition, don’t you?

  • Stephen Hesketh 11th Aug '15 - 2:29pm

    David Evershed11th Aug ’15 – 12:25pm
    “we need to be much clearer about what the Lib Dems stand for”

    Yes, absolutely agree David.

    “If people knew that Lib Dems stand for free markets, free trade and minimum government intervention in the lives of individuals and businesses, as well as help for those who cannot help themselves, then the public would have a different and more correct image of us.”

    No, absolutely disagree David. You make us sound like a libertarian party with a social safety net thrown in.

    If you are searching for a one-liner then Judy’s “… politics should be about developing policies which bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people” is much more representative of mainstream Liberal Democracy where ‘good’ is freedom, fairness, equality, democracy, decentralisation, opportunity, empowerment, etc.

    So-called free markets are much more likely to have negative impacts in those areas mainstream Liberalism identifies as being positive.

    As the article title states, we need to fight back for the many not just the few!

  • Katerina Porter 11th Aug '15 - 4:13pm

    Stephen – absolutely agree.

  • (Matt Bristol) 11th Aug '15 - 5:26pm

    I respect and would echo the broad sweep of much of what Judy Abel says, but there is a strain of utlitarian top-down-ness here that I am (maybe unjustly) sceptical of.

    Judy, who is to define what is ‘good’? How is our distinctively Liberal Democrat agenda on these issues going to democratically devolve power and empower and enable people to make the decision for themselves?

    I am otherwise worried that what we could end up with is a hypothetical version of Liz Kendall’s or Yvette Cooper’s agenda for the Labour Leadership with minor tweaks and less stridency.

    If it is only about ‘the greater good’ and ‘what works’ and ‘issues that people care about’ we are dangersouly close to arguing that Blair was right and all good LibDems should have become Blairites (or at least, dissident unruly ones prepared to challenge aspects of his methodology).

    We need to think about how to address all these issues; but I don’t entirely see (I could be wrong) that what you have written could not have been written by many different people from many different parties. Where is a Lib Dem distinctive here?

  • Simon Banks 11th Aug '15 - 8:01pm

    I agree that we should be raising issues and proposing credible, Liberal and distinctive policies on issues that affect the majority, though without treating any minority as unimportant. I agree we need to build coalitions and help people identify with other people’s problems – so for example when we defend human rights we should show how this can be an issue for almost anyone. However, within a broad field and a mass of issues, we do need to prioritise where the injustice is greatest. That may well mean highlighting “minority issues” like mental health.

    But is mental health a minority issue? Only a minority are mental health service users, but they have partners, friends, work colleagues, neighbours and relatives. Besides, far more people have experienced depression, for example, than have been treated or professionally advised for it. Is the defence of immigration a minority issue? Have you ever been treated by a foreign doctor or eaten cheap fruit picked by foreign workers?

    One difficulty for us at present is that the media just won’t notice us often compared to the last five years or even since 1997. So it’s not enough to have good policies or even to prioritise them. We need to be ready to push them at just the right moment.

  • @ Simon.No absolutely mental health is not a minority issues. I was trying to make the point that there are other health issues that need tackling too, including low standards of social care, a shortage of GPs and district nurses and relatively poor cancer outcomes compared to some other European countries – to name but a few issues that need addressing.

    I was therefore trying to say that the Lib Dems need a comprehensive approach, whatever the policy sector, and not to just to focus on one particular problem area as if others don’t exist.

  • @ Matt

    I think by looking at what is ‘not good’ it is relatively easy to work out what ‘good ‘looks like. It is not good that some young people are paying half their salary in rent. It is not good that some children are leaving school without the basic skills they need to find a job. It is not good that we barely have a functioning rail service in some areas. It is not good that affordable, good quality housing is so lacking in London. It is not good that money for care for the elderly and public health is being cut. Etc!

    I was trying to say that if the Lib Dems show that we care about the problems of ordinary people, what we have to say about the important issues like climate change and protecting the environment, civil liberties and human rights will resonate much more. We need both: policies that unashamedly address the common problems faced by all (recognising that some things like running a national transport system are best done centrally) – and policies that reflect our liberal idealism and more progressive agenda.

    Of course, I might be wrong, but that’s the way I see it.

  • I’m really glad the article hit a chord with some readers. Thank you for the positive feedback.

  • Jayne Mansfield 13th Aug '15 - 12:53pm

    @ Judy Abel,
    I so agree with you.

    It concerns me that in the desire to be ‘distinctive’, the Liberal Democrats will push what I see as Libertarian policies rather than Liberal ones and be seen as the party of ‘fringe ‘ issues.

    It is all very well promoting the party as the party of ‘freedom’, and who doesn’t want freedom to make their own choices, but are there really no boundaries to that freedom of self expression and self gratification? What happens when my choices limit those of others? Unlimited freedom seems to me to be to be a free pass for the strong who wish to exploit the weak. Is that really what Liberalism is about?

  • Richard Underhill 13th Aug '15 - 1:33pm

    Michael BG 10th Aug ’15 – 4:11pm ” We could have had a policy of removing people from paying National Insurance is they earned under £11,000 but we didn’t have it.”
    I asked Vince Cable about NI at regional conference. He cautioned about “undermining the tax base”.
    There are still people on the minimum wage paying income tax, which goes into a general pot. Support is stronger for payments that are ring-fenced. Committee chairman Frank Field should be heard attentively, a Labour MP on Merseyside.

  • Judy the way Nick was treated was his own fault betrayal of the students on tuition fees, propping up a Tory government to say the least, as for Tim he should take a leaf out of Jeremy Corbyns book and work with the SNP instead of falling into the trap of moaning SNP bad bad bad. The polls indicate that Lib Dems are facing total wipeout at next years Scottish elections so Tim moaning about the SNP will do him no favours. Tim. Should join with the SNP and Labour Party and freeze sending ex MPs to the unelected undemocratic House of Lords.

  • @Jayne. Yes, I agree that while we must listen and respond to the fringe voice, we should not be driven only by it. Liz Kendall says that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn would be nothing more than a protest party, but the Lib Dems run that risk too. I sense we are at some kind of crossroads.

    So, we need strong evidence-based policies across the board, as I said above, to show that we understand people’s daily lives and problems – it took me four hours to get home from London to Bath tonight… our rail network needs fixing for a start! – and then when we talk about climate change and sustainability and restorative justice, more people will be inclined to listen.

    We must seem reasonable as well as idealistic, otherwise we will be tied into ways of thinking that are themselves oppressive. At the end of the day, the perpetual language of ‘the fight’ is exhausting and it refuses to accept that not everything is bad.

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