The radical centre needs a new story

You only need to read the comments on any news coverage that we happen to get to see the problem. We’re so used to the jokes that we are often the first to make them, pre-empting the inevitable. “The Lib Dems are wishy-washy centrists. They sit on the fence, stand for nothing, and betray their principles at the first hint of power. They’re irrelevant. Being a Lib Dem is just a marginally more socially acceptable front to being a Tory.”

We are not good at selling the story of liberalism.

Shocking as it may seem to some of us, voters don’t go through manifestos with a fine-toothed comb, weighing up to merits of each and every policy before coming to a decision. People vote based on ideas. The left owns equality, health and social care and education. The right is the home of the economy, of business, of the free-market. If we call ourselves left-wing social liberals, why aren’t we Labour?  If we find ourselves more to the right, why aren’t we Conservatives?

And at both extremes, we find politicians willing to listen to our anger and our concerns and provide us with people to blame. It’s a simple, attractive narrative; you’ve lost your job because there are too many immigrants. If we send them ‘home’, then everything will be okay again. Alternatively, maybe it’s big business at fault?

Both the left and the right offer solutions offer visions of a better future. We need to find out who we are, and communicate to voters what we want from the world. To a certain extent, ‘Stop Brexit’ did this. We were offering something distinct from the other parties, and at least for a while, polling rewarded us for it (remember when we were above Labour?). Yet defining ourselves on a single issue like Brexit will never work as a long-term recruitment strategy.

So, we need to go beyond arguing over policy and be able to articulate our narrative – to find a simple and engaging answer to the ‘what’s the point of the Lib Dems?’ question. We need to be seen as an exciting alternative to the tired old two-party system. We need to have a unique vision for society – and be able to communicate that.

Many people, myself included, were disappointed with the result of the leadership election. I think that in Layla we saw someone who could really be a figurehead for this movement, with the energy, enthusiasm and charisma to connect to members, the media and voters. Now it’s imperative that we manage to keep the young and enthusiastic activists that supported her in the party. Every one of us needs to work together on articulating a vision for our party, pushing for a form of radical centrism that combines our famed evidence-based policy focus with much stronger ideological messaging that actually appeals to voters.

Obviously, I’m not the person that has the answers to exactly what this looks like. But somehow, we need to come together, and decide who we are and articulate what we stand for. If we don’t, I worry that we are set to become a true irrelevance at the next election. We’ll lose the voters we picked up as a result of our Brexit policy, as they go back to the Tories or Labour. Very few people would ideologically define themselves as a Lib Dem – we should change that.


* Sophie Kitching is a student at the University of Warwick studying Global Sustainable Development.

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  • James Morshead 3rd Sep '20 - 5:44pm

    This is so important. What’s the point of just defining ourselves relative to anyone? We don’t know where the Tories will be by 2024, or Labour by next week.

    We have a chance right now to set out something clear and radical. First rule out any deals with any party that won’t commit to electoral reform, (“full democracy”) – added benefit: no dodgy coalitions, and challenges Labour to move. Then give clarity and liberal vision on UBI, trans right, internationalism, Europe, lords reform, devo, [email protected], etc etc where Labours factions can’t agree on any of them. Sure, listen, but use the conference set this all out.

    The way I see it, with PR, you can’t rely on negativity, you have to positively set out your vision. It would be embarrassing if we were the ones not ready for this.

  • Lloyd Harris 3rd Sep '20 - 6:53pm

    We have had many attempts to define ourselves, however below is a link to a forgotten policy passed at conference that does just this. I still think its conclusions are important today. (Sorry for the Mark Pack link, it has disappeared from our main website).

  • Michael Sammon 3rd Sep '20 - 7:14pm

    Very good article, I fully agree. Starting with standing up for small businesses. There’s no liberalism without SME’s and it’s a tragedy we are so quiet on speaking out for them. We think they should vote for us because we believe in ourselves and we like them but if we are to convince people, we need to be much louder on what we will do to help them.

  • richard underhill., 3rd Sep '20 - 7:26pm

    Taiwan has issued a new passport with the name TAIWAN prominently displayed. We should support this, perhaps by asking questions in the Commons. Politicians in Mainland China are irritated claiming as usual that Taiwan is a rebellious province of China.
    A letter in the Times today suggests that Taiwan should join the Commonwealth as happened to one African country he named, which is Mozambique (which is independent of Portugal after a lengthy war He did not mention Rwanda, which is famous for violence with machetes.
    A challenge for our new foreign spokesperson?

  • Sophie Kitching 3rd Sep '20 - 7:36pm

    James – I absolutely agree that the ideas you highlight need to be front and centre of our unique offering. As you say, a ‘listening project’ alone isn’t enough, and this is partly what I was trying to get at – yes we should listen to voters (particularly in the context of their clear rejection of the actions and values of the coalition!), but a successful liberal party shouldn’t just be about listening and giving the electorate what they want but also inspiring them to believe in a better future and maybe even change their opinions on some issues. Awesome concrete policies are great and essential and I hope conference will pass policies like UBI, but expressing the values behind them is equally as important. My biggest worry is that Ed Davey isn’t equipped to do this – he absolutely seems to be lovely and very competent, but doesn’t come across as a leader in terms of being able to excite people and inspire them, which is the skillset we need right now. I would of course love to be proved wrong!

  • Sophie Kitching 3rd Sep '20 - 7:37pm

    Lloyd – thanks for that link, it looks really interesting. Now it’s time to get those ideas out in a more friendly and accessible format!

  • I think somehow the party has lost it’s ‘why’, why be a LibDem? It’s clearer on what it wants to do and even in some cases in how it want to achieve its aims,but, to some extent this is where it loses out to the two main parties. All parties will agree to some extent on the need to achieve certain goals, this is why we had the ridiculous bidding war on which party would plant the most trees and how quickly the country should achieve net zero carbon emissions in the last election. If you concentrate too much on the what you want to do and how you are going to do it then you risk getting out bid and / or lost in all the noise. Tell people why you want to do the things, and why they should come to the Lib Dems rather than other parties and you may start growing a real significant core vote as labour and the Tories have then in elections you can snap up additional ‘floating’ votes by arguing that your what and how is better / more effective than the other parties. For example all the main parties now support at least devolution for Scotland, but, the reasons why Tories , Labour and Lib Dems support this are, I would argue, not the same. Simarlarly, each party has different reasons ‘why’ global warming should be addressed.
    Find a way of clearly explaining why people should vote Lib Dem and even join the party and you have a future. Concentrate on what and how to the detriment of why and people may agree with you but will go to vote for other parties offering the same or similar, but are more likely able to deliver.
    Why do you do what you do? Labour may say the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. Tories might say the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the man, (simplifying obviously). So without quoting the preamble, why be a Lib Dem and why do they do what they do? Why do people vote for you at all?

  • James Morshead 4th Sep '20 - 12:00am

    Sophie – I agree completely. I’m concerned, I’ve heard Ed say we lost the argument on Brexit, but defend the coalition. I see it the other way round – we lost the vote on Brexit, not the argument, I haven’t changed my mind! And too often in coalition we failed to stand up & be counted.

    Michael – I think *human scale* is a phrase I’d like to see more of in politics, and a liberal USP. Others are too often based on action/economics by vast, remote bodies – governments and corporations. I think you’re right, SMEs are essential in this. There must be fiscal ways of promoting SMEs over multinationals, such as LVT to advantage small shops over sprawling supermarkets.

  • I agree with much of your article. However I believe we’re really going to struggle to define ourselves positively whilst we have an ex-coalition SoS As leader. Even with UBI as a flagship policy, we’ll be criticised for not campaigning for this in 2010-15. The public, by and large, have had their say and dumped most of our MPs. Ed, determined to become leader, has eventually made it. However I feel it also demonstrates that we have not been listening and certainly demonstrates Ed has not been listening. I’d rather of seen him in a mentor/advisory role, but we are where we are as they say and i am now considering my membership the party.

  • The obsession with stealing tax-payer’s money and wealth to give to the “deserving” poor in a country fiscally broken by the welfare state will always end up annoying the vast majority of voters, however good-hearted the intentions, any attempt to move forward from this stance seemingly impossible.

  • Antony Watts 4th Sep '20 - 8:04am

    Let me make a simple suggestion. At every swish and turn of daily politics let us Liberals come out and simply say

    “Liberal Democrats say…”

    One short sentence, pushed at every publicity opportunity, could bring us back into the public eye.

    It is up to the party organisation to formulate this strategy, fast and nimble.

  • Sophie, when we talk about, and have policies on, issues of interest to 10-20% of the population we can only attact support from them. To everyone else we are irelevant. I am not saying that I disagree with those policies, just don’t expect them to attact widespread support.
    As a party we never talk about the big high profile mainstream issues.
    Housing – what is our policy to solve the crisis? Vince Cable put forward solid proposals. The party ignored him. Help to Buy? Get serious. Why pump up the housing bubble. On top of present issues, when current renters retire the state will be paying their rent. This is a steamroller coming down the road (Don’t claim you weren’t told.).
    The business and the economy? The party of Keynes is now completely silent. Are we really a party of the Adam Smith institute, or of instead the man himself, were morality is applied as well as simple competition? Should we identify solidly as the Party supporting our own SMEs? (We do have policy on this, but it is ignored.) Apple is now bigger than the entire UK FTSE 100. Are we happy to allow rootless multinationals to pilage our economy, while giving them subsidies and tax free trading status while they do it? It is our government which sets our tax code – what is our policy? Shouldn’t we take back control?
    Why do we give the new on-line retail sector tax advantages over our traditional High Street. Isn’t the High Street battered enough? Why do we allow them to destroy employment law?
    Jobs. This is going to be a very big one in this parliament. Why are we taxing employment while giving tax breaks to automate jobs? Is this the right thing to do? Having a clear policy would give hope to people. They might even vote for us.
    Watching the leadership hustings both candidates stumbled on all these issues.

  • Definitely agree with the article. The politics of the liberal centre ground need not be bland and managerial, in fact they can be presented as radical and energising with some imagination.

    I think the key theme is that the dividing line is not left vs right but whether you are on the side of people or institutions. This means defending the rights of people but being open to radical reform of public services.

    This requires innovative new ideas (lots of them not just one big idea) and evidence based policy free of dogma and ideology.
    New Labour got some of this right but were too centralising and authoritarian.

  • ” The right is the home of the economy, of business, of the free-market”

    Not any more it isn’t.

    The Tory party is in the process of abandoning any interest it had in business or free markets in pursuit of “sovereignty”.

    There’s a huge gap opening up for a pragmatic, pro-business, pro-trade party. One that is internationalist and welcoming, pro-immigration and pro-growth. All those people across the south of England who are being abandoned by the Tories as they go after a narrow caricature of the northern working-class vote.

    It doesn’t have to mean abandoning any commitments to improving the environment, or helping those in need. It just means accepting the “profit” isn’t a dirty word and that the best way to ensure growth, that can be beneficial to all, is to be open and liberal.

  • neil sandison 4th Sep '20 - 10:21am

    Being a socially liberal party with a strong commitment to the environment are good ambitions but don’t define the party . We need to argue that the others are autocratic top down institutions and we are a bottom up organisation that enables and empowers you the voter to have more control over you own life ,your own community ,employment learning and environment along the lines Layla campaigned for in the leadership race .
    We shouldn’t be sloppy centralist but re-iterate that liberal democrats empower and enable individuals and communities to have more control and freedom over their own lives .

  • Sue Sutherland 4th Sep '20 - 3:05pm

    Thank you for this article Sophie which helps to clarify thought. I’d first like to say that we do not belong to the right, left or centre. We don’t want to deprive one section of the population to the detriment of others. We don’t want a powerful wealthy group to dominate, nor do we think the workers should seize power.
    We don’t see life and society as endless competition because we believe in the power of community and of nurture.
    We express this best in local politics where we associate community with a location, but belief in community is set alongside liberty and equality in our Preamble. There are many communities including that of a nation. The EU is just such an organisation and that is why we support it rather than seeing it as an attempt by Germany and France to tell us what to do like the Brexiters.
    We also dislike authoritarianism, again because we seek to balance the needs of individuals and groups within a community. When one part of that community has greater power than the other that balance is lost. We don’t want to keep people down, we want to enable them to grow and be the best they can. This is why we believe in listening to people and then providing the policies and actions which meet their needs.
    I think the party must adopt community politics for the nation. For too long people have been encouraged by governments to think of life as a battle for scarce resources, we need to show them that this isn’t the case and that hatred doesn’t work when it becomes the motivation for political action.

  • Peter Watson 4th Sep '20 - 3:10pm

    “We need to find out who we are, and communicate to voters what we want from the world. To a certain extent, ‘Stop Brexit’ did this.”
    To be honest, I don’t think it did at all!
    Stopping Brexit certainly gave the party a unifying message which papered over any other cracks in the party and provided a distraction from the topic of Coalition, and it highlighted a core Lib Dem voter: a Remainer with a degree. But it drowned out all other debate and it did not tell the public anything else about the party. Brexiters had a vision (of sorts!) and wanted a particular change and Lib Dems opposed it but did not give the impression of wanting anything other than the status quo, a very small-c conservative image. Whether or not Brexit was/is successfully stopped, the electorate would be none the wiser about what else Lib Dems want from the world.
    Even now, it seems that electoral reform is being pushed by some as the party’s raison d’être, but to me that looks like putting the cart before the horse. Better surely to get the public to understand what the party stands for, to know what its key policies are, and to want to vote for the party. Then the electorate will share the outrage that the party is not fairly represented by our electoral system.

  • Peter Watson 4th Sep '20 - 3:21pm

    @neil sandison “We need to argue that the others are autocratic top down institutions and we are a bottom up organisation”
    Unfortunately, the Coalition years gave the impression that this party is just as much of an autocratic top down institution! Policies like increasing tuition fees, NHS reforms and universal free school meals for infants appeared to come from the top and reverse previous party positions. Similarly, I’ve noticed that conference votes on academic selection and faith schools have not made it into the last two election manifestos. I’m sure there are other examples to which I’ve paid less attention.
    Ed Davey’s emphasis on listening could be a tremendous step in restoring the impression of a “bottom up organisation”. But as others have noted, it’s not a particularly powerful statement to the outside world so probably needs to be accompanied by some loud and clear messages as soon as possible.

  • Peter Hirst 4th Sep '20 - 5:08pm

    We stand for freedom for the individual. To achieve this we need both of the components you mention. It also encompasses a decent democracy, human rights for all including future generations and other species and an enabling culture so all can achieve whatever they want.

  • James Fowler 7th Sep '20 - 10:47am

    @Sophie, good points well made. We need to be distinctive, and to lead as well as listen. Sadly, many comments here highlight the problem. The classic ‘we are a party that stands for left, right, centre, up, down, sideways and in bit between’ get its usual airing. In other words, we stand for everything and therefore nothing. But as you’ll have seen, the commitment to this empty flannel is quiet pervasive and pragmatically it has to be said that it has won a good tally of by-elections over the years. But real politics, i.e. government, is about choices. To govern is to decide, and people will broadly accept that if they see that the decisions are congruent with previously and consistently held philosophical positions. Liberalism is quite unpopular at the moment, but it won’t always be so. If we should unequivocally stake our claim to it while it’s a relatively unoccupied piece of political real estate.

  • Clive Sneddon 13th Sep '20 - 1:57am

    I too have often been asked on the doorstep what our party is for. Empowering individuals and communities is how our quest for freedom has played out in local government, often with our councillors helping to find practical solutions and getting them implemented. Can we transpose that into national politics? I would suggest taking the Right to Basic Services (food, water, warm homes, access to the internet) as approved at our Autumn 2019 conference, from the A Fairer Share for All working group of which I was a member. Sadly this was not used in the General Election, even though the housing and climate change aspects of it were already party policy. Delivering tangible outcomes helps people, whereas offering a grotesquely expensive Universal Basic Income which will not increase the supply of housing and can be cut by the next Tory Chancellor just by increasing it less than the rate of inflation is the sort of ‘sounds good’ fashionable soundbite I would leave to Labour if they are interested. Delivering for small businesses is part of this too. I have explained to small business representatives in Fife our policy of replacing business rates with Land Value Tax payable by the owner of the land, not the occupier of the premises, and it went down well. We empower people by coming up with practical ideas which will help them. All we have to do is say so, and keep on saying so. It’s a great pity neither of our leadership contenders avoided the UBI trap. Please reject it at conference.

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