Thinking the unthinkable is fun and might just lead us somewhere interesting

Have you ever wondered if there’s a policy the Lib Dems could be promoting that simply isn’t part of the political landscape? One that doesn’t fall under economics, health, education, environment or any of the traditional categories of modern-day politics?

This question was raised during the ‘Radical Liberalism’ fringe meeting held in Southport last weekend, which was part of the Social Liberal Forum’s fringe programme and which I chaired. The meeting itself was very unlike most fringe meetings which focus on a speaker or two from the top table – this was more of a brainstorming session, and I threw in a number of questions at various intervals to guide the debate. The result was that most of the 80 or so people who packed out the room contributed to the discussion.

About half-way through, I asked whether there were any policies that people might like to throw into the mix which weren’t currently on the political map, even if they may seem a bit off-the-wall. I said they might well not be viable, but sometimes thinking the unthinkable leads to ideas that might not otherwise emerge.

The first suggestion was that we might advocate moving the capital from London to somewhere more central. The person suggesting it wasn’t just arguing for geographical fairness, but saying it doesn’t help us to have the country’s administrative and democratic centre in the primary financial hub, and that London should be allowed to become like Frankfurt, Amsterdam or Zürich which are major cities but don’t host national parliaments and governments.

Another suggestion was that we give EU nationals the vote in UK general elections. A bit provocative perhaps, especially with our membership of the EU hanging by a thread, but given that EU nationals can vote in council elections, it’s not without logic. And if it were done as part of a campaign to get British nationals resident in EU countries the right to vote there, it would be more about fairness and less about being pro-Europe. (Incidentally, at one stage I asked for a show of hands on how many people in the room had two nationalities – it turned out to be about 20%, which was probably artificially high but suggests nationality may be increasingly a flag of convenience rather than a visceral attachment.)

Two people approached me at the end of the meeting with their off-the-wall suggestions. One was for withdrawing immunity from prosecution on British soil for heads of state and government who have done despotic things. The other was to have councils elected in thirds: one third by first-past-the-post, one third by a proportional system, and the third lot appointed from the ranks of the non-party political a bit the way juries are – that would mean existing parties would have to entice support out of the neutrals based on the merits of their policies.

The chances are that none of these are workable, but it created a frisson around the discussion, and a sense of fun. And a variation on one of these themes might be viable.

In terms of radical liberalism, the most commonly expressed thought at our meeting was that the Lib Dems should carve a niche as the party campaigning against intergenerational unfairness. A number of people said we should make it our mission to stand up for the young generation (‘the old people screwed the young people’ as one colourfully put it), and another said the Lib Dems could be branded as ‘the party of opportunity’. Then next day Vince gave his leader’s speech about how his realisation that the old had betrayed the young had empowered him to believe that Brexit could and should be challenged.

Maybe Vince was hiding under a chair at the back of our room.

* Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate. He writes on cross-party cooperation and in 2021 was the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.

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  • Laurence Cox 19th Mar '18 - 11:13am

    It is very well arguing for EU citizens to be given the vote in UK General Elections, but why not give it to all adult UK residents? After all, American Independence was predicated on “no taxation without representation” and all of us pay taxes, even if only VAT.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 19th Mar '18 - 11:18am

    I do hope the party will not focus on stirring up antagonism between the age groups.
    It may be that every younger generation through history has thought that the older generation messed things up. There may often have been some truth in it, but there is no more truth in it now than for previous generations.
    The reality is that today’s younger generation have opportunities and freedoms that the older generations never had.
    Some pensioners may be wealthy, but many are struggling.
    The state of social care for the elderly is appalling.
    Encouraging feelings of hostility towards the elder generation, in the hope of winning the “youth vote”, is unpleasant, unprincipled and irresponsible.

  • nigel hunter 19th Mar '18 - 11:27am

    The young may have grumbles. Equally the unwealthy pensioners have grumbles Both areas should come together to fight the inequalities A better debate would be where both could unite to solve problems relative to both .ie cheaper rental housing , possibly modular built that as the young gain further income can be bought and the elderly have low rental housing from the same build. How about a debate on that. Unity.

  • It profoundly depresses me that even sensible policies like giving EU citizens the right to vote are thought of as off-the-wall and unthinkable.

    What sort of a party have we become?

    And while the evidence shows that my generation will be the first to have objectively had it worse than their parents financially, I think Catherine and Nigel have a point: we shouldn’t be fighting unfairness for one demographic (the young) and ignoring it for another, we should be fighting all unfairness for all people.

  • Marion Le Poidevin 19th Mar '18 - 11:50am

    It has always concerned me that once you pass ‘retirement’ age you no longer pay NI, however much you earn. While NI still exists separately from Income Tax this seems unjust. Why shouldn’t older people pay NI on any income which would be subject to NI for working age people? As someone on a pension as well working occasionally and drawing a Councillor’s allowance I feel I enjoy age discrimination in my favour.

  • May I comment as a now white haired 1960’s radical who demonstrated to end apartheid, end the Vietnam War, to fight poverty and to champion social justice and combat class prejudice when the Liberal Party could truly claim to be a radical party ?

    If the frissionable 80 represents the future of radical liberalism then Gawd help the Lib Dems.

    I was brought up to respect and care for my parents, grandparents and the older generation in the pre-Thatcher World. I thought there was something called Society and believed it when there was a time Liberals claimed they wanted to unify society not to divide it on age grounds.

    “it created a frisson around the discussion, and a sense of fun.”….”In terms of radical liberalism, the most commonly expressed thought at our meeting was ……… A number of people said we should make it our mission to stand up for the young generation (‘the old people screwed the young people’ as one colourfully put it”.

    Wrong target oh, 80 self appointed radical ones……..Isn’t it more a case that the economic system created post Thatcher (including the non dom billionaires of Tory Britain like Branson, Philip Green and Mike Ashley ) ‘screws’ everybody – and that the so called older generation were fortunate enough to live in a time before the Non Doms got a hold ?

    Now I don’t begrudge anybody the odd frission, but it’s back to front my friends ….. tackle the source……. and don’t claim the name of liberal or radical when you don’t know the meaning of the words.

    Fun ? Not a Lot.

  • the Lib Dems should carve a niche as the party campaigning against intergenerational unfairness.

    Naturally, the answer to this question depends a lot on which generation you talk to…

    I find it noteworthy that the current crop of 16~25-year-olds seem to frame their answers totally in economic terms: education, housing, jobs, but mostly in terms of the bills they will be paying. Wind the clock back and ask those were 16~25 in the 1960’s what they perceived as the “intergenerational unfairness” in their time. Similarly, do the same for those who were 16~25 in the late 70’s and early 80’s, likewise those who were circa 20 in 2000.

    Now informed, ask again about “intergenerational unfairness”…

  • OnceALibDem 19th Mar '18 - 2:27pm

    It would make sense for only UK citizens to be able to vote in General Elections. But that isn’t the rule. Commonwealth (which includes countries never part of the Empire) have votes at general elections – whilst that remains the case it makes no sense for EU citizens not to (at least until next March).

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Mar '18 - 2:51pm

    Unless we listen to Catherine , Jennie, avid, we are cutting the only way forward for the party, to be the voice of reason amidst extremism, that of unity amidst divisiveness, of common sense and not daft notions.

    We can see and say a lot regarding unfairness, without it sounding like the politics of envy.

    This goes for a number of silly moves. Five hundred per cent council tax on second homes, what if a worker on a decent salary who earns it working part of the week away from home,while a partner deals with home and a part time local job, like the actress I met the other day whose partner has a job all week elsewhere ?! I met her and would love to see her face as a potential voter for us if I mentioned that silly not thought through policy, based on envy of people supposedly so well off, target the fat cats who were defended as great creators of wealth here the other thread, even though the wealth ends up off shore !

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Mar '18 - 2:52pm

    ps David became avid, not so inaccurate for mr Raw !

  • William Fowler 19th Mar '18 - 4:02pm

    Why not tax foreigners and foreign companies who own residential properties in UK on their international income even if they do not live here (many of rich have “domicile” in tax havens hence pay tax nowhere). Income would be assumed to relate to the value of the house if no info available and a charge could be taken out on it if no tax paid, so someone with a million poind house would be assumed to have a income needed to buy that house and taxed accordingly.

  • “Westminster” (in terms of the political forum that handles UK decisions) should rotate between the four nations of the union, with each nation getting s term of say 5 years, starting initially as a way to upgrade the building in London and carrying on from there. In addition, England gets an elected parliament to handle English decisions. Imagine how much stronger and more representative of the UK politics could be (the opposite of English and Welsh rail investment only happening in England) if the UK forum spent more time in each country?

  • Sheila Thomas 20th Mar '18 - 7:49am

    Terms like inter generational fairness, snowflakes, baby boomers just encourage divisions. Totally agree with Sarah Jane Crosland and David Raw on this. My advice would be to stop treating politics like some consumable product with all the marketing devices of focus groups, targeting and talk of USP etc and get back to basics. The name Liberal Democrat points the way. Stop making illiberal public statements about leave voters and look at ways our Democracy can be improved. If then there could be a coherent vision of answering the big questions such as how are we as a nation to make our living, how do we distribute wealth, how do we help bring up the next generation, how to protect our environment etc etc you might stand a better chance of winning back people like me who voted Liberal/Lib Dem from 1971 to 2010 and now find themselves politically homeless. It is not Brexit that is the real tragedy for the country, but that the party that should be pushing for radical, and liberal ideas seems to have disappeared.

  • Martin Walker 20th Mar '18 - 7:54am

    I agree with Jennie’s comment above. I have no idea why allowing EU citizens the vote in general elections is written off in the article as unworkable. My father in law who is German has lived in this country since 1967, ran a successful small business, and of course paid taxes. I don’t think it is unworkable to say that he should have the vote – and incidentally I’d be saying that if he came from a country outside of the EU.

  • Completely right, Sheila. As someone six months older than young Sir Vincent I am entitled to say he ought to know better and should stop listening to his trendy young metropolitan advisers and regain some of his Yorkshire Common sense.

    I sometimes think there is nothing left of the party I knew – just an empty husk with an honours gong wrapped round its neck…… What use a CBE is to, for example, a very young politician I just do not understand.

  • Ian Hurdley 20th Mar '18 - 8:08am

    @ Sheila Thomas. You make a good point; politics should be about principles embodied in policies, not about marketing a product. Trump is a pertinent example of sophisticated marketing in action, and we also face the difficulty behind that dreadful word, Brexit. It is not a tangible set of policies; it is a brand, purely and simply and is sold to a substantial proportion of the population on the basis of the warm feeling it has been crafted to induce in them.

  • Ian MacFadyen 20th Mar '18 - 11:42am

    When the party was founded, one commentator hailed us a the new purveyor of fresh ideas to the body politic. “The Leeds Yellow Book 2018: Essays on a Liberal Future for Leeds” attempts to be such a purveyor. (Copies at £7 plus p&p available from [email protected] / 0113 257 6232.) The way to start thinking the unthinkable and lead us somewhere interesting is for everywhere to produce its own Yellow Book and encourage contributions from people who don’t normally contribute. In Leeds we followed the lead of Scotland’s “Little Yellow Book” and I look forward to reading others’ Yellow Books.

  • You need policies that attract voters. The thing about something like votes for EU citizens is that it relies on the British electorate thinking it’s worth bothering with and by March 2019 we won’t be in the EU anyway, so why stop at the EU? Why not votes for other tax paying foreign nationals, like say Americans, or Russians of Chinese people working , paying tax and investing in the UK?

  • Phil Beesley 20th Mar '18 - 4:45pm

    Three unthinkable ideas for you.

    Reject the concept of “predict and plan” as default project planning behaviour because it doesn’t work very well. If the “predict” element had worked a few years ago, we might have been better at housing, educating and providing health care to immigrant workers and families. UK government predicts demographics primarily on census data — the timely delivery of census data was identified as a problem 100 years ago. Fuzzier data — GP and school enrolments, estate agent enquiries, birth rates — might have been more informative but still insufficient. Government and other service providers have to build reactive capacity — which is inefficient, but less inefficient than failure to provide a school place, home or GP appointment.

    Reject “big is better” for almost every public service. Theoretical efficiencies for health care and schools — via big institutions — never transpire for the users. If big schools are so good, why don’t we send five year olds to them? If they are lousy for five year olds, why are they good for 15 year olds? Why do the rich use private providers? Take apart big hospitals and big schools to create smaller institutions. There is no point in running theoretically perfect services if the outcome is flawed.

    Save our brownfield sites, please! Create a new debate about land use and urban planning. Understand that green belts were created to prevent urban ribbon development along roads and railway lines; green belts aren’t necessarily about protecting pretty landscapes. Desist from assuming that industrial urban wastelands are deserts. They are informal playgrounds for children and wildlife habitations. Make them a bit more formal and safer, but let the kids go to play. People in towns and cities need open spaces. Please stop high rise developments along waterways. Many of these developments replace mills and warehouses — but they are always taller.

  • I too think that it’s wrong to stop paying NI just because you turn 65. I suppose the original thinking was that by that time you’d have paid in all you needed to pay in so that you were covered for unemployment benefit, and towards the NHS and your pension. Over 65s won’t be getting unemployment benefit, but with people living longer after the official retirement age, the numbers don’t stack up. In my office there are a number of staff at the higher end of the wage scale who are no longer paying off a mortgage, and get to travel to work with their free bus pass. Them not paying any NI isn’t fair.

    IMO, over 65s should still pay NI if they are earning enough, or at the very least, raise the final date for its payment to 70, or 75.

  • Fiona – Of course the sixty five year olds may well have been paying NI since they were 16 (a total of 49 years).

  • @Fiona re turning 65.

    I agree the whole area of ‘benefits’ for the aged 60~70 pre-retirement group does need to be looked at, given the gradual increase of the state pension age.

    Whilst I agree with the broad thrust of your point, I query whether some of this is deliberate to ensure that people who are working are slightly better off working than retiring and so give them a positive reason to carry on working.

    I think we also need to be careful about things such as free bus passes. Whilst some will shout about giving benefits to “the rich”, I see it as a way to get these people to adopt new travel habits before they retire, so position such benefits as being incentives/rewards for adopting behaviours that are socially beneficial – remember much of what people today say is essential was once the preserve of the rich: foreign holidays, cars, air travel etc. – so it would seem to be fitting if we could make the use of public transport something “the rich” use.

  • Simon Banks 2nd May '18 - 8:50pm

    These don’t strike me as very radical ideas – just controversial and in the case of the local election proposal, complicated and likely to confuse electors further.

    As for the age thing, we should fight discrimination – so for example someone should not be judged too young or too old to be Chair of a local party (ours is 21 and I’m Chair of Campaigns at 71), or to do some paid job, but objective criteria such as a necessary level of physical fitness, experience in that field of work (for a senior post) or computer skills will rule out a lot more people from one group than another. We ought in our communities to be promoting initiatives that bridge the age gap and bring old and young people together. It’s a fact that visibly old people are targeted by groups of young people sometimes as are disabled people and minority ethnic people. In my experience in politics, people well past retirement age are disproportionately concerned that young people get a good deal and react well to young candidates. It’s the ones in between who can be sniffy.

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