We need to be working on our post-virus vision now!

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Seldom has there been such a need for care in the way we do politics. We may be right about certain things, but the current surreal situation means that being right isn’t good enough – we have to judge the mood.

It is, for example, entirely legitimate to say that the entire basis on which the Conservatives won an 80-seat mandate just four months ago has been obliterated, that public spending requirements during the coronavirus outbreak have been so great that, once the crisis is over, there must be a new election. But it wouldn’t go down well if we said that now.

What we can do, however, is start planning for the next election (both general and local), and for that we will need a vision. Regardless of how long the current disruption continues, it has been so disruptive as to make the next election a lot like 1945. On that occasion, there was no lack of appreciation for the way Churchill had run the war effort, but when it came to the Britain people wanted after the war, Labour had a vision – essentially a liberal vision, but we’ll let that go – that caught the imagination of the voters.

We need a similar vision for the first post-virus election, whenever it takes place. In some ways the government has done a good job, in others it’s been dreadful, but neither will really matter come the election. What will matter is the future. There’s already a strong suggestion that people don’t want to go back to what we had pre-virus, that they welcome the cooperation and civility that has (largely) characterised the response to Covid-19. The inward looking petty nationalism of Johnson’s election victory could start to look seriously out of sync with the times.

That’s why we need to be working on our vision now. We need to incorporate the good things that have come out of lockdown, and combine them with a picture of a modern-day Britain that doesn’t need a crisis to be comfortable in its own skin.

As liberals, we are uniquely positioned to offer this, and it’s likely to dovetail quite well with whatever platform Keir Starmer develops for Labour. At the heart of this must be a cast-iron condition that any state help for companies will only be given if they play their part in an economy compatible with fighting climate change.

But we Liberal Democrats must also eat a big slice of humble pie. I mention 1945, but I should also mention 2010. Few now criticise Gordon Brown for bailing out the banks in 2008, but the decision to recoup the money by cutting public spending between 2010 and 2018 was wrong, and we were part of that decision. True, we didn’t go along with it willingly, but our fingerprints are on that policy, and some voters haven’t forgiven us for it.

We should be bold about our post-virus vision, but if we want voters to trust us with bringing about a brighter future, we will have to say our mea culpas and show we understand the books must be balanced by those who can most afford to pay.

That is, after all, good liberalism, but we must convince people about what we say, not what we did in 2010.

* Chris Bowers, a former director of the Environmental Transport Association and communications consultant to the European NGO umbrella Transport & Environment, oversaw the development and writing of the transport chapter of the 2019 review of the Liberal Democrats’ climate change policy.

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21 Comments

  • Post virus, much more spending on the NHS and much less government tax revenues adds up to not much room for visions, more a couple of decades of making-do…

  • Jenny Barnes 23rd Apr '20 - 5:11pm

    Remember that austerity was a political choice. A country with its own fiat currency is not constrained as individual budgets are.

  • Katharine Pindar 23rd Apr '20 - 8:07pm

    Chris, I had a vision for our party and, hopefully, the country, published here in January. See https://www.libdemvoice.org/a-vision-for-us-based-on-fairness-towards-a-new-social-contract-63284.htm. There was a good discussion, with 120 comments. The idea was further developed in another article by myself and Michael BG published on January 27th. It is still gaining attention, and should be developed further I believe in the new circumstances. I should welcome your involvement in this debate.

  • An interesting First Ministers Questions in Scotland touched on this…… but here’s a puzzle. Who asked the First Minister this is reported question, ?

    “At First Minister’s Questions,…………………………….raised the fact that Nicola Sturgeon has already acknowledged there can be no return to normal and that any recovery must build a “fairer, greener and more equal society”.

    Speaking afterwards, ……………………. said: “This crisis has led to a recognition that ‘business as usual’ wasn’t working for most people. It was causing poverty and inequality, didn’t provide an adequate safety net for people in insecure jobs and homes, and damaged our environment.

    “Economic recovery must surely mean that we finally stop undervaluing the people whose work we all depend on, and that business support goes to the low carbon sustainable industries we all need in the future, not to businesses destroying our planet, paying poverty wages or hiding their money in tax havens.

    “Of course, we can only start this when Scotland has the capacity to test, trace and isolate every case. Scotland is building capacity but we need to start using it use it. Then, it is vital we build a new normal to build a secure future for all, rather than ignore what we have learned from this crisis and retreat to the mistakes of the past.”

  • PS Moneybags, but politically bankrupt, Donald Trump has furloughed his Scottish Golf Club staff at the expense of the British taxpayer……. no doubt a “Great job, We’re doing great”.

  • @ Joe Bourke. Agree, Nicola is doing extremely well, has taken every daily conference bar one, and shown great leadership, clarity,resilience and competence.

    But that’s not who said it. Try again.

  • Antony Watts 24th Apr '20 - 9:07am

    Follow the EU (and get back in) “Green and Digital, not services and financial.”

  • John Marriott 24th Apr '20 - 9:22am

    I have stopped watching the 5pm briefings from Downing Street. My mind goes back to the Spring of 1982 and those daily TV briefings during the Falklands War given by the lugubrious MoD press spokesman, Ian McDonald, who actually died about a year ago. Mr McDonald became a bit of a star, which is more than can be said of the current media performers. Now that was a crisis, we all thought; but it really pales into insignificance compared with the present one. Mind you, compared with the daily performance in the White House Press Briefing Room, even our lot look like virtuosos.

    Now that the organ grinder is temporarily out of action, we are left with the monkey, or, in this case, several of them, flanked, in a kind of human shield, by assorted ‘experts’. I’m reminded, as I often am, by a song, and in this case, given the Scottish thread running through many of the comments so far, one of the late Sir Harry Lauder’s, namely “Keep right on to the end of the road.” As the lyric continues; “Though the way be long, let your heart be strong, Keep right on to the end”. This song was written by Sir Harry shortly after his only son was killed in WW1 and it concludes; “Tho’ you’re tired and weary still journey on, Till you come to your happy abode, Where all you love you’ve been dreaming of will be there at the end of the road”.

    You can interpret these lyrics on several levels. I for one am prepared to “keep right on”, as long as I have confidence in those who profess to be leading me. That’s really the problem, isn’t it? I’ve no real idea what Sir Harry was “dreaming of”; but it certainly wasn’t a white Christmas. Talking of Christmas, the next one may be long gone before some of us of a certain age are let out again. So, let’s concentrate on getting it right NOW and, please, please, can we postpone Brexit until we have?

  • Katharine Pindar 24th Apr '20 - 10:35am

    Thank you, David, for telling us about the positive statements of Nicola Sturgeon. It will be essential in England to make sure that government action in recovery does focus on the increased poverty and inequality resulting here, and recognises the need for better recognition of vital but underpaid workers. Such considerations are very relevant to the idea that there needs to be a new social contract between government and people, with the government focusing on the great evils, particularly poverty and unemployment, which are being worsened in this crisis or left untackled, such as the housing shortage. This government of ours will not be naturally given to focus on such needs, which opposition parties must insist that they do.

  • “the decision to recoup the money by cutting public spending between 2010 and 2018 was wrong” No it wasn’t. ALL of the main parties – including Labour – admitted that huge spending cuts were required in 2010. Of course we can argue about the level of the cuts or where they fell but it’s only since then that Labour and much of the left has moved into the ridiculous position where not only were the cuts the wrong ones but somehow the whole idea of cuts were entirely unnecessary. That we have so many in this party who still cling to this line is worrying.

    Ironic too that the broad thrust of your argument (which I agree with) that we need a positive “uniquely liberal” post-COVID vision for the future starts with requiring us to continue apologising for 10 years ago. No.

  • Thanks Chris for pointing out the need for a vision and thanks Katharine for taking up the big issues that our leadership needs to focus on, such as the Economy becoming fairer, poverty (and related issues such as welfare, pubic health and education), the Environment and Internationalism (which includes trade as well as foreign affairs).
    Chris refers back to the coalition. The problem there was the way we made balancing the books the single key issue for far too long; after the first two years (during which benefit payments for example were above inflation) we should have insisted on bringing in investment for the economy and public services since both of these depend on each other and both have an impact long term on government deficit.

  • John Marriott 24th Apr '20 - 11:13am

    @Julian Tisi
    I’m with you to a certain extent. Clearly something needed to be done after the financial crisis of the late noughties. There was a choice between austerity and an FDR style public works programme funded by borrowing that at today’s level looks like pin money. We, or rather, our politicians, chose the former. I could have lived with the latter, because I am always prepared to dig a little deeper into my pocket for the common good; but not to bail out the bankers, as appears to have happened – and what an ungrateful lot they appear to have turned out to be.

    Can we therefore move on from the coalition, please, and, to use the expression correctly MOVE FORWARD? It won’t be the Lib Dems or any single political party who will provide the answers. It requires us all, or, at least, a clear majority of us, to change our ways. We could start by sorting out how we ALL pay for social care, at all stages of life, but particularly near its end – and not just the well off. Then we could tackle inequality in a way that doesn’t stifle initiative. It isn’t always private – good, public – bad. It never has been.

  • Visions need to be clear, achievable and resonate with the public mood. Coming out of Covid people will want to get out and socialise. A public holiday will help. We will still have climate change and a host of ongoing issues such as inequality, biodiversity loss and false news to contend with. I would stick to our agenda of as close a cooperation with Europe as possible, global cooperation and human rights.

  • John Marriott 24th Apr ’20 – 11:13am….

    Agreed..It wasn’t just the austerity it was the timetable and the victims..The financial sector were bailed out and within months had gone back to ‘normal’, those at the bottom bore the long term brunt of the cuts…
    We were equally to blame; not because we had far fewer MPs but because of those, like Alexander, who spent much time on the media praising the Tory policy. 2010-15 showed how quickly hard earned trust can be thrown away.
    Post 2016 LibDems became, at least in the eye of the electorate, less a party and more a one policy protest group.
    That war has been lost; at least for the forseeable future. A side effect of this pandemic is that every setback due to Brexit will be more than covered up by the problems of this viral disaster.
    Will a pheonix (in social matters) arise from this pandemic; sadly I doubt it..with a massive majority the next 5 years will see a one party state with all that entails.

  • Peter Martin 24th Apr '20 - 8:46pm

    @ Jenny Barnes,

    “Remember that austerity was a political choice. A country with its own fiat currency is not constrained…….”

    That was true enough to say after the 2008 GFC. We hadn’t been hit by an asteroid and no-one had ever heard of Covid-19! Our standard of living is determined, in a material sense, by what we produce. There was no reason why we couldn’t do just as well after the GFC what we did before. We just needed the right economic policies.

    But its not like that this time. Now the economy is semi closed down. We can’t produce what we did before. That’s going to have an adverse effect. There’s no getting away from that.

  • Katharine Pindar 25th Apr '20 - 10:57am

    Chris, I have got dates mixed up, though unfortunately the reference to my Vision article did not work. The Vision article was published on January 27, and the follow-up article by myself and Michael BG on February 6, so both can be looked up reliably in the ever-useful Archives. Thank you for your interest, and apologies for the mysteriously unsuccessful reference, transferred from my desktop, and for my inaccuracy with the dates. This is too important a subject to be lost! It will be good if members develop their own thinking on this, as you are helpfully doing.

  • Katharine Pindar 25th Apr '20 - 4:10pm

    Abruptly cut off and forced to log in again for no apparent reason, I try again! I quoted approvingly Peter Hirst’s opening sentence, “Visions need to be clear, achievable and resonate with the public mood” but suggested our party is far from agreeing one. I am thinking that Peter’s remaining comment, and that of Nigel Jones (but thank you for referring to my work, Nigel), do indeed show the breadth of our Liberal Democrat concerns and therefore the real difficulty of fixing the vision.

    But I was shouting at the radio during Any Questions when the Tory spokesman talked of transformative changes to come under Boris Johnson (pigs might fly!) and how ‘a Tory Attlee’ is needed, a fantasy of unicorns if ever there was one. But even our author wrote “Labour had a vision – essentially a Liberal vision – but we’ll let that go”. NO, Chris, we should not! It was the Report of Liberal William Beveridge which inspired the Labour action to create the NHS and social insurance, and we are the heirs of Beveridge.

    He listed five great evils, of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Michael Berwick-Gooding and I have cited the equivalent evils of today – poverty, poor health care, lack of skills and training, homelessness and unemployment – and we propose a new Social Contract to deal with these evils, now within the context of the climate change requirements also. We want out party to take up this challenge, on behalf of the country, and proclaim that this is OUR clear and achievable vision now. Please back it: it is needed, both for our party and for the country, and never more so than as we look forward now.

  • Peter Martin 25th Apr '20 - 4:55pm

    @ Joe B,

    I notice you mention the term “secular stagnation” in your last comment. According to Larry Summers:

    “Secular stagnation is a situation where the private sector of an economy has a tendency to save a great deal and a limited propensity to invest, so that there’s all this cash that needs to be absorbed and trouble in absorbing it. Interest rates fall to low levels. Growth has a tendency to be sluggish and inflation has a tendency to decline. And that’s not a temporary cyclical situation. It’s a secular, or longer term, situation unless policy intervenes very strongly”

    I’d go along with that. It’s what we have seen since the 2008 GFC. Except that the big savers, in the UK economy, aren’t to be found in the domestic private sector. They are overseas. Countries that don’t want to spend all they earn by exporting to us are the savers. Germany sells us more than twice as much as it wants to buy. This could be counterbalanced if we had an “anti Germany” as a trading partner. To some extent we do but overall, our overseas suppliers want to spend less with us than they earn from us and save the rest.

    The term first originated in the late 30s. But then the war came along with lots of government spending, the stagnation disappeared and it was forgotten about. Until recently that is. Maybe we just need lots more government spending but without the war? An additional measure would be to work for an international treaty to ensure that all countries balance their trade within given limits.

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