What makes the Lib Dems special?

As we head to conference, many of us will be asking how is it that we had such a great manifesto and yet, despite a welcome increase in MPs, a very low share of the total vote?

As a 2015 newbie and after two campaigns, may I offer something for our debate:

Both Labour and the Conservatives are now committed to divisive politics – defined by who they are against, rather than what they are for; seeking to right old grievances as opposed to building a shared future.

As Liberal Democrats we stand for openness, tolerance and, crucially, unity.

Corbyn’s rallying call is to defend ‘the many’ against ‘the few’ – but do you fall in his ‘many’ or among his ‘few’? If you said the ‘wrong thing’ in which group might you end up? If you are a recent graduate do you get refunded tuition fees or just higher taxes to pay for those who follow you? He is dividing one group against another.

The Conservatives pursuing hard Brexit have given up on one-nation Toryism and now act on the principle of ‘we’re better than you’!

Under Tory rule, British judges are ALWAYS superior to EU courts; Britain’s rescue efforts are the best in the world; Britain, as the superior nation, should have a free ride in every global club; Britain can negotiate better trade deals than 27 European nations working together and so on…

So how are the Liberal Democrats different from the new divisive politics?

I suggest that we believe in community – strong and diverse local communities; the community of nations that makes up the UK; the European community; the global community; and that we defend the rights and promote the opportunities for all people to participate and contribute to those many and over-lapping communities. That’s why I can be a proud Brit and a proud European and a citizen of nowhere, all at once – belonging to one community doesn’t exclude me from any other.

This explanation shows why the Liberal Democrats’ strength has always been in our community focused base, but also offers a vision of how we can build at the national level, across all the UK’s nations.

As Liberal Democrats, first and foremost we seek broad coalitions and look for common ground and then to spread and share benefits and opportunities as widely and as diversely as possible across all our communities. We recognise that clean air works for all of us; that world class health and mental health services benefit everyone; that providing the best possible education is essential for the prosperity of our towns and cities and that exciting work depends on joint innovation.

That’s what makes Lib Dems unique – we seek to find the common ground and build the common good – and that’s what makes us different from the divisive approach of Labour and Conservative. It makes us less tribal too.

And, truly, only a government that seeks common ground can govern for all. That’s why the Liberal Democrats are needed now more than ever.

* Neil Lewis, who worked at The Economist Group before becoming an entrepreneur, joined the Lib Dems in 2015, standing as Cheshire PCC in 2016 and Bromsgrove in 2017.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Sep '17 - 1:36pm

    Excellent article.

    There are others in the main parties like this description too. But our essence is as said in this .

    I do feel that the problem for our party is that with the dominance of the main ideologies and parties , we are not going to be able to emerge without individual ideas, and leaders noticed.

  • Phil Beesley 12th Sep '17 - 2:39pm

    Neil Lewis: “As Liberal Democrats, first and foremost we seek broad coalitions and look for common ground…”

    Err, no. When there is common ground, it is instinctive for a liberal to work with others. The gay rights movements of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s etc show that Liberals can deliver reform, but social reform does not necessarily deliver popularity.

    Liberals reflect on our liberal principles and assess what liberals might compromise in a coalition. I think that Lib Dems got it wrong on Day One when Clegg was photographed with Cameron in the Rose Garden — and when David Laws wrote his book about pulling wool over the eyes of the Tories… I suspect that many senior Lib Dems are aware of what went wrong.

  • Thanks Lorenzo – yes, there are people in other parties who share this view, but even more so, I believe that many many voters would prefer this approach too.

    It does require us to be brave and bold, but let’s do it!

  • Neil Sandison 12th Sep '17 - 4:10pm

    Good article building the common good for all of our communities should be a key objective of the Liberal Democrats .

  • Hi Phil – thanks for your comments.

    Seeking common ground is not the same as compromise. It is looking for areas where we agree and acting on them.

    If we can not agree, we should always walk away and seek to win our argument in public.

    Hence, in my view, seeking common ground goes along with being radical.

    For instance, seeking common ground with a good number of people who voted Brexit would mean acknowledging that years of shrinking wages, unaffordable housing, declining public services and deteriorating roads and transport requires radical reform. It would not require us to change our view that Brexit is bad for Britain.


  • Thanks for this really good, thoughtful article Neil. I’ve always valued the concept of ‘community’ very highly in my own sense of Liberalism, so its always nice to see others agreeing – and you define it so well too.
    I do think we political anoraks sometimes talk ourselves into believing the 52/48 Brexit split is definitive. i.e. that we are alienating the 52% with our Brexit stance. But when you get beyond the fanatics (both sides) on twitter, the reality is that most voters don’t really care that much. Indeed I suspect a lot of voters (both sides) have probably forgotten how they voted in the referendum – or even whether they did. In the Council elections in May I certainly found quite a few Leave voters who were perfectly happy to vote for our candidate – because she is bloody good and had knocked on practically every door and it was clear she would make a good councillor (which I’m happy to say she now is). In fact I didn’t meet a single Leave voter who said they couldn’t vote for a Remainer. People are more concerned about the state of the bins.
    And that of course comes back to community, and how we can win if we go back to the basics of real community campaigning. We can even talk about our Brexit position as we do that. As long as we are getting the community politics right, the only people we alienate are those who would never vote for us anyway.

  • Declaring a belief in “community” is fine but it’s usually just a way of prettifying something. All parties use it that way and, unless it’s used in the context of specific proposals rooted in a community of some sort, it’s politically meaningless since no party is against it.

    An example: friends have two girls whose entire school career was under headteachers who were universally disliked, even despised, by parents and teachers alike. In the case of the primary head it was mainly extreme ineptness; in the case of the secondary head it was because she was a bully mainly preoccupied with buttering up successive ministers and their advisors to get ever-more astronomical pay. Both were very belatedly “found out” by officialdom and fired but only after they had done much damage.

    In both schools, parents and teachers alike would have loved to get rid of the heads years earlier and whether you call it empowering the community, industrial democracy or simply good management it would surely make sense for that to be doable, especially since the head is the most important determinant of the effectiveness of a school. Of course, school communities have NOT been empowered, teachers are too often unhappy and parents powerless. What we actually have is control via a byzantine bureaucracy, unaccountable except to ministers that’s a triumph of top-down Tory thinking. So much for the “parental choice” agenda.

    And yet, even when presented with an open goal, no party has argued for empowering school communities even as they blathered on about the importance of “community” on Newsnight etc. on a regular basis.

  • Thanks for your encouragement NeilS – ‘building the common good’ is a nice strapline :).


  • Hi TonyH

    Thanks for your comments and really interesting reply.

    re: ‘I certainly found quite a few Leave voters who were perfectly happy to vote for our candidate – because she is bloody good.’

    I think the challenge for us at national elections is to persuade people to vote for us – because we are bloody good! 🙂

    Hence, my article tries to pose the question ‘how do we translate our local community action USP into national politics’?

    I’ve suggested the answer is to start to remind people that we all (most of us anyway) breath the same air, use the same health service, benefit directly and indirectly from our state education, travel on the same roads and rail service, fly to Europe for our holidays – convert the same currency at the same rates (ouch!), watch the BBC, laugh / cry at the same things – I include X Factor and Bake Off in those too.

    When people begin to realise how much we share, it might just be possible to for them to join us in finding and building the common good.

    However, I’m open to other thoughts too…?


  • Hi Gordon – yes agreed, declaring a focus on community or the common good is only the beginning – we then need to land it terms of what it actually means in real everyday terms.

    Thanks for a very real and helpful example around your local schools – its good to ask how our national policies support good decisions on headteacher recruitment and retention and dealing with failing headteachers too – as asking these questions should lead to better policy?

    It seems to me pretty self-evident that the quality of a school is largely based on its leadership – but are there any studies to back this up?


  • Question for Phil B and everyone else…

    Would saying ‘creating common ground’ more clearly define what we seek to do, rather than saying ‘seeking common ground’. Does that sound less like ‘compromise and committees’ and gives a more dynamic / radical purpose to it?


  • Peter Hirst 20th Sep '17 - 3:24pm

    I agree Neil and it was good to hear you speak at Conference. Community is one of our distinctive qualities. How do you make it sexy? It needs a coordinated approach to reinvoke geographical proximity. Perhaps community rewards for helping neighbours like the old scouts awards. Local media could mention community champions more with street champions going to an annual festival.

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