What must happen for the Lib Dems to overtake Labour?

It’s a serious question: what do we think needs to happen for the Lib Dems to become the official opposition within the next 10 years? What are the circumstances, and which are the ones we have the control to influence?

In posing these questions, I’m making three assumptions. First, and most importantly – so the question doesn’t get brushed aside as hopelessly unrealistic – it won’t happen overnight. However wounded the Labour party currently is, it still has six times as many MPs, and three times more members, than the Lib Dems. It also has a core vote, diminished and diminishing, but resilient and not to be underestimated.

My second assumption, however, is a counterweight to this: it’s an entirely realistic proposition for the Lib Dems to overtake Labour. After all, the Lib Dems have bested them in the BBC’s nationally-projected popular vote in three sets of recent local council elections: in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Now, of course, the popular vote in local elections is one thing; the national vote in a general election is quite another. But still.

The third assumption: the Lib Dems are not about to usurp the Tories. The only party we can plausibly hope to displace in the next two Parliaments is Labour. Perhaps – perhaps – it might have been possible to overtake the Tories in 2003, when they were at their IDS-nadir. But the Tories got their act together sufficiently to scrape themselves off the floor, while the Lib Dems failed fully to capitalise on our ‘Iraq bounce’, and convince the public that we were robust enough to be a government-in-waiting.

With these assumptions in place – that the Lib Dems can come second, if not immediately, and that it would be Labour who are pushed into third position – let’s actually try and answer the big question: what are the conditions which can generate such a perfect storm? Here are my top three:

1. The Labour party needs to fracture.

Maybe it’s wrong to start with an essentially negative pre-condition, but I think it’s a candid truth. The split at the top of the party between Asquith and Lloyd George contributed – to what extent remains a moot point – to the eclipse of the Liberals by Labour in the last century. I suspect it will need a similar schism within the Labour party for the Lib Dems to push through into second place in this century.

The good news is that this is quite plausible. The Labour party has been turned inside-out over the last 15 years. The socialist ideology which once inspired it has been abandoned (state ownership might be experiencing a temporary resurgence but it’s borne of last-ditch necessity, not principled design). The progressive, small-l-liberal, internationalist outlook embodied by social democrats like Roys Jenkins and Hattersley has been junked in favour of the harsh, reactionary populism exemplified by David Blunkett and Phil Woolas.

New Labour has no ideological centre of gravity – what matters is what works. It’s raison d’etre was to win elections. Once that habit ceases, what will be its purpose? The leadership battle to succeed Gordon Brown will determine the extent to which the Labour party remains relevant to national political debate. Choose wrongly – as the Tories did, first with William Hague, then, almost fatally, with IDS – and Labour may drift even further down in the polls.

2. The Liberal Democrats need to show we are the progressive party.

If the Tories are here to stay – and, let’s be honest, there is likely always to need to be a political home for those folk who want things to remain pretty much as they are, either because they’re doing very-well-thank-you out of the established system, or because they’re scared of the alternatives, or both – then the role for the Lib Dems is clear: we need to show we can be a reforming, progressive government. I’ve discussed before the problem the party has in defining its unique selling point: the Tories are there to help the rich, and those who aspire to be rich; Labour is there for those who are poor, or fear they might one day be poor. Who are the Lib Dems there for?

My answer: we’re there to champion the underdog. ‘The underdog’ is distinct from ‘the poor’ because it recognises (as Labour rarely does) that people are not powerless solely because of their lowly economic status.

The Lib Dems stuck up for the Gurkhas’ right to UK residency not because they were poor (though doubtless some of them are) but because we believed the government should stand by the simple principle that those who are prepared to die for this country should be able to live in this country. The Lib Dems stuck up for the G20 protestors not because we necessarily agree with them, but because we believe the state – both government and police – is undermining the right to peaceful protest, an essential component of a civilised, pluralist, democratic society. And the Lib Dems stuck up for the rule of law when both Labour and the Tories joined forces to back the war against Iraq on a flimsy pretext, and against the will of the international community.

To begin with, each of these causes was a minority issue, potentially even an unpopular issue, and could have rebounded on the Lib Dems. But we stuck to our guns, and gave a voice to the powerless, championed the underdog. Which is why I believe the Lib Dems are the most truly progressive force in British politics.

3. The Liberal Democrats need to show how we will govern.

This has always been our weak spot. Not only do too many people think that a vote for the Lib Dems is a wasted vote, more importantly too many fear that if a Lib Dem government were to be formed we’d prove ourselves to be weak and insufficient. We’re nice guys, but ultimately too polite, lacking that inner core of ruthlessness which voters may say they despise in their politicians but are actually, deep down, reassured by. The one time in recent history we attempted to be ruthless – when Charles Kennedy was defenestrated – our conflicted MPs made a mess of it: the party no longer looked nice, but we had proven it just wasn’t in us to be efficiently ruthless.

And yet for all the collateral damage our leadership wrangles this Parliament has wrought, there have been beneficial unintended consequences, too. Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne have both risen to prominence far more quickly than might otherwise have happened. Vince Cable’s star may never have blazed so brightly had he not stood in as acting leader. And in Ming Campbell and Charles we have two ex-leaders who command considerable respect and affection in their contrasting ways. The days when the party was – to quote Paddy Ashdown in his autobiography – dominated by “self-centred individualists: outstanding personalities in their own constituencies, but unable or unwilling to play as members of the team” are long gone. The Lib Dems now regularly punch above our weight.

However, it’s not enough to boast a talented group – Labour and the Tories also have their share of able frontbenchers. The point of being an effective, progressive government-in-waiting is not to show the Lib Dems would be effective administrators, but to demonstrate we would be true reformers: that we want power not for its own sake, but to give it away, to devolve it downwards to local people and communities. It is this, after all, which most obviously distinguishes us from our rivals.

They may sometimes talk the talk of ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’, but the truth is that, whenever they get a sniff of power, Labour and the Tories cling on to what they have and grasp for more of what they most crave: centralised power. Of course, then finding that it’s impossible to use centralised power effectively from the top-down, they then set up unaccountable and unelected quangos and committees to oversee it on their behalf, and to take the blame for any mistakes made in their name. And so politics becomes a distant other-world to most voters, in which decisions are made by invisible politicians with an interruption every four or five years when a general election might change the identities of those still-invisible politicians.

If we want to show that the Lib Dems are genuinely different it is this sense of voter detachment we need to challenge. This does not mean talking obsessively of electoral reform or elected authorities for this or that public service – it means showing how real change, real improvements, to our schools and hospitals must and can come from the grassroots. This is not about mere consultation: it is about giving budgets to local people, giving them the power to make decisions over their own lives. No more invisible politicians ruling little people: now we’re all in charge.


These, then, are my top three conditions for enabling the Lib Dems to topple Labour. There are, of course, too many potential factors to squeeze into this article: I’ve barely touched on proportional representation or internal party reforms or smarter campaigning or any of the other crucial must-happens others will regard as critical.

Politics has rarely been this fluid. It seems almost certain the Tories will form the next government. Labour is about to enter opposition for the first time in three decades. The last time they did so, the ‘mould of politics’ was very nearly smashed. It can be again.

The Liberal Democrats are in an immeasurably stronger position than we were in 1979, or even than we were when the Alliance – very briefly – stood at more than 50% in the polls. We have a good team of leaders; a strong local government base; a more coherent policy programme. Second place really is within our reach.

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  • Richard Huzzey 4th May '09 - 2:32pm

    A great article. I also agree on the ‘underdog’ narrative, which has salience when people feel their lives are shaped by global market forces and bureaucracy rather than their own determination.

    One of the interesting tactical questions is how much we can shift resources from the next 20 target seats to securing winnable second places in Labour heartlands; the same seats we need to be in second place. It would be a brave decision to switch to a Dean-esque “50 seat strategy” rather than playing it safe in the next tranche of winnable seats. Playing two elections ahead has a real financial cost for the next election.

  • kevin jones 4th May '09 - 3:56pm

    On a point of fact retired Ghurkhas living in Nepal are actually relatively very rich. For example they get a bigger pension than the the Nepalese PM. I am not sure why LibDems are so enthusiastic encouraging the rich (relative to the rest of the Nepalese population), intelligent and motivated to leave Nepal. A better and very LibDem plan would be for the UK Overseas Aid department to use retired Gurkhas to improve the education, health and economic development of the ghurkas

  • David Heigham 4th May '09 - 3:56pm

    First we need to get into the game. We are still not properly in it; though we are getting close as Stephen says. Once we are in it, we will win it. And our people need us to win it.

    Stephen’s assessment strikes me as very well focussed. LibDems as the party for the underdog resonates. Who does not feel they are the underdog, at least part of the time?

    The bite of political reality is beginning to colour what the party thinks,does and says. It is necessary for convincing voters that the LibDems are worth their votes.

  • Here’s another condition: the Liberal Democrats must be willing to adapt, pool or merge their identity with at least one part of the Labour party.
    The Lib Dems as currently constituted are not ready for government and behave as such in the policies they pursue.
    Only a new centre left force of which the Libs could form but a part could replace Labour.
    Will it happen? Doubtful.

  • Martin Land 4th May '09 - 6:06pm

    Careless talk costs lives doesn’t it?

    I’m afraid the price of overtaking Labour would be becoming like them.

    There is already far to much Social Democracy in the party and not enough true Liberalism. I feel we should be concentrating on our party and our movement. The strategy of the last fifteen years has won us more seats than we have had in three generations, but it has also cost us dear on so many levels. We simply lack the strength in depth to be the second party as yet.

    Too many young men in a hurry?

  • David Allen 4th May '09 - 7:15pm

    “We’re there to champion the underdog.”

    Should we not broaden this a little? Our opponents would no doubt want it to read as “The Lib Dems are a party of losers.”

    How about “We’re there to champion all the ordinary people who are being done down by powerful vested interests. The other two parties are both on the opposite side.”

    “The Tory and Labour parties are there to support the wealthy and powerful vested interests who bankroll them – foreign millionaires, bankers, big business and big trade unions. We get our members and our funds from individual people, and it’s individual people and families that we stand up for.”

  • “Some put all their strength in the commencement and never carry a thing to a conclusion. They invent but never execute. These be paltering spirits. They obtain no fame, for they sustain no game to the end. Everything stops at a single stop. This arises in some from impatience, which is the failing of the Spaniard, as patience is the virtue of the Belgian. The latter bring things to an end, the former come to an end with things. They sweat away till the obstacle is surmounted, but content themselves with surmounting it: they do not know how to push the victory home. They prove that they can but will not: but this proves always that they cannot, or have no stability. If the undertaking is good, why not finish it? If it is bad, why undertake it? Strike down your quarry, if you are wise; be not content to flush it.” Gracian.

    We will likely not have a better chance to destroy the Labour Party than the coming election for a long time. We should be aggressively targeting Labour seats and targeting the most talented Labour MPs leaving only the rats to fight it out in the sack of the PLP after the next election.

    We are right to be planning 2 elections ahead but what are we planning for? Of the current crop of Labour MPs Ed Miliband is the most talented and the most dangerous for the Lib Dems – he effortlessly straddles the Brownite/Blairite camps, is an astute politician with liberal sensibilities and has a real understanding of the electorate. In my opinion he is the most likely leader after next and in the right circumstances could easily lead Labour’s revival in the next decade. He is unfortunately in quite a safe Labour seat but if we are planning ahead we should be targeting him and other potentially dangerous future leaders (i.e. not Ed Balls). The ‘decapitation strategy’ for the Tories of the last election failed because it was too little too late. We can’t predict who will be the next Labour leader but we can do our best to limit their choices.

    If we don’t kick them now when they are down and keep kicking, when we have the advantage of a likable leader and the credibility afforded by Vince Cable, Labour will find their feet again like the Tories have and we will spend another 2 decades in opposition.

  • Interesting……… but dont forget a week is a long time in Politics!
    My view as been for some time – (& here come the ifs);
    if we hold the balance of power; if we can get real PR for Westminster elections – then the Tories will split – some as a Christian Democrat Party – some to us – some into a right wing little Englander Party.

    Labour may also lose bits ie Social Democrat wing & or left wing & some to us.

    We as Liberal Democrats would have most to gain in this scenario & become one of the dominate Parties – ‘I have a dream!’

  • “The Liberal Democrats need to show we are the progressive party”

    I think a semi-coherent economic policy
    is in order

    Firstly Drop the anti-capitalist
    anti-free-market rhetoric

    Liberals invented capitalism
    capitalism is intrinsically liked to freedom

    Capitalism has been perverted away from th economic system that the original liberals were trying to develop

    The most coherent statement that I think will unite all liberals both classical and social
    would be some thing along the lines of Georgism

    that is the economy is divided into three parts

    land, labour and capital

    if you write some code or repair a fridge

    that’s your


    the tax should be minimum

    if you make money from that labour that’s your


    you should be free to invest as you choose, maybe to setup a company repairing refrigerators or writing code

    The land, natural resources, water, air, atmosphere

    are everyones
    and people making a profit from this should pay the tax that pays for social programs

    and those social programs should be efficient and prudently run

    That’s the way we make ourselves the truly progressive party

    Its a system that combines the efficiency of capitalism

    moral and justified wealth redistribution

    The wealth redistribution should appeal to the left of the Party

    and Milton Friedmann himself approved the system so it should satisfy us on the right
    if the state is efficiently run

    aside from that we are all unified as civil libertarians

    We can smash labour but we need a coherent economic message

  • Painfully Liberal 4th May '09 - 11:06pm

    I guess from a practical point of view, the first thing we need is a good next general election. Labour being routed won’t do us much good if we get knocked down to 40 – 50 seats. We need to at least hold our own and preferably come out ahead. That way it begins to look like we’re on an upward tradjectory and Labour on a downward. At that point, people might seriously contemplate the possibility of the two crossing.

    We need a collapse of the labour core vote and ideally to gain a serious core of our own. We’ll not make serious gains while huge amounts of our resources have to be devoted to constantly rewinning our current seats.

    We also need to think about where the next tranche of target seats will be. Will Labour be so damaged that it becomes worth making a play for their heartlands? Should we tackle the swing seats that seem amenable to change? Could we aspire to power in Scotland or Wales? Can we afford to target several areas at once? the decision on this will determine both allocation of resources and how we formulate our message.

  • Now is a great time to send labour into third place in the European elections

    I live and work in Portugal and my whole life is here now

    but I’ve been really disappointed by the LibDem stand on the Lisbon Treaty to the point I’m considering voting for Libertas

    I probably won’t break the habit of a life time and vote Lib Dem but I think this attitude that being against the EU treaty makes you against the EU is ridiculous and some better opposition or at least the willingness to open this up to a democratic vote would have helped us a hell of alot in the elections

  • Just looking at the prosaic practicalities, the Labour Party on the ground varies enormously from constituency to constituency. Firstly, you have the rural and semi-rural areas, and much of suburban southern England where it has virtually ceased to exist, and this includes areas where they were in serious contention with the Tories in 1997 (places like Basingstoke, for example). Then you have the areas like Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle where we are well entrenched locally and the Tories are nowhere, but Labour still hold most of the parliamentary seats. We have some local credibility, but not the membership, money or organisation to make a serious breakthrough in the immediate future. Then there are the areas where we are weak: some of these are the marginal seats that the Tories need to take in order to form a government, but in others future opposition to Labour may well come from the BNP for the want of any other credible local political organisation. The Labour Party might well be seriously weakened by erosion on all these fronts, and it is quite hard to see how they can revitalise themselves ideologically in the forseeable future, but the prospect of a substantial section of the white working class vote going to the BNP is not one to relish.

  • Interesting, but ultimately wrong article.

    Two points:

    1. Hattersley is not and never has been a small L liberal – he is and has been one of the most reactionary, arrogant and useless politicians of all time. Anyone who condones book burning should not be mentioned in the same sentence as Roy Jenkins.

    2. To fulfil the objective of the article the Lib Dems need to develop ambition. grow a pair of balls and stop fannying around trying to be equidistant from Labour and Tory. It is now clear Labour are stuffed at the next election and anyone who gets in the way of their defeat will be brought down with them. So we have to sharpen our knives and plunge it into the rotting, twitching half dead corpse of Gordon Brown’s Labour Party. No more equidistance and a much more focussed attack on them – we can take the anti-Labour fight to places that Cameron would never dream of lowering himself to go to. Just like Paddy did in terms of taking the fight to the Tories in places Blair couldn’t reach.

    Labour are there for the taking now and next year and fannying around setting criteria, wringing our hands about being seen on the Tory side of the debate or hoping for a Labour split will not a Lib Dem opposition make. We need to go for their jugular now – it’s afterall what the voters want…

  • Simon Courtenage 5th May '09 - 7:34am

    I disagree with the use of the term “underdog”. It’s vague, can mean anything to anyone and, in my view, leads to populism and demagogary. Everyone, at some time or another, views themselves as the underdog. Sometimes justly so, sometimes for quite unsavory reasons – if we portray ourselves as the party of the underdog, will they all expect us to champion them? Describing ourselves like this makes us a hostage to other people’s view of themselves. And just to take this argument to the extreme, the BNP probably market themselves similarly.

    I prefer Dave Allen’s description: “it’s individual people and families that we stand up for”. Not only is this more specific, but it’s also more careful – it avoids tying us to other people’s interpretation of their state. We are more in control of who we are and what we want to do.

  • 10 yrs ago Labour had 300,000 more members. Today that is down to only 100,000 more. Today there are almost as many LD cllrs as Labour.

    If the union donations were radically cut back from Labour then the Lib Dems could challenge them.

    But it also requires the Lib Dems to go after Labour constituencies, rather than re-fight the battles they have lost to Conservatives.

  • Steve Travis 5th May '09 - 9:46am

    Dan – hear hear! Although I would never use such colourful language 😉

  • There are elements where a large dose of Lewis’s Wonderland appear to have been ingested.

    LD’s do not contain a coterie of big hitters. Confusing Vince Cable with others in the party is causing this.
    Lord Ashdown is a grandee not an operator.

    LD’s have the wrong leader and by the time this is figured out, accepted and acted on, Vince will be heading to retirement.
    Liberal Dumocrats comes to mind.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th May '09 - 10:13am


    Firstly Drop the anti-capitalist
    anti-free-market rhetoric

    I am not aware there has been much of that in our party. Neither am I aware in my conversations with ordinary people in this country that there is some great yearning here for unrestrained free-market capitalism which people feel the other two big political parties haven’t given them.

    I am aware, and sympathetic, to the argument that Georgist taxes counter some of the criticism of the free-market approach which those concerned for the underdog make. Nevertheless, I don’t think going into an election saying “We are going to make you pay a great big tax of a sort you never paid before and isn’t directly linked to your income” is going to win us as many votes as it loses us.

  • passing tory 5th May '09 - 10:28am

    FWIW I think that ‘help the underdog’ is a very poor USP for a party, All parties (that aim to be successful) will have a strong element of this. It is an essential part of getting the balance between state and individual right.

    It might make you warm inside to think of Tories as cruel, heartless creatures who are only interested in picking off the weak, and in a sense I should encourage you to think along those lines because incorrect premises usually lead to poor conclusions (cf. Lib Dem dogma on binning Ming because he was old, rather than just because he was poor which meant that Cable was completely overlooked …). In reality, most Tories are just as committed to the underdog as anyone else.

    In fact, I have spent half the weekend helping some people in the area who have been _completely_ let down by their local Lib Dem councillors (who seem more interested in towing the party line than representing the interests of their constituents).

    So of course you should put ‘supporting the underdog’ down on your list, but it is a pre-requirement, not a raison d’etre.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th May '09 - 10:31am


    To fulfil the objective of the article the Lib Dems need to develop ambition. grow a pair of balls and stop fannying around trying to be equidistant from Labour and Tory. It is now clear Labour are stuffed at the next election and anyone who gets in the way of their defeat will be brought down with them. So we have to sharpen our knives and plunge it into the rotting, twitching half dead corpse of Gordon Brown’s Labour Party.

    No. The macho language of “balls”, “sharpening knives”, “twitching corpses” etc is just the sort of thing that is putting ordinary people off politics.

    My radical idea is that we don’t want ambition. The problem with politics is too much ambition in its practitioners. That’s what ordinary people don’t like about it – they think politics is all about people who just want power for themselves, people whose ambition means they will say anything to get elected, people who really don’t care for the country or for the underdog or for those in the middle who aren’t doing too well right now because all they really care about is “me, me, me”.

    Ditch all that – have a radical new image which isn’t like people suppose politics is. Emphasise that we say and do what we say and do out of a sense of duty and care, not out of ambition.

    Do not think primarily in terms of attack. Dismiss all that stabbing and plunging knives stuff as the old politics we’re out to change. Be positive, give plans for the future, not attacks on the past. When we do attack, make sure we hardly distinguish between Labour and Conservative, they’re the old politics we’re out to change.

    The Unique Selling Point of Labour used to be that it was the party of ordinary people. That was what it was founded for – to get the sort of person who couldn’t afford to run their own political campaign, who wasn’t an aristocrat or famous or at least with a reasonable private income, into Parliament. It did this through the Trade Union movement, which was always a bit limiting, and is more so now that fewer people are in unionised employment.

    We now have to show that we are the party of ordinary people. That our members and the people we put forward for election are not strange aliens, with supercharged macho ambitions, but people who have lived ordinary lives, who have gained wisdom through that, who can be trusted to put forward sensible policies because of that, whose main aim is care of this country and its people.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th May '09 - 10:56am


    Martin’s point is an interesting one, suggesting that to do better we would need to broaden the church, when it is already pretty broad. There is a balance there, between convincing people that our church is actually what they want, vs letting people add their church to ours.

    Yes, a similar point is made by a number of people. The underlying question is whether our prime motivation is to become the first party of government, or is it to defend liberty?

    There is a place in politics for a party which sees its first duty as defending civil liberties, or social liberties or economic liberties, but the danger of this is that it often means making a fuss about issues which are very important, but seem to be side issues for most people. I am getting the feeling that the Liberal Democrats have managed to build something of a distinctly liberal image, we aren’t seen as just a “centre party” you might vote for if you’re fed up with the others. But the cost of this is there are more voters who won’t vote for us because they aren’t very liberal.

    If our line is that we really are about ambition to form a government at all costs, then our response to this would have to be that we would drop the more awkward aspects of liberalism that many people don’t like or aren’t interested in. Things like most constitutional and legal matters, defence of the human rights of minorities, liberal attitudes to crime and punishment. On the other hand, there is a place for a party in politics which specialises in these things, even if it accepts this means it will only ever have a smallish level of direct support. We could more easily settle into this latter role if we had a continental style party system where we could carry on forever on 10% or so of the vote, and drop in or out of coalitions as circumstances change.

  • This is a great article.

    “We’re nice guys, but ultimately too polite, lacking that inner core of ruthlessness which voters may say they despise in their politicians but are actually, deep down, reassured by.”

    Couldn’t agree more on that point.

    I think that our party could show a more ruthless side by taking the fight to the Tories by stating that this election is not about electing Cameron as the next PM, its weather the voters want the Conservative Party operating government and moving Britain further to the right.

  • Mr Huntbach

    Some of what you are saying sounds worrying. You want to gain entry into the people’s mindset by appealing to the ordinary.

    However, I think the world works not by ordinary people, but by trained people.

    This is actually a situation I favour. If you want the Emergency Services to function in a particular way you train them.

    Not sure if you favour this but it sounds a bit like you want to smuggle your values in the backdoor by presenting your people as ordinary but wise.

    This would be the politics of secrecy and would backfire once exposed.

    I would like to see a battle of ideas not a smuggling of ideas.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th May '09 - 4:21pm


    Not sure if you favour this but it sounds a bit like you want to smuggle your values in the backdoor by presenting your people as ordinary but wise.

    Where is the “smuggling”? If I were saying we should pretend to stand for one set of policies while secretly planning to impose another, that would be “smuggling”, but that is not at all what I am saying.

    My concern is that most people now think of politicians as some alien species which is so completely remote from us we cannot expect them to rule in our interests because they cannot conceive what those interests are. Somehow we need to get away from that, and return to what democracy is meant to be about, that politicians represent the people. I do not mean by this that they should be picked arbitrarily from the people regardless of ability or interest. They should indeed be wise, and have proved themselves in some way to be good at decision making and so on. But who is to judge what is truly wise except their fellow human beings? That is why we had political parties, to enable people to select the wisest amongst them to put forward as potential representatives.

    If political parties act as if they are corporate brands rather than voluntary associations, that is lost. We need to make more clear that we are a voluntary association, and those we put forward as representatives have on the whole much experience of the sort of life ordinary people live, and so can wisely govern on the basis of that knowledge. The decisions they come to are NOT necessarily the decisions a person stopped on the street and presented with the question would come to, but rather the decisions a person would come to if they had the time to consider the question in more detail. That is, the ordinary person can feel confident in putting their trust in them.

    Some people are naturally conservative, some naturally liberal and so on, and so would seek a representative from an association of people who share that way of thinking. The political party establishes the general pattern of thought of the person put forward as a potential representative. But it should not take away their humanity, or impose some sort of doctrinal “training” which turns them into an alien salesman. Most voters seem to think that is what they do.

    There is a great disillusionment with politics because of this, yet no-one has any real alternative to it. When people say “you politicians are all the same, go away” ask them what they want instead. They don’t know. Rule by a wise dictator? By the military? Taking power away from politicians and giving it to businessmen has been all the rage for some three decades – our world is in a big financial mess because of that, and people can see that. The opportunity for a return to decent humanitarian democratic politics is there, but it must be sold because people have forgotten such a thing ever existed and do not see it reflected in the macho back-stabbing ambitious rhetoric the more childish amongst us seem to delight in.

  • Okay, so we are not so far apart. I see disillusionment but not because of vague objections. I see it because politicians lie and do other bad things.

    A classic example. George Bush senior said “no new taxes” when he knew he might well have to raise taxes. He then went ahead and raised taxes.

    I think I can object to this without favouring a dictatorship (unless it be by David Starkey who seems to be at least trying to think).

    There is a disconnect between people who want representatives and politicians who often prefer to spin and lie.

    This is not to say that politicians are always bad. Even Nixon did good things.

  • Martin Land 5th May '09 - 6:09pm

    Of course, in my earlier post I forgot to mention the virtues of prayer…

  • @Matthew Huntbach

    “I am not aware there has been much of that in our party”

    I rarely read an article here that doesn’t mention a critique of neo-liberalism

    Neo-liberalism was a phrase coined by the likes of Choamsky and Klein to describe the overwhelming increase in free trade and privatization that occurred in the nineties

    That would be a critique of free markets right there

    “Neither am I aware in my conversations with ordinary people in this country that there is some great yearning here for unrestrained free-market capitalism which people feel the other two big political parties haven’t given them.”

    Yeah true but I don’t get the feeling that anyone wants to return to a “three day week” which until someone comes up with a better economic system, anti-neo-liberalism implies

    So what options in terms of economics can LDs offer?

    I say something Geoist

    “I don’t think going into an election saying “We are going to make you pay a great big tax of a sort you never paid before and isn’t directly linked to your income” is going to win us as many votes as it loses us”

    Last time I checked most people in the UK
    don’t own huge amounts of land
    emit huge amounts of pollution
    make a profit from water distribution
    own oil fields etc

    so tax would be quite significantly shifted from the average bloke on the street by a geoist tax plan

    I don’t see how that policy would increase the average house holds taxation

    Another alternative to this would be Behavioral economics of the Austan Golbee and the New Chicago School variety

    Nudge is an awesome book

    But essentially its just tweaking the same system that’s already in place

    to be progressive implies
    making a shift in economic policy to benefit the average tax payer

  • think Clement Atlee or Margret Thatcher

    If socialism failed and monetarism failed
    time for something new eh?

  • Peter Chapman 6th May '09 - 12:54pm

    The simple fact is money….until we can match Labour and the Tories in funding and full time organisation we will have too many ‘black holes’ to overtake the Labour Party

    Things are a million times better than they used to be but to break throughabove 100 Mpsunder our rigged electoral system we need a whole new scale of resources.Simple.

  • David Allen 6th May '09 - 1:43pm

    Matthew Huntbach said

    “There is a place in politics for a party which sees its first duty as defending civil liberties …. but the danger of this is that it often means making a fuss about issues which are very important, but seem to be side issues for most people.”

    What you’re saying, Matthew, is that we have become a bit of a one-trick pony. I quite agree. The answer to the problem is not to discard the trick, but to learn some more tricks as well. We should still be “the real alternative” to the two failed right-wing parties, with plenty to say about Iraq, climate change, and the folly of Thatcherite banking, much as we were in 2005. This wouldn’t stop us campaigning on liberties issues like ID cards and the Gurkhas as well.

  • David Allen 6th May '09 - 1:52pm

    Stephen Tall said

    “it is about giving budgets to local people”

    This reminds me that we are a bit of a two-trick pony, but the localism trick can also be vastly overplayed. Most “local people” would be horrified to be given a budget and a big voluntary job to do. Most people want somebody else to safeguard their interests, while they stop home and watch telly.

    Why don’t we go with the flow on this one? Local people will get their local interests safeguarded by electing Lib Dems who are crazy enough to enjoy doing community politics and still manage to be reasonably normal folk. Unlike the zealots, vested interests, and the self-obsessed, who join the Tories and Labour. Local people just have to cast their vote for us, and then they can get off down the pub!

  • It is not easy to tax unearned wealth. How do you establish that money in the bank is unearned?

    Unfortunately, taxing carbon emissions at a level that is likely to be painful enough to change behaviour is likely to be very unpopular

  • This is all missing the point, which is to get media coverage. That is 100% of the battle. We need to be much more imaginative in the way Lib Dems grab hold of the media and use the Internet and Youtube, for example, to spread simple but compelling messages. Where are our friends in the advertising world when you need them? Tim Bell of Saatchi and Saatchi won 1979 for Thatcher and we need one like him.

    “There is a choice” is the fundamental message that voters at the moment are forgetting. They are moving towards the Conservatives without even thinking that there is another party.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th May '09 - 10:21pm


    “Neither am I aware in my conversations with ordinary people in this country that there is some great yearning here for unrestrained free-market capitalism which people feel the other two big political parties haven’t given them.”

    Yeah true but I don’t get the feeling that anyone wants to return to a “three day week” which until someone comes up with a better economic system, anti-neo-liberalism implies

    Why? The three-day week was imposed by a Conservative government in response to energy stocks suddenly becoming very expensive due to the combination of the oil suppliers dramatically increasing their prices and the UK miners going on strike. Why do you suppose “anti-neoliberalism” would imply such a thing? In what way would it provoke our current oil energy suppliers to suddenly stop supply or increase prices?

  • Here are one or two things the Party could do to make itself more electable:

    (1) Have a consistent position on civil liberties.

    Oppose not only ID cards, a national DNA database and blanket eavesdropping of email, but also satellite surveillance of motor vehicles (currently threatened by the EU Commission and originally championed by Blunkett), “wraparound” education and martial law for young people.

    (2) Ensure that our commitment to equality includes opposition to the demonisation of young people and employment rights for the over 65s.

    (3) Drop our ostrich-like opposition to nuclear power.

    (4) Take a serious look at Professor Peter Hall’s proposal that a mega airport be built in the Thames Estuary, allowing Heathrow and Gatwick to be shut and redeveloped for high-tech industry and housing. (It might be too expensive, but at least it’s worth a feasibility study.)

    (5) Electrify the GWR and get high-speed trains on our trunk rail routes.

    (6) Designate the Jurassic Coast of Dorset and Devon a National Park. (Hey, why not?)

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th May '09 - 10:21pm


    Last time I checked most people in the UK
    don’t own huge amounts of land
    emit huge amounts of pollution
    make a profit from water distribution
    own oil fields etc

    so tax would be quite significantly shifted from the average bloke on the street by a geoist tax plan

    I don’t see how that policy would increase the average house holds taxation

    I am sympathetic to the Land Value Taxation idea, but it was the Liberal Democrats who pushed loudly the idea that the only fair tax is a tax on income when they opposed the council tax. So successful were they in that that I have found, when I have said actually I don’t agree with local income tax, people are astonished – they think it is something fundamental to liberalism that taxes should ony be on income because that is “fair” because it is based on “ability to pay”.

    The reality is that in any tax changes those who benefit stay quiet, those who lose shout out. The bigest argument against Land Value Tax that would be raised if we were ever to try and introduce it would be the little old lady on a small pension in a big house. We would be told it was a stupid mad evil tax to impose on said old lady, how could she possible pay it? If we said “she could move to somewhere smaller more suited to her needs” we would be denounced as evil communists who wish to push people around to live as we see fit. If we said “she could pay out of equity” we would again be told we were evil communists for wishing to take away that old lady’s inheritance to her children.

    I say this because this is just the language that has been used against me when I have tried to put the case for LVT. For example, I had a letter published in a local paper trying to make the LVT point at a time when I was a candidate in local elecions, and I had people phoning me saying “I used to support the Liberals, but no more when you say things like that”. I had the local party getting annoyed with me for saying it – despite the fact that support for LVT was actually written in the Liberal Party’s constitution.

  • Andrew Duffield 10th May '09 - 11:12pm

    … although when voters (in Newbury) were asked “would you rather replace council tax with a fairer property tax or a local income tax?” they went for the former by a big margin. Trouble is, our party has never bothered to ask this question, let alone work out the answer.

    That said, we have agreed (in Fairer, Simpler, Greener) that ability to pay relates to wealth as much as to income. LVT simply recoups unearned wealth – and you can’t say fairer than that.

  • Liberal teen 11th May '09 - 10:56pm

    What would you guys think about going in to coalition with Labour, and actually getting into government, with a bit of the old electoral reform and less authoritarian policies whacked in as conditions? Or am I just in a dream world?

  • I’m appalled that Lib Dems are still thinking in these terms. UK politics must change. What matters is PR. You alone could achieve that but seem pathologically unwilling to do what is necessary.

    The war + the robber-bankers + the expenses debacle might be the best opportunity to get PR over the last half-century.

    Why are the Lib Dems (apparently) so gutless in horse-trading?

    I fully expect you to cock it up.

    What steps are necessary to prove me wrong?

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th May '09 - 9:42am


    I’m appalled that Lib Dems are still thinking in these terms. UK politics must change. What matters is PR. You alone could achieve that but seem pathologically unwilling to do what is necessary.

    Bitter experience tells us that while we might think PR is important, for most voters it’s a turnoff. It’s not that they don’t agree with it, it’s that they find it boring and not very relevant to their lives. The classic Liberal Party losers were people who banged on about PR. Part of getting smart and winning votes in the third party revival was to avoid going on about boring constitutional matters like that in the material we presented to the public, doesn’t mean we aren’t interested in them.

    Our call for PR is also very easily dismissed by our opponents as “you only say that because it will give you more power”. Political horse-trading for a boring constitutional issue that can be put by our opponents as something asked for out of naked self-interest is just the sort of thing that comes across as really, really bad. Our image and chances of winning more votes in a subsequent election would be damaged greatly if we engaged in a prolonged row trying to force it.

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