Liberal Britain

Your Liberal BritainPolitical democracy; what does this actually mean? In 1948, Winston Churchill in a speech stated ‘The government is the servant of the people and not its master.’ Let us look at what that statement means today.

Pressure groups form or back a political party with the sole purpose of getting that party elected and getting the policies that they want enacted put into place. Policies are packaged into a bundle along with others and sprinkled with ‘glitter’ and put to the public to vote upon. Election campaigns consist of each party telling the public that this bundle of policies is ‘the only way for Great Britain to prosper’, what a terrible set of proposals the opposition have and that their leader is not a very nice person. Recognise the scenario?

And where do the wishes of the body of the public fit in?

Any wishes that the public may have are set very low on the agenda indeed and tend only to be considered come election time. Those wishes are given a nod to, maybe. But not necessarily a promise, or as a very last resort, a promise of a referendum if that party is feeling particularly threatened.

Unpopular policies are implemented early in the new parliament so that the public will have forgotten about them come next election time. Does it seem a little more familiar yet? So what does the ‘parliamentary democracy’ actual mean in reality? Might I suggest that what it really means is that the public have the right to vote for their masters, not that their masters have to carry out the wishes of the public that voted them into power.

Does Britain really need another such party? History shows a loss of faith by the public on the political system. Deservedly so. The numbers that turn out to vote tend to be low and they have to be ‘coerced’ in many cases to do so. The young even more so. Their view is that what’s the point, it won’t make any difference, my voice will not be heard so why bother?

If we accept the above scenario we need to ask ourselves, does Britain really need yet another pressure group party or shall we set ourselves up to really change the system? But not by tinkering with it with PR. But by proposing a fundamental change to the way in which the country is run to that of a Public Democracy. In this system, the public get to decide which policies are implemented, which are not and to be able to present their own for parliament to enact if the politicians will not listen to their demands. In this way the public really become the masters of their own destiny, not the pressure groups behind the political parties.

The main parties will try to put the public of the scent by saying this system will not work. They have to. Let the  Lib Dems make it work. Let’s really make a difference.

You can read a background paper in support of the ideas developed in this article.


This piece is part of the Your Liberal Britain series of posts here on Lib Dem Voice. Everyone can take part – why not send in your own vision for Liberal Britain? 
Your Liberal Britain is a grassroots initiative launched and run by new members of the party, inviting every Lib Dem to help explain what the party stands for. We all know we want to build a fair, free and open society – but what would it actually look like? And why should anyone care?
To take part, simply write 500 words in response to the question ‘What would a truly Liberal Britain look like, and what improvements would it bring to people’s lives?“, and send it to [email protected], mentioning ‘Liberal Britain’ in the subject line.
To get inspiration for your post, read others in the series, and take a look at all these ideas that other members have submitted to Your Liberal Britain. You can also get involved by hosting a simple discussion evening with your local party – everything you need to run one is right here.

* Geoff Bell was a founder member of the Lib Dems, coming in from the SDP, and is a current member in St Austell. He is an applied research engineer by profession, a company director and lecturer in product design, innovation and knowledge transfer.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • It is so very sad to see others so quickly dismiss the proposal for a more democratic system, especially Lib Dem members. No wonder the public have become so disillusioned with politicians and politics. I was given 500 words in which to put forward a proposal, hardly a chance to give anything other than a brief outline of the problem.

    There is an automatic assumption being made in the above comments of how a system would work. I am not sure if those contributors realize that this comes across as a desire by those in authority to hang onto power at any cost. This is even when, in the Liberal case, they have historically not had the sole responsibility for power in the UK since 1906.

    Detailed options for how a public democracy will have to be worked out, and the proposals put forward in a referendum. But the responsibility for doing that will have to be down to a team who believe in it, not those who are so swift to denigrate the concept.

    If the Lib Dems are serious about democracy then let’s talk about how a system dynamic enough to reflect public opinion could be made to work. Not let’s keep flogging a historic system that no one believes in any more and knocking anyone who dares raise their hand and challenges it.

  • Matt (Bristol) 9th May '16 - 3:45pm

    And who holds to account the people who prepare the options for the public to vote on in this new ‘direct’ Public Democracy? By what system are they appointed? Will they organise themselves into groups to lobby for broadly similar ideas, form factions to try to ensure preferment for their friends?

    … ooh, look, you’ve got political parties again, only less accountable.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th May '16 - 4:42pm

    Non-politicians are mostly too busy for direct democracy. It’s better to just elect representatives to parliament.


  • ‘Lets remain in control.’ Again? See my earlier comment in para 2 of my earlier reply.

    There is an old saying within engineering that goes like this. ‘Remember, when risks are ignored they don’t go away!’ The Liberals have been ignoring the risks of the powerful pressure groups for over 100 years now. Those groups ganged up on the Lib Dems and squashed the last PR attempt back in 2011. If you want to break the deadlock you need a better mouse trap, a system that can appeal to all of the public and especially the young, our future. Sinicism of suggestions just is not helpful!

    The only way for the Lib Dems to break out of their long term deadlock is to offer the public something that the opposition simply cannot give them. Giving the public a much more dynamic and accountable parliament gives them what they want. No make that need! It is after all their country and not the sole possession of the pressure groups.

    But maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe the Lib Dems are afraid of responsibility and that is why they will not change? As no one has entered a meaningful dialog on this matter, maybe that really is the case.

  • Voting by individual policy is not necessarily required, except possibly in core decisions such as EU membership. But this is not the only source of public opinion. Developing those sources of public opinion could possibly provide a good measure of which direction the public wish the government to go in. Surely this is worth a attempt?

    There will inevitably have to be packages of policies that are required which are complimentary. Clearly you cannot have lower taxes AND more public expenditure unless you can obtain sustainable funding from some other identifiable means. But please, let’s attribute the public with some measure of common sense.

  • Matt (Bristol) 9th May '16 - 5:26pm

    Geoff, I feel that strongly that a voting system such as STV combined with genuine devolved federalism can potentially offer ‘a much more dynamic and accountable parliament’ than we have now and that it remains an option untried in this country.

    I understand you feel that a more root-and-branch reform could create a better structure, but I am not sure why you feel the need to deride as mere ‘tinkering’ a set of ideas long-articulated by the party and which you must recognise – if you have been a member as long as you state – many people are quite attached to and will rush to defend.

    I can see you are annoyed that people are reacting somewhat negatively, but it is a bit difficult to find someone sneering about a policy you have long been attached to, then being quite vague regarding details about the policy they are proposing as an alternative.

    Can you evidence that there is likely to be a groundswell of support for this proposal that the party could bring together to win support for it in the current system?

    More importantly, can you persuade party members to adopt this new set of ideas? The discussion above doesn’t suggest you have much patience with persuasion.

    Also, I am not sure that what you propose is that far away from the ideas (partially) articulated by Douglas Carswell, ex- of the Conservative Party, and now in UKIP. Green and other politicians are also flirting with these concepts.

    OK, there may be more merit to what you propose than I admit, but am not convinced by your supporting argument that this is ‘new ground’ the party can forge into which could give it a winning, unique set of proposals that no one else is putting forward.

    I am not in a position of power that I am trying to defend. Nor do I necessarily agree that I am trying to defend and cling on to the party’s own current position of power.

    If I genuinely wanted to entrench the current party system (which is as you state, flawed and possibly beginning to eat itself), I would not be advocating for the Single Transferrable Vote (which allows candidates to stand as individuals), but for other forms of electoral reform instead, where parties and lists operate as blocs.

  • Peter Watson 9th May '16 - 6:02pm

    I might be misremembering since it is at least 20 years since I have seen the film, but I am reminded of “The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer” in which the last step in the rise of Peter Cooke’s eponymous politician to becoming popular dictator is the electorate being fed up of voting on every single issue and wanting somebody to make the decisions for them.

  • Matt. As a member for some 35 years ish I have had to reflect upon the realities of the position that the Lib Dems find themselves in. The STV system may be better than the current first past the post system. I am not disagreeing with that view point at all. But if we cannot get take up of it, on its own, due to the fear factor used by the pressure groups then we need to look at how we respond. Also please note, I am not saying that the whole structure of the political system will necessarily have to change, or at least overnight. Whatever happens in the longer term evolution, we will all have to wait and see. Nor am I advocating the abandoning of the STV system in electing parliamentary members. But not facing up to the realities of the political situation that we find ourselves in is leading us on a road to nowhere.

    The current political model can still be used as a basis for a Public Democracy. The Lib Dems can choose if we wish, to use a system of public opinion to create a set of workable policies that we will adopt. Assuming that having gained power on the back of it, we could also allow for feedback during a given period of parliament and a change of course to respond to the new circumstances. We all need to recognise that things and conditions can change within a five year period.

  • My research into why the public are disillusioned with the existing political system had led me to believe, as well as the press, that politicians are not trusted and that they fail to reflect the wishes of the electorate. It seems clear that politicians, especially those at the top, are elected to represent the views of the purse string holders. Also in many cases those leaders hold views quite opposite to those of the public at large. For example Jeremy Corbin would be happy to ditch the nuclear deterrent. History has shown that weakness only leads to aggressive behaviour: Hitler, Napoleon and so on. Aggressors do not respond to argument and reason. They do recognise strength and moderate their behaviour because of it. The public as a whole know this.

    The reason that I put forward Public Democracy was to try and open up the debate for change and to bring in the views of the public at large into the policies of government, and of course the Lib Dems. For example, we have an abuse situation at present for example used by the Conservatives saying that if one voted for the Conservatives at the last election that they would therefore be supporting fox hunting, as this was part of their policy. This is just an abuse of trust and power, and it is rife.

    The case of UKIP is somewhat singular in that what they are recognised for is leaving the EU and restoring power back to the UK government. UKIP may have other policies that they have ‘tuned’ to public opinion but that is not their main thrust, at least at present. I am absolutely positive that were the Lib Dems to adopt a public reflective policy formulation technique, we could finally break the current strangle hold of the two party system. At the same time, such a system tends to negate the requirement for multi party government which is prevalent elsewhere in the EU and the Conservatives slam as weak.

  • David Evershed 9th May '16 - 7:04pm

    The majority of the public seem to be happy with governments spending more and taxing less. Hence a good government strategy is to implement spending cuts or increase taxes early in a parliament and hope this gets forgotten by the time of the next election.

    Unfortunately some governments who want to get re-elected are never prepared to take the less popular but necessary decisions about cutting spending or increasing taxes.

    Consequently you get countries like Greece where over decades none of the different governments was prepared to take tough decisions until (too late?) their lenders imposed the IMF discipline upon them.

    Do we really want a referendum on every policy? Even then the public would vote for contradictory policies if taken one at a time rather than as alternative bundles of internally consistent policies.

  • “It seems clear that politicians, especially those at the top, are elected to represent the views of the purse string holders. Also in many cases those leaders hold views quite opposite to those of the public at large. For example Jeremy Corbin would be happy to ditch the nuclear deterrent.”

    Oh stupid Corbyn, he hasn’t learnt the lessons of Napoleon, even though “We all need to recognise that things and conditions can change within a five year period”

    Funnily enough, many Liberal Party Leaders, Jo Grimond, for example opposed the UK having an Independent Nuclear Deterrent, let alone Trident which is neither Independent or a deterrent. Thanks for not answering my criticisms. Very revealing.

  • Caracutus et al: It is so easy to knock proposals especially by those entrenched in the past. There is always more than one way to progress the economy for example. The Lib Dems have previously put forward a small increase in tax to fund an increase in areas of specific public spending. Are you suggesting that there is only ever one way? I most strongly disagree. Opening up policy strategy to the broader community for input rather than limiting it to ones own internal policy forming body does indeed provide more options. Alternative policy packages can then be sounded out for public acceptability. Moreover, it shows that we are listening, not dictating for example as Jeremy Hunt is doing with the Junior Doctors. I am not suggesting that every single policy covering every single aspect of government be put up for a referendum. I am sure that the public would forgive us for looking out for the core policies and would tell us if we have got it wrong.

    You only have to look at commercial practices to see that appealing to the wishes of the customer and monitoring your performance as you go leads to successful organisations. Those that fail to do so fail to survive. Now ask yourself this. As I said earlier, if the Liberals have got it so right why have they failed to get elected on their own for 110 years? You don’t say why. No one who has replied has.

    At least I am trying to inject new thought into the process and no, I am not making it up as I go along. But I agree there is more than one way to progress and what I am trying not to do is to dictate what such a system would look like, only at this stage to making suggestions. If I were dictating the model I would be behaving in a similar manner to those that I am criticising.

    UKIP listened to public concerns over EU membership and formed, albeit, a somewhat restricted policy program, which led them from almost a standing start to overtake the Lib Dems at the last election. And you say that there is no hope for consensus politics, that the public will not engage as it has no appeal? I put it to you that the evidence does not back you up.

  • If this dialog is only going to continue on a negative point scoring basis, there is no point in continuing. If however there it is going to lead to a more constructive ‘lets explore this idea a little further and put more flesh on the bones’ then it is worth the effort. But I put this to you. Not doing anything will only lead us one way. The choice is yours.

  • Sue Sutherland 10th May '16 - 1:10pm

    I thought this was an interesting article because I believe that our party needs to practise less top down and more bottom up decision making. I like the thought that the public can suggest policies themselves and present them to parliament, that would be a petition which is what is happening at the moment to some extent. At present parliament can debate such petitions but under Geoff’s system I suppose the civil servants would have to explore what was involved and come up with ideas for how it would work. This is what would happen with party policies anyway.
    The present government is in a mess precisely because it has adopted unacceptable policies and is now back tracking on academies and to some extent on junior doctors contracts. I’m pretty certain neither of those ideas would have found favour if they had been put to a referendum.
    About 30years ago the Lib Dems in Bath proposed that local people could petition the Council and speak to us directly on the issue. The Tories put forward similar arguments to the ones above but Labour voted with us and we won. The moon didn’t fall out of the sky.
    It’s difficult to have a brain storming session here on LDV but this is what the party needs to do to carry on with the fightback by coming up with fresh ideas for a Lib Dem government. You have my admiration, Geoff, for your own personal fightback against your critics.

  • Matt (Bristol) 10th May '16 - 3:41pm

    Geoff, you have some good points about the sense of isolation from the decision-making process; I think what this could amount to is re-thinking why we are pushing for electoral reform and what impact we expect it to have, and the language we are using to describe it.

    But this is not what you argue for in the piece above, where you seem to be proposing a sweeping alternative to everything we have done in the past, and critique (as you have continued to do so in the thread, in among making more good points) others as cowardly dinosaurs trapped in the past and hanging on to their own personal power. This is not how to start a conversation about an untried and half-articulated development of policy, sorry.

    Where you are being less confrontational and more evidenced, you have, however, piqued my interest, against my initial scepticism. But again, I say, this is not a unique game-changer that no-one else has thought of, and please do not pretend so.

  • Sue: Thank you for your comments. This is exactly the type of response that I was hoping to generate.

    Matt: You still seem to be stuck in point scoring mode. You really need to snap out of it and get more into the constructive analytical discussion mode that you have shown glimpses of. Do that and we can all start to get somewhere and move on.

    To all members of the Lib Dems and especially at this stage the readers of Lib Dem Voice I would say this. We have not held sole power since 1906. No one above had even attempted to relate to that fact. Our party as can be seen from some of the above comments would appear on the face of it to be stuck in the Victorian era. Opening up the political system and inviting in the public to take on a far more active role would offer us a unique opportunity to take the wind out of the sails of pressure group political parties. Come on let’s have more of the open type of thinking that Sue Sutherland has shown. Constructive criticism welcome especially on how to get a review group to explore the pro’s and con’s and if found favorable move this on. Please note. I did not pre-empt the outcome of any such study. Thanks.

  • Matt (Bristol) 11th May '16 - 9:50am

    Geoff, I think my main beef is with the language and tone in which you present your ideas, rather than with the overarching concept you are trying to open up, where I can see that (some of) of its possible applications are compatible with the party’s instincts and heritage and could be incorporated into future directions of travel. But I do think other parties are trying to claim this territory for themselves, too – on right and left. There is no Liberal ‘freehold’ to this concept.

    I will say no more for now – regard me as wavering between being a semi-sympathetic sceptic and critical friend, of your project.

  • A number of commenters have asked for details of what I am proposing. I am therefore preparing a more detailed explanation that will hopefully provide the answers. Due to the length of the article, I estimate at some 2,000 words at this time, Lib Dem Voice have very kindly agreed to allow me to send it in and I will provide a link to it. Hopefully it will then be clear that what I am proposing is a way to get to a system that is far more aligned to public wishes rather than the specific end system itself. That will take far more work but I am convinced it will be worth it.

  • As requested I have submitted a more detailed explanation of the concept of Public Democracy to Lib Dem Voice and will provide a link to the article once received.

  • A number of responses above requested more information. Please see under ‘Update’ above, ‘a background paper’ which outlines a possible format for a ‘Public Democracy’. I would suggest that this is worth exploring further. Constructive comments are most welcome.

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