Tuesday, September 20, 2011

 

A New Purpose for Politics? Is It Bollocks (#LibDemValues 2.1)

An unexpectedly exciting afternoon at Liberal Democrat Conference has just seen a major policy paper – after more than two years’ development, the sort usually nodded through – nearly thrown out altogether. And what a shame it was only “nearly”. After decades of debating whether the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ philosophy is freedom, fairness, or sustainability, the Policy Committee tried suddenly to bounce the party into saying it’s “Wellbeing”. Yes, you’re right – that is complete bollocks. And I’m hugely proud of Richard, who today made his first ever full Conference speech, standing up for Liberalism against incoherent mush.

No-one expected a near-revolution against Liberal Democrat Policy Paper 102 – A New Purpose for Politics: Quality of Life. Richard and I thought it was just us. Perhaps if more of us had realised how little support it had, we might have organised a proper rebellion. It’s the first time in the Party’s history that a policy paper has nearly been defeated simply through a spontaneous uprising: it’s difficult enough to defeat the bland might of the policymaking machine, and it’s only ever happened before with co-ordinated planning (an ability which the party establishment belatedly demonstrated by ferrying people who’d heard none of the debate into the hall just in time for the vote).

There were three outstanding speeches against the policy paper: Jill Hope’s appeal that we should be talking about real economic issues; Richard’s storming passion for real Liberal principles and not just being fuzzily “nice”; and Christina Baron’s lethally funny evisceration of the paper’s new centralised National Institute of, or perhaps for, Wellbeing. In favour, Simon Hughes MP was wheeled out to considerable effect; former Alliance Party Leader John Alderdice was erudite; and the Federal Policy Committee’s Jeremy Hargreaves gave a fine summation speech (though less than entirely convincing with his rearguard claim that the National Institute of, or perhaps for, Wellbeing could both be petite and provide information tailored to sixty million people). The wooden spoon went to David Hall-Matthews for meanly trying to make Liberalism smaller and more exclusive, and trying to put lipstick on a pig with the claim that merely calling a top-down government directive freedom of choice makes it so.

Core Values Need More Than Wafer-Thin Support

In the event, the vote had to be counted – with a paper styling itself the party’s “New Purpose” carried by just 158 votes to 122, 56% to 43%. This is not a unifying theme. The question now has to be – will the Policy Committee listen to the opposition to their new ‘big idea’ and quietly move it to the back shelf, or carry on trying to claim that the party now stands for a piece of marketing mush that splits us down the middle?

If you didn’t see the debate today, it’ll soon be available part-way into BBC Parliament’s ‘From 2.30pm’ coverage on the iPlayer.

Update: Richard’s speech is now here for the next few days, 1.55 in.

And here’s a bonus – nothing could have thrilled me more than Richard finally getting called to speak and being so brilliant. But what could have thrilled me almost as much was if I’d been called to speak, too! So here, below, is the speech I would have given if I’d been given the chance (and a little bit more, having cut it down for time). I’d intended to expose the paper’s illiberal philosophy, and attack its dangerous demand to dominate our next General Election Manifesto. You can judge for yourself just exactly why the self-styled A New Purpose for Politics is such a wrong turning.

What Do the Liberal Democrats Stand For?

What do the Liberal Democrats stand for? What makes us different? What makes us bother? One word, one idea, one passion? Hold that thought.

This paper is fluffy, well-meaning and thoroughly forgettable. Who could disagree with “wellbeing”? And who could disagree with many of the individual ideas in the paper – mostly those that are our policy already? Even have to admit that bits of this are fluffy and inoffensive and even mildly attractive, particularly when it seeks to go beyond only economic advancement.

But there are three big questions to ask about the central theme.

Who will it appeal to? Who does it boss around? And does it work as our “New Purpose,” our big idea?

Feeble Appeal

Of all the many, many attempts at setting out our big idea, this paper is the most well-meaning, the most wishy-washy, and the least likely to inspire anyone that we’ve come up with so far. “Wellbeing” is something that a lot of people quite like – but that no-one would go to the stake for.

Who will so passionately agree with this that they’d swing over to us? Do we really expect anyone to hear this message and say, ‘Wow, that’s it, you’ve got it, that’s for me?’

It’s technocratic, not passionate – In Government, In the Minutiae.

Surely a crucial test of any political idea’s distinctiveness and passion is to ask, who would disagree with this? The other parties won’t. It’s a bit Big Society – and a lot Blairite. So it’s not just foolishly rebranding us as a tiny niche market, but one where we’re not the only people in the niche.

It sounds like we’re becoming the political wing of Waitrose. Now, don’t get me wrong – some of their stuff is nice, when you can afford it, but they have a 4% market share. Even after another four years in government, I hope we’ll aspire to be doing better than 4%.

Bossy Blairism

I’m very ill, very much of the time. I could do with a bit more wellbeing. But I don’t see a word in this paper that’s going to help me with that.

Instead, we get the Blairite bossiness of a ton of new “mechanisms”. A great big new National Institute of Wellbeing, probably headed by Tessa Jowell. Even more added to the National Curriculum, even though we claim we want to slim it down. Making “Wellbeing” a job in Cabinet, and even in the European Commission. A Wellbeing Index of large organisations. Statutory Wellbeing Plans and impact assessments. And a vast array of new Wellbeing Boards in every local area! Oh, god. It’s like New Labour never died.

The paper bleats defensively that it’s not for government to set targets… But that we should require business to collate many types of “Wellbeing” information, painstakingly, expensively, so that we can report on the targets that don’t exist. Have you ever heard a more ludicrous caricature of a Liberal? If you’re in favour of big government, you demand acres of data so you can use it to boss everyone around. If you’re against big government, you oppose the database state that intrudes into your business. But if you’re one of the people writing this paper, you want to gather every bit of information – so that government can maybe shake its head and tut a bit. Intrusive, expensive, bureaucratic – and pointless, too.

And it’s not just about the intrusive, expensive bureaucracy, but the tone throughout of telling people what’s good for them. Right up front, Line 5 of the motion tells us all – everyone in Britain, perhaps everyone in Europe – what we really all think. Well, thanks for that, but I’d rather make up my own mind. Liberal Democrats don’t say we know best – because everyone’s best is different.

I think that all this Blairism must have worried some of the people on the working group, too, because the motion gets its excuses in first, the introduction paying lip service to our core values of freedom but the rest of it pulling away in a completely contradictory direction. The two aims are mutually exclusive. You simply can’t say that people can all find their own way – then build huge new institutions through which the government will be dedicated to holding the rest of us to its decree of the good life. Even the resort to spin seems Blairite: sticking an article of Liberal faith on the door of a massive new state bureaucracy doesn’t make it small and Liberal.

Big Idea or Big Mistake?

I wouldn’t mind so much if this was a small-scale paper about small-scale solutions, as it should have been. But it isn’t.

It sets itself up as the single most important thing we have to say. It wants a guaranteed place on every page of our next Manifesto. It says absolutely clearly that whatever it means by “quality of life”
“should now become the central goal for public policy.”
Such high ambition means this paper must be held to much higher standards. Because if we get something this big this wrong it will be a catastrophe for us.

Big bureaucracy? Big ambition? Big idea? Big mistake.

This sets itself up as a giant, when Liberalism is about cutting giants down to size.

It tries to shoehorn in so much, from mental health to mutuals – excellent aims – to the arts, to special awards for communities, to… education about advertising?! But all that just underlines its failure as a ‘big idea’ to underpin everything we stand for with the gaping holes still left in policy and real life that this has nothing to say about.

We’ve had a “Green Thread” in every section of our Manifesto for the last four General Elections, marking that as vital to what we stand for. We tried a “Freedom Thread” too, and that only lasted for one! Do we really want to make something as fuzzy and forgettable as “Wellbeing” our “central goal” instead?

Well, it can’t do any harm, you might be thinking.

It can – if it’s government yet again telling people how to live.

And it can – if in putting this fuzzy, feel-good, do-good mirage on a pedestal, it replaces what the Liberal Democrats are really about.

We Don’t Need A “New Purpose”

I asked you to think of one word, one idea, one passion that the Liberal Democrats stand for.

It wasn’t “Wellbeing” for very many of you, was it?

We do not need a “New Purpose”.

Our purpose is freedom, fairness and the green agenda. Our purpose is to give people the power to make their own lives, in freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity, those of us here today and in future generations.

If we keep changing our minds about what we stand for, no wonder no-one else knows.

This paper tells people we suddenly stand for something different – when we don’t – and tells the public what they want – when individuals should decide that, not the government.

We do not, suddenly, have “A New Purpose For Politics” to decide and determine the outcome of people’s lives for them. This “New Purpose” isn’t new – unless it’s New Labour. It’s too big and bossy for the complex, messy, diversity that makes up real people’s lives; it’s too small and dogmatic an idea when set against freedom. And it just isn’t us. Vote against this motion.

As I continue writing my series exploring what the Lib Dems stand for, one very clear answer came out of today’s debate: ‘Not this’.


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Comments:
Good post and good speech - glad you posted it even though you didn't get to speak it.

We stand for the environment.

Fairness - yes but anyone can say that. Who is going to say they don't agree to fairness.

Freedom - yes. Freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity - absolutely.

I think we stand for something else though. I haven't been able to work out a concise way of saying this but our approach to everything is based on game theory. (game theory states that the best decision comes from what's in our own self-interest and the best interests of the group as a whole)

Liberal Democrats believe in the pursuit of self-interest as long as it benefits the group as a whole as well.

Thats not the best way to phrase it. Its not the best elevator sell. It is fundamental to our core values though.
 
*applause*
 
Thank you very much! And you may have identified some of the problem with the one word on which we based our last General Election campaign...

And 'enlightened self-interest', perhaps? Or, in the '90s, we used to say something like 'Freedom for every individual, for the common good'.

No, that wasn't very catchy, either.

And Ms Mortimer! Ahh, thank you. I needed that. Now be sparing with it, or I'll turn up on your doorstep and demand to use your platform.
 
Right, am definitely coming to Brighton 2012 now, if only for the innuendo.

On which note, word recognition = fantert. Which is nearly rude in any number of childish ways.
 
Alex: word. Brilliant post and I wish you'd given your speech

Alix: "am definitely coming to Brighton 2012 now"? YAY!!!!!
 
The more I hear about this policy, the more I think it's a spectacularly bad idea, and so New Labour that I'm surprised the National Institute of, or perhaps for, Wellbeing hasn't appeared in an episode of The Thick Of It. (Perhaps it lost out to Fourth Sector Pathfinders)

It just stinks of the horrible 'we know what's best for you, and you're going to get it good and hard' that I thought we were moving away from. I can imagine Greens getting very excited about ideas like this, and even Tories probably would if you renamed it something like the British Institute of Britishness and measured the number of cucumber sandwiches eaten on top of everything else. But this is the sort of thing that liberals should be against, not proposing and I hope it wanders away to some dark corner, never to be seen again.

However, I fear that David Cameron will now name Clegg the Cabinet's 'Wellbeing Champion' and certain people will get far too excited about calculating how that effects the percentage of Lib Dem policy enacted to notice it's yet another punchline.
 
I have a somewhat biased view of this paper given that I was part of the working group - but I'll post anyway.
The point of the paper is to undermine the current purpose of politics, which is the focus on improving monetary income. The wellbeing idea will certainly be taken up by New Labour types, but as the paper says, their bossy approach will be self defeating. Which is why it is so important to spell out a liberal approach.
The speeches against were excellently delivered, but almost devoid of intellectual content. There were some excellent speeches in favour, such as that from Lord Alderdice, with a lot more meat in them.
 
Thanks, Alix and Jennie!

And thank you, Nick; I think you hit it absolutely on the noggin. Unfortunately.

Matthew, thank you for responding, though it’s a shame that your response – which tells me what’s good for me, while completely failing to engage with a single one of my arguments – proves that you were indeed part of the working group responsible for that paper; not so much a Thinking Liberal as a Sneering one.

The first part of your reply was interesting, when you sum up the intended purpose of the paper in one punchy sentence – “to undermine the current purpose of politics” – which the paper itself and all the speakers in its favour, even Lord Alderdice (who I praised, but whose speech I’ve watched again and was hardly an intellectual tour de force; his main point is to claim that the paper mounts an intellectual challenge, but claiming does not make it so), utterly fail to make.

The second and third parts, where you claim – again, without making it so – that this is Liberal rather than bossy, then sneer at the speeches against as “devoid of intellectual content”, don’t do you any favours. Though, as I’ve already said, they reflect exactly the ‘we know best – now do as you’re told’ attitude found throughout the paper. Even though a four-minute speech is a difficult place to mount a detailed intellectual critique of a 14,000 word paper, Richard’s speech (to which I’ve linked above) certainly made an impressive philosophical case against which you’ve made no attempt to rebut. Similarly, I’ve made a case above which I may as well not have written for all the attention you’ve paid it, with an added argument as to why the paper isn’t the heart of what we stand for – which, again, you’ve clearly found either inconvenient or impossible to refute, as you pretend it’s not there, either.

Matthew, if you want to convince people that your case is not a bossy New Labour one, coming to a detailed argument which sets out – with references to your own paper and motion – exactly how bossy and New Labour it is, then leaving a message which effectively says ‘I’ve not read any of your arguments but I’m right and you’re wrong anyway; I’m ignoring the evidence but I’m an intellectual and none of the rest of you are; and in the absence of any ability to refute your arguments or argue in favour of mine, I will bossily state my tendentious and disproven opinions as fact while arguing from authority as a member of the working group’… Well, how about you think for more than five minutes and see if you can work out for yourself with your self-styled gigantic intellect why that’s not going to change anyone’s minds?

I’m happy for anyone to come along and engage with my case and try to prove me wrong. But come along with your nose in the air, ignore everything anyone else outside your magic circle has said and pronounce ‘facts’ ex cathedra, and you deserve to be laughed at.
 
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