Sunday, March 03, 2013

 

Happy 25th Birthday, Liberal Democrats – and What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.1

The Liberal Democrats were founded twenty-five years ago today. It’s a relief that the party’s just had such an impressive present to celebrate (if you can call the result of such hard work a present). But winning elections isn’t the only thing that matters – I joined that month in 1988, and like most Lib Dems, if all I wanted was to win I’d never have chosen this party. So, especially now we’re sharing power, it’s important to assert our values. What makes us different, and makes us stay? How does that join up to what we’re doing in government? And how can we best express it in language that feels natural to us and anyone listening to us?


What the Lib Dems Stand For – 2006 Version

I don’t think every Lib Dem should say the same thing all the time – as if we could. It’s helpful, though, to communicate some of the same ideas and some of the same words, and for those who aren’t fussed enough to think through and distil our philosophy, but want one handy if they need it, here’s my contribution from half a dozen years ago:
The Liberal Democrats stand for freedom for every individual – freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity.

Everyone should have the liberty to live their lives as they choose, without harming others.

For freedom to be real for everyone, it needs fairness: equality before the law, with public services funded fairly and the people they affect trusted to control them.

Freedom comes from good education, so people can make their own choices and realise their potential.

Freedom needs good health, which must be safeguarded by a decent environment both for people today and for future generations.

A free democracy needs open decisions, with as many people as possible having a say. Governments must trust the people before people will trust them.

To build freedom, fairness and a green future, we must pool our efforts in effective communities, locally, nationally and internationally.

That’s the important bit – my go at summing up the party’s soul, if you like, something that Lib Dems members can look at and think, ‘Yes, that’s some of why we bother’, and that other people can look at and think, ‘Oh, that’s what the Lib Dems are for, and I like it’.

If you read down, you’ll see how I came to it, how I made use of it, and why you should come back tomorrow and read my follow-up – because it needs a rewrite, not least because Lib Dems are now in government and because of the work on the new ‘core message’ under Nick Clegg and Ryan Coetzee: not changing the principles, but showing why they’re still relevant. It’s easy, in government, to get stuck in the mechanics and lose sight of why we’re doing it, and as policies change to reflect changes in real life, it’s all the more reason to plant a clear image of the sort of party we are, to inspire people to stick with us through thick and thin.


The Liberal Democrats’ 25th Anniversary and Our Founding Principles

I last wrote to celebrate the Lib Dems’ birthday when we turned twenty, talking more about my experience of what had enthused and supported me over the years (and how, early on, we were at 4% in the polls, near-bankrupt and coming a very distant fourth in elections, with no-one knowing what our name was, including us – all without being in government). Quite a bit’s changed since then. But one of the things I think I can help with today is joining up our lasting philosophy with the party in action, today.

Julian Huppert MP has a similar thought – he’s written today about “The Preamble, 25 Years On”. That’s the Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution – a long statement of beliefs and policies that theoretically underpin the party as a whole. It’s usually reduced down to its most famous passage (40 words out of 800), quoted on every Lib Dem membership card, which doesn’t convey everything but which encapsulates the heart of our philosophy for many of us:
“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”
You can see, by comparing the two passages, how this excerpt from the Preamble has inspired my own statement of ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’, but how I’ve also aimed to relate it to our policy priorities and how best to deliver those principles in practice. Some people respond to ideals, but others more to practical proposals – and that’s why we need to get across both. More, we need to show how each depends on the other.

So why are we so bad at doing that?


Why Bother Saying What the Lib Dems Stand For? And How Did I Go About It?

It’s immensely frustrating that of all the strong, clear, often excellent messages Lib Dems put out at so many levels – on local issues, on policy after detailed policy, and now struggling towards what we’re achieving in the LiberaTory Coalition – the one thing that we’ve never paid much attention to, and that even some Manifestos have left out, is what links it all together. Not everyone’s only interested in single issues, but inspired by a wider vision – and because unforeseen events always force parties to react without warning, doesn’t it make sense to give people an impression of your general philosophy, so they can be confident about what sort of reactions you’ll make?

I remember the clarity of our 1997 General Election campaign: that with Labour set on sticking to the Tories’ public spending plans, only the Lib Dems would make a real difference. Standing for Parliament for the first time, I campaigned hard on the investment in schools and hospitals that only we were committed to. But even then, I was dissatisfied with increased public spending (even saying how we’d pay for it) being our only message, and knew that if Labour did increase taxes (or, as it turned out, mostly mortgaged the future instead with massive, irresponsible borrowing even in a boom) and delivered on public services, which they eventually did, or if Labour sent the economy totally pear-shaped, which they eventually did, that message just wouldn’t cut it.

Though Liberalism provides a far more coherent and consistent philosophy for the Lib Dems than whatever shifting melanges animate other parties, it can be a hard task to sum it up, in detail or in brief – and I have to admit my series of in-depth ‘What the Liberal Democrats Stand For’ posts on this blog has mostly gone unwritten or in fits and starts, and I’ve not even finished republishing my original 1999 Love and Liberty pamphlet on here. What I did buckle down to communicating, though, was not the grand vision but the short story.

Sometime between the 1997 and 2001 General Elections, I decided to come up with something that summed up both what we stood for and how that explained our current priorities. Something that wouldn’t be wiped out by economic circumstances, or that by contrasts to other parties that meant ‘our core message’ would have to change when they did. Something that satisfied me – and, I hoped, other people. I aimed for about 150 words, in reasonably approachable language – something that didn’t just sound like a stretch from a textbook or a policy paper. Every year or two through most of the 2000s, I’d take another look at it and slightly update it to incorporate the party’s latest policy priorities or slogans, so that it flowed from our philosophy to the party’s current message and helped make sense of both.


When Would You Say What the Lib Dems Stand For?

At only about 150 words, my ‘What the Liberal Democrats Stand For’ was long enough to tell something of a narrative to follow, and short enough to use in all sorts of ways and places. Here are some of them:

One thing all my versions of this statement did was be positive. From the start, I made a definite decision not to put anything in it about Labour or the Tories – even though it’s much easier to define ideas by contrast, and even though it’s always fun for partisan politicians (and I am one) to knock the opposition. But there were three very good reasons I banned myself from falling back on the easy way. First, this is about us. We’ve got a clear, strong, Liberal identity – so no statement of values should just split the difference between other parties and have to be rewritten not if we change, but if they do. Second, it puts people off. It can be very satisfying within your own tribe to slag off your opponents… But people wavering between your lot and another understandably recoil if you tell them one of their possible choices is evil, and I laugh when the only message one of the other parties can offer at elections is ‘We’re rubbish, but they’re worse!’ I want to have something positive to say instead. And third – this is meant to be a short, simple summary of what we stand for, which has already got quite enough to cram in to very few words. Why give space in that to your opponents?

My health has gone downhill more sharply than ever over the past half-dozen years, so I’ve not been standing for any elections, making fewer speeches, and – writing longer articles mostly in the same place that it would be silly to repeat the same message in every time – haven’t been updating my 150 words during that time.

The last time I remember doing so was in 2006, which is the version I’ve published above. Our three campaigning priorities had been Education, the Environment and Health (see each of them in there); our three key words from the previous year’s Manifesto had been Freedom, Fairness and Trust (a word against which, even then, I’d argued against as a ‘Kick me’ sign, so look above for how warily I used it); and I was kicking against what was supposedly the new agenda for that Parliament. I felt an acute sense of frustration bordering on rage at an unforgivably dull policy paper that was meant to set out our aims and priorities – every word of it now long-since forgotten, an utterly missed opportunity to be the lasting rallying cry it should have been. Even at the time, it was barely noticed. I analysed that paper in detail for the newly created Lib Dem Voice, including my alternative ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’, that latest version limited to 140 words not in anticipation of the creation of Twitter but because that happened to be the length of the piss-poor excuse for a statement of principles at the start of the paper, and I wanted to make a direct challenge to it, and to spur anyone else to see if they could do better. I also made an unkind speech taking the piss out of the paper to the mostly empty hall that summed up the enthusiasm the paper had generated; eventually, it went through by a large majority cast by all the people who’d filled in at the end for the more interesting next item on the agenda, but this Pyrrhic victory for the empty managerialists who’d written it was soon forgotten, just as most of those voting barely heard a word of the debate even at the time.

The next time that a major paper made any such attempt was 2009. It did so far more coherently in its detail and setting out our priorities, but was even worse in its philosophy: as I wrote in another fisking for Lib Dem Voice, it didn’t even have a piss-poor summary of what we stand for, instead referring to certainty about our values and being guided by them without ever stating what they are, making it the first completely value-free statement of values. I stood up and told Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander that I was deeply worried when they’d written a draft Manifesto in our name that stopped talking about “Freedom” and replaced it with “Safety” and “Strength”. You can watch my speech in which I pointed out just who that sounded like (you might think ironically, in hindsight). And, afterwards, I was told I had a point, and they’d listened, and the real Manifesto would be better – and it was, a bit, though I might have hoped that when it came to the first Manifesto since 1992 that I hadn’t been on the Policy Committee to write bits of it, I wouldn’t be proved to be the only member of the FPC who remembered to put in a little thing like “Freedom”. But ever since, that word’s been lost in the focus groups, and the concept too often lost in practice. So it’s definitely time.


Where Next? For Tomorrow

My ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’ needs updating. It needs to show how we still stand for the same Liberalism – but how it relates to the current ‘core message’, and how it inspires our approach in government. It needs all three to answer the question ‘What are we about?’ Without being recognisably the same Liberal philosophy we’ve always stood for, why did we bother all these years? Without relating it to the message the national party’s putting out, how’s it going to catch on? Without relating it to what we’re doing in power, why listen, in the real world? I don’t believe in ‘Campaign in poetry, govern in prose’, which is just a fancy way of ducking the question.

That’s why I’ve been making a few attempts, in the last few weeks, at the biggest overhaul of my 150-or-so-word ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’ since I first wrote it – because I believe it needs to do several things at once, and several more than it’s done before. And my first bash at it (as I knew even before I sent it to some of the Lib Dems I most trust, who shook their heads) was an ugly mash-up and just didn’t work. I don’t think I’ve got it right yet – but my latest version’s good enough to risk publishing.

So, please come back tomorrow, where I’ll set out my latest attempt at ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’, and challenge you not only to tell me what’s good and bad about it, whether it inspires or irritates you, and, most importantly, challenge you to do better.

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Comments:
The first thing I read that really made me understand why I was a Liberal Democrat was your Love and Liberty pamphlet. I have a vague recollection that you had it with you at a LDYS exec meeting and I took it home and read it.

Until that point, although I'd always felt I was a Lib Dem and had been a party member for about 3-4 years I'd never really thought about why. I just knew that I was. Love and Liberty helped me think more about that.

So thank you, and I'm glad you've come back to the theme of expressing what the party stands for again.
 
Thank you, Anders. That's cheered me up more than anything I've read all week!

I'd be interested in reading your version, too. But in the meantime, I've very grateful to you for plastering an unexpected grin on my face.
 
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