Tuesday, September 10, 2013
What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.5 – Why I Am A Liberal Democrat #LibDemValues
Another Liberal Democrat Conference starts this weekend, and once again I’m looking at What the Lib Dems Stand For. Before this Spring’s Conference, I published a series of articles challenging us to combine our principles, our priorities in government, and our Leadership’s message to tell other people we’re about and inspire ourselves to be enthusiastic about it. Tomorrow I’ll be publishing some more ideas of what we stand for written by other Lib Dems. Today, it’s something more personal: how did I get here? Why did I become a Lib Dem in the first place? And why do I stay?
If you scroll down below, you’ll find my short rallying cry designed for anyone to use – please borrow mine and use it yourself. Or, ideally if you’re quick, you can send me your own version. But as I’ve prepared to print the next round-up of other contributors’ ideas, I’ve noticed how much more personal many of theirs are, and I’ve been reminded what I said the last time I published that sort of compilation: that one day I’d have to challenge myself to be less on-message and consensual, and say what my Liberalism is by instinct, speaking straight from my head, my heart and my life.
There are lots of passions that make me tick, and lots of experiences that have formed my life and my Liberalism. Sometimes I’d think more of the quirkier elements (not least, Doctor Who), sometimes more of my family or friends. Today’s personal testament looks for the explicitly Liberal line through my life.
My Political Story – Why I Am A Liberal Democrat
My first political memories are of shouting at bullies. I didn’t think of this as political until a long time later, but that’s what it was . With the fearlessness of the very young, I saw much bigger boys being mean and thought it wasn’t fair, and told them so. I didn’t do it often, but it stuck in my head because it seemed to be the right thing to do, standing up for the underdog. Luckily, a small boy shouting at them seemed to shame them rather than get my head kicked in.
I was less brave when I got into my teens and was bullied myself. It’s a quirk of my personality that finding the drive to stand up for someone else has always been far easier than defending myself alone: under personal attack, I tend to crumble into depression and want to hide. What forced me to be braver and brought back that burning desire to stop unfairness was realising I was gay. It was the 1980s, and I didn’t know anyone that was gay – or so I thought at the time. All I knew is that everything about society told me I was wrong and seemed to hate me for something that was simply me. Pretty soon I decided there was nothing wrong with me at all, and that it was the world that had to change, so I came out early and uncompromisingly. I wanted it to get better, for everyone I knew to know at least one gay person, for me never to hide – and I never have for nearly a quarter of a century, from workplace to election, from embrace to rejection. I might have got involved in politics anyway, but that decision made it essential.
At the same time, politics in the 1980s just seemed nasty. Labour had wrecked the economy; the Tories were building back bits of it so it was all right for some, but left a lot of other people on the scrapheap of massive unemployment. And it wasn’t just that both sides seemed like they were only interested in ‘their’ people – they always seemed to me that they just hated the other side, too, and class hate sickened me as much as racism or what I didn’t know yet was called homophobia. It probably helped that I had an American Catholic Mum and a Scottish Baptist Dad, so I’d always understood that people with different beliefs, different ‘tribes’, even different countries, not only could get on but really had to.
Those two feelings came together in a firm belief that with all the division in society, a political party should be for everyone, not hating half the people all the time – or even hating other countries – and that with what I was experiencing personally, everyone should have the freedom to live their own life, too. And that naturally led me to the Liberal Democrats, who were not just appealingly internationalist but, to their core, the only party saying that society should be for everyone, and that every individual should be free .
I didn’t have a political background, I didn’t have money, I didn’t have anyone pushing me to get involved. I just felt that I wanted to change the world, and that if everyone just sat around and waited for someone else to do it, it would never get done. So I joined the Lib Dems, and I did everything I could from delivering leaflets to eventually standing for Parliament. And even though when I first threw myself into campaigning for the Lib Dems we were on 4% in the opinion polls, I knew this was the only party that was offering real change, however long it took – why join another party to campaign for things to stay the same? And I kept campaigning for things to change within the Lib Dems, too. It was often an uphill struggle to get heard, and I made plenty of mistakes, but determination and ideas won me influence. Where I often felt I was having the most impact was when I was elected over many years to the party’s Policy Committee. In part, that was writing individual policies that formed part of several election Manifestos, and knowing in particular that I’d contributed to pushing equal treatment, respect and opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people a bit further every time. But, for me, it wasn’t just the issues that really grabbed me, but the ideas.
I learned how to put my gut instincts into philosophy, and realised I’d been a Liberal all along. That Liberalism meant that if you start with every individual, you can’t put any person on the scrapheap or hate them for who they are. That the founding principles of Liberalism over the centuries of individual freedom, equality before the law and controlling arbitrary power were living, breathing, vital ideas that I’d discovered for myself in the desire to choose my own life, my belief that everyone should be treated the same, even as a little boy knowing that you had to stand up to bullies. It was Conrad Russell (a Liberal Democrat I got to know through the Policy Committee who became a friend and even a mentor) who said the point of Liberalism was to stand up for everyone against bullies, and that just lit up a lightbulb over my head. Suddenly, I could see that Liberal line through my life. It’s not just that a party owned by one group of special interests can never be fair – that it inevitably discriminates against the rest and divides society. It’s that part of not favouring any one ‘side’ is realising that anyone can be a bully, or can be bullied – or, in philosophical terms, any sort of power can threaten liberty, but any sort of power can protect it, too. Whether it’s the state, or big business or big unions, or just other people, any of them can boss you around and anyone can help stop you being bossed around. So you can’t do away with any of them – and you can’t say any of them are right all the time, or be in their pockets. Which means aiming to create The Perfect Society will always be a disaster, but working at making a better society means there’s always more real life to be listened to and more work to be done.
That’s why for me saying what we stand for is more important than any single policy. It’s important because unless we keep sight of why we bother, there’s nothing to inspire us. And it’s important to remember that we’re for everyone, that everyone should be free to live their own lives, and so we’re here to bring everyone together, as far as we can, and to stop people being pushed around, as far as we can.
So when, sometimes, being in government is frustrating or disappointing, and it is, because there’s not enough money to do what we want to do or because the Tories we’re in government with have different priorities, I can see that Liberal line of what we’re getting right, and why we’re doing it. No Lib Dem joins just to get into power. We do it to make a difference. It took perseverance for me inside the Lib Dems, but it took the whole party a whole lot more hard work and struggle to go from 4% in the polls to more than double our number of MPs and win a place in government – not the easy way, and not to do the easy things. No wonder Liberal Democrats take a long term approach on the importance of education to unlock people’s potential, and the environment to lock in fairness for the future – we had to work at it for a long time, so we’ve never gone for quick fixes. I’m deeply proud that this government’s the one that legislated for mostly equal marriage at last, but it’s the bigger ideas that matter still more. Worse than the 1980s, Labour had wrecked the economy again. But despite the damage being deeper and longer than it was when I was growing up, while unemployment is still too high it’s much, much lower than in the 1980s, now that Liberal Democrats are in government and not just the Tories. From apprenticeships to green jobs to tackling the banks, it’s not just rebuilding the economy as ‘all right for some’, but putting it back together differently. You need economic responsibility to make things work – but without fairness, too, society falls apart.
I think the government would be better if it was all Lib Dem and we could do more of what we wanted to do. Well, I would say that. But it’s also good to prove that people with different beliefs, different ‘tribes’, can make it work together as well. I look at the difference we’ve made, not just since the government was elected but compared to the 1980s when I grew up, and I’m proud of how we’ve changed things for the better: unemployment that much lower than the Tories ever cared about before the Lib Dems entered government, taxes for ordinary people that much lower with the Lib Dems while the wealthiest pay more than they did under Labour, green growth and protecting education so that the economy and opportunities will last into the future. I’m proud – but I’m not satisfied. I still want to change the world. But I can see how Liberal Democrats are doing just that, more slowly than I’d like and with a few wrong turns, but we’re still the only party that says society should be for everyone, and that every individual should be free.
The way the party sums that up now is that the Liberal Democrats are building a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life. Freedom. Fairness. Being for everyone. I find myself nodding, because the Liberal Democrats are still saying what made me join all those years ago, only now they’re putting a bit – a fair bit – of it into practice.
 I had a long conversation about my politics with my Grandma when I was in my twenties. She nodded, and said she could see I’d be political when – and this is one I’d not remembered – I was aged four and strutting about naked on a beach and told a big boy off for kicking down another boy’s sandcastle. I said she was probably right (though I bottled out of adding, ‘And obviously that’s why I’m a naturist now, too’).
 If you’ve ever wondered where my blog title “Love and Liberty” comes from, it’s my original two gut instincts distilled into three words. You can read the annotated version of most of my 1999 booklet “Love and Liberty” online too, where my concept of Liberalism is re-expanded into many, many more words.
The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge (so far)
If you’re quick, you can send me your own idea by tomorrow. Or just feel free to borrow mine and use it yourself (I’d prefer it if you let me know, but it’s not compulsory. Think of it as open-source Liberalism). The idea’s an ongoing investigation, collaboration and rallying cry about what the Liberal Democrats stand for, to challenge myself, first, then other Lib Dems to get across what we stand for in something more meaningful than a soundbite but still short enough to be no more than a minute’s speech or a box on a Focus leaflet. And to make things harder, I aimed for broad consensus by synthesising the Preamble to the Lib Dem Constitution, the party’s priorities in government and the party leadership’s latest messaging. Did it work? Here’s my go at that:
The Liberal Democrats stand for freedom for every individual – freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity.
To make that freedom real needs both fairness and economic responsibility: an economy that works, that encourages enterprise, and where everyone pays their fair share.
So freedom from poverty requires responsible spending, not debt, built on fairer taxes where lower earners pay less tax and the wealthiest pay more, and building green jobs for the future.
Freedom from ignorance needs better education and training, so people have the opportunity to realise their potential.
And freedom from conformity, supported by freedom from poverty and ignorance, means everyone should have the liberty to live their lives as they choose – without harming others; with equality before the law; with a better say, because no government always knows best.
That’s why Liberal Democrats are working for a stronger, greener economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.
Happy 25th Birthday, Liberal Democrats – and What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.1
Why we should sum up What the Lib Dems Stand For, and how it’s developed over the years.
What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.2 – a Challenge and a Meme #LibDemValues
Setting out my ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’ based on the Preamble, practice and core messaging, and challenging other Lib Dems to come up with their own.
The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge 2013.3 – Eight Answers (so far) #LibDemValues
After receiving the first set of responses, rounding up eight different Liberal Democrats’ versions of what we stand for – so far…
The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge 2013.4 – What It’s All About #LibDemValues
Inviting people to use my short declaration of ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’ and explaining what each bit of it means.
Then there’s today’s, and with a bit of luck there’ll be more tomorrow.