Why we need to make the case for liberalism as a whole, not just as a set of policies

Lib-Dem-logoTim Farron’s given an interview to the Independent outlining more of his vision for the Liberal Democrats if he’s elected leader, the gist of which is in this quote:

“You need to motivate people. People vote for a political party because of what is in their wallet or issues that they weigh up in their head. But you join a political party because something gets you in your gut and it’s time we went out there and got people in their gut.”

It tied in with a thought I had reading this post by Alex Marsh earlier. The problem we’ve had – and it’s exemplified by the General Election manifesto – is that we’ve made liberalism look like a list of policy demands rather than an idea. That’s why the Economist can make the bizarre claim that the Tories have “swallowed much of the (Liberal Democrats’) ideology” when they’ve merely dropped their objection ot a few liberal social policies like same sex marriage, while remaining fundamentally illiberal and authoritarian.

When we identify liberalism as nothing more than a set of policies (whether those policies come from centrism or anywhere else) we make it easier for others to adopt a figleaf of liberalism by borrowing those policies while ignoring the ideas that drive them. David Boyle makes the point here that we’ve often chosen “an ecstacy of positioning rather than saying anything clearly at all”. If we let people think that liberalism means “whatever is in the centre ground at the moment” then we shouldn’t be surprised when people claim there’s little need for a liberal party when everyone else is fighting over the political centre. Indeed, we shouldn’t be surprised about our election performance when we define ourselves solely in terms of what other parties are and what we’re not.

That’s why what Tim Farron is proposing for the party is important, and why I’m supporting him for leader. We can’t just be a party that talks about individual policies, we have to be one that links those policies to a liberal vision and liberal values and that’s something Tim does brilliantly. A party that exists solely as a Parliamentary think tank that puts forward a few policies that may or may not be adopted be other parties isn’t one that’s going to have a long existence in the current climate. We might have survived like that when politics was less fragmented, but now there are plenty of other parties for people to choose from, and we have to be the party at the head of a liberal movement.

This will be a new direction for the party, because it’s not just in the last five years that we’ve often retreated to the comfort zone of talking about policy rather than pushing liberal values. If we’re going to recover and grow, we need to show that we’re not just promoting certain policies because they’re good ideas but because they’re linked to our liberal vision and ideology and so if they support one of our policies they’ll like the rest as well. If we don’t make the case for liberalism, no one else will, but they’ll happily brand some form of pseudo-liberalism as the the real thing and claim that real liberalism isn’t needed any more.

5 thoughts on “Why we need to make the case for liberalism as a whole, not just as a set of policies”

  1. I don’t disagree with any of this, but I think the party’s problems go deeper. The parliamentary party didn’t just make the odd accommodation and trade-off with the Tories, they reversed the party’s agreed policy on a whole series of issues. I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about tuition fees, but I think that pledge will be hung around the party’s neck for as long as Iraq hangs around Blair’s, and for similar reasons. Was supporting a rise in tuition fees a coherent Liberal policy? Supporting austerity (rather than the economic stimulus the party went into the election proposing)? Supporting the bedroom tax? Supporting DRIP? If these things are Liberalism, let’s have it out: let’s have a debate about how Orange Book economic liberalism plus authoritarianism plus media macro is (somehow) the way to go. If a coherent vision of Liberalism means reversing some or all of those positions, let’s get that out in the open – but in that case you’ll also need to do some serious thinking on how you can stop your leaders tearing up agreed party policy (and then making a public apology for not doing it sooner).

    At least after that election result we know that “vote for us, we’re somewhere between the other two” doesn’t work – and, by extension, neither does Clegg’s pitch to the party, “we’ve got to be prepared to ditch our principles, otherwise we can’t be sure of being somewhere between the other two”. Whoever the next leader is, we can be sure he’ll be more principled than the last one (as a Labour supporter, I quite envy you that). But I think you underestimate the depth of the hole the party’s in. “Pseudo-liberalism” has been coming from the Lib Dems in government far more than from the Tories; there needs to be some sort of reckoning with that. Not for your sake but for the sake of everyone outside the party – we’re never going to take you seriously again otherwise.

    1. I understand your points, but parties rarely, if ever, have those sort of debates in the open – Labour’s not had a public debate about Iraq, just as the Tories didn’t have one about Black Wednesday. You kind of made the point yourself when you linked Blair, rather than Labour as a whole, with Iraq and I think part of the key to it is to see how much sticks to the party and how much is seen as being Clegg’s responsibility.

      There is discussion within the party about the last five years, and how that should determine how he we move forward. (There are some who think that the Clegg thesis hasn’t been tested to destruction, incredibly) However, I think the idea that the party needs to do some mass public flagellation in penance for the things we got wrong isn’t right, and when there is a new leader in place – and other new voices for the party out there too – then I think we can turn things around as a liberal movement. It’s going to be hard work, and not the automatic recovery in the polls some expect, but I think it can be done if the message is right.

  2. Perhaps the Labour figure to think about here isn’t so much Blair as Liam Byrne or Ed Balls. It would have been nice if Labour could have put together a set of positive proposals which would mobilise support and reunite the party, without any reference to the experience of the Brown government, but public opinion (stoked up by the media) was never going to allow them to forget the state the economy was in in 2010. The alternatives were to challenge the critique of Brown’s supposed overspending or to say nothing, in the hope of concentrating on the party’s positive proposals. The trouble was that saying nothing amounted to endorsing the critique & by extension endorsing austerity. Senior Labour figures eventually saw the trap and challenged the ‘overspending’ narrative, but by then it was far too late.

    Similarly, putting the record of the Coalition to one side and looking to the future may be the best approach for the Lib Dems to take in the short term, but in the long run it will come back to bite you. What’s at issue isn’t the party as seen from inside (issues of morale and unity) but as seen from outside (issues of trust and credibility). Anyone putting forward a policy proposal will need to be able to answer the question “why should we believe that you won’t abandon this one too?” – because everyone outside the party will ask it. Even Clegg, to give him his due, was becoming aware of this by the end of the campaign – although his answer (“because it’s on the front page of the manifesto”) lacked a certain something.

  3. You don’t have 5 years. The fight-back has to start NOW by demonstrating straightaway that the LibDems are a far more effective Opposition than Labour or the SNP will ever be. Never before has a British government needed such a close watch.

    But when you read and hear what the old guard and the would-be leaders are saying, it all sounds depressingly like more of the same wooliness. Tim Farron, for example, voted against a referendum on the EU and adamantly proclaims continuing membership of the EU to be a key policy without a proper re-evaluation and knowing full well that such a position has helped make the LibDems unelectable nationally. This is not liberal or sensible. I think he needs to re-examine his stance before promoting himself as the Party’s saviour.

    Proper Liberal values are enshrined in the Preamble. It’s time they were dusted off and internalised by everyone in the Party. Too many LibDems have either not read them or tried to bend them to suit their own agendas…. such as shackling ourselves to the dictatorial whims and fantasies of unelected foreign entities. We’ve been in the EU for decades and we’re broke!

    People couldn’t care less about your beliefs. They want to know what you’ll do to improve their lot and the country’s prospects, enforce social justice and safeguard what THEY hold dear. Businesses want to know what you’ll do to help them prosper and create the well-paid jobs that will generate the money to pay for the social programmes expected of a civilised nation. They also need to know that you will not throw open the doors to foreign predators but will protect and nourish our key home-grown industries so that profits stay here in the UK and don’t end up in the pockets of corporate shareholders in Germany, Sweden, Norway and the US.

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