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.

Worth Reading special: On the election

Some of the more interesting takes on the election:

My traumatised Liberal Democrat party must rediscover its radical heart – David Boyle on the way forward for the party
Random thoughts on the election – James Graham has a few of them
Three more years of Cameron – but it will be a rocky road ahead – Very interesting analysis and prediction from the LSE’s Patrick Dunleavy
The vision thing – “is it possible to combine both popularity and intellectual coherence?” asks Chris Dillow
Back from the election – Anthony Wells looks at what the polls might have got wrong
And that’s that – “The trouble with lefties, and I say this out of love, is that we give a shit about integrity. Do you think the Right care about lies? They couldn’t give a shit if their leaders kicked you in the face and set fire to the rabbit hutch; they’re born to rule and that’s their place. Know your place, peasant. Nice one centurion. They lead and we vote for them, and that’s the way it will always be. If their leaders somehow forget to deliver something they promise or – it happens – completely lie about something, they just keep on plodding on. So what? They’re born to rule.”

I’ll add more as I see them.

Don’t expect Liberal Democrat poll ratings to go up during the election just because they always have

1992graph

The Lib Dems nearly always do better than their poll ratings said before a general election.

As David Boyle wrote in a recent post, anticipating that this will also be the case in 2015. (It’s not like David’s the first person to say that, and he likely won’t be the last, but he happened to say it on the day I felt like writing about the subject.)

It’s become a truism, often spoken by worried Liberal Democrat activists as a morale-booster to lift the hopes and the spirits as they see another set of polls recording the party in single figures and duelling for fourth place with the Greens. The election campaign will be starting soon, they eagerly say, and our poll rating always improves during the election campaign.

Unlike most political truisms, this one actually happens to be broadly true. If you look at the records of polling from 1970 onwards that are kept on UK Polling Report, there’s an uptick in Liberal/Alliance/Liberal Democrat voting intention in the last part of every graph, so it is true that Liberal Democrats have generally done better than the pre-election campaign polls suggest they would. And yes, I’m being careful to use the past tense there.

Two things worth remembering here:

  • Past trends do not indicate future performance
  • Trends in politics and other fields always continue applying right up until they don’t
  • At this point, I don’t know if the campaign will see a rise in Liberal Democrat support as happened in other general election campaigns, but given that there’s one major difference between this and those other campaigns, I think it’s misguided to just assume it will happen regardless.

    (I did have a look to see if I could find any academic studies on this, but couldn’t find any – please point me in the direction of any you know of)

    They key difference, of course, is that the Liberal Democrats have been in government for the last five years, something that wasn’t true at the time of any of the previous surges. Leaving aside issues of ‘party of protest’ votes, what this means is that the Liberal Democrats have been much more prominent in the media over the last five years than they have during previous Parliaments. Liberal Democrat members of the Cabinet and ministers are regularly in the news, and the party as a whole is getting much more coverage outside of election time than it ever has before. In short, voters are much more likely now to have much more information about the Liberal Democrats than they ever had before.

    One of these days I’m going to do a longer post explaining Zaller’s Receive-Accept-Sample model of public opinion, but for now it’s important just to note that one of the important determinants of how people vote is the amount of information they have about a party. In previous elections, most voters came into the election campaign knowing relatively little about the Liberal Democrats because the party’s dearth of mainstream media coverage didn’t give them the opportunity to receive much information about the party. So, when election time came around and the media started featuring Liberal Democrats more at a time when people’s awareness of political issues was heightened, it understandably affected their voting behaviour. Coupled with an ability to run a strong campaign (one of the few campaigns where this effect didn’t seem to happen was 1987, when the Alliance campaign was a mess), this meant that when voters made their decision, they had a number of positive thoughts about the Liberal Democrats.

    The situation this year is completely different as time in government means the Liberal Democrats are no longer an unknown and fresh party to voters. While the party will obviously get good amounts of coverage in the election campaign, this will not be received by voters in the same way it was before as they now already have a bank of opinions about the party to weigh any new considerations against. People seeing Nick Clegg aren’t seeing the effectively new person voters saw in 2010, they’re seeing the man who’s been Deputy Prime Minister and regularly on the news for the last five years with all the connotations that brings. In previous elections, voters were open to receiving campaign messages from the Liberal Democrats because they didn’t have many pre-existing views about the party, but now they do, and we don’t know how those will affect voters’ decisions.

    The idea that voters in 2015 are going to react the same way to exposure to Liberal Democrats that voters in previous elections did completely misses out that the party is in a fundamentally different position going in to this election than it was in any of the previous ones where the ‘Liberal surge’ occurred. Expecting things to happen just as they did before when fundamental conditions have changed is nothing more than wishful thinking.

    Worth Reading 143: In France 16, in Germany 354

    Victory in Europe – What Cameron and Osborne actually negotiated and agreed over the UK’s contribution to the EU.
    Leadership in question – Good piece by Chris Dillow on how the search for strong leaders is a search for a false god. The one thing rarer than talent is the ability to spot talent.”
    A Few Questions About the Culture: An Interview with Iain Banks – What it says on the title, really: talking in depth with Iain Banks about how the idea of the Culture developed in his work.
    How to waste a staggering £15bn – David Boyle has some interesting facts about transport policy.
    Dark vistas – A rather bleak, but possibly accurate, look forward to the next election and the Parliament that follows it from Lewis Baston.

    And for your bonus video this time, if you haven’t seen Too Many Cooks yet, you’re possibly still sane.

    Worth Reading 139: Hadrian’s tomb

    Russell Brand and our political culture – Chris Dillow argues that Brand gets publicity because our political culture as a whole is anti-intellectual.
    Stuffing envelopes and getting stuffed – An alternative take on Liberal Democrat campaigning by Alex Harrowell.
    The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed – the realities of social media content monitoring.
    The world will change around 2020 – According to David Boyle, that’s what the trends are pointing to.
    Profs Bumble Into Big Legal Trouble After Election Experiment Goes Way Wrong – This is why conducting political science research is hard. However, I do hope the researchers involved are adding up all the news stories about them as ‘instances of our research methodology being cited in public discussion’.

    Worth Reading 125: InterCity

    American police are more trigger happy than British criminals – “Americans are three times more likely to be killed by a police officer with a gun than someone in Britain is by a criminal with one.”
    ‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative – An essay from the Hugo-winning writer Kameron Hurley. “Half the world is full of women, but it’s rare to hear a narrative that doesn’t speak of women as the people who have things done to them instead of the people who do things. More often, women are talked about as a man’s daughter. A man’s wife.”
    Ferguson: A String of Betrayals – Interesting background on how Ferguson, Missouri got to be the way it was before Michael Brown’s shooting, and how that drove the protests afterwards.
    Whatever happened to the big issues? – asks David Boyle
    Everything you know about Hamas is wrong – Tim Holmes looks beyond the media simplifications.

    Worth Reading 111: Unlucky in England

    What’s missing from the Lib Dem Million Jobs campaign – “People are not grateful to political parties. They don’t vote for them because they had some clever ideas in the past. They vote for them because they believe they have the answer to the future, and have the capacity and will to make it happen.”
    Canon and sheep shit: why we fight – “I hate the Doctor Who canon like Dawkins hates God. Like him, I’m convinced the target of my animus doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t stop me spending half my life writing about how dreadful it is.”
    Academics may not be celebrities, but their careful research is improving public policy – Philip Blond thinks that academics don’t impact on public policy. In this post on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin explain why he’s wrong again.
    Goodbye, Miami – How sea level rises will destroy Miami, if insurance costs don’t do it first.
    Regulation at a glance – Flip Chart Fairy Tales shows how the UK has some of the least market and employment regulation in the world.