Monday, May 14, 2012

What do Liberal Democrats want?

If you believe The Telegraph, the LibDems are bleeding heart, immigrant-loving, EU fifth columnists desperate to promote a fraudulent green gravy-train. (Ewww... green gravy). And if you believe The Guardian, the LibDems are basically Tories, but worse than Tories because they take votes that are Labour's by right.

Whereas if, like most people, you maintain a healthy scepticism towards all newspapers and political parties, you might well have a view of LibDems as well-meaning but easily used do-gooders who get a bee in the bonnet about "civil liberties" and tie themselves in knots over tuition fees and NHS reform.

It's easy to get a rough-and-ready handle on what Conservatives want (strong businesses, strong law-and-order, traditional values, that kind of thing) and everyone knows that Labour is about strong public services and jobs for all. But what do Liberal Democrats want?

There are three senses in which that's a very easy question to answer. But one sense in which a sharper answer is needed.

Let's go back to first principles. (Bear with me: it gets a little less Janet-and-John by the end!)

1. Values and aims

Firstly, the values and aims of the LibDems are beautifully set out in the preamble to the constitution, which begins...
"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. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives."
It's worth reading the whole of the preamble if you don't already know it. It's only about 800 words. If you want to understand what LibDems want, there's rarely a LibDem who doesn't wholeheartedly support almost all of this.

You might object that we don't always live up to these ideals. But politics is the art of the possible, and letting the perfect be the enemy of the good ends up helping no-one. (Enough clich├ęs already! Ed.) You might also agree in general with the principle of compromise, while at the same time disagreeing with particular instances of compromise (the 2012 Health and Social Care Act springs to mind). But that doesn't change the ideal.

Nevertheless, values and aims don't automatically predicate policies. You only need to look at New Labour's enthusiasm for the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) or the Conservative Party's official position on marriage equality.

So values and aims are important, but not enough: we also need to look at the policies...

2. The Manifestos

The second way in which "What do Liberal Democrats want?" is an easy question to answer is that almost every election (local, general, whatever) generates some kind of manifesto that sets out specific proposals, often costed, focused on the perceived problems that concern the particular voters in that election.

For example, the 2010 General Election Manifesto (pdf) emphasised...
  • raising the personal income tax allowance to £10k, funded by closing loopholes used by the wealthy and polluters;
  • targeting more money at schools with poorer children;
  • creating jobs by investing in green infrastructure;
  • and increasing democracy by giving voters a power of recall, a fair voting system and an elected second chamber.
These policies clearly aimed to address the values and aims referenced earlier.

You might object that certain policies at various times were wrong; or that different LibDems reaching different conclusions about what's needed in different parts of the country somehow amounts to hypocrisy; or that deviating from the manifesto because of changed circumstances is no different from lying. But none of that invalidates manifestos as an answer to the question of what LibDems want.

Nevertheless, manifestos don't infallibly determine what happens in practice. New problems arise; policies turn out to have unintended consequences; circumstances change; disagreements occur; and (of course) coalitions mean that compromise is essential.

So manifestos are important, but not enough: we also need to look at what LibDems do in practice...

3. What LibDems do

All over the country, Liberal Democrat councillors work hard at improving life for local people; Liberal Democrat MPs and peers work hard to channel legislation and Government actions in the direction of LibDem values and aims; and Liberal Democrat MEPs do likewise in relation to EU legislation.

Now, you might object that some of these people do not work hard, and some fail to live up to LibDem values and ideals. You might think that councillors, MPs and MPs from other parties are just as hard working or make better decisions. But generally you can see what LibDems want from what they do. Well, to some extent...

For example, it's pretty clear that a government can do very little to improve the lot of the citizens if the country is bankrupt. Whatever the lazy nonsense sometimes talked about "just being in it for the ministerial cars", LibDems formed a coalition with Conservatives in order to sort out the economic crisis threatening the country. We did this knowing perfectly well how it would damage the party's popularity.

At the same time, LibDems in the Coalition have also helped...
  • shift taxes from low and middle earners onto the richest
  • get extra money to schools to help poorer children
  • create more new apprenticeships than Britain has ever had before
  • create the world's first Green Investment Bank
  • restore the link between pensions and earnings
  • set-up proper regulation of the banks
  • restore many of the civil liberties thrown away by the previous government
  • increase social housing for the first time in 30 years
  • halt the previous government's post office closures
You can see from this list the kinds of things that LibDems want.

On the other hand, LibDem parliamentarians have also found themselves having to vote for things that jar very hard against LibDem values, aims and manifestos: increasing tuition fees; cutting the top rate of tax; the 2012 Welfare Reform Act; and the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. And the lack of Government action in support of green growth must be very frustrating for them. The reality. though, is that Conservative MPs outnumber LibDem MPs five to one. So this kind of trade-off is inevitable. It's great to have achieved so much with so few MPs.

Thus you can't always tell what LibDems want from individual votes: you have to look at the package as a whole. And it's not just the things in the "good list" above that show what LibDems want; it's also the things that the Conservatives weren't able to do because they were blocked by the LibDems. It's blindingly obvious to everyone apart from the extremes of left and right that the Government is a better government for having LibDems in it.

Is this when the English subjunctive finally died?

Nevertheless, the question "What do Liberal Democrats want?" is not about what is being done now, but about how things might be different in the future. And this leads to the fourth type of answer to the question.

4. Frames

Much of the 2010 manifesto is already being implemented by the Coalition, so the priorities for the 2015 manifesto will be an important indicator of what LibDems want.

It's likely that the number one priority for the next parliament will be something like "Ensure the deficit is sorted". That doesn't really set the LibDems apart. All the parties want to do that, while doing as much as possible to promote growth and protect public services and the most vulnerable in society, although there are obviously detailed disagreements about the best way to do that.

Parties don't publish manifestos far in advance, because the situation will have changed by the time of election, because good ideas will get nicked by opponents (which is fine if you're a protest party; but not if you want to be in government), and because it gives opponents plenty of time to spread misinformation about the proposals.

So, you might say, let's just wait for the LibDems' 2015 manifesto, just like we have to wait for the Conservative and Labour manifestos.

Except that doesn't cut it. And here's why...

We know that the disparate collection of policies in the Conservative manifesto will have as a loose unifying theme that rough-and-ready conception mentioned earlier: strong businesses, strong law-and-order, traditional values, that kind of thing. OK, you might formulate this conception differently from me; or point out that Conservative touchstones evolve over time; and different leaders stress their own particular takes on the party philosophy. But everyone knows in advance roughly what sort of buttons the manifesto is going to push.

Similarly for Labour's manifesto. You know it's going to bash the Coalition's handling of the economic crisis in many ways, and there will be a whole host of commitments; but the manifesto will have as its central theme the impact of the cuts on the vulnerable, on public services and on jobs. Ignoring the details, everyone knows in advance what Labour is roughly about.

However, the LibDems lack a widely-held rough-and-ready public conception. I suspect that for many voters, the LibDems used to be "the party in the middle which you vote for if you can't stand either of the other two" but devolution and being in government mean that this framing of the party doesn't work well any more.

A variety of attempts have been made to help the public get a handle on what the LibDems are about, using as few words as possible: freedom; fairness; freedom and fairness; freedom, fairness and opportunity; some combination of freedom, fairness, opportunity, ruthless efficiency, sustainability, etc. But when the mainstream political debate is framed so often in terms of dichotomies between left and right, it is difficult to find simple formulations that work in every policy area.

It's instructive to consider how the 2010 manifesto's priorities have fared, not so much as policies but as LibDem frames: "Fair taxes that put money back in your pocket", "A fair chance for every child", "A fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener", and "A fair deal for you from politicians".

Yet again, I don't think LibDems have ended up at in 2012 successfully owning "fairness" as an overarching frame, largely because all politicians are in favour of fairness; it's the particular prioritisation of instances of unfairness as deserving of action that distinguishes the LibDems. So "fairness" is too general. I also think "A fair deal for you from politicians" ended up destroyed by breaking the promise of "no more broken promises"; and "fair votes" was scuppered by the AV referendum. And while "fair taxes" does have some purchase (i.e. LibDems are about raising the income tax allowance; the Conservatives are about lowering the top rate of income tax), Labour now has a powerful array of frames (Granny Tax, Pasty Tax, Charity Tax, Church Tax, etc.) to undermine "fair taxes". At the same time, the Pupil Premium has been widely praised, but is now, for poorer children, about mitigating the cuts to education spending rather than providing new help. Meanwhile, the "green route out of recession" (which I really liked as a frame at the last election) has been scuppered by the animosity of George Osborne and others in the Conservative Party who believe there is a choice between being green and a strong economy.

So the LibDems urgently need new, positive ways to frame its concerns, as part of a strong narrative that builds to the 2015 manifesto.


I've argued for a 2015 LibDem narrative along the lines of...
"In 2010 we put aside our differences with the Conservatives, to get the economy back on track, after Gordon Brown and Ed Balls screwed up. The most vulnerable in society would have suffered even more without the steps we took. Now we must act to prevent that crisis happening again. We must stimulate real growth, not fake bubbles. We want to create sustainable jobs. We want to make those with power accountable. We want to devolve power to democratic councils, which will stimulate enterprise and innovative public services. And we want to protect household bills and business costs from the consequences of fossil fuel dependence."

What frames help trigger this narrative?
  • The crisis was made worse by New Labour: the key mistakes were overspending at the wrong moment in the economic cycle, and reducing regulation of the banks. (Against the "It was a global crisis; nothing Labour could have done" frame.)
  • We put political differences aside for the good of the country, knowing there would be a cost in popularity. (Against the "Propping up the Tories" frame.)
  • We stopped worse things happening: Cutting spending wasn't pleasant, but without our help, the country (and the most vulnerable in particular) would have suffered even more from New Labour's deficit. We should be proud of the Pupil Premium, the apprenticeships, the pensions link to earnings, the civil liberties saved, and the new social housing.
  • Now we must act to prevent that crisis happening again: This is the key problem a responsible government must address. (Sidestepping the unwinnable arguments between the Conservatives and Labour about how fast the deficit reduction should have been, and whether more could have been done to promote growth.)
  • In particular...
    • We want to create sustainable jobs: We must not rely again on property bubbles, excessive debts and polluting technologies.
    • We want to make the powerful accountable, whether that's bankers, energy companies, hospital chiefs, ministers, or those with vast unearned wealth.
    • We want to devolve power to democratic councils, which will stimulate enterprise and innovative public services: setting public services free can revitalise our counties and cities. The Government needs to support the evaluation of innovative pilots.
    • We want to protect households and businesses from the consequences of fossil fuel dependence. (Moving on from the stalled "We must take action on climate change" frame, to achieve the same ends.)
These frames help to construct a characterisation of LibDems as moderates, driven by the real problems that face the country, rather than by ideology; looking for "what works", rather than relying on dogma; and making sure that those with power and authority are held accountable.

In contrast, (correctly) labelling achievements and proposals as "liberal" activates the pleasure centres of the LibDem activist brain, but it does very little to help the general public to make sense of the LibDem agenda as a whole. Ensuring that the public gets an accurate conception of what LibDems want is not easy when the core media narratives about politics are the tussles between more spending and less spending, between private enterprise and public services, between being "tough" and doing nothing, and between being "sensible" and being "incompetent". It's tedious, over-simplified political discourse; but it shows few signs of changing.

So, to sum up, what do LibDems want? My answer is:
Actually LibDems want pretty much what mainstream Conservative and Labour folk want: We want great public services and thriving businesses. But we also want to stop Labour's economic crisis happening again. That means creating sustainable jobs; making the powerful accountable; devolving power in order to stimulate enterprise and innovation; and protecting households and businesses from the consequences of fossil fuel dependence.
And then of course, this needs to be backed up with creative, costed, well thought-through policies to achieve these goals...


1 comment:

  1. This is genuinely one of the best pieces on the lib dem future that I've read.

    I think your right on the word liberal. I believe it's something we need too claim back and take on, we need to show the public mainly what we stand for, not stand against. We need a bright and positive message, not a labservative one.

    I shall be sharing this around.