Sunday, 29 June 2008

Choose our future

Discussion in Lib Dem circles over the last couple of days has centred on whether our campaigning tactics are up to scratch and whether people are clear about what we stand for, as a consequence of our somewhat disappointing result in the Henley by-election. I don't propose to discuss the former now, but I think the latter is worth addressing.

We in the Lib Dems do have a very good set of values, as expressed in the preamble to the party's constitution. And, on the whole, we also have some very good policies. What we haven't managed to do successfully is to link those values with our policies, still less our campaigning approach. In other words, we lack a narrative, to use the currently fashionable political jargon.

I think a narrative is a way of looking at the world which draws together various policies and values into a coherent whole. It's not expressed in the rather philosophical language of a statement of values, nor in the 'shopping list' of a political manifesto, but instead by stating what we think the main problems are facing society and our general approach in tackling them, possibly expressed in a theme or slogan.

For me, one of the biggest problems facing society is that individual and human-centred values are under threat. If unchecked, both big business and the state have a tendency to take decisions which reduce the power of individuals to choose their own futures in a meaningful way, due to the fact that they can make hugely significant decisions for people and communities from a remote distance and often have little idea of their effects on people. Often this is done from good motives, whether in reducing business costs or to promote greater security from threats such as terrorism, but the effects may be to reduce the power of individuals to choose how to live their life.

This lack of lack of power to make meaningful choices about how to live is expressed in many ways: people having to work ever longer hours to make ends meet; people being forced to turn to using cars because of a lack of alternatives; people being left hanging on with an under-staffed call centre for ages because a company has centralised all problem-solving and has forgotten the value of having a friendly and knowledgeable face people can actually talk to; people forced to travel further for an operation because their local hospital has closed down; people missing out on human contact because their local post office or pub has closed; people forced to do their shopping in an out-of-town supermarket because their High Street has become yet another clone town with no butcher, baker or greengrocer; people afraid to go out of their homes at night because of the fear of violence; young girls forced into teenage motherhood because they don't have the educational or social skills to avoid that situation; people not voting because they feel politicians don't care about the issues which affect them. I could go on, but you get the picture.

For me, these problems can only be addressed by a liberal approach which stresses empowerment and responsibility. In the economic sphere, which is what most people are concerned about, that would mean encouraging enterprise and innovation, supporting small businesses and recognising that successful companies and economies are those where everyone is encouraged to make a contribution and it is recognised that everyone is in it together - in other words, a teamwork and partnership approach. However, liberals also need to recognise that the things which make life worthwhile for many people - culture, family, environment, safe communities, friendship, justice, religion, sexuality - are at best only tangentially related to economic success. Liberals should not be afraid to say that markets are very good if you're concerned about wealth creation - and for that reason should be supported where possible - but must be seen as secondary or complementary to our wider social purposes.

We should be stressing that only liberals (and by implication the Lib Dems) embody these values and that our opponents can't or won't. Labour has managed the unusual trick of becoming the prisoner of both big business and a bureaucratic state simultaneously. In so far as the Tories now stand for anything, they are still the party of big business. The Greens don't really believe in individual freedom. Nationalists of various hues think that a change in the composition of the state or in the people who make up the state is sufficient. And libertarians stress individual freedom above all else, leading to a situation where everyone is only out for themselves and don't have any concern for others.

And for me, because liberals tend to be optimistic and believe that people can make meaningful choices about the way we live, this narrative can be expressed in the theme/slogan "Choose our future" (it could be "Choose your future", but I think the "our" makes it more clear we're all in ths together). Just think of the campaigning possibilities. Choose our future: tax pollution not people. Choose our future: save our post office/pub/hospital etc. Choose our future: support local shops. Choose our future: invest in young people. Choose our future: take power from Whitehall/Gordon Brown/the council. Choose our future: cut crime.

I should finish by noting that none of this is particularly new, as people like David Boyle and Neil Stockley have been banging on about these sort of themes for some time. This is just my contribution to the debate.


David Boyle said...

Bernard, you are exactly right! And I thought that even before seeing my own name cited at the bottom. I was about to post a blog saying exactly the same. I think I still will, but want to go a bit further. I'm not sure the party has grasped how urgent this is.

Stephen B said...

Coupla observations from a..ahem..outside perspective...

If the Tories are the party of big business in your eyes, then the Lib Dems are the party of big government in my eyes. Your ambitions for UK EU membership under any circumstances is not commensurate with your ambitions for localism and reduces the legitimacy of the wielding power instead of strengthening it.

I think you also need to recognise that individuals as well as institutions have responsibilities. Just as some Tories have a silly faith in the market to always make the right decision, so it seems that liberals can also have the same blind faith (‘optimism’ I think is the term you use) in the perfection of human nature. To paraphrase you, “If unchecked, some individuals have a tendency to take decisions which reduce the power of individuals to choose their own futures in a meaningful way, due to the fact that they make hugely significant decisions for people and communities from a remote distance and often have little idea of their effects on people” – you only need to look at disruptive neighbours and yobs in the street impinging on the lives of others as examples of that.

I could go on but these are my suggestions for your future. Cultural liberalism has been an fairly unstoppable movement since the end of WW2 (yes, even during the Thatcher years) so, in some ways, it takes care of itself. Only a huuuge shift in the standards of living (lasting omnipresent subsistence level poverty being the ideal conditions) will see a hardening of majority attitudes in a conservative direction. I think your party’s problem still remains economics and whereas in the previous decade of plenty this was not an issue, in a period of contraction you need to demonstrate that you both understand the problem and can do something about it (and Vince Cable aside) you don’t do that yet.

Finally, those of use that run businesses make little distinction that you think ‘small business good, big business bad’ – it all just comes across as ‘business bad.’ Your piece has genuflections to the power of the market but seems deeply suspicious of it. Strangely enough, it doesn’t make me inclined to think you have the answers I can trust. Most small businesses have heard homlies (especially in the more social democrat parts of the UK) along the lines of the 4th to last paragraph (indeed it sounds like the introduction to an SE document to me) and, after a while, after the fluffyness has been stripped off, it just comes across as a manifesto for limited ambitions to us. We’re not evil and we get fed up with the attitude that our existence can only be tolerated if we are performing some social democrat approved good.

Bernard Salmon said...

Feeling better now after that little rant Stephen?
Just a couple of points in response. Firstly we don't believe in "EU membership under any circumstances" - we wish to radically reform or abolish the CAP and we also have proposals to make the whole thing much more democratic than it now is. But overall we believe that playing a full part in the EU is in Britain's best interests.
On the point about individual responsibility, I agree. That's why I want to get people much more involved in running their communities, rather than being subjected to the kind of centralised bureaucratic nonsense so beloved of this government which doesn't work in tackling things like crime. It's not about 'perfecting human nature' as you put it, but recognising that the only way that many of these issues can be tackled is through real empowerment and responsibility (and you'll note that's a phrase I used in the original posting).
And finally, on your point about business, I certainly don't think that business is evil and don't see where you get that from what I said. Indeed, I specifically say that we should encourage enterprise and innovation and believe we should trust the market where possible. However, I also think that firms which are most likely to succeed are ones where everyone involved is encouraged to contribute, with a firm like John Lewis being a good example.
But, as I say in my posting, economic success is just one aspect of life and others are equally or more important. Certainly if an economy is completely trashed as in Zimbabwe then it endangers the other things, but for liberals I don't think it can be the sole story.

Stephen B said...

"Feeling better now after that little rant Stephen?"

Much better thank you. Mind you, given that we have misrepresented each other's positions (about big business and the EU), I think we're about even now!

But the point remains - from my perspective as a businessman, I've heard all this before. It's how government talks to business in Scotland and it leads to a muddling economy at best.

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