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.
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