To my all my non-Lib Dem readers, an apology and a plea to bear with me. What follows is more than simply a review of the latest attempt by the Liberal Democrats to explain to Britain who they are in two minutes and forty-five seconds. It’s about what constitutes the centre-ground in these fractured times and why that matters.
To the video at hand: the production value is actually pretty good for a PPB, particularly one made outside of an election period, although this went out to their mailing list only, as far as I can tell, so perhaps it is meant for the local elections in May. Anyhow, if you can’t find it, here it is:
I tried to embed it and it didn’t work, which is strike one against it if you want to be picky like that. Anyhow, it’s got some shots of alarm-clock Britain doing its thing cut with a head and shoulders shot of Ed Davey giving us the messaging. Ed is decent enough in the video. The whole thing would be very good, in fact, were it not for one, tiny problem: the video is completely and totally free of substance.
We are told that the Lib Dems stand for the following things: ensuring the NHS is properly funded, reversing cuts to the police budgets, protecting the environment, building high-quality transport links across the UK, and finally, investing in education. I’ll start with a positive here. It’s good that the Lib Dems have mentioned actual bread and butter issues instead of the usual fringe Lib Dem stuff; there is no mention of weed or electoral reform to be seen. However, if you look at the five things they have mentioned in the video, one thing stands out beyond anything else – they are all couched in terms that almost no one could disagree with. Everyone wants a better NHS and school system. Almost everyone wants to protect the environment. The vast majority of people like the idea of more police on the streets. The only one that is even vaguely straying into the realms of the controversial is the transportation stuff, but the wording is so vague as to avoid stepping on almost anyone’s toes.
In politics, particularly these days, it is important to stand for concrete things. Particularly if you aren’t one of the two major parties and thus cannot depend on a core vote that will turn out regardless of how vague you are on policy. This means taking a stand on issues that will gain you some followers and lose you some at the same time. If you want an example of how to do this effectively in the UK, look at Farage. You know where he stands on the major issues of the day. He hasn’t been afraid to go so far as to become a hate figure for many, while a hero for another cohort. This is what draws people to a small political party; the idea that it stands for something no one else does.
The Lib Dems, therefore, need to stand for something real, something that will make them some enemies but will also cause a whole other group of people to feel like the party might in fact be for them. They need to stand out in other words, and talking in platitudes about how they care about the NHS, education and policing numbers isn’t going to cut it. It isn’t going to come close, in fact.
But now we’re getting to the heart of the matter: what is that “something” going to be? And this is where the problems for 21st century centrism and liberalism really lie. Is the centre economically liberal or statist? All right, it will be a bit of both, but in what combination and what would that look like? What is distinct about the liberal economic offer that sets it way apart from what either the Conservatives or Labour are saying? There is a huge space open now that the Tories have become so statist, but do the Lib Dems, for instance, want to pitch themselves economically to the right of the Conservatives in a real and meaningful way? And you all want to better fund the NHS – okay, how are you going to do that? Raise taxes? On whom and in what way?
Until liberals can be about something definable again, they will exist on the fringes of British politics. The last election proved that just being anti-Brexit was never enough. Why are liberals anti-Brexit exactly? What were the essentials of European membership that made it so vital for their vision of the UK? I’ve heard a lot about bleeding blue and gold without coming close to hearing this articulated. Now that we’re definitely leaving, the ability to figure this out just became that much more important.
You just know, don’t you, that they’re going to say that the concrete things they are for, and therefore by your logic what they should be pushing, are legalising weed and prostitution, electoral reform, trans rights, and so on?
Dave Chapman says
There is a lead to be stolen on this but much of the above applies to all the main parties. They’ve become accustomed to speaking in vacant rhetoric and meaningless empty phrases. Across the past ten or so years, Chuka Umannah has penned a number of aspirational articles in the Guardian, across membership of several political parties. He’s penned many tens of thousands of words. However, in reading them, I don’t ever recall him actually saying anything identifiable.
To forward examples of campaigning which will only ever work on those on those who vote on those bases – ’24 Hours to save the NHS (or other hyperbolic chronological period) does not win anyone elections. On electoral reform, the LibDems HAVE got their message across. It has been rejected. That’s demonstrable.
Senior party strategists of all colours – even internationally – often rail against attacks on their opponents. ‘Every opportunity used to attack your opponents is an opportunity you don’t highlight your own policies’ is a classic. Personally, I see negatives as positives. The Conservatives, and in particular, Labour, in institutional terms, are teetering wrecks. They stand ready to be viscerally dismembered by anyone with the competence and persistence to do so.
Know you of such a party willing to do so?
Paul Wilson says
One small point here Nick – LibDems have always been crystal clear they are prepared to raise income tax for the NHS.
The wider problem of identifying what they are actually for may lie in the fact that we are a broadly liberal nation already, socially, politically and economically. Trouble is, those on the left don’t like economic liberalism, and those on the right don’t like the social variety. Neither are overly keen on political liberalism.
Those of us who understand that true and full liberalism is necessary for a truly liberal (i.e. free) society, have nowhere else to go.
How do you passionately campaign for a slightly improved version of what we already have though?
Nic Wells says
The manifesto was generally well received. The difficulty is in distilling bits of it into easily consumable content for those who are not generally engaged by politics. Particularly when we are not offering monochrome socialist or neoliberalist solutions.