By Chris Bowers
What do the Liberal Democrats stand for? We all know what we think we stand for, but what do the public think at the sight of a Lib Dem rosette? If Labour engenders “support the workers and tax the managers” and Conservative means “as little change as possible and protect money-making”, what does Liberal Democrat conjure up in the head of the average voter? It’s the need to create a political identity for the Lib Dems that’s at the heart of The New Liberal Manifesto, a new discussion paper aimed at restating the creed of liberalism both for those inside the party and those who may have to deal with us, whether as voters or potential coalition partners.
Dyed-in-the-wool Lib Dems would probably baulk at the idea that we don’t know what we stand for, and the first thing to stress is that there is no blame attached. In a media-dominated age where there are only two sides to every story, a third political party that doesn’t have a specific identity – unlike Greens, Ukip, or Scottish/Welsh nationals – is always going to struggle to define itself as anything other than a compromise or half-way house between the main two options.
In addition, the dictates of the awful first-past-the-post voting system mean we have had to squeeze Labour voters in LibDem/Tory battlegrounds and squeeze Conservative voters in LibDem/Labour marginals. That has led to tactical messages that dilute the essence of liberalism, but in an internet age that will no longer wash as any conflicting messages can be round the country (even the world) in a matter of seconds.
Given our need to be as attractive to Conservative-leaning voters who are disgusted at what Boris Johnson has made the Tories as to Labour- and Green-leaning voters who want to see a compassionate government, we need an identity that allows us to defend our own distinctive place in the British political landscape. Fortunately we have an underlying philosophy: liberalism. We just need to reinvigorate it.
Liberalism is about 400 years old and has been reinvented several times over its lifetime. It started in opposition to church edicts, in the 19th century it was the movement that sought to open up access to public sector jobs, and in the early 20th century it laid the foundations of the welfare state. But since the Liberal Party merged with the Social Democrats in the late 1980s, the essence of liberalism has been somewhat lost. With a new period in British politics dawning that will take in the post-war spirit of a post-pandemic recovery, along with a new industrial revolution in big tech, AI and data, plus the urgent need to fight climate change, the time for the latest reinvigoration of liberalism is ripe.
That’s what The New Liberal Manifesto seeks to do. It has been produced by a group of five Lib Dems, with me as lead author and the other four (David Howarth, Duncan Brack, Monica Harding and Rob Parsons) making up a reference group. It outlines why a reinvigoration of liberalism is needed, what liberalism has been historically, and how liberalism needs to be applied to a pre-general election manifesto.
It is a discussion paper that will divide people. Some will pick it up and say “That’s not my understanding of liberalism,” while others will feel the relief of having their party creed set out in a user-friendly 24-page document. Despite its title, it’s more a manifesto in the sense of setting out the party’s heritage and ethos rather than one with specific policies for an election, but it’s designed as a forerunner of the Lib Dem manifesto for the next general election.
We have been able to go further than some documents would dare, as we are stating liberal principles, including those that should remain firm regardless of any political advantage to be gained from them. That in itself created lively discussion within the reference group – whose members bring together experience at every level of the party’s activity – especially over the Realpolitik of what we can say that might be used against us by our opponents. I hope we’ve got the balance about right.
The important thing is that it creates discussion throughout the party, and among the wider liberal family that includes some who aren’t Lib Dem members. We hope it will focus minds on the need for us to represent something, so people can see where liberalism forms a Venn diagram which has overlaps with what voters who don’t think of themselves as ‘Liberal’ identify with. If it stimulates the debate of what it means to be a liberal in 21st century Britain, it will have served its purpose, regardless what ultimately comes out of it.
So what of a Lib Dem identity? Having spent the best part of three years working on the New Liberal Manifesto, I think it has to be something around individual liberty, putting the individual first, but it has to be different to the “I’m all right Jack so sod the rest of the world” individualism that the Tories represent. We have to get compassion in there. How about “Liberal Democrats – the individual first in a compassionate society”? Discuss.
The New Liberal Manifesto is downloadable for free – in both illustrated and accessible (text-only) formats – from its own website, www.newliberalmanifesto.org.uk.