Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Liberalism to the Common Man

Every party has a number of smaller factions within itself – with members aiming to influence the policy and direction of the party as a whole. And so it is with us in the Liberal Democrats.

This week saw the launch of Liberal Left to the excitement of some in the media for its anti-coalition line. We have all heard of the ‘orange book-ers’, we have the Social and Liberal Forum, and this week I received an email from Liberal Reform. Such groups are to be welcomed as it encourages internal debate and discussion about the future of our party and of Liberalism both in this country and abroad.

Also I would far prefer those who are disgruntled with the party and its leadership to stay in the party and fight their corner – as often happens in the other two – instead of doing a runner and thus weakening the case for those who may hold the same views. (My previous posts have been critical of those who have left the party since the coalition, and also of Lib Dem Voice and the Liberal Democrat newspaper – both of which I feel are very party line.

Political debate is always entertaining – but it is my view that we must keep our minds to the bread and butter. We are now a serious party of real political power – it is not inconceivable that we may be part of the UK government for another ten years. I want us to develop, not as a protest party or a forum for theory, but as a genuine political force with our own policies and views – and I hope one day we see the Lib Dems as the biggest party in parliament – with a Liberal Democrat Prime Minister.

If you had to list modern great political thinkers you might include – Anthony Crosland, Keith Joseph, Roy Jenkins, Enoch Powell, Tony Benn and Michael Foot. All highly intelligent men. You would take these people on at your peril! However, think of successful politicians, and immediately Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair come to mind – with ten general election wins between them.

Whatever you think of this very different threesome, the main reason they were so successful was that they knew how to appeal to the man and woman in the street. Start a conversation about market economics or liberal philosophy and many will drop off, but talk about the more basic instincts and desires of people – jobs, prices, schools, the health service, communities, public transport and services – and you would get a more lively response.

One episode long ago has always stayed with me. At the SDP conference of 1988 (this was the ‘Owen-ite’ SDP which had declined to join the merged Social and Liberal Democrats), a young chap addressed the conference and said the party must not talk down to people over a glass of port but instead should be out on the streets – of Bristol, of Liverpool, of Birmingham – putting the case to the people that matter. He got a standing ovation and he was quite right.

In an earlier entry, I pointed out that, in coalition, the Liberal Democrats have done much to help and protect the poor – from tax cuts and the pupil premium to increased state pension and opportunities for mobility. We should develop and build on this.

My father said to me that he did not understand all the newspaper talk about the health and social care bill (and after over 150 amendments, who now does?) How the NHS works or is built is of no interest to him. He just wants to see a doctor when he needs to, receives any medication that is required, and, should he go to hospital, that he is treated quickly and professionally at a high quality level.

That is my main point. We must follow Wilson, Thatcher and Blair and develop a connection for what the ordinary person wants and cares about. People want to know how can we create growth and jobs, how can we improve the quality of education in our schools, how we can protect standards of living, how we can ensure top level quality health care, how can younger people receive the opportunities to progress as far as their talents allow, and how we can protect the most vulnerable within our society. And they want to know in words of plain English.

This is the movement we should be working towards. The great minds amongst our party could discuss how to convey our message, put these ideas across and conduct a dialogue with people.

What shall we call it – Common Liberalism? Listening Liberalism? Well, that is a debate for a start!