What is the core Liberal Democrat identity?

One thing that most people who take an interest in the Liberal Democrats agree on is that the party needs to develop a clearer identity and, to use the popular marketing speak, a clear “brand”.  This has characterised much of the coverage of the conference, such as this from the Economist, showing not a particularly good understanding of the party, and this from Michael Meadowcroft, who has an excellent understanding, but does less well in explaining what the party actually needs to do.  Unfortunately these articles are all too characteristic of the debate.  On the one side outsiders, including recently recruited party staffers, who simply assume the whole thing is about deciding on a politically convenient position and then moving the party to it, and on the other by insiders who fail to articulate exactly what they mean by the clear liberal (or Liberal) principles they want the party to espouse.  Let me try to pick a way through.

First: does the party really need to worry about this?  Just because all the pundits agree doesn’t make it true.  The answer is yes.  There are two problems with the party’s current standing, or lack of it.  The first is that it struggles with a “core vote” strategy.  This is particularly important for elections fought under proportional representation.  The ones we fought in London earlier this year were a disaster; party campaigning was directed to floating voters who had long since floated away, and bringing out the vote people who supported the party in other elections for largely tactical or local reasons, and who large did not vote for it on this mandate.  Contrast this with Greens, who for much less money and effort got out a similar vote based purely on setting out who they were and what they stood for.  This matters because a disaster beckons for the party in the 2014 Euro elections, fought under PR, unless this changes.

The second reason is that there is the perpetual danger of policy confusion.  This has been clearly on display in the debate on NHS policy.  Do we want to follow the Liberal idea of a service with strong accountability to local communities, but flexibility on who actually delivers it?  Or do we want a Social Democratic service which is pretty much the same throughout the country, provided by a single organisation?  With the help of Lib Dem ministers, the government started off with something that looked a bit like the former, only for activists to reject it for the latter.  This confusion matters when you are an aspiring party of government rather than one simply of protest and opposition, and a party of government is what the party aspires to be.

But a word of warning: you can overdo the clear identity.  Successful political parties are coalitions, combining both a sense of common identity and a high spectrum of disagreement.  The Conservatives, for example, identify with the rich and those who aspire to be rich: but this brings together social conservatives with those who just want to cut taxes.

It is instructive to consider the two attempts to rebrand political parties that have shaped British politics in the last couple of decades.  The first was Tony Blair’s New Labour project, and the second David Cameron’s attempt to de-toxify the Conservative brand.  Both involved challenging some deeply held beliefs, and have left a deep sense of betrayal in their parties.  In Mr Blair’s case the effort has not been unsuccessful.  The party won three elections and even in opposition is cohering much better that the Conservatives have in a similar position.  I think that is for two reasons, one intended by Mr Blair, and the other not.  The intentional part was the illiberal, strong government aspect, clamping down on civil liberties.  This has played well with the working class communities that are the core of the party’s identity – and has also helped forge bonds with paternalistic ethnic minority communities.  When Mr Blair assiduously wooed liberals in the 1990s, he never really meant it.  The unintentional part of Labour’s rebranding is its identification with public sector workers, expanding their numbers and protecting their interests.  A modern economy requires a large state, and appealing to these workers is a powerful political strategy – but one that Mr Blair tried to resist, unlike his successors Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband.

The Conservative rebranding, five years or so on, looks a lot less happy.  What quickens the pulse of most young Tory activists seems to be an entirely different agenda from Mr Cameron’s, reminiscent of US Republicans: lower taxes, smaller state, escape from the EU, climate change scepticism and an outmoded idea of “competitiveness”.  While some of this chimes with public sentiments at large, as a package it it is not a winner.  Combine that with an electoral system that is tilted against them, and the project is likely to be a failure.  The Coalition with the Lib Dems, as Mr Cameron clearly saw, was an opportunity to consolidate this rebranding, but the price stuck in the throat of his party and he was unable to follow through.  The lesson there is don’t try to take a party to a place that it will not stay.

So what of the Lib Dems?  Firstly the party needs a core identity which is able to withstand a large diversity of views.  This is both easy, and tricky.  The easy bit is that the party stands for openness, freedom for individuals to choose the life they want, all underpinned by a sense of social responsibility and compassion.  All Lib Dems, pretty much, will identify with this, and they will think that the other parties do not.  The first difficulty is that this identity is an anti-identity: an identity that rejects, or downplays, the usual identities of class, nationality and race.  That is a difficult trick to pull off.  The second difficulty is that each of the other main parties (and the Greens for that matter) will think that such nice and inoffensive people can be appropriated into their own coalitions with a few warm words.  And indeed, many people with these values work for these other parties.  It is not quite enough.

But it has two important advantages.  First is that it is a natural second choice: not the most liked position, but not the most hated either.  Second is that the forces of history are with it.  The old identities of social class, nationality and the rest are gradually being eroded – and to the extent that the other parties lean on them, it makes them unattractive.

This is enough for one post.  What will count is not this sort of abstract speculation, but the practical steps that follow from them to create a successful political movement.  That, I will return to.

10 thoughts on “What is the core Liberal Democrat identity?”

  1. “Do we want to follow the Liberal idea of a service with strong accountability to local communities, but flexibility on who actually delivers it? Or do we want a Social Democratic service which is pretty much the same throughout the country, provided by a single organisation? With the help of Lib Dem ministers, the government started off with something that looked a bit like the former, only for activists to reject it for the latter.”

    Just out of curiosity, what was the mechanism for “strong accountability to local communities” in Lansley’s plan to abolish PCTs and put power into the hands of consortia of GPs?

    1. The Lib Dem contributors to the policy set great store by Health and Wellbeing boards, as well as creating statutory mechanisms for holding the Secretary of State to account. The principle of GP led commissioning had a strong local element, though critics claim that there are big gaps in the accountability. I am not an expert in how successful those mechanisms would have been prior to the hacking of the bill to bits. But I do know that Paul Burstow, a community politician to his core (though actually SDP rather than Liberal) was very proud of them – I saw as good as say so in a conference fringe. I’m not sure that many of his critics were actually all that interested in how workable his system was, rather than resisting change to the previous NHS model by any argument that came to hand.

      And as for PCTs there was no true accountability. We had all these outside professionals crawling over us and telling us what we wanted. I will admit that this was better than what preceded it, but they had as much resemblance to democracy as British Colonial District Commissioners did. At least the GP consortia have some faint idea that they might be responsible to their patients…as well as to the Health and Wellbeing Boards.

  2. Thanks, but I’m really not seeing “strong accountability to local communities” anywhere in your answer.

    As far as I can tell, the only actual powers, as opposed to advisory roles, proposed for the Health and Wellbeing boards in relation to the NHS were the ones already exercised jointly by local authorities and PCTs. So there was no increase in local accountability there.

    That seems to bring the mechanism for local accountability down to GPs having “some faint idea that they might be responsible to their patients”. I’m not sure whether that’s meant seriously, but as far as I’m concerned, trusting that someone is going to be prompted by their conscience to act responsibly is no mechanism at all for accountability.

    You might as well replace local authorities with consortia of local businessmen and claim there is accountability in the system because they will feel responsible to their customers!

    1. Thanks Chris. The reforms were never sold to us as being a complete answer to local accountability, more as a structure we could work with and improve later. There was a great deal of concern, for example, the the consortia could be assembled without regard to to local authority boundaries – which would have undermined this totally. But the Health & Wellbeing boards were the critical element, and they were, and are, sold to us a having a great deal more clout than local authorities did over PCTs (which was in practice nothing, to go by my local experience). If you are right, then we were sold a pup – which is not to say that it isn’t true, unfortunately. Mr Burstow clearly thought otherwise. I will keep an eye on that one.

      Concerning accountability to patients, my only point was that this was a bit more accountability that the PCTs faced. It does not amount to much: I am perhaps over-reacting a little to the arbitrary behaviour of officials my local PCT to plans to close a local hospital. Not that they were wrong necessarily, just there whole attitude to mere members of the public.

      There are, course, certain right wing types who would suggest that your final para was a perfectly sensible suggestion, and that there is no finer accountability than a working market. I’m not one of them though.

  3. “If you are right, then we were sold a pup – which is not to say that it isn’t true, unfortunately. Mr Burstow clearly thought otherwise. I will keep an eye on that one.”

    I’d recommend looking at what the Act actually says.

    What I have never understood is why Paul Burstow agreed to abandon the policy in the coalition agreement, which really would have introduced local accountability into the system:
    “We will ensure that there is a stronger voice for patients locally through directly elected individuals on the boards of their local primary care trust (PCT). The remainder of the PCT’s board will be appointed by the relevant local authority or authorities, and the Chief Executive and principal officers will be appointed by the Secretary of State on the advice of the new independent NHS board.”

  4. Mr Lansley did not write the Coalition agreement, and managed to persuade Paul Burstow, to say nothing of Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, that its health provisions were incoherent, and on this basis negotiated changes. In particular he felt (I think) that there was no space for PCTs alongside his GP commissioning model. I expect that Mr Burstow himself didn’t really like the idea of directly elected individuals (notwithstanding that this was in the Lib Dem manifesto), and much preferred the idea of working with councils instead (an ongoing controversy within the Lib Dems)…and so was happy move towards the H&WB boards instead. Mr Clegg is a lightweight on health policy (his focus being more on education and social mobility), and Mr Alexander a Scot who probably didn’t have enough stake in English reforms. And the rest is history.

    You may be right that I have overestimated the local accountability aspects of Lansley’s reforms. But my point about the internal confusion of Lib Dems stands. Most NHS professionals are dead against strong local accountability, much preferring the extra room for manoeuvre that the chain up to central government leaves them, and lecturing the locals on public health, inequalities and the obvious benefits of big prestige hospitals. Many Lib Dems were only too happy to leap to their defence, with those seeking local accountability being left behind. Shirley Williams was the hero of the hour – and she’s not a localist. Important because some in the party assume that localism is a core Lib Dem value. It isn’t.

  5. I have been complaining about NO core message for over 20 years as voters always said we do not know what the Liberals Stand for. They know the Tories are for the wealthy and Labour for the Unions and th Workers. I said that we stood for Fairness and backed it up by our wish for Fair Voting, Fair Taxes, Fair Workers Rights and Fair Opportunities for Education. But it was not enough and Leaders were not interested.
    We need a new name for the Party. Fair Deal Party.
    We need a new Slogan. Fairness, Justice and Freedom of Opportunity.
    We need to target our Manifesto at the type of Core Voters that support us and hope to enlarge it. They are mostly educated, in work and in the Middle Class. We may not get a Majority in Parliament but we might get more MP.

    1. Sorry for delay in approving your post, Donald. I am on holiday and I have only Ben able to keep in touch intermittently. Now you’ve been approved once, any future comments should be approved automatically.

      I think you are touching on an issue that I have tried to highlight. All parties think they stand for fairness…the concept is a very subjective one. So the party also needs to somehow say how its sense of fairness is different from those promoted by others. This is as much as anything to do with the way we play down the importance of traditional class and national identities.

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