If you go to Amazon searching for “Why vote Liberal Democrat?”, edited by Danny Alexander and just published by Biteback, you may be surprised to find yourself being presented instead with a book of the same title from 1997, written by William Wallace. The new book is misfiled by Amazon under the title “Why vote Lib Dem?” but actually the 1997 volume provides an interesting contrast with the 2010 version.
The 2010 book is one of a series, covering also Labour, Conservatives, SNP, Plaid and the Greens. All the others are single person authored books (with the exception of a more general “Why Vote?” book), with chapter titles that give a list of long and worthy policy areas. They are souped up, lengthened policy manifestos. That sort of book certainly has its place, and is the approach followed by William Wallace for his 1997 title, but it is very good to see that the 2010 Liberal Democrat one takes a different tack.
Danny Alexander may be the main name on it, but he is the editor – and the book is a collection of twenty-six short essays plus a foreword from Nick Clegg. Many of the authors are also people who, in their different ways, are well known and respected with particular audiences outside the ranks of party membership and helpers.
Floella Benjamin and Colin Firth probably have the most public star value, but contributions from people such as the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, friend of Stephen Lawrence (and now Lib Dem councillor) Duwayne Brooks and Janis Sharpe, mother of Gary McKinnon, all have appeal to particular audiences and add up to a welcome picture of a party drawing broad support from people who know what they are talking about.
Danny Alexander (and Polly Mackenzie, who did much of the work pulling the book together) have given us a book that is more varied and interesting therefore than the other party titles in the series and deserve congratulations for that.
What then of the content?
What is Liberalism?
Nick Clegg’s foreword starts with addressing the question, “What is Liberalism?” Not surprisingly freedom and fairness features in his answer, but he also captures that essential contrarian mindset which means, for all the changes in policy and society, one can easily imagine Charles James Fox being a member of the party even now, over 200 years after he was its leader. Clegg writes:
[Growing up] we were expected always to assume that there is a better way of doing things if you only bother to look for it. That’s the spirit I believe is right at the heart of Liberalism … The Liberal Democrats have always been an anti-establishment party, demanding change right at the top and campaigning for power to be taken out of the hands of the elites.
Those interested in the balance between social and economic liberalism in the party will note the David Howarth-style approach of taking one as a means to the other when Clegg says:
You are only free to do things you are capable of doing – things for which you have the resources and understanding. So any effort to increase freedom must also increase people’s capacity, resources and understanding.
This squaring of the circle continues in Danny Alexander’s piece which, coming from the chair of the group writing the party’s manifesto, gives a clear indication of what its priorities will be.
LibDem policy priorities
The first specific policy statement to get a mention is the plan to make our tax system fairer, including raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 – a tax cut which appeals to economic liberals and whose primary target (taking the lowest paid out of income tax completely) appeals to social liberals. It will be paid for by, yes, a mansion tax (though in a rather modified form from the original proposals of autumn 2009) and by closing tax loopholes for the richest.
1992 rides again
Fair taxes, better education, more generous pensions, economic recovery, political reform and a green tinge to it all are the policy areas picked out with specific proposals in Danny Alexander’s piece. For those with long policy memories in the party, it’s the 5Es of 1992 all over again, save with Europe dropped for pensions. And with added, souped up Vince Cable.
Although the chapters that follow are from a wide range of authors, they form a coherent whole – presenting views of a range of experts but with a common set of liberal values frequently stated and applied. This is not a collection of technocrats all saying “we should get things right”; it’s a collection of experts all saying “liberalism is the solution”.
The consistency is also at times a slight weakness, as chunks of several of the chapters could have been said by almost anyone in the party. The individual personalities and experiences of the authors do not always come through in their words and there is little use of personal story telling to reinforce the policy points.
That said some, such as Brian Paddick, Colin Firth and Ed Fordham’s pieces, are strong exceptions – they are clearly all distinctively from them personally. Overall the variation of authors keeps the book more interesting and more varied than the single-author books for the other parties.
What’s the narrative?
The pieces all fit together as a coherent whole, being about freedom and fairness. Values come out clearly in different pieces and are consistent riffs on the party’s main theme, as when Floella Benjamin writes,
While detailed Liberal Democrat policies make me confident I am in the right party, it is our different approach to politics which makes me sure I am a Liberal Democrat through and through.
Dipping in and out of the other party books in the series, the Liberal Democrat one does comfortably stand out as being about the Liberal Democrats, even though words such as fairness are used regularly by other parties.
Not only are the themes reminiscent of 1992, the policies are mostly a comfortable fit with 1997, adjusted for the different political and economic environment. In many ways that is a strength, as the book brings out long-term liberal values rather than the latest technocratic trendiness.
But in one respect it is a weakness. Since 1997 the internet has grown hugely, influencing many of the areas talked about in the book and bringing great economic and social changes. Yet it barely gets a mention. Unfair extradition rules deserve condemnation, and it’s a minor coup to have got Gary Mckinnon’s mother to contribute a piece, but whilst we have a piece on extradition and nothing on the internet and the digital era it’s a book that feels unbalanced.
That criticism aside – and it’s one that is a wider issue in the party than simply this book – the book is a good job, well done. If our general election campaign compares as well to those from other parties as this book does to theirs, we’ll be doing a lot of celebrating later this year.