Following on from my questions to the Lib Dem leadership candidates about the economy, housing and Chris Rennard, today it’s time to look at a key part of the electorate which has been usually missing from the hustings and at books – influential books, that is.
During leadership hustings, young people have often been mentioned, but pensioners often pass without a mention – despite being much more likely to vote at election time.
Why have you not put greater emphasis on how the party can appeal to older people?
I don’t dismiss the importance of older people at all. My constituency is the second oldest in the country in terms of its residents, and I have spent much of my time as an MP championing the issues that matter to older people – pension reform, local public transport and – crucially – health and care services. I have made the case for increased investment in our health and care system and for integrating care around the needs of patients. And older people have a great deal to contribute to our party.
I have also found that very many older people agree with me on the need for reform to make assisted dying lawful. So many people have witnessed the trauma of a loved one in desperate pain when faced with a terminal illness. They feel very strongly that it should be the individual and not the state in such circumstances who decides.
One of the changes I have been arguing for is reform of our party conferences so people can vote online. This would mean that many older people, who currently can’t attend – perhaps because of disability or caring duties, or simply because of the cost – would be able to participate fully in our party’s internal democracy.
I have not put more emphasis on pensioners – because I believe one of the biggest issues we face in our politics at the moment is one of inter-generational unfairness. It seems that the Conservative end of the previous coalition was obsessed in keeping together its own electoral tent. This meant they made a series of policy decisions that short changed young people and meant that pensioners were spared many of the hard decisions that other groups in society faced. I said at the time that this unfair and argued that case, strongly, that we must be asking richer pensioners to pay more. This is something Nick and Vince agreed with and they made strong a case.
I think the point, or the inference that Mark makes is a fair one that older people are much more likely to vote and our policy pitch must have things of interest to them. I hope, if elected leader to work with my good friend Steve Webb to further this agenda, especially on pensions. But I have to do take to task some of the assumption of the question – firstly I don’t think older people vote just based solely on their circumstances, I think they vote based on their families too and how policies impact on their children, grandchildren and their communities.
On the broader principle, I am not putting a policy offer to party members now and the country later because I want to create and build a coalition of grievances and win seats that way, but because I want to build a coherent and engaging narrative about what we are and what we stand for.
Which book has most affected your political beliefs and why?
The single biggest influence on my political beliefs didn’t come from any book. It came from my parents. We have a photo at home of me, proudly wearing by Liberal rosette at the age of 7! My parents were both Liberals at a time when no one else was, and they had clear values about opportunity and fairness. And while I am not a tribal politician – I worked for a Labour MP briefly after university, and joined the SDP soon afterwards following a meeting with Shirley Williams – I have always instinctively felt I was a liberal, and set up a Young Liberal branch when I was at school.
But one book did particularly influenced me later on. My father was a lifelong friend of Archbishop Trevor Huddlestone, who was at the forefront of the Anti-Apartheid Movement both in the UK and in South Africa. He encouraged me to visit South Africa once Mandela had become President. Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, describing a lifelong struggle against apartheid – which took him from convicted terrorist to South African President – is truly inspiring. Looking back at how much the world has changed in 50 years is real cause for optimism as we continue to fight as a party to dismantle those barriers – both visible and invisible – which create inequality in our society today.
William Beveridge: A Biography by Jose Harris. It is the best book I have read on the great man and I heartily recommend it to people who know Beveridge and maybe others who do not. Reading about him and understanding his legacy made me the Beveridge liberal I am today.
But Beveridge showed me, what a single person can do with a great idea. You simply can change the world. This book helps put his work in context with many of the private papers which he left behind as well as the voluminous news reports of the MP (but only for a single year) and social reformer.
The Beveridge Plan is still widely regarded as the lodestar document of the modern welfare state. But the book also shows the man and his thoughts about welfare dependence.
It avoids the usual trap of a rough portrait of the man, ironing out and explaining away the things we might, now, find unappealing. This books shows the great man, as he was, and it convinced me that liberal solutions are the best way to tackle the big problems we face – like in the 1940’s.