An eye for change: The Liberal Democrats and the UK general election

The following piece I wrote for Hans van Mierlo Stichting, think tank to the Lib Dem sister party in Holland, D66. One of the 2015 editions of Liberal Democrat Newswire looked at what the Lib Dems can learn from D66. This piece, however, is about explaining the ideological approach the Lib Dems are taking in the 2017 general election.

Political parties do not operate in a vacuum. Rather they operate in the context of what the voters currently think and what the other parties currently do.

That is why, for example, a liberal party in opposition to a right-wing government will often focus on different parts of its policy menu from a liberal party in opposition to a left-wing government. In both cases, the liberal party needs to highlight how it differs from the government in order to win votes from it and the different context, therefore, means it will naturally choose to highlight different policies.

This natural variation is both obvious yet also, curiously, often over-looked. Instead, we get an over-emphasis on how (supposedly) a party has changed its political position. We saw this with the Liberal Democrats when the party went from opposition to the Conservatives in government to opposition to Labour in government and back again over the years. What the party emphasised naturally changed, yet too much importance was often given to this as if it demonstrated changes in the party’s political beliefs under different leaders rather than just changing context. (Even political scientists, with their love of controlling for variables, are surprisingly poor at allowing for context when tracing ideological positioning of parties.)

The reason for mentioning all this now is that these patterns are vital to understanding the approach the Liberal Democrats were taking to building up to a general election 2020 and then instead, at a rather expedited rate, fighting the 2017 surprise general election.

The version of liberalism promoted by Liberal Democrats usually feels, at least from a British perspective, closer in spirit to D66 than to the VVD. The party places great emphasis on giving every individual the freedom to be who they wish to be – not only in the negative liberal sense of removing restrictions on civil liberties but also in the positive liberal sense of giving people equal chances in life, especially through investment in education. The party, therefore, sees the exercise of state power as something both necessary and something to be suspicious of. The state is needed to give people equal chances yet can also be over-bearing in its power.

That helps explain the shift in the party’s emphasis in more recent times. After years of huge public spending increases under Tony Blair from 1997 onwards, the political agenda in Britain became much more about how to spend more effectively and how to cut waste. But now after years of cuts, many public services are becoming desperately short of cash, well beyond questions of efficiency. Back, therefore, to questions of how more money can be found for them.

Hence the Liberal Democrats now returning to the party’s guise in the previous 1990s years of Tory governments of pushing for carefully targeted tax increases to provide better public services. The NHS, that greatly beloved institution, is at the centre of this with the party wanting to increase income tax rates by 1p in the pound to fund it better. This is a deliberate echo of the party’s ‘one penny on income tax for education’ signature policy in the 1990s.

In particular, extra funding would go to social care and mental health provision. Neither of these areas are as headline catching as services such as Accident and Emergency or the preservation of local hospitals. But they have both rightly risen up the political agenda, helped in particular by astute campaigning by Liberal Democrat health spokesperson and former minister Norman Lamb.

He has both helped create and tapped into a wider change in attitudes towards mental health in the UK. We are still a very long way away from mental health being seen on a par with physical health issues. The former are still, wrongly, sometimes looked down on as not quite as real or deserving of care as physical health as if a broken leg is not your fault but a struggling mind is. But attitudes are changing and being changed.

One other aspect of Norman Lamb’s work calling for increased taxes to fund a centrally organised public service is worth mentioning. He is one of the ‘Orange Bookers’, often portrayed as right wingers who believe in a smaller state. That Orange Bookers such as him are calling for higher taxes to fund higher public service spending shows just how important that context is.

The other striking example of context is European policy. Long a central part of Liberal Democrat beliefs, it has tended to be downplayed in previous elections for the simple reason that the public did not rate it as an issue near the top of their priorities when deciding who to vote for. Now, however, post-referendum it is a very different matter.

Being pro-European taps into a still very large wellspring of public support in the UK. The challenge is to also make that into a compelling political message at why vote Liberal Democrat. The party’s case is a simple, straightforward one. The 2016 referendum means it is right the government negotiates the terms of Brexit. No-one quite knows what those terms will look like and when they are settled someone will have to decide whether or not the UK should sign up to them. Somebody somewhere will have to say yes or no. Why shouldn’t it be the public who gets to do that?

With both health and Europe set to be major issues for many years to come, the policy approach being set out for the 2017 general election should also provide the foundations for a long-term consistent approach by the Liberal Democrats – crucial for having a chance of cutting through and catching the attention of a public which mostly pays attention to things other than politics.

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