The problem with demanding the Liberal Democrats be more radical or more distinctive

Particularly in the aftermath of a general election, you hear lots of Liberal Democrats saying that the party needs to more radical or more distinctive. Or, as this views are often played out on the internet these days, MORE RADICAL!!!

The problem is what often comes next: the favourite policy idea of the person making this call. (A policy, which by lucky chance, is the policy they’ve always thought was a good idea even well before the election result.)

Often in the past that policy has been the decriminalisation of cannabis, although other policies across political reform, housing and taxation are also favourites. Yet in the 2017 general election we had just that in our manifesto. Not only was it in there, it received a deluge of local, regional and national media coverage. So much so that the Britain Thinks focus groups showed it was one of the very few things about the party which actually cut through to voters and got their attention, overcoming the women’s hockey problem.

And of course the result of the party adopting a distinctive policy, discarding decades of Conservative-Labour consensus to propose a radical, evidence-based reform which the public supported was that the Liberal Democrats rode to a landslide victory… oh hang on…

Individual policies certainly can make a dramatic impact, but it’s when they symbolise something wider about the party. Hence the Lib Dem problem with tuition fees, much though that is surround by myth over both the politics and the impact of it. Or why Tony Blair’s hard-line law and order approach worked so well for New Labour’s early days.

In both cases one policy spoke to a wider sense of who the party was.

Reverse the usual Lib Dem approach

Which of course brings us to my core votes theme. What the Liberal Democrat need to do is be clear about who we are trying to appeal to (only despots aspire to the support of 100%), the overall message we have for those people – and then the policies which illustrate and substantiate that message.

Far easier to say than do, of course, but one element is straight-forward – that ordering of target, message, policy which is the reverse of what the party has traditionally done.

It’s an issue Jim Williams and I have talked about in more detail in our pamphlet, Reinventing the Liberal Democrats.

23 responses to “The problem with demanding the Liberal Democrats be more radical or more distinctive”

  1. And yet our leadership didn’t get nearly enough chance to talk about cannabis reform, or our better policies on social security and the NHS, or why we desperately needed firmer opposition to Brexit, because we were saddled with a fudged EU policy that took too long to explain and because we were running in too triangulated a manner, trying to riff off Corbyn’s percieved weakness (eg that repeated line early in the campaign about there being a “vacancy for leader of the opposition”) rather than hammer down clearly and firmly what we were for. That’s the issue here – having a radically liberal manifesto needs to go along with a campaigning style that places us in a more clearly separate position to the main two parties.

    • Cannabis reform was one of the very few things the public noticed about us (see the Britain Thinks focus groups). So the idea that it didn’t win us votes because we didn’t talk about it nearly enough seems an odd conclusion to draw when, most unusually, the public had actually noticed this policy about ourselves?

      • I did quite a bit of leafletting in the 2017 General Election; the only LD policy I recall being raised on the doorstep as a purported reason for not voting for us was cannabis decriminalisation

      • Also, when delivering, I only got one person saying that he was changing his vote to us and that was because of the cannabis policy. Admittedly, he was wheelchair bound and, I suspect, was interested in medicinal use.

        Others will have other anecdotes. A controversial policy will always gain and lose votes. We could use poling evidence to decide policies but I prefer evidence based policy making!

  2. Absolutely agree that key messages should be prioritised and individual policies should not create distraction. As such discipline is needed. However, many different people make up the membership and the wider electorate and a sanitised manifesto will not be successful either as people will see it as such. So genuine and well thought-theough policies should be the way forward imho. The cannabis policy was always going to be a distraction and a turn-off for some voters but it was no doubt a genuine policy, so the voter loss had to be taken on the chin. However, serious consideration should be paid to the risks of this kind of policy.

  3. New Lib Dem commenting:
    The Lib Dems should stand for the centre ground;
    1) Just and fair economic policies which are also practical and grounded in the way our society works.
    2) Internationalist; especially keeping their EU bias, as the first port of call to the rest of the world; and not afraid to federalize up if the issue demands it.
    3) Liberal in the broad sense of accepting all people without prescribing for them. Only intolerant of intolerance.
    4) Stick to your guns!

  4. What the Lib Dems need is to associate liberal values to the every day life of the average voter. We are a liberal country with liberal values and yet we have not been able to link our values to the wider public perception – that there is one party with liberal views (similar to theirs) and that is us.

    The Tories have their class alignment – you think of Tories you visualise well off people (or those who aspire to it) etc, with labour it is (possibly) nationalism, supporting the working class (as I am limited for comment I outrageously generalise). What comes to mind, for the average voter, when we mention Liberal Democrats. I don’t see class, any grouping, aspirational links. Because of this, I believe, we are in a void and why our message (which is good) is having a hard time sticking.

  5. I totally agree with this. In fact one of the reasons I left the party for a while was that I felt it had become merely a home for a lot of pet causes, but with the main parties at that time (2010) competing for the centre the various pet causes were all that was holding the party together. I felt at the time that there was more room for liberalism in the Labour Party. Needless to say, things have changed since then, and while I don’t think our party should be merely a compromise between the two major parties ultimately, for the short term there is right now a gapping hole in the sensible centre of politics that is begging to be filled, and an enormous loss of opportunity if we aren’t the party that does it. Long term we need to be about more than that, but it needs to be about a broad philosophy, a getting back to the spirit of liberalism as an better progressive than Marxist based socialism. And we need to think about what our future vision is and why it is better than that of the other parties. But a centrist party is right now something very much needed, and filling the need needn’t be a big compromise in principles, because the left right axis isn’t really what our principles are about. It would be great also if we could be seen as the one kind party in this disgusting sea of hatefulness in the other parties. We care about people and quality of life, not just who owns the means of production. We need to be the party that listens.

  6. We can be distinctive without being radical. Indeed in this increasing polarised politics the middle ground and “sensible” approach will win votes. When people start thinking, “I agree with that”, we start winning.

    • ‘We’re the sensible, moderate lot’ was a large part of the SDP and then Alliance message, and indeed Obama’s message too. I’m not convinced it’s the right message for these times (and of course the Alliance didn’t break through in the end)?

      • I agree with the caveat that Vince’s pragmatic educated voice on Brexit & economicw is going over very well. He’s one of the few grown ups in the room (together with leaders of other non Labour progressives) and that makes him distinctive whilst hitting all the right notes with voters who might swing between Tory & LibDem.

        That threat to the Tory moderate seats is what in my view is causing this studied attack on LibDems from the right wing media. Cannabis, throwing Farron’s religious views in there even though May’s are far, far worse for gay people etc.

        The radicalism needs to be in areas where others aren’t. Parliamentary Reform would be high on my list. Not Lords reform necessarily although I don’t see that as a problem. Instead I’m referring to drag parliamentary structures and process and codes of conduct out of the dark ages. For one thing bellowing like idiots in the chamber in very sexist behaviour. Then there’s the issue of the rules governing committees and so forth that have been so easily flouted and then the practicalities such as MPs wasting hours of their day just sitting around waiting to be called.

        Then there are areas where more distinctiveness can be built in. Housing policy is of course a concern for all parties but there’s potential to come up with innovative solution such the modernisation of housing architecture, issues such as the lack of provision for places of beauty and open spaces (parks etc) in planning process. Issues like new housing estates having roads that are far too narrow. Things that people actually find very annoying and would easily find themselves nodding along. You need to find a way of making people begin to think they identify with something in order to draw them in.

        Then there’s the challenges of messaging complex policies that rely of complex evidence to contradict what people already believe to be true. We get bogged down in the details because we like the details but at election time people won’t give you that much time to explain yourself.

        Don’t be afraid to target young people with modernist, internationalist policies. Tuition fees were a problem but as much of a problem as Corbyn being pro Brexit? No in my opinion. The best PM rating for Corbyn among young people are falling steadily.

        Being unashamedly pro EU has at least drawn more members. That has to be a good thing. Early days but encouraging signs.

        I think the current NHS messaging is very good. People care and are willing to listen on this subject. Similar work could be done with regards to issues such as LibDem policies benefiting most working people more that Labour policies. That’s seems quite easy to boil down into a few illuminating facts.

      • A good contribution — sensible notions sensibly expressed (if I may say so.) But I believe it shares with many others the natural, but ( I believe), aberrant approach of looking at topics one at a time. I believe our approach should be much broader and more comprehensive. Let us stop working out how to mend A, tweak B, abolish C and reverse D, and instead look at today’s problematic alphabet of A + B+C . . . .+Z, and spot how they interact in complex ways which , once recognised, suggest solutions combining to make a different, better, alphabet

        Two examples may help. The first is not new, exactly, but it is familiar. Urgent patients wait on trolleys in corridors. This can be solved, very short-term, by treating them in their ambulances. That would be humorous if it were not true. And at the same time, recovering patients block beds, delaying treatments. Two neighbouring problems — so neighbouring that even the Tories have seen a glimmer, and are now attempting to deal with A+B together, because solving one solves the other too.

        For the second example, would this work? Economists and other social and political scientists tell us that soon thousands of jobs will be lost to robots and A.I. Others say you cannot get the staff or labour (call it what you will) to run the care homes that would end the bed-blocking. Solution: here are jobs for those displaced by robots. Or, brexit is drying up the supply of immigrant nurses: solution, train our own — a new career for those replaced by robots.
        And I believe what we want is not an ever-rising GDP — especially when it is so unfairly shared out — but a more equal and more sociable economic world of generosity and variety and community.

        I would go on, but now simply suggest that our current ills of loneliness and poverty and sickness will be more thoroughly and wholesomely alleviated by looking back, looking forward, and
        spotting the chances offered by the changing world.

        Of course, those two suggestions are simplistic; but they do have other merits. Most of us, surely, would prefer to be nursed by our compatriots, speaking our language, understanding our jokes and our shynesses?

        In short, we should ask ourselves what we as a nation want, and which way the wind is blowing, and trim our sails accordingly, instead of wailing and being assured by stupid government that we can’t afford oars or rowers.

  7. The demand to BE RADICAL is a demand for change and hope, for a different and better future, not incremental improvements in the centre ground. Obama, Sanders and Corbyn both tapped into this yearning. Even Trump did. Clinton didn’t.

    I believe liberalism offers the freedom to be who you want to be. It may simply be to have a decent standard of living. It may be much more ambitious than that. Many people are frustrated and don’t feel they have that personal freedom to be who they want to be. It requires a supportive society with effective public services and infrastructure, open mindedness to the world, protection of our environment. A radical change from the status quo which is fractured, unfair and inward looking. This is our target. It requires radical policies.

  8. Open. Internationalist. Fair trade, mutual benefits. Education to help achieve people’s full potential. Change mindset from GDP growth to sustainable growth. The Energy Transition, combating climate change.
    Technology to achieve high quality of life, not income. Underpinned by peace and cooperation, collaboration, where benefits are shared leaving no-one left behind, squeezing out extremism and terrorism.

  9. I always say that I am liberal and democratic and also radical and progressive. I believe that we should keep it simple, specific and strategic; establish Core Campaigns:
    1. Create a federal United Kingdom to be at the heart of a confederated Europe
    2. Codify the constitution to promote peace, security and well being
    3. Reform money with a post fractional banking system to underpin a stable economy
    4. Educate citizens to fulfil their role in a liberal and democratic state
    5. Invest in physical and cyber infrastructure to build a sustainable society
    6. Husband the planet to preserve the physical environment

  10. Many of the same people who want us to be Radical & Distinctive also complain that we keep banging on about Brexit, the one major policy where we are clearly both. Our opposition to Brexit is Radical in that it goes against the common opinion that the decision has already been taken, its distinctive from both The Tories & Labour. We need to keep banging on & we need to keep it simple.

  11. FIRST. Catch Your Feeling: “People Proceed by Feelings”
    Why, Emotionally and Siritually, does something feel necessary? the right thing to do? a good thing to do? the progressive thing to do? . . .
    DEVISE POLICY. Rational, evidence-based and principled.
    Evoke vision and feeling. Present policy. “People Proceed by Feelings”
    THEN. Persuade, by rational, costed and credible justification.

  12. The problem with the cannabis policy was that it appeared to be the one stand-alone radical policy and conveyed that we liked drugs rather than that we were radical or liberal. The party may also have failed to get across just how carefully the policy had been researched and debated.

    To be radical, we need several distinctive, brave policies that appear to form a coherent whole. Our headline policies should help to convey a coherent image of what we’re about.

    In 1974, when the Liberal Party was widely seen as radical and in February got a higher percentage of the vote than the Liberal Democrats ever have, devolution was a key theme and that did help answer the question “What do you stand for?”. Devolution should still be a distinctively Liberal theme. A properly-planned further education credits policy (New Labour tried this and messed it up through arrogance and contempt for traditional providers, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t work), strong measures to reduce our carbon footprint, particularly empowering local communities to act, strong measures to empower employees, a radical simplification of the agency-cluttered health and social care system…

    I’m offering these because if I’d stopped at my second para, a natural reaction would be “Fine in theory, but he couldn’t answer which policies could meet this test”.

  13. How many voters actually read a manifesto? I think ‘Radical & distinctive’ are not in context here. A lot of the Lib Dem policies are distinctive, progressive and radical, but who knows about them? We don’t need more radical – just a louder voice communicating what we’ve already got! The recent party political broadcast with Vince Cable talking to camera about the NHS was good at getting the message out. We need more of this, with the likes of Jo Swinson, Ed Davey, and our other MPs banging the drum for each of our progressive policies, letting the voters know that the Lib Dems are here and are more that a one policy party. Everyone knows our Brexit stance but are scared to follow what they think is a one policy approach, seeing the current self-destruction of UKIP. Let’s give the voters more information about what else they will be voting for.

  14. The problem with radical policies is that when presented on their own they will likely only generate support from a minority of voters. Most people don’t like radical change, even if they claim to want it. Instead, radical policies need to be framed in such a way that when presented to voters they appeal directly to their values and priorities.

    The cannabis policy is a great example of this. The headline policy was ‘legalise cannabis’ and many voters will not have seen beyond that. Some will have agreed, some won’t. Many will not have been able to get past the generic ‘drugs are bad’ message that they’ve had drummed into them since childhood and so will have written us off as irresponsible hippies who just want to get headlines.

    However, framed differently it may have had a more positive impact on a larger number of people. For example, a pledge to increase NHS budgets by legalising and taxing cannabis would get people thinking in terms of the NHS, not in terms of ‘drugs’. They might see us as a party that has found a way to increase health spending in a way that doesn’t cost them a penny. Add to that the additional health and societal benefits of regulating the cannabis market and suddenly the policy could have a much broader appeal.

  15. I think the key to winning elections is realising that no one person holds all or any of the answers. It is only through a team approach with various viewpoints represented can anything resembling a coherent approach be achieved. In a group of say 20 people there will be sufficient diversity of views that a compromise policy strategy be achieved that appeals to sufficient of the electorate.

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