Jeremy Browne: absolutely right

From an interview the Liberal Democrat Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne gave the Evening Standard this week:

I think there is a danger that we are defined by a relatively small set of issues that are relevant and significant but do not give a rounded picture of what the Liberal Democrats are in government in order to achieve.

As he rightly says, there’s a danger in the events of 2011 that the party ends up leaving just that impression:

It would be a mistake for the Lib-Dems to come to be known in the public minds as the party that in 2011 was the party that was in favour of AV and EU.

Being known only for those two policies would certainly be a mistake. As to what else the party should communicate, Jeremy Browne says:

I want us to communicate with more enthusiasm than on any other subject our desire to see a meritocratic, liberal, opportunity society where people regardless of the wealth of their parents can maximise their potential and thrive and prosper.

Here I disagree with him somewhat for, as I’ve written before, there are major problems with taking social mobility as the party’s core message:

“Social mobility” certainly is a phrase that many in policy-making and government circles use but, rather like “street furniture”, despite being popular in such circles it is almost never used by people outside such circles. You don’t get many people talking about how great the “street furniture” is near the flat they have just moved to nor about their hopes for the future “social mobility” of their children or grandchildren.

It would be intriguing to see quite what most people actually think the phrase means. I have a strong hunch that many people would associate improving “mobility” with getting more people to move, thinking it is just a phrase about housing policies. But regardless, when politicians lapse into vocabulary that is not found on the doorstep, it is normally time for the politicians to reach for a new vocabulary if they want to use phrases that have the power of explanation and persuasion.

The phrase also has the problem that mobility is not a one-way process – it means people moving down just as it also means people moving up. Talking up how we want people to move down is not an obvious route to political success.

But even aside from these messaging problems, the phrase leaves untouched the core question of how bothered – or not – we are about overall levels of inequality. A highly mobile and high unequal society is possible to imagine, and is one that would sit comfortably with the urgings of right-wing economists such as Milton Friedman. It was Friedman who, at the start of his famous TV series, justified inequality as long as it was accompanied by high social mobility.

Talking of social mobility has some tactical uses when in coalition with the Conservatives, given this resulting common ground. But a highly socially mobile, Friedman-style society is not a Liberal Democrat one.

Those problems are surmountable, but so far the party shows only limited signs of doing so. Moreover, whilst Jeremy Browne deserves credit for avoiding the dreaded phrase “social mobility” itself, the language he uses does not match up with that you hear from other Liberal Democrat ministers, even ones particularly good at putting over a coherent view of what Liberal Democrats in government means.

As with party conference, the party continues to face a problem of many people saying sort of roughly somewhat a bit the same things rather than having a clear and consistent message.

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