Wednesday, 30 November 2011

LibDems - be clear who you are or die!

Recently, in the days after party conference season, some LibDem bloggers asked who are we as a party.  For these are turbulent times.  The global economy is stagnating, Europe is in crisis and Scotland's place in the UK is being questioned.

There is no doubt the last 18 months have been a disaster for the LibDems.  But we are in government and in Scotland have a job to do in opposition but also have a job to define our place and our role in Scottish politics.

At this turbulent time we need to define who we are.  The electorate are confused and I think we are suffering an identity crisis at times.  Defining this is crucial in our journey back. 

It seems to me the LibDems established themselves as a non socialist alternative to the Conservative party over a period of 50-60 years. This places us slightly left of centre. The last couple of years, and Clegg’s leadership in particular, have driven a coach and horses through this positioning and the result is some confusion as to who we are – both internally and externally.

However, I think the detailed polling figures over the years highlight that the debate can move on. It is not sufficient to plough the same furrow of being Labour lite – penny on the pound of income tax for education and so on – indefinitely.

Indeed, under Charles Kennedy we positioned ourselves as in some ways to the left of Labour.

Then came the Orange Book.  As I understand it the Orange Book was all about trying to find a new way moving forward – it was never a credo of the ‘right wing’ of the party and economic liberals.  Styling it like that was to mis-understand the book.

The dangers of this period of coalition government are becoming clear.  On the one hand Cameron and the Conservatives love bombing the LibDems to oblivion, while on the other, the danger of burning our bridges with social democrats, and anyone with left of centre instincts.

What are the LibDems to do?  The need to win over one nation Conservatives for ourselves leaving the Tories to neo Cons and ‘Little Englanders’ has been highlighted. At the same time, there is also the need to win those on the left with our core appeal to the non socialist left of centre. And our appeal to liberals of course.

As I have argued in a number of posts, I think the starting point is to decide who we are. It has been highlighted that while many ‘feel’ they share our values there is real confusion as to who we are. If we decide who we are, from this work we can discern a range of broad and detailed policy themes, as well as a narrative and an analysis of our society and economy.

After this is clear we can work on the positioning and the political strategy.

However, what is clear is that we must be clear of who we are and what we are for – because right now there is some confusion and it has the potential to kill us.

We do so from being centre left or progressive

We don't think private enterprise is necessarily bad.

We are neither socialist nor neo-con nor nationalist

In fact we think a strong economy underpins everything, but we are not neo-cons or libertarians.  So we believe in intervention and public services free at the point of delivery to provide true equality of opportunity and to equalise the odds.

This is tough if you have to cut to rebuild the economy - as we do, now more than ever.

What we have been able to do is targetted interventions and increases in public spending to equalise the odds and to solve the problems that need solved.

  • The protection of the NHS
  • Working as a party to stand against the draconian work capability assessments for Employment and Support Allowance.
  • Increasing pensions by over £5 a week (Labour managed 75p), implementing automatic pension rights for workers - often for the first time in smaller companies and having in Steve Webb the best Pensions Minister in a generation.
  • A more targetted approach of the pupil premium making education more accessible to more disadvantaged kids
  • More pre school education - a vital stage
  • I would still dearly like us to find a way to reduce or eliminate tuition fees for tertiary education - and this remains our stance in Scotland where we originally delivered it.
  • More apprentices than under Labour
  • Income tax that helps the low paid 
  • Pushing back on removing employment rights in larger firms
  • Support and resourcing for developing renewable energy
  • Development of the Green Bank
Perhaps most of all, when faced with no clear winner after the last General Election we were prepared to take responsibility and form a government and do the difficult things that probably need to be done in a very changed world economy.  Indeed in Vince cable we had a minister who was prepared to understand the magnitude of the problem and tell the truth about the difficulties we face.

Above all we are an adult party prepared to do what is practical and seek evidence based solutions rather than retreat to tired tribal positions - or to lack courage to do what needs to be done.  It is not student politics!

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