Monday 14 March 2016

Do the Lib Dems need a big idea? My answer is...

On Friday night, I was in York for the Liberal Democrat spring conference. A strange experience – no lobbyists, no sharp-suited corporate exhibitors, no thinktanks and no press. But a surprisingly large number of bright and energetic young people in search of a big idea.

These generally speaking, were not in great evidence at the Lib Dem History Group fringe meeting about Ideas that Built the Party – but the meeting was nonetheless lively and worthwhile.

I was dressed as much as possible like Nehru and speaking next to Nick Thornsby and Teena Lashmore, but found myself debating with the one person in the room I normally agree with – the former MP and Liberal thinker Michael Meadowcroft.

We argued about the need for precisely this Big Idea to progress the party.

And I agreed with him.  Big ideas can get fetishised, and usually do. They tend to miss the point, like targets. Michael was spot on when he said the essence of Liberalism wasn’t about big ideas; it was defence of the human spirit. He was right.

But I’ve been thinking about it since, as I took – by some terrible oversight – the Virgin Trains service back to the south (I had a book to finish writing and one or two things on my mind and I wasn’t concentrating).

And I decided there is something else to say.

Because there are also dangers about avoiding big policy ideas for Liberals. It makes us look as though we are not so much a crusade for the human spirit as a mild ginger group to agonise about it.  Or a sharp-suited policy to somehow finesse it in the corridors of power.

Without a Big Idea, Lib Dems are in danger of becoming what I sometimes fear they are already – a strange cult dedicated to the worship of existing institutions, without change. A sitting duck for whatever populist or petty Trump comes along next.

Big ideas challenge that perception.  And here’s a brief history of the Liberal big ideas since 1859 (so brief that it’s actually just a list):

Free trade (Gladstone etc)
Three acres and a cow (land reform) (Chamberlain)
Old age pensions (Asquith/Lloyd George)
We can conquer unemployment (Keynesian economics) (Lloyd George)
United Nations/European Union (Sinclair)
Social security (Beveridge’s original vision) (well, Beveridge, I suppose?)
The counterculture revolt against central planning (Grimond)
Proportional representation (Thorpe/Steel)
A penny on income tax for education (Ashdown)

The thing is that there is actually a big idea coming, one that can turn around the propensity for modern economics to concentrate all power into a tiny number of hands (and call it ‘efficiency’). I wouldn’t want us to agonise about it for so long, and compromise its power so that we look ‘realistic’ or ‘pragmatic’, that some other political tradition picks it up and enacts it. And does so like Beveridge's plan was enacted - badly, so it may not survive...

And I have a feeling that the big idea is going to be both a guarantee of Liberal economic diversity and a method of self-determination for everyone. It is a basic income.

I don’t know how it will be organised, whether out of taxation or created in the form of Quantitative Easing. I don’t know when it will arrive. It may not be until my dotage.

But it is coming. It is the next step forward in Liberal civilisation and it will provide real security and real dynamism far better than the retro attempt to seize the nation on behalf of a previous era by the Johnsongove.

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Gareth Wilson said...

Land Value Taxation - A classic liberal crusade that is never more pertinent today. Combine this with a properly funded national social housing initiative and we could solve the biggest issue of the day - the price of housing and the ever increasing gap between owners and renters.

That'd be my pitch.

Anonymous said...

Good luck with getting the party to unite behind any significant new idea, big or small.

Judging by what's recently happened over All Women Shortlists, fracking and cannabis, the tendency seems to be rather for the party to split into opposing camps.

housescheaperbettermore said...

We had a Big Idea -- AV. Then Nick blew it in the Referendum. It should have been a resigning issue (it was for me).

By all means campaign for Basic Citizen's Income, but it must be funded by QE.

Nick said...

There are a group of us working to try and push forward Basic Income within the party, and looking at the social security policy paper due in September as a good time to bring it out. Facebook group here if you're interested:

Iain Coleman said...

I agree. Basic income is a big, distinctive idea that clearly and straightforwardly benefits a large number of people. If we want to get people noticing us again, it's exactly the sort of thing we should do.

And with respect to Gareth, my attempts to explain the benefits of LVT to anyone who isn't a policy wonk have left me convinced that it's a non-starter in terms of winning the support of a broader public.