Thursday 30 October 2014

I am standing for the Lib Dem policy committee. This is why.

Why would you, after all? Nights crawling home on the late train. Sitting in interminable debate about the intricacies of social care till way into the dark. Queuing up for half an hour in the rain to get through the equally interminable parliamentary X-ray machines. I’ve done it before and I want to do it again.

Let me explain by describing the email I received from the party a few days ago asking me to respond to a simple question with a one-word answer: what is the issue that will be most important to you at the next election?

Come on, answer – quick, quick? What is it: health? The environment? Immigration?

The odd thing about this survey, and so many other similar surveys where the results were solemnly studied around the committee table in the past, is that it begs so many questions that it isn’t really worth asking.

Is there really any difference between health and the environment, for example?  Does pretending there is misunderstand either issue in some people's minds?

If I say health, what would it mean? That I want the NHS to stay the same as it was in 1978? That I want it to undergo radical change to survive? That I want to privatise it? That I don’t want to privatise it? That I want more or fewer hospitals? That I believe resources should be shifted to prevention instead? That I believe air quality should be improved? That there should be more or fewer targets? Or not?

The answers to every one of these questions are somehow assumed? What does it mean that I think health is important – as I do? Has anybody wondered?

There is far better and more intricate polling being done by political parties these days, including in the Lib Dems. But this apparently simple, actually meaningless, survey betrays the old paint-by-numbers approach to policy – that all political platforms are kneejerk, that there is no new thinking, that it is all about positioning, and positioning from a point of view as free as possible from ideology or meaningful content.

I want to join the FPC (federal policy committee, for the uninitiated) because I don’t believe this. In fact, I don’t believe any political force which believes these boneheaded things can survive.

It is de rigueur to criticise party strategists when you are standing for an internal election, and I know this isn’t fair – they are actually increasingly sophisticated. But there is a fear, deep in the Lib Dems, of ideas. And I want to be at the table to put the opposite point of view as strongly as possible.

The world is about to change fundamentally, as I argued a few days ago. This is not the moment to assume that the existing systems, or the existing compromises, represent the only possible world.

It is particularly important when it comes to economics, the traditional blind spot among Liberals everywhere. The present dispensation is unravelling day by day. Everyone except mainstream economic policy makers understands that change is coming.

I am a Liberal. I believe in the potential of the party I joined in 1979 and the bundle of changing ideas they represent. If the party is going to survive as a potent force, it also has to represent an intellectual force, a force of coherent new ideas that allow us to navigate a safe way through the forces that threaten us.

That is especially so when it comes to inventing an economic dispensation that has some chance of spreading prosperity through the world, rather than hoovering up the available wealth like so many vampire squids.

If the Lib Dems become the cutting edge of policy thinking for the future, setting a bold course for change – and on people’s side, not compromising them for the sake of the survival of existing institutions and technocratic compromises – then the party will come back strongly in the years ahead, and just in time for the big shifts due around 2020.

That’s why I’m asking people to get me into a position where I have some chance of doing something about it. Fingers crossed...

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