Thursday 2 July 2015

Turning the Lib Dems inside out and upside down

I can’t remember whose joke about the Lamb/Farron leadership contest it was, but I repeat it here. It is a wonderful thing to take part in an election and know that, whoever wins, it’s going to be a Lib Dem.

I’ve even voted already. I’ve been hugely impressed by both leadership candidates and the way they have kept level heads. There have been peculiar incidents but nothing like the ‘calamity Clegg’ business of the last Lib Dem leadership tussle.

I’ve found the focus on what either candidates did or didn’t vote for or against more than frustrating because – in the end – what they did in the past, while interesting, doesn’t really go to the nub of the issue between them. It's an important issue and it needs some resolution.

Which seems to me to be this: should the party shout louder or should it turn itself upside down and inside out?

I’m pretty definitely in the inside out camp. I’m only too aware of how much the future of Liberalism needs to be thought through, how the old slogans seem emptied of meaning, how much thinking has to be done.

Tim Farron is a ferocious campaigner, but I looked at the ‘six steps to rebuild our party’ in his magazine – I don’t know if he wrote them himself – and they really are extraordinarily vacuous.

In some ways, they are a demonstration of the problem: exhausted phrases without underpinning – “defend our values”, “rebuild our base”, “do things better”, “concentrating on winning elections”.

Perhaps emptiest of all is the phrase “grow our membership” – No. 2 of the six points – as if somehow this was a point of issue, or as if there was some particular proposal for doing so.

I feel pretty confident that Tim had little to do with these – the read as if they were written by a random Lib Dem phrase generator – but that’s the problem: I’m sure he has six better steps than this up his sleeve – but why hasn't he set them out?

Norman Lamb on the other hand has a short book which he’s published and which at least has a plan that it might be possible for someone to disagree with.

I've tried to make sure this blog doesn't criticise people individually, and this is emphatically not intended as a criticism of Tim Farron himself, who I'm sure understands this. Also he has written a little more on the subject here.

To be fair to him, the introduction to these six steps hints at something deeper, but the bottom line is this. None of the things the six steps say should be done better - “concentrating on winning elections, building our membership, fundraising, training and development” – can be done without a great deal of rethinking the intellectual underpinnings of Lib Dem policy.

That means turning the party upside down (more thinking) and inside out (open up the party to the outside world) as well.  Otherwise we are in danger of finding ourselves campaigning using a Random Lib Dem Phrase Generator, and that won't feel good. It also won't work.

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