The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Thursday, September 15, 2005
The Vision Thing
by Jabez Clegg

Erin O'Brien over at Great Court has picked up on a recent Guardian Article by Nick Clegg MP examining the prospects for those contesting the Tory leadership election, and their potential impact on the battle between the Tories and the Lib Dems to replace Labour.

She argues that:

"There is a greater freedom of not being pigeon-holed into the ‘Government’ or the ‘Opposition’ slot that can allow the Lib Dems to pursue policies and to encourage debate on ideas that would otherwise not be immediately palatable to a party seeking to gain government. For me, the political prize is a third party that does not need to present policies, but can present ideas, and a party that does not need to fall to the nit-picking of costed options between government and opposition, but that can challenge the assumptions and logic that underpin those plans."

While there should be space in politics for people to "think outside the box", I cannot agree that the Lib Dems should operate in the way she suggests.

One of the charges levelled at the party is that its MPs operate in an ideological vacuum, and consequently behave like glorified County Councillors. "What are the Lib Dems really for?" goes the refrain from our opponents and the media. Too often the party has not known what it is for and has attracted people who are not interested in political power. This has shown in the past when our manifestos were prepared; they were disjointed, contradictory, and full of holes. They were also ripped to shreds when subjected to serious scrutiny, but when we had 20 or fewer MPs it didn’t matter so much. Now we have over 60 MPs, it matters much more.

The equivocal 2005 election result that delivered more MPs, but fewer than expected, has prompted a large-scale debate around that whole question, and the forthcoming conference in Blackpool will thrust it to the forefront.

What is clear is that clever, talented, relatively young MPs like Nick Clegg did not give up promising careers to spend life in permanent opposition. They enaged in party politics to see their ideas implemented. And not just watered down, piecemeal implementation by the other two main parties, borrowing these ideas for half-hearted electoral advantage - they have a clear philosophy and coherent policy portfolio that they wish to see put before the country and implemented in its entireity.

That requires electoral success, and the Lib Dems will only make the step from Guerilla fighters at the margins of politics to mainstream political operators if they behave and think like a government in waiting.

We need to identify a coherent, sound, tested vision of what we stand for and design a policy platform around it - then convince the British people of its fitness for government. Party politics is about achieving power and using it to implement policies that we believe will be better for the country; members who fight shy of this idea should join a debating society or pressure group.

Lets leave muddled thinking in the past where it belongs – sharp, consistent policy is the way forward.
posted by Apollo Project @ 5:44 pm  
  • At 16 September, 2005 09:58, Blogger Erin said…

    Sharp, inconsistent policy is not mutually exclusive to a political push that is not necessarily for government. I'm often frustrated with the belief of people in the UK that political power is all about being the party in government, when this is clearly not true. The Lib Dems could (and sometimes do) wield a significant amount of influence on the direction and implementation of policies of the government, and more should be made of this by Lib Dem MPs emphasising the intellectual and philosophical underpinning of key debates and policies in Parliament.

    I don't envisage an internal talking shop or debating society. I do envisage a party questioning the motives and long-term vision behind the direction of this country. That is less piece-meal than a populist-policy by dog-whistle-plan style approach.

    I should say now that despite my Aussie background I'm not promoting the idea of coalition, and I do think the Lib Dems should take a strong role in opposing the government's plans (particularly when the 'other' opposition isn't). But I am suggesting a more constructive approach to opposition politics. Of course the young Lib Dem MPs are getting into politics with a wish to make a positive change and see their party's policies and ideas implemented. But being in government is not the only way to do that.

    Long term, being in government should of course be the goal, but in the short term I don't believe there is a need to take the approach of the Tories or Labour in setting out costed policies that allow no room for local interpretation/implementation in order to spread the overall vision of the Lib Dems.

    I suppose it depends whether or not you see it as a race to the finish line, or as a slow but steady walk in which you attempt to do useful things along the way. Less exciting as it may be, I see it as the latter.

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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.


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