The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Meeting the Challenge : The Apollo Project contribution to the debate.

1. Are we trying too hard to be different?

Liberal Democrats need a distinctive set of policies setting us apart from the other parties. At the same time, we need to show that we are concerned about the same things that worry most people. There are areas where our profile is high and our values shared – such as health and the education. Two key areas where we are – let’s be frank – not trusted are crime and the economy.

2. How do people interact?

To simplify, people interact in three ways to meet each other’s needs: free mutual exchange (through markets); altruism and social exchange; taxation and law. Liberals privilege the first two, resorting to the third option only when it is clear that the first two cannot deliver. Intervention through the state ought – for Liberals – to aim first at helping markets and society to deliver social goods, rather than delivering directly.

3. It’s the economy…

We would do well to remember Clinton’s advice to himself. Not just because it is the issue that most worries voters, but because nothing that we wish to do in government will be achieved if the economy is not performing. Inflation, stagnation and unemployment put the State under pressure: Tax revenue goes to pay unemployment benefits; crime becomes a more acute problem.

A performing economy delivers many of the social goods we wish to see provided: employment; a sense of social worth; opportunity; self-development; and prosperity.

We need therefore to put a performing economy at the centre of our policy programme.

4. Prejudging conclusions

At several points the document sets up the context in ways that seem to prejudge the conclusion. The following quotes are examples.

2.1.4 “there has been a growing sense that major corporations exert greater power than ever before…The influence of the media…has also grown”.
There may be such a “growing sense” – but it is not clear that this is the case. Baldwin complained of the power of the press – and Asquith suffered massively from an “anti-German" campaign in the First World War. BT was a far more powerful corporation a decade or so ago than it is today. And the reach of the internet counterbalances media that are – objectively – less powerful than in the past (fewer people read a newspaper or watch television news).
2.2.3 “there is an increasing sense that public institutions are becoming too big, too inhuman…”
Public institutions have long seemed too big to many people. Perhaps the massive spending increases on the NHS mean that perceptions have changed notably in the last few years. But it is hard to resist the conclusion that this is only here because we wish to push our familiar policy prescriptions.
2.2.4 “loss of a sense of control…is a key element of threatened quality of life”
This is probably wrong (when was the golden age when people had this sense of control?). More probably people have responded to a rhetoric describing them as “consumers” of public services by becoming more consumerist in their dealings with the State.
2.3.6 “Britain’s public services have historically been under-funded…British politicians have been too prone to interfere with technical decisions best taken by professionals who understand how to deliver a service”.
The first half of this is an astonishing statement (what percentage of GDP do we think should be spent on public services?). The second provides an interesting critique of UK governments – but runs counter to the sentiments of 2.2.4 on a “loss of control”. Perhaps a better description of the context might be that the British state has been trying to do too much in recent years – and so spreading itself too thinly – and that New Labour has concentrated on the short-term and on headline-hunting.

A more evidence-based approach to establishing the context – quoting statistics rather than disembodied opinions – would have made this a better basis for reviewing our policies.

5. The danger of the abstract noun

The Liberal Democrat vision is set out in chapter 4 in the form of six abstract nouns: Freedom; Fairness; Localism; Internationalism; Sustainablity; and Prosperity. They are all concepts dear to Liberal Democrats. We should be careful about the weight we expect them to bear. Freedom and Fairness mean different things to different people. Localism and Internationalism appear to be in conflict to most people.

If we had to pick a set of abstract nouns to typify our programme a better set might be Prosperity, Progress and Participation. But the point is that we should not do so. We should turn our ideas into sentences that mean something to ordinary (non-doctrinaire) people. Pierre Trudeau’s old phrase about the State having no place in the bedroom of the people is a good example of how to put forward Liberal ideas.

The document at times sees freedom as the telos (4.1.2, for example). Freedom is a key word for Liberals and this is not an argument for dropping it but for explaining it. It is equally true that Liberalism sees freedom – the free choice of informed individuals – as a means to achieving prosperity and progress. Society and the economy benefits when individuals exercise free choice. It would be good to be clear about this.

Key policy areas

The economy

What is the context? The economy has done well for many years. But we have not closed the productivity gap, public sector inflation (particularly in the Health Service) has been high because public services have not been able to absorb the flood of extra spending, and both public and state are carrying significant debts. North Sea oil is running out faster than expected and pensions liabilities are likely to provoke a crisis across Europe in the near future. It is possible that the economy will hit serious trouble before the next election.

The market provides many of the social goods Liberal Democrats most value: prosperity, opportunity, and employment. To maintain growth the Liberal Democrats will seek to simplify and reduce the level of taxation (and the more the economy grows the easier it will be to reduce the share of public spending in GDP). A Liberal Democrat government should seek to raise the thresholds at which tighter regulations apply to larger firms, allowing small firms to grow further without regulatory overload. Action at European level may be necessary to achieve this.

We should raise tax thresholds (if possible so that people pay no tax until they reach the minimum wage) and seek to reduce the cost of Employers National Insurance Contributions and other employment costs.

We will need to find savings in the public sector and to reduce regulation more generally. We should focus on schemes like SureStart where evaluation suggests that value added is minimal or non-existent, and on the countless New Labour initiatives that litter the landscape.


We should introduce vouchers to help fund pre-school care, and will provide financial incentives to encourage carers to provide an introduction to a second language, so that children learn when it easiest for them to absorb a language.

We should encourage schools to introduce or retain school uniforms, house systems, and competitive sports. We should replace “A” levels with a broader-based certificate at eighteen, with greater intellectual stimulation for the brightest pupils. Parents should - in urban areas at least - be offered a choice of single- or mixed-sex education for their children. School needs to become more rewarding for both pupils and teachers, and we should seek to increase the prestige of the teaching profession and ensure that teachers are well-qualified and academically able.

Schools should focus on mathematics and English – the key skills all young people will need throughout their lives and throughout their careers. They must play a role in ensuring that young people see a future for themselves, and in fighting the worrying level of teenage pregnancies (linked to low aspirations).

Labour markets will continue to provide an incentive for more young people to go to university. The public sector as employer can do a great deal to reduce this pressure by refusing to go along with the credentialist trends of the private sector. A further increase in student numbers is unlikely to benefit the economy, and we should seek to restrain the growth in student numbers, and to maintain standards.

Crime and delinquency

We must fight crime at the roots. Education and housing policy have a role to play, and we should seek to ensure that drug-users do not become dependent on crime by allowing addictive drugs to be prescribed more easily to established users. We should beware of the tendency for ASBOs to criminalise relatively normal teenage behaviour, while showing solidarity with urban communities under pressure.

Violent crime should be punished severely and the right to vote should not be extended to such prisoners. But we should reverse the tendency of politicians to interfere in sentencing decisions: juries should decide the facts and judges should sentence prisoners.

We should launch a Royal Commission on the effectiveness of the police force. This should consider police methods, manpower management, investigation techniques, and recruitment and seek learn lessons from countries with better records than the UK.

ID cards will do nothing to fight crime and will make daily life more bureaucratic and difficult. We should oppose their introduction and campaign for their withdrawal.


We should oppose the schemes for Prescott houses. New builds should be relatively high specification and energy efficient houses. We should maximise use of the existing building stock, and invest in regenerating the worst areas of urban Britain. We should recognise that the market can have a key role here.

Public spending and effective policy

Labour and Conservatives have had a shared aimed of having the state constantly present in our lives. As a result they have supported policies and policy instruments that alleviate problems (at best) but do not tackle them at the root. We should commit ourselves to policies that work – and thus to scrapping policies that do not work. We should use the market and competition not in the Tory way – to help the rich – but in a Liberal way to reflect the choices and capture the energy of all citizens.

Our aim should be to slowly and steadily reinforce society and shrink the state. Gordon Brown has grown it from 37 to 45% of GDP. We should aim to grow society and the exchange economy so that - in the long term - tax forms 33% of GDP.
posted by Apollo Project @ 9:59 am  
  • At 03 November, 2005 22:10, Anonymous old fashioned leftie said…

    Why the obsession with cutting taxes and scraping an ever-diminishing public-sector barrel for yet more "savings"? It is unclear how you will “grow” society at the same time as damaging public goods and the people that rely on them. All experience shows that reducing the size of the State and letting the market rip leads to corresponding rises in inequality, and, in the UK, has fostered the belief that we are not a “society” but just a collection of atomised “consumers”. (And if you’re asking us not to “mind the gap”, then how will you find the solution which you are rightly seeking to the problem of housing exclusion?) And please don’t pre-judge Sure Start; it may well prove its economic value in the future, and anyway already demonstrates a huge quality-of-life value.

    If you witness the amazing abundance of material goods for private consumption – cheap air travel, the proliferation of SUV’s and other traffic, IPODs, mobile phones, disposable cameras, make-overs, good food thrown away because it is not cosmetically perfect – how can you argue that we as a society cannot afford essential public goods in equal abundance?

  • At 08 November, 2005 10:22, Blogger Liberal Neil said…

    Do you really think Mathematics and English are the key skills children need later in life.

    I agree that they are very important, English is particularly important in order to be able to continue to learn, but surely social skills, the ability to work with people, thinking skills, the ability to argue, creativity etc. are equally important if children are to get on in life?

  • At 08 November, 2005 13:38, Blogger Peter Pigeon said…


    Nothing is better for you in later life than Maths, strangely enough.

    Of course I would want everything from education - I've stressed foreign languages - but I think it is fair to say that English and Maths are the keys to many other things. Certainly the PISA studies suggest this. If you can read well you unlock a huge amount of information.

    I would - personally - prefer to have children tackle this than start learning IT and business studies.

    OFL - I think that the State should do fewer things and do them better. I don´t buy the argument that State and Market are in conflict. The VAT on all those dispoable goods goes to pay for schools and hosptials. And all the people who work making them, importing them, and selling them are receiving a benefit - as well as those of who decide that this is the best way they can use their money.

    I'd like to see more tax levied on resource depletion and less on work - but that is a different piont.

  • At 09 November, 2005 00:19, Anonymous Old Fashioned Leftie said…

    There has and will always be a conflict between the claims of the market and those of the state/society - JK Galbraith highlighted it when he commented that people like to buy the latest vacuum cleaners but not to pay taxes for street cleaning - ending up with spotless homes and filthy streets.

    I do agree with environmental taxation - the apparent state of hyper-abundance is an unsustainable illusion, and may well well, when it ends, lead to a profound questioning of the triumphalism of markets.

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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.


The Apollo Project seeks to put together new ideas on policies and campaigning to help broaden the appeal and enhance the impact of the Liberal Democrats.

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