...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Day 2567: A Society Willing to Take Risks


"A Society Willing to Take Risks" was the phrase used by Councillor Cathy Bakewell in her response to the challenges and opportunities for the Liberal Democrats.

Wouldn't it be FANTASTIC to see that on a MANIFESTO? It would scare the PANTS off the other Parties! Fewer rules; less nannying: what WOULD they do?

We'd already heard from Mr Clogg, a good speech with a couple of "sharp intake of breath" moments from the audience. But you know all that, because it was in the news. What you REALLY want to know is how we go forwards from here.

And this was why we'd gone along to the Liberal Democrats' Mini Manifesto Conference, where we all got to take part, listen and contribute our own ideas back again. There were also a dozen parallel sessions to choose from, so we couldn't go to them all. (I decided to send my daddies along to hear about how to sell PR in the morning and to see Mr Brian and discuss policies for London in the afternoon.)

But the morning was very much given over to the "where do we go from here" question, and we were joined by two guests from outside the Party to give us an alternative perspective.

Mr Matthew Anaconda opened by referring us to this article in the Sunday Telegraph by Auntie Maude and Mr Steven Dorrell. (Though it is possible that this is something he's referred to before!)

It's an analysis that sees us as having SUPPLANTED the Conservatories as the voice of opposition to the Labour across Urban Britain; AND become the anti-Conservatory vote of choice in rural communities.

Crucially, it identifies the STRENGTHS of the Liberal Democrats as seen from the Conservatory perspective: authentic, credible, achievable policies in areas that matter to people coupled with sounding "as though [we] approve of the modern world, and are glad [we] are living in the 21st century. Too often their Conservative counterparts look and sound as though we regard the modern world as an aberration and look forward to the restoration of a lost golden age."

Similarly, went on Mr Anaconda, Dr Vince managed to define himself as the "voice of the public", the "normal person" puncturing the frothing hatred of the grudge match between Mr Frown and Mr Balloon.

The opportunity for the Liberals is to be the AUTHENTIC party: we mean it, and we're not being opportunist; we are listening to the public; and most of all we look like we can achieve it.

He suggests that our TONE needs to be pragmatic, and our POLITICS needs to be personal, about closing the GULF between the citizen as "consumer" and the public services as "provider". At the moment, he suggested, too many people are left to take what they are given by health services, police or schools while the rich operate the "politics of secession" and opt out of the system, often literally shutting themselves off behind walls and fences.

Mr Frown and Mr Balloon, he said, are LENINISTS. They are in favour of centralisation NOW, in order to achieve decentralisation LATER… maybe.

So, Mr Anaconda wants us to be the radical liberation front, making the public services more responsive in the way that we are used to from online and telephone direct companies, breaking up the state's monopoly of control in order to find opportunities for new providers to give a better service.

Now my thought is that this is all very well but it doesn't half sound like the "Producer Choice" idea that Mr Davros Birt brought to the BBC in the nineties. In this model, the BBC is the public service provider, contracting out the provision of actual services (in this case television programmes) to independent producers. It caused one heck of a fuss and ruined a lot of television for ages until Mr Greg Dyke came along and spent an awful lot of money putting it right. Now you need to ask yourself: does the BBC's current creative high come out of the pains (and the freedoms) of Producer Choice or out of what Mr Greg did to fix it?

After this we heard from Professor John Curtis, who is a top PSEPHOLOGIST or "Opinion Poll Dancer". According to him, in 2005 the Liberal Democrats showed that, against the popular belief, we COULD do well against an incumbent government of the LABOUR. He suggests THREE key ingredients: first, to be CLOSE enough to the government to appeal to the people who supported that government; second, to have a CRITIQUE of where that government has gone wrong; and third to have solutions that are DISTINCT to those on offer from the unprincipled principal opposition.

The Iraq War was of course the example that he gave: the Labour's supporters thought that it was WRONG, they saw that we said so too and that the Conservatories had backed the war. So voters chose to switch to the Liberal Democrats.

Although he did not spell it out, clearly Prof Curtis was hinting that our CURRENT position does NOT satisfy his three conditions. Mainly, I suspect, because shifty Mr Balloon has moved perceptions of the Conservatory position – on the environment, on taxation, on public services reform, on civil liberties – so that we no longer have that vital THIRD point, a policy distinct from the Opposition.

A limited Conservatory revival at the Labour's expense could actually be good for us – especially if a Hung Parliament is the outcome. But a Conservatory revival at OUR expense, which is what we have had in the last year, is always going to be BAD!

Looking to the future, Prof Curtis said that the Leadership election will probably have put many of our difficulties behind us, but that we need to recognise that in the meantime the Conservatories have got back into business in a BIG way, and that Iraq is now a dying issue.

But, that the issue of ECONOMIC COMPETENCE may be our new trump card. Take, for example, the Northern Rock issue – there we have a solid criticism of the government's failure, but our policy (short term nationalisation) is completely different to the Conservatories. And also, Master Gideon is a nincompoop.

Now, it is easy to see how this analysis ties into our developing narrative of being the ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT Party, the ones on the OUTSIDE of the Cosy Conservatory Consensus between Mr Balloon and the Labour government.

But, on the other fluffy foot, I think that Professor Curtis has limited himself to a rather BI-POLAR sort of thinking.

Liberalism is NOT just about hugging close to one or other of the OLD parties on the OLD left-right spectrum.

Liberalism, localism, is about putting decisions into the hands of people, and that is where we come back to our title: "A Society Willing to Take Risks". It IS a risk, because you will get different outcomes in different places. But it's also EMPOWERMENT and FREEDOM for those people. Without risk, our children are mollycoddled, our creativity is stunted and our enthusiasm is crushed. Centralisers like Mr Balloon and Mr Frown talk about a "postcode lottery" to try and FRIGHTEN you all into having every outcome THE SAME.

It wasn't until the END of the day that we heard the ANSWER: a LOTTERY is when you take your ticket and then have NO CHOICE but to take what you are given; LOCALISM is where you TAKE CHARGE, and rather than accepting what you are given, you DETERMINE what you end up with.

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