Can you sum up the purpose of the Lib Dems in a sentence? (Or 'The Quest for the Lib Dem Holy Grail').

by Stephen Tall on December 2, 2008

Today’s Guardian carries an interview with comedian/actor Eddie Izzard: interesting for those of us who are fans (especially of his classic mid-90s’ shows), but also interesting for the problem it poses for those of us who are Lib Dems.

Asked about his politics, and his long-standing support for Labour (‘he describes himself as more Blair-ite than Brown-ite’), Eddie sweepingly sums up Labour and the Tories thus:

I just believe in the goodwill of people, the power of people to do something positive. And that’s why I’m in the Labour party. The Labour party believes in fairness, and the Conservative party is more about getting the country working well and rewarding high-flyers”

It’s an unremarkable distinction – variations of it are used by voters up and down the country, whether consciously or not, to define their tribal voting patterns. Labour = Fairness, Tories = Wealth-creation: this is pretty much the brand that assures the two larger parties of a core vote.

Which brings us to the age-old question: if you had to sum up the purpose of the Lib Dems in a sentence, what would you say?

In a sense, even to ask the question points to the problem of marketing liberalism: it’s a philosophy, a way of thinking, as much as it is a call to arms. Part of what makes people liberals is their refusal to believe that all questions do have a simple, binary answer. After all, we’re about Fairness AND Wealth-creation, and we’d argue you can’t have one without the other.

And that’s been a traditional problem for the party, when it tries to distil the pure essence of the party’s philosophy into a bite-size catechism. It’s why, in an attempt to be all-inclusive and tick every box, we end up with unwieldy policy paper titles like Trust in People: Make Britain Free, Fair and Green. Or why, at the other extreme, we end up with vacuous, philosophy-free policy paper titles like Make it Happen.

Ever since the 2005 general election – and the failure of the Lib Dems to make the electoral breakthrough that the unique circumstances of the 2001-05 Parliament afforded the party – there has been a quest to find the Lib Dem Holy Grail: ‘a narrative’.

So here’s a piece of homework for LDV readers. Find that Holy Grail. Sum up the party’s purpose in a phrase, a sentence at most, which encapsulates the Lib Dem approach to politics in a way which will resonate with voters.

My suggestion? “Liberalism: letting everyone be free to come together”. But I’m sure you can do better.

Incidentally, he may not be a Lib Dem, but Eddie Izzard did come up with his own definition of a liberal, which I could sign up to:

Politically, I am a radical liberal, that is my position. I would be a liberal, but the image of a liberal is sort of – because left and right have been in power for a long time in Britain, the image of a liberal is one of, “Oh… I’m not sure, and you’re…? Oh, really? And you…? Oh, really? I’m on the fence here…” But not for me, I am passionate about free health service for all, that’s a world idea, I think that’s very groovy, but also, if you have an idea, in small businesses or businesses don’t have to be sort of rape and pillaging things; that can be groovy. “Revolutionary liberal,” that sounds better to me, I think, storm the House of Parliament, kick the fucking doors in, get in there and say, “Look, we’ll pay for the damage.” Have a revolution, just budget for it, yeah? You know…

“Have a revolution, just budget for it.” Perhaps we’ve found our Holy Grail?

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“Freedom, fairness, and trust.”

Well, I like the first two. “Freedom” on its own is unbalanced. “Freedom and fairness” shows what we have successfully learnt from forming an alliance between freedom-loving Liberals and fairness-loving SDPers.

“Trust” seems wrong now, though. None of us politicians can reasonably expect the electorate to trust us these days. To suggest that we deserve trust, without giving a pretty good reason, just sounds arrogant and off-putting.

I like “Freedom, Fairness, and the Future”.

We care about the state of the planet in 50 years time, which is why we don’t want WW3 to be a Christian crusade against the Muslim world, and we don’t want to have burnt all the oil. This is our message for the young. And it alliterates, so it must be right!

by David Allen on December 4, 2008 at 1:18 pm. Reply #

The trouble with “fairness” is that it means, as Humpty Dumpty said, “Whatever I want it to mean”.

Liberals and Conservatives both believe in fairness but understand quite different things by it. “Fairness” was the Conservatives’ primary justification for the Poll Tax while to most Liberals it was one of the most unfair ever devised.

by Liberal Eye on December 4, 2008 at 2:38 pm. Reply #

“I like “Freedom, Fairness, and the Future”.”

I still have to see a political party that is against future. Shouldn’t it be something which distinguish Liberal Democrats from other parties?

by Anonymous on December 4, 2008 at 5:56 pm. Reply #

OK Anonymous, I would concede that “future” fails to set us apart from the Greens. But as for the Tories and Labour, they supported an illegal war for oil in Iraq, and they show every sign of burning it all up until it runs out, so what sort of future will they leave us with?

by David Allen on December 4, 2008 at 6:54 pm. Reply #

The great Enzo Ferrari was once asked what makes a beautiful car. He said, “the most beautiful car is the one that wins the most races.”

I can’t help but feel a similar rule applies to political slogans.

by Antony Hook on December 7, 2008 at 7:44 pm. Reply #

Most of these slogans have too many syllables for the average voter. Always pitch it at a reading age of 7, and you won’t go far wrong. Depressing but true, in my experience.

by Terry Gilbert on December 9, 2008 at 11:25 pm. Reply #

Some years ago I wrote this in Liberator:
“Liberalism is a hard creed to follow, and I still believe it is a creed or, if you prefer, an ideology. It combines an analysis of society with a set of aims and methods for achieving them. It has something to say about the role of governments and the role of individuals. It does not say, “Look after yourself and don’t expect anyone, especially the state, to help” – the guiding theme of Conservatism over the years. It does not say, “Don’t worry. The state will look after you” – the inspiration of socialism now transmuted into “Don’t worry. The state will tell you what to do and how and when to do it in precisely defined quantities”. Liberalism asks each of us to think for ourselves and to work for each other. It accepts the incommensurability of individual desires and the value of diversity to society. It is the practical working out of liberty. I leave you with William Hazlitt: “The love of liberty is the love of others, the love of power is the love of ourselves.”
Much too long of course but how about the phrase: “Liberalism asks each of us to think for ourselves and to work for each other.”

I also like “A Liberal is an anarchist who has compromised with reality”, but I must admit I was talking about Liberalism. There is a party called Liberal Democrats, there is a widespread system called liberal democracy but there is no ideology called “Liberal Democracy”.

by David Grace on December 10, 2008 at 12:31 pm. Reply #

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