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?