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Commentary 349 – November 2011
09 November 2011 (11:45:25)

FUTURE IMPERFECT

We’ve done something unusual with this issue of Liberator in that we’ve printed in full the Really Facing the Future paper, published on our website in September by David Boyle and collective member Simon Titley.

Devoting this much space to a single subject might seem strange but this is the document the party should have produced in its Facing the Future exercise.

There was little that was specifically wrong with Facing the Future but it came across, as suggested in Liberator 348, as sterile and timid, anxious not to offend anyone or cause controversy.

It was kind of OK at a time when the party needs something of greater substance to help equip it to fight a general election in which it will simultaneously have to defend its record in the coalition (as opposed to the coalition’s record) and offer something that gives people a reason to vote for it beyond the rather desperate argument that the Lib Dems will ‘moderate’ someone else.

No one will agree with everything in Really Facing the Future but they should at least recognise that the issues it identifies are those that will shape political debate over the coming few years.

Where the conference motion that endorsed Facing the Future ended up with a list of 17 priorities (which means that everything and nothing is a priority), Really Facing the Future found five: climate change; the global financial crisis; the increasing scarcity and price of oil; the corrosion of society; loss of trust in democratic politics.

It concluded that none of them is beyond humanity’s capacity to solve and that it is the party’s job to produce a coherent and distinctive idea of how they should be tackled.

That task requires imagination, courage and leadership, in all of which the party’s recent policy work has been deficient.

It also argued that, since 1989, mainstream politicians have stopped competing on ideological grounds and have instead tried to agree with public opinion as expressed by opinion polls and focus groups.

The result has been the replacement of a contest of political ideas by one of brand loyalty, which has alienated voters, made mainstream political parties sound much alike, and led to falling voter turnouts and falling trust in politicians.

For the Liberal Democrats to break out of this, the party needs to stake out a position without being inhibited by a fear of causing offence, and must think more about how it can inspire people.

Really Facing the Future is an attempt to kick-start this process. Parties that end up facing the past rarely get far.

HARD BUT NECESSARY

When direct elections to the European Parliament began in 1979, the constituencies used were gigantic and the Liberal Party’s chances of winning any of them remote.

Those running the party at the time must have been tempted to think: “Stuff this waste of time and money, let’s leave these alone and concentrate on the local elections”.

But they didn’t. They realised that the party’s credibility demanded that the Liberals had to fight, even if the results would be indifferent.

Similar sentiments are now around with regard to the police and crime commissioner elections in autumn 2012.

It goes without saying that the creation of these posts is absurd and that, if the whole thing blows up in the Tories’ faces, the results will be richly comic.

However, that is not a reason to fail to field official Liberal Democrat candidates, even though most constituencies will be geographically vast enough to be inconvenient to fight and unpromising in outcome.

There are those who argue that the party ought instead to back ‘well respected’ independents. Who, exactly? The constituencies will be so big that it would be remarkable were anyone well-known, never mind respected, across the whole of them. The only people remotely likely to come into this category are retired chief constables, and does the party really think they, as a matter of course, deserve support?

There is already every danger that these elections will attract as candidates hangers, floggers, posturing buffoons who promise to ‘get tough’, frustrated amateur detectives, would-be vigilantes, and cranks and loonies of every kind.

Their chances of victory will be greatly enhanced if the main political parties withdraw from the battle.

Even if one’s local police commissioner ends up being an official Conservative or Labour candidate, they are at least accountable for a party manifesto and can be kept under control by their party. Independents lack even those safeguards over their actions.

It may well be that Liberal Democrat police commissioner candidates struggle to get heard when presenting a rational platform aimed at actually reducing crime, rather than grandstanding about it.

Tough. That is what sometimes happens. We are lumbered with these posts, and the party’s next manifesto should commit it to abolishing them.

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