Shoot - the goal's wide open

It's an open goal. We have the ball at our feet. And we faff about, frightened to shoot. Some players are left-footed, some right-footed, and they twist and turn trying to get the perfect angle. We've had the build up from deep defence. We've dominated the midfield. So just shoot.

It is a very curious phenomenon with Liberals and Liberal Democrats that the more the electorate agrees with them, and the more that events prove them right, the more frightened they are. The one trait that has characterised the party over my fifty years in it is the lack of confidence Liberals - and now Liberal Democrats - have in their own beliefs. It is quite perverse, when time after time events have demonstrated that the unpopular policies we espoused and the difficult stances we took up were justified by events, we become terrified to bang the drum.

Over the long years I have written booklet after booklet and made speech after speech aimed at demonstrating to colleagues why Liberalism is the only answer to the problems of the day and why there is no reason to have any inferiority complex. And still colleagues are frightened to come over the parapet.

So, let's try a different tactic. Time has marched on and there is even more evidence of the rightness of Liberal and Liberal Democrat philosophy and policy. For decades I have fought against all appeals to try and sum up Liberalism in a single trite slogan. Politics is far too important to be reduced to a handful of easy words. But now there is a mantra which if all of us repeat it at every opportunity, and in respect of every issue, will sink in with the electorate and show huge results at the polls.

It's very simple: "Why vote for the parties that get it wrong, when you can vote for the party that gets it right?" It has to be repeated in these exact words in every interview, and put on every leaflet, and applied to every issue, so that everyone is fed up of it - but it will have sunk in.

Let's take it issue by issue, all of which can easily be fleshed out, and added to, in a longer article:

  • The Economy: Vince Cable was warning Parliament in 2003 that banking regulation wasn't working, and called for the nationalisation of Northern Rock long before anyone else realised how serious the situation was;
  • MPs' Expenses: The Liberal Democrats called in parliament for complete disclosure of MPs' expenses but were voted down by both main parties;
  • Iraq: only the Liberal Democrats opposed the war from the beginning;
  • Identity Cards: the Liberal Democrats have consistently opposed the introduction of ID cards, and it was a Liberal activist who in 1952 singlehandedly forced the abolition of the wartime ID cards;
  • Europe: in its 1955 manifesto the Liberal Party called for full British membership of the key European institutions. To have been in at the beginning would have enabled Britain to influence the crucial direction of European Union development;
  • Green issues: the Liberals were the first party to accept ecological truths and to base their policies on sustainability. Its 1974 report is quoted below;
  • Electoral Reform: for over eighty years the Liberals, and Liberal Democrats, have supported the key change to the Single Transferable Vote which will help to revive our failing democracy.

Elector's wrath
Apparently everyone and every party now supports "proportional representation" as part of a constitutional package to try to rescue parliament and politics from the wrath of the electorate over the expenses scandal.

Unfortunately, the level of illiteracy on the subject is palpable - including amongst some Liberal Democrats. In the current atmosphere it is unimaginable to advocate any electoral system that gives even more powers into the hands of the political party hierarchies, but this is precisely what all list systems do. It is equally untenable to suggest an electoral system that will make it more difficult for the electorate to vote against individual recalcitrant MPs, which is precisely what the 1998 Jenkins Commission's proposed system of "Alternative Vote Plus" would do. And yet it is the latter system which is most often suggested as the one to be put up against First-Past-the-Post in any referendum.

What electors want, as expressed clearly by one of Julie Kirkbride's constituents on television, is to be able to vote against their MP without having to vote against their party. Only the Single Transferable Vote, in which electors rank candidates in order of preference, permits that. Is it not remarkably perceptive of the Liberal Party, and latterly the Liberal Democrats, to have consistently supported STV as the best system? Now the political circumstances are perfect for STV and we can promote it enthusiastically, without any reservation. So why aren't we?

AV+ was defective from the beginning - it would produce two classes of MP, those with constituencies and those without, and it enables losers in the constituency ballot to be elected from the list, which, even with the possibility of an elector showing his or her preferences from the list, is bound to thwart constituency opinion. In the present atmosphere, this latter flaw will probably render it unwinnable in a referendum, whereas STV is far more likely to succeed.

Recession brings considerable economic and political problems but it also brings a great opportunity for Liberal Democrats. After decades in which the over-riding drive of society, fed by successive governments, has been individualism and the accumulation of money and possessions, there is now a renewed need for community solidarity and for human values. This is a Lib Dem shaped gap into which the party can drive with passion and with confidence in its values and beliefs.

When the economy appears to hold out the possibility of becoming rich, it is more difficult to convince the electors that only a liberal society, with its awareness of a very different kind of society in which individuals exercise their wider talents and skills rather than being cogs in an economic machine, is ultimately satisfying. When the economy is in decline people inevitably seek other satisfactions than the illusory offerings of consumerism. Interestingly, for instance, museums and art galleries are already reporting increasing attendances.

Liberals have never been myopic about economic policy. Even when producing the Keynesian plan, We can conquer unemployment, in 1928 in response to an even deeper recession, the party made it clear that:

"The measures we advocate in relation to all these things spring from one clear purpose. We believe with a passionate faith that the end of all political and economic action is not the perfecting or perpetuation of this or that piece of mechanism or organisation, but that individual men and women may have life and that they have it more abundantly."

Confidence in beliefs
Liberal Democrats today need to have the same confidence in their beliefs and to grasp the immediate opportunity. If we do not do so the chance will pass. We have to succeed politically as well as electorally if we are to be able to hold seats, locally and nationally, without such a phenomenally high level of perpetual motion that it eventually produces burn out and inhibits the development of new seats.

Membership of all parties is on the decline but it does not have to be so. Liberalism and Liberal Democrat values have the capacity to inspire if only they are passionately and expertly expounded. The problem is that all too often those values are not well enough embedded in party activists who do not always have the confidence and support to promote them more widely.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum and if we do not promote liberalism in the current economic recession others will do so. Already there are siren voices from radical think tanks such as Compass, urging policies on Labour that are in the mainstream of Liberal Democratic thinking. Similarly ten Guardian columnists recently produced their ideas for Labour's next manifesto, almost all of which are rooted in Liberal or, now, Liberal Democrat values.

Even more dangerously, if we are not equipped to take on their divisive fallacies, the BNP will inevitably seduce voters who find their simplistic "plague on all their houses" line seductive.

Of course employment is crucial, and Liberal thinking has always seen the possibility of developing co-operatives, of individuals creating their own employment without necessarily being oppressed by fiscal policies that inhibit initiative, and job creation policies that cost less than unemployment benefits but produce assets within the community. In addition, whilst being unemployed, volunteering opportunities assist valuable services and promote self esteem. The voluntary sector is geared up to find alternative solutions to a struggling financial market.

This is a time to promote the arts, to get interested in local history, to take up a language course, to encourage individuals to be involved in local community initiatives, or any number of other ideas and opportunities. It is also a time to promote our politics as the way to draw society together in the face of economic adversity and cultural opportunity. The Liberal faith was summed up vividly in a report on the environment in 1974:

"Once the basic needs of food and shelter are met, man's greatest satisfactions are to be found in love, trust and friendship, in beauty, art and music and in learning, none of which are served by the mythology of growth for its own sake."

We have a powerful and timely message. "Why vote for the parties that get it wrong when you can vote for the party that gets it right." It's the moment to promote it.. Shoot!