Friday, October 08, 2004
All things to all men
Since the Liberal Democrats have been doing quite well in the polls and by-elections lately, they have attracted fire from the other main parties (who otherwise rely on the simple tactic of ignoring the Lib Dems). And the criticism that is trotted out most frequently is that the Liberal Democrats pretend to be "all things to all men" (put the two phrases "Liberal Democrats" and "all things to all men" into Google and you'll find hundreds of examples).
Is this charge fair? Well, yes and no.
When called upon to elaborate, opponents accuse the Liberal Democrats of saying different things in different parts of the country or to different audiences. I see no problem with this. If you are sending a leaflet to rural voters in Somerset, they're more likely to be interested in what you have to say about village schools and local post office closures rather than, say, the London congestion charge. If you are sending a leaflet to pensioners, they're more likely to be interested in what you have to say about pensions and hospitals rather than university tuition fees.
More fundamentally, I see no problem with adopting different policies in different parts of the country. It is a natural consequence of devolution. Different parts of the country have varying priorities - there is no reason why people in Cornwall should feel obliged to adopt identical policies to those in Scotland. When decisions are made centrally, one can understand the sense of unfairness if different regions enjoy different levels of public services. But when power is devolved, it is nonsense to talk of "postcode lotteries".
There is an important distinction between values and policies. Values are fundamental and timeless. Policies change over time according to circumstance. What matters is that political parties remain true to their core values.
The Liberal Democrats do have a problem with being "all things to all men", but not the way their critics allege. Lib Dems typically still have a naive and touching faith that everyone is really like them. All you have to do is sit round the table and eventually everyone can reach agreement. They find it hard to accept that there will always be many people, probably a majority, who are not Liberals, who will never be Liberals, and whom they must confront. Too often, they sit on the fence for fear of causing offence, instead of having the courage of their convictions.
This timidity only gets the Lib Dems into trouble. An example of this problem is their back-peddling on the issue of Europe. The overriding concern of the party has been to avoid upsetting Eurosceptic voters and the right-wing press. The party's support is around 20%. The percentage of voters who are pro-European remains some 35 to 40%. It is a minority, but a substantially larger one than the people who vote Liberal Democrat. A robust assertion of pro-European values would help the party capture this natural support base. Instead, the party's pusillanimous posture lets down pro-European voters who have nowhere else to turn.
The Liberal Democrats should identify a target demographic rather than try to be "all things to all men". And this is where there is good news – a liberal demographic is emerging. There is a direct correlation between higher education and liberal (with a small 'l') attitudes. As an increasing proportion of the population becomes better educated, more liberal and tolerant attitudes will prevail. This is not speculation, but was one of the key findings of the 2002 British Social Attitudes Survey (the 19th annual report of the National Centre for Social Research).
Opinion polls and election results increasingly bear out this view. Polls show the Liberal Democrats scoring higher than the Tories with the under-35 age group, and even better (over 50%) among students. And in real elections, the party is doing particularly well in university towns (visit the Political Betting site and see the posting dated 31/7/2004, Could the university seats be Blair's undoing?).
If the Liberal Democrats wish to avoid accusations of being "all things to all men", there is a simple remedy. First, they should rediscover their core values and shout them from the rooftops. And second, they should face up to the most illiberal elements in society - the small-town xenophobes, the braying county set, the hangers and floggers, the bullet-headed 'Ingerlund' supporters and the council estate lynch mobs - and tell them all to sod off.