“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free, and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”
– preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution.
In the makeup of modern British politics, the Liberal Democrats are different.
We now live in a society in which the only thing almost everyone strives for is to better their own position, as individuals, within our existing society. That can be traced back to the 1970s and Thatcher.
The Liberal Democrats have always advocated a move away from greed and self interest and toward a way of life more centred on values, community, and equality. The Party has attempted to reignite the search for a shared vision of creating a better society.
Given the context, the Lib Dems had (and still have) the opportunity to become a popular movement capable of inspiring people through a vision of how to make society a substantially better place to live for the vast majority of people.
“Without that vision politics will rarely provoke more than a yawn.”
The context here is that rich counties have come to the end of what higher material living standards can offer, and according to Wilkinson and Pickett we are the first generation to have to find other ways of improving the real quality of living. The evidence, they say, points towards greater equality; a fundemental and founding principle for the Liberal Democrats.
As a party the Liberal Democrats have failed to engage people in a coherent story about equality and fairness – the Liberal Democrat story.
However politics in Britain has also failed to do the same thing with two parties clutching at straws to achieve true equality.
Research in Britain has shown that many people have a strong personal belief in greater equality and fairness but these values “have remained private intuitions which they fear others do not share.”
What’s more is that even people who initially reject appeals for greater fairness and equality (both for those at the bottom and top of society) are in favour of a new vision for improving the quality of everyone’s lives when presented with a story of equality based in evidence.
This is why we need a fairer society before creating a stronger economy.
Whatever the strength of our economy, societies are “social failures” given the level of inequality that still exists in our society despite major improvements in the material standard of living.
The Party has started on that work in education, for example. The Pupil Premium, a flagship policy, goes to the heart of addressing poor attainment. What it is and what it does.
The Pupil a Premium, a Liberal Democrat flagship policy, currently gives schools new, additional money to provide additional support for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (pupils receiving Free School Meals).
In England the Pupil Premium in 2013/14 is worth £953 per eligible child in primary schools and £900 per eligible child in secondary schools. In 2014/15 the value of the Pupil Premium will increase to £1,300 per pupil for primary school children and £935 per pupil for secondary school children.
In Wales in 2013/14 the Pupil Premium, or Pupil Deprivation Grant, will give pupils in receipt of FSM an additional £918, an increase from £450. (All in opposition in Cardiff Bay, by the way!).
Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar have shown that the gap between the rich and poor and the enormous disparity in children’s home backgrounds, including the social and cultural capital that they bring to the “educational table” is fundemental in determining the attainment of pupils.
“The term cultural capital refers to non-financial social assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means. Examples can include education, intellect, style of speech, dress, or physical appearance.”
“Social capital is the expected collective or economic benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups.”
In 2007 a UK nationwide survey found that by the age of 3 children from disadvantaged backgrounds were educationally up to a year behind children from more privileged homes (London Institute for Education).
Additionally, Alan Milburn, a former Labour UK cabinet minister, recently published a report showing that pupils eligible for free school meals in England are 50% more likely to obtain five good GCSEs than their counterparts in Wales.
Fundamentally, a fairer and more equal society will do more for educational attainment than simply improving the material standard of living.
Another example of the Lib Dem’s work on addressing inequalities in order to improve society for all is Shared Parental Leave.
Early attachment theory states that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development to occur normally. Attachment theory explains how much the parents’ relationship with the child influences development.
This has an impact on a child’s start in life, but also the equality in ensuring fairness for both parents and the impact on the household. As attachment theory explains, poor attachment at an early stage in a child’s life can have a detrimental impact on the rest of their childhood and adult life, including educational attainment.
For too long governments have pitted the poor against the rich, young against old.
In the past arguments about inequality have centred on the privations of the poor and on what is fair, where reducing inequality depended on scaring the better off into “adopting a more altruistic attitude to the poor”. This has generated a fundemental distrust which contributes to the broken society in which we live.
Greater equality is not, and should not be about lowering standards or levelling to a common mediocrity.
Subramanian and Kawachi (2006) said that “inequality acts like a pollutant spread throughout society.” Research shows that the more unequal a society (the steeper the socio-economic gradient) the worse everybody performes in education, not only those children with less well-educated parents. The UK and USA have worse average literacy scores on national levels of attainment because of the steepness (meaning less equal) of the social gradient
“Greater equality is the gateway to a society improving the quality of life for all of us and an essential step in the development of a sustainable economic system.”
The Liberal Democrats have failed to unite society behind a shared vision, the Liberal Democrat vision, of improving the quality of life for all through greater equality and fairness, which I believe has been fundemental in our performance in elections. We have allowed Labour and the Tories to concentrate improvements in the standard of living in Britain to people’s economic circumstances. We have allowed them to convince the electorate that even in the 2000s the material standard of living is th way to improve society – not community life, mental health, social relations, education, trust, equality or sustainability. And where we have heard of these things, they have been underlined by big government and material living standards.
Government can no longer only use improvements in the material standard of living as a means of grestly improving the quality of living in modern Britain.
Greater equality and fairness as a means of improving our society is the Liberal Democrats’ home territory, our message.
In Britain we have been rightly committed to narrowing the health gap between the rich and the poor, but with little change. The reason for this is because the policy has been centred on breaking the links between socio-economic disadvantage and the problems it produces.
Wilkinson and Pickett explain the flaw in this policy perfectly. They said that these policies are grounded in the belief that the poor need to be taught to be more sensible (drugs, protected sex, exercise and alcohol consumption etc) with the unstated hope that people can carry on in the same circumstances, making no real improvement to their standard of living.
This is why the Tories can’t be trusted to build a fairer society, and Labour to build a stronger economy.
The Tories have no interest in a fairer society, which only results in an undermining our strong economy.
Labour position themselves whilst creating artificial fairness, generating mistrust between large swathes of our society. Talking down the poor in playing big government, clamping down on fairness and freedom in the name of equality which isn’t truly equal.
Liberal Democrats are the only ones to truly appreciate true equality, fairness and freedom and the role that those societal qualities play in ensuring a strong and sustainable economic system for the whole of Britain.
During and pre 2010 Liberal Democrats bucked the trend.
We were not the same old party standing up for change but divorced from any real ideas for change that went deeper that the surface images that party politics has long projected.
The Pupil Premium, Shared Parental Leave, making the tax system fairer, making pensions fairer. We stood up for fairer politics, meaningful community action, a united healthcare system, a welfare system that delivered for people entering the system, having to rely on the system, and existing the system to re enter employment.
Unfortunately the Lib Dem’s story wasn’t a united, well rehearsed, and popular message capable of inspiring that shared vision in which people reimagine a fairer and better society.
As a result of 2010 the Lib Dems have a lot to do in inspiring a shared vision of a more equal society as a means to creating a more prosperous economy.
Not only do the Lib Dems have a lot to do in inspiring that shared vision, but they have a lot to do in dusting off the worst of the coalition government.
The Liberal Democrats are the only party that truly believes and can deliver a fundamentally fairer and more equal society for all, not a society which vilifies the rich and plays big government for the poor.
Without a strong and convincing narrative of how equality and fairness are fundemental in creating a stronger economy, the Liberal a Democrats will always fail to achieve widespread electoral success.
The Liberal Democrats have to capture and provide a narrative for the collective belief that society could be different through greater equality, and interweave a strong economic narrative.
The Liberal Democrats need to refocus on the party’s roots in communities, equality, and liberty and away from doggedly chasing a certificate in economic competence.
Only then, and only after the party has captured and built a consensus that unites society behind the notion of greater equality, can the Liberal Democrats truly deliver on their commitment to building a stronger economy in a fairer society, proving both electoral and economic competence.
That’s what the Liberal Democrats have to achieve if the party is to avoid wipeout beyond 2015.