Wanted: one bully pulpit

After my election in May, several people came up to me to say, “I’m so glad you won. It’s great that you are now my MPbut I didn’t vote for you, I stuck with Labour.” Thankfully plenty of others did switch!

The combination for many people of liking what the Liberal Democrats are doing along with a tradition of backing Labour is part of the reason why the idea of a left-of-centre progressive consensus is coming back into fashion, at least in Labour circles. It naturally raises questions about the position of the Liberal Democrats – should we aim to be part of a near-permanent non-Conservative political majority in this country?

As The Independent‘s fringe meeting asked at our 2005 Blackpool conference: can the Liberal Democrats be part of a new progressive consensus? My answer – could, but depends which progressive consensus? Gordon Brown’s? I don’t think so!

I think Gordon is a cowardly, cowardly, custard, who keeps his head below the parapet when the going gets tough, votes a straight New Labour ticket, takes credit for and dines out on the one and only truly progressive policy Labour have delivered- giving independence to the Bank of England (a long time Lib Dem policy) – and silently waits for Tony’s tide to go out.

For all his talk about prudence and responsibility, he pushed through the massively expensive part-privatisation of London’s Tube system – racking up huge bills for lawyers, accountants and bureaucrats, but not improving the service. Prudence didn’t get a look in when he signed the huge cheques for military intervention in Iraq. (If only he had been willing to show the same financial generosity closer to home!)

In fact, look at all the issues that most motivated Labour supporters to switch to the Liberal Democrats and were plastered all over Focus leaflet after Focus leaflet. They are all ones like top up fees and (lack of) free care for the elderly, which have Gordon Brown’s fingerprints all over them.

It says something about the desperation of so many in Labour that they see as their saviour the very man deeply immersed in the policies which have driven millions of voters and tens of thousands of activists away.

My own long held, genuine belief in a left-of-centre, progressive consensus that would consign the Tories to the dustbins of history – something I longed for and would have fought for – appears now as dust. Labour have squandered their Parliamentary majorities with timidity. They have been too busy instead alternating running for office and running for cover.

I don’t trust Labour any longer, and I don’t believe they are capable of true consensus. Brown’s “progressive consensus” means just that – OK so long as you agree with him.

Now, I could spend a long time writing about the other parties and whether there might be common ground – but guessing where either of those treacherous buggers are going next is so easy to get wrong. And quite frankly if you want views on where Labours will go after Blair, you’d be better off reading a piece by a Labour MP in Prospect.

So instead, I want to address the question of whether the Lib Dems can tap into a larger progressive consensus – in society. The question of our beliefs and policies is under our control – and focusing on them is rather more productive that trying to fix our position relative to the ever-shifting other parties.

It’s another take on the question that’s been knocking around the party since May about what the thread is which could draw together our individually popular key policies.

Call it vision, narrative, theme, pitch or message – whatever – what should it be?

We face an apparently paradoxical general public view – people increasingly feeling powerless yet also highly suspicious of those collective way of asserting power and control over your own life – using the tools of democracy and government.

It’s these conflicting pulls on the party that is reflected in some of our internal debates. At least we still have internal debates.

That’s why you have those keener on big government, spending money and regulating against bad things – as the way to immediately tackle some of the issues that give rise to anxiousness and powerlessness.

And on the other hand you have the classic small government liberals, responding to the other pull and wanting to cut back on central government to give people more direct control.

To me, this is a false dilemma as we can be smarter about the tools of government. Government can ban, can price it or can use its powers of publicity. One example – we can outlaw high fat foods, or slap an extra tax on them or put Jamie Oliver on the telly every night telling us to eat different. Far too much of political debate within the Liberal Democrats is about the first two options only.

Take the similar example of the amount of quick buck seeking third-rate diet advice out there, feeding on fears of obesity? The old big government answer would be to ban and regulate. But do we really want to get into regulating the details of diet books – having Whitehall decide who can say what in their books?

The modern, nimble answer is to use the prestige of the NHS to have the best-seller lists taken over by the NHS diet book and the NHS health-eating book. (It’s done elsewhere – have a look at one of the bestselling diet advice books in Australia at the moment).

Making laws and banning things has the appeal of being in your direct control – a few votes in Parliament and bish, bang, bong – issue done and dusted, next up, let’s move along. It’s quick – and sometimes effective. It’s politics of the West Wing variety, with the belief that no problem is so difficult you can’t think up before the next advert break a wheeze to solve it. If only life were that easy.

But at the other end, using government as a publicity bully pulpit is more tolerant, not so much big brother as nagging nanny. And for those who know me – you will know how highly I rate nagging – particularly as it is a middle-aged woman’s life skill!

That’s where our real search for a progressive consensus should be made – an active, inventive and innovatory approach that recognises there is much government can do, but that it doesn’t always have to be via rules and regulations or indeed legislation, legislation, legislation.

Up against the big economic forces, multi-nationals and Mother Nature we need a government to work with people. Sometimes that means tax and spend. Sometimes it means regulation. But there are alternatives – alternatives that are much more in tune with the rough and ready consensus out there in society.

Take a local example so beloved of our campaigns – graffiti is often left untouched on commercial property. Yes, we need councils with money to remove it, but we should also expect companies to take more responsibility for the state of their own property.

So what should we do about – to give one example – some of the shops along Stroud Green Road in North London where they’ve had a pretty poor record at cleaning up themselves over the last year?

Is the answer to send out inspectors dishing out tickets and fining firms who don’t clean up quick enough? Of course notthough it might distract from all the complaints about traffic wardens!

But why shouldn’t government (be it council or central) be naming and shaming such firms and putting pressure on them? Expecting companies to care more about their communities – that’s what you hear demands for in so many different ways from the public.

Government as a nimble lobbyist, and collective voice for the public, is an approach that would fit well with our beliefs in decentralisation, as that is what’s needed for the necessary flexibility and responsiveness. It is also the way to getting things changed without hanging around waiting for the arrival of a Liberal Democrat government. Shaming a supermarket into better practices brings quicker rewards than promising one day when Charles is Prime Minister to change a law.

It w
as the American President Theodore Roosevelt who coined the phrase “bully pulpit” to describe the White House. He used the platform it gave him to speak up and thereby lead and shape events. It’s a lesson we could learn from – and you don’t have to be in the White House to learn it.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2005. This article first appeared in Liberator.