Good narratives are emerging from those at the periphery, but has Nick Clegg taken heed?
If there’s one thing I’ve taken from the LibDem conference this year, it’s that there is hope for truly radical policy-making within the party – policy-making that transcends the tiresome tribalism of party politics to identify, whilst holding fast to one’s own tradition, transformative pathways to achieve social justice. But the positive vibes have not really been emerging from the main conference hall. They have been creeping at the peripheries through the likes of Paddy Ashdown (perhaps himself not so peripheral) who have argued forcefully that if we don’t revitalise our democracy, or rather, our understanding of it, this is the end of successful government as we know it.
At a fringe event on Monday, and appealing very much to the underlying and cross-cutting principles of ResPublica, Paddy argued for a type of government that worked through intermediary institutions, devolving power to the lowest level and delivering greater transparency to communities through public services. Rather than ‘doers’, he argued, government should be ‘network enablers’, facilitating the creative space between the state and citizens to empower. Citing the legendary liberal, Jo Grimond, this marks for Paddy the philosophical heart of the Liberal Democrats.
In many ways, the liberals have taken this narrative forward. The Localism Act is in place, with many community rights only just now coming into effect. The LibDem-led agenda on employee-owned business, which is undergoing extensive review following the recommendations of Graeme Nuttall, mark another of the Coalition’s policies that seek to open up ownership of assets and markets to those often excluded.
But, and this is a big but, this narrative has not been applied consistently across government and LibDem policy. In fact, policies to have emerged from the party this year have been rather mixed and contradictory, both in terms of practical output and philosophical underpinning.
Rather than take as its focus the importance of embracing a model of democracy and political reform beyond the ballot box, many of the policies headed up by Nick Clegg have been rather ‘individualistic’ in focus with a distinct lack of the all important intermediary institutions that others within the party have advocated. As I have argued previously, the reform of the House of Lords was very much founded upon an understanding of ‘representation’ that can only account for an aggregate body of individuals, rather than communities, sectors, cultures and dispersed ethnic groups that can only find representation through appointment in the Second Chamber.
The personalisation agenda too has placed a great weight on the importance of ‘choice’ and the individual. But choice, subject to market forces and without the right suppport can often result in no choice at all. In a panel discussion on the matter of personalisation and choice, hosted by ResPublica yesterday, we discussed the possiblity of a more mutual and reciprocal understanding of choice – one that brokers in the family, the community and the opportunity to harness service users’ skills. Rather than dispersing power so widely that it dissolves into inexistence, power can be carefully chanelled into neighbourhoods, embedded community anchors and intermediary institutions that can act as multipliers of community power.
Giving power to the people, a central underpinning, for some, of the Liberal Democrat party, cannot be achieved by giving power to isolated individuals. With the crucial role of communities and intermediary institutions in opening up public services, devolving power and ownership, and in creating a reformed, ‘enabling’ government, we have to ask whether the party is missing a trick.
Caroline Julian is a Senior Researcher and Project Manager at ResPublica