I have blogged before about the dangers to the Liberal Democrats of a loss of political identity. Donnachadh McCarthy challenged my first piece on the grounds that it didn’t mention policy. This one’s for you.

The problem with Cleggism was that not only did it fail to develop a clear identity, preferring tactics that didn’t even work for the German right-wing liberals of the FDP. Worse, at the same time its party management techniques shut down policy debate and development, most particularly on welfare, making it much harder for anyone in the party to argue that the Liberal Democrats’ position was in any way different to the Tory-led actions of victimising the most vulnerable and people with disabilities in particular. The attempts by the bunker to stitch up the Federal Conference Committee, prominent in the early part of the coalition, became markedly less successful after the 2012 internal elections, though; and the party was able to establish a position on the “bedroom tax”, the Work Capacity Assessment regime and food poverty. On sanctions, the leadership’s approach led in Autumn 2014 to two different policies on benefit sanctions being passed in two days; these were thankfully made sense of in the manifesto.

As usual, after the election the Federal Policy Committee is charged with a full review of policy. I will be putting my name forward for that group in order that it remains focused on the big, strategic issues and themes. An approach of writing the detail of 94 policy papers that will remain largely unread even within the party is simply not a sensible use of resources. There is one exception: policy on how to reduce poverty and reform the welfare system, untouched for two decades and where an update of policy was blocked under the Clegg leadership (some initial work only was done).

Instead the exercise must be one of reasserting a Liberal identity. The Queen’s Speech will provide easy pickings for the party on traditional Liberal territory, but must not forget some more challenging territory such as employment, for example. The books being written by Vince Cable, for example, are likely to spill the beans behind the Tory agenda to effectively abolish employment protection. The naturally defensive reaction of some towards political territory ceded under coalition in the Clegg era should be resisted.

The party also needs to get on with opening up the policy process: another argument for fewer policy papers written by small working groups selected by an arcane process. Technology should make this straightforward and relatively easy to operate: an online portal for all members to be able to contribute, and for expertise to be identified and harnessed.

Outside England and also in London, with national elections less than a year away, the problems are more urgent. In Scotland the general failure to understand how to take on rampant nationalism seems to be leading to a mindset almost of self-parody, if Malcolm Bruce’s spectacularly ill-advised remarks on honesty in politics are anything to go by. Instead, and unlike the Labour Party on Scotland, our federal structure and the presence of several political heavyweights are advantages that should be used. Demonstrating the Scottish Party’s independence from London as well as high-profile roles for senior figures would be a confident and positive way to face the future.

In London the party needs to reflect on the relative success of Labour sustained since the 2010 election saw London boroughs going Labour against the national trend. It needs to show it reflects the generally liberal politics of identity in a vibrant and multicultural city, and present a party that is representative of that diversity and also tackles the issues of concern, particularly housing.

And in that I return to community politics. Asserting or rather reasserting an identity means building alliances on every street in every community. It has to be rooted not in a desire to ‘do things better than the other lot’ but to build a political movement around a liberal identity.

This is the key area the party got wrong and has to get right. It is our core. It has to be capable of being spelt out in less than 5 seconds, relevant to most of the public and be able to generate a visceral emotional reaction.

Advertisements