Liberal Democrat leaders do not have much say in setting Party policy, but they have far more in setting the Party’s vision, strategy and priorities. With this in mind, and with the Liberal Democrat leadership election fast approaching, Liberal Reform have set out the themes we believe any successful Liberal Democrat leader should prioritise.
At the heart of all of them is equality of opportunity and internationalism. The preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution is clear that we believe in a world where none are enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity, and that we believe in the rights of individuals to develop their talents to the full. It is also clear that our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries. In recent years these values have been abandoned by all political parties other than the Liberal Democrats, and any future leader of our Party must seize the opportunity to make it known that we are a home to all who believe in them.
1) Stand up for global free trade
Support for free trade has begun to decline across much of the world, in particular between Donald Trump’s America and China.
In the UK, skepticism has been further fueled by Brexit, a project primarily championed by those who supposedly believe in free trade but who show complete disregard for the international institutions that underpin it.
With this in mind it would be easy for a future Liberal Democrat leader to turn their back on the Party’s long standing support for free trade. They must resist, as there remains no greater tool for reducing poverty and promoting peace across the world. As the UK seeks new trade deals with other countries, the Liberal Democrats must avoid the temptation to oppose them out of spite for the fact that they are not as beneficial to the UK as membership of the European Union, and instead seek to judge each of them independently on their merits, championing the principles of free trade and global cooperation as we do so.
2) End the housing crisis
The housing crisis is at least partly responsible for many of the ills that our country currently faces, from generational inequality to low productivity. By putting ending the housing crisis at the forefront of the Liberal Democrats’ vision, a future Liberal Democrat leader would be championing not only a priority that would reduce poverty and increase opportunity, but also have the potential to be electorally popular.
No policy idea to end the crisis should be ruled out, as it will take the best from both the left and the right, public and private, to succeed. Green belt land of low environmental value should be reviewed, houses should be built at density to make the most efficient use of land, and we should ensure that new houses are affordable for those most in need of them. The UK is in desperate need of a housing revolution, and the Liberal Democrats should lead it.
3) Champion innovation and technology
An innovative, competitive economy will need to be at the heart of any recovery from the economic slump brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, technological advances in recent years have brought new opportunities to those who previously could not afford them, for example the rise of both the internet and the affordable smartphone.
As the world enters the so-called “4th Industrial Revolution”, the Liberal Democrats must be brave enough to champion new technologies and ways of doing things. These may be small ideas, such as using e-cigarettes as a tool to help those giving up smoking, or big ones, such as improving productivity using AI, or improving communications through 5G.
There will be calls to oppose these new technologies, but they should be rejected. Opposing world changing technology will only lead to the UK being left behind. Where legitimate concerns about the impact of new technology on jobs exist, these should be answered with the support for a world leading education system accessible to all, and a strong social safety net that ensures none are condemned to poverty, rather than a Luddite attitude to the new technologies themselves.
4) Build a close relationship with the EU
The Liberal Democrats have and always will support cooperation across our continent, and in the future we should not rule out a return to our rightful place alongside our allies in the EU. However, now that the UK has left, our immediate task must be to lobby for the retention of as many as possible of the benefits that the UK’s membership of the EU granted us. Freedom of movement and of trade should be at the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ vision of the immediate UK/EU relationship, as these will provide the building blocks to returning to the EU should the country choose to do so in the future. However, talk of “immediate rejoin” will only do damage to the pro-European cause, and should be avoided.
5) Allow as many as possible to vote Lib Dem
The Liberal Democrats, and liberalism more broadly, have a long history and tradition all of their own. It is only right therefore that at election time as many of the electorate as possible are given the opportunity to vote for our Party and the values we espouse. Political pluralism and cooperation are important, but at election time they should not be promoted at the expense of our other values. Liberalism is under threat across much of the world, and a future Liberal Democrat leader would be wise not to undermine it further by surrendering the opportunity to build our own strength in favour of supporting candidates with values different to our own. Where possible, co-operation with other political parties should be left for after elections, not during them.
Liberal Reform will use these 5 priorities to judge all of the candidates in the upcoming Liberal Democrat leadership election. We look forward to a good contest.