Norman Lamb has a liberal plan

For the first time in nearly 20 years, I’ve heard a political voice offering something original, liberal and inspirational for Britain. Norman Lamb has written a short book revealing a radical plan for Britain. This is the tl;dr version of that book.

Chapter 1: liberalism versus tyranny

The fundamental argument for liberalism is established in opposition to tyranny.

This is why Norman Lamb, in Giving Power to People, opens with an anecdote from his childhood, during a trip to the border between East and West Germany. He describes a common conception of tyranny; of the overwhelming force of government ranged against the people, manifest in physical barriers, barbed wire and armed guards.

In the following pages, he argues we face ongoing tyrannies in modern Britain. These may be different in nature but are no less dangerous and damaging. He cites financial incapacity and debt, uncertainty of employment, poverty, the cost of housing, prying, dominant and unaccountable corporations and government agencies.

He boils liberalism down to the right of self-determination, which is a fundamental cause we must champion. How can people achieve their potential when they are held back by pollution and climate change; a welfare bureaucracy that creates dependency; the economic system that only allows the wealthiest to thrive and earn and do business?

Perhaps most insidious of all, Lamb describes what he calls the tyrannies of the mind, which hold people back through poverty, ignorance and conformity.

These arguments answer the most fundamental question of all facing someone considering their politics — what is liberalism and why is it important?

He then goes on to use this conception of liberalism to understand why the Liberal Democrats performed so terribly in the 2015 General Election, offers a rich and detailed set of proposals about how it needs to change and begins to outline a radical platform for making Britain better equipped for the twenty-first century.

Chapter 2: how should a political party behave in the 21st century?

The general election result in May 2015 was a tragedy for the country, particularly from the point of view of the communities that constitute our nation. (We come back later to the definition of community.) The election result was also, of course, a tragedy for the Liberal Democrats who fought so hard for liberal values only to lose to superior election strategies.

The fundamental tenets of Liberal Democrat election campaigning have been undermined by the way the world has changed. The ‘community politics’ approach was codified in the 1970 Liberal Assembly. But community politics today is about more than ‘leaflets, resident surveys and street petitions’. All parties are engaged in this style of local politics and residents are bombarded, cancelling out much of the effort. Meanwhile, the meaning of community has changed:

People are ill-suited to the scale and forces of connection within these new, often digital, communities. Existing party structures and behaviours are increasingly designed to force party conformity on an increasingly diverse membership.

The new politics demand a party that can be more agile, using interests and arguments as the fundamental unit of currency, rather than party ideologies. Modern campaigning organisations such as Avaaz and 38 Degrees are showing the way forward, connecting people not to local parties but to direct action; activities designed to cause change.

The behaviors of political parties are becoming increasingly authoritarian and populist. More importantly, they are not working. The evidence for this is staring us in the face: decreasing voter turnout, dwindling party membership and a fragmenting party landscape. Party behaviours are delivering decreasing returns for the parties deploying them. This year, a jubilant Conservative Party won a majority of 12 seats and this was roundly agreed to be a profoundly successful result. The Liberal Democrat party made the mistake in the election of 2015 of aping these failing techniques.

The result of the 2015 General Election provides the Liberal Democrat party with a stark truth. Local community politics can no longer be depended upon to deliver electoral success. The party activists worked themselves into the ground and we were destroyed by bigger arguments. These were being discussed on many levels — locally through pavement politics and well-funded advertising campaigns and globally through the mainstream media and digital spaces such as social media.

The behaviours we need now must start with a powerful platform of ideas that engage people beyond the confines of the party membership, even as it grows. We need to learn from how disruptive startups behave. The old methods of corporate secrecy have been replaced by open innovation, engagement with ‘frienemies’. Technology-enabled self-service is augmented by engaged consumers doing the work of targeted communications and selling through enthusiastic engagement with simple, powerful and confident ideas.

In the world of social media and digital startups, there is a concept that we need to adopt: that ideas can be more or less portable. If your idea contains a kernel of truth about your product or service — or your party — and addresses people in a way that is meaningful for them, they may choose to pass it on. And their friends, families and colleagues are listening to them far more than they are listening to the cacophony of corporate and government machines spewing forth their messages with increasing volume.

Ideas must come first, before we can even think about getting back onto the streets to campaign locally.

This amounts to a passionate argument for a radical departure in the fundamental ideology of the Liberal Democrat party, in terms of its culture, instincts and methods.

The argument that starts with the attitude and behaviour of the party, of the membership, ends with a very different outcome. Rather than becoming a strong party again, which is commendable, these arguments lead to the establishment of a powerful liberal movement, reaching out well beyond the boundaries of the party activists who were so badly beaten during the General Election of 2015. It is a fresh start, but one that offers the promise of attracting the attention of millions of Britons whose instincts are naturally aligned with this flavour of liberalism.

Norman Lamb makes a very strong argument that he is the leader who will use his mandate to reshape the party for the twenty-first century. For new members, this is a compelling argument.

Chapter 3: what went wrong and how can we use liberalism as a platform?

The remainder of this summary is a set of annotated clips from Norman Lamb’s book Giving Power to People.

What went wrong:

A future coalition would be dependent on a mandate for voting reform:

What the Liberal Democrats are like:

The argument that Britain is liberal:

We failed to connect our party with this liberalism in Britain:

Two things we should do in the short term: 1) work for electoral reform:

2) get outside Whitehall:

Lamb is scathing about the insidious effects of central Whitehall control, mentioning the Child Support Agency and a whole range of examples of a system not working:

Nobody talks about the insidious effect of faceless bureaucracy:

The case of Josh Wills from Cornwall. But changing the system to help individuals can’t be done one case at a time by MPs:

The argument for decentralisation so people become less dependent:

The argument needs to be made in practical terms:

Lamb’s definition of liberalism:

Nobody should be held back by poverty, ignorance, confirmity or arbitrary behaviour of authority:

Legal rights and the rule of law underpin liberalism and apply in life and death:

The state has a role to educate and inform but not decide on our behalf:

Distinguishing liberalism from Toryism — Gladstone:

Following the argument to trust in people, drug laws are one of the first places to look for reform:

Young people understand these arguments better — they are more liberal than the dependence-fostering establishment:

The Whitehall welfare bureaucracy fails to tackle poverty and its behaviour verges on hectoring, bullying:

The prison system is broken. Short sentences should be justified on a case by case basis and savings made from lower incarceration rates reinvested:

Using prison to correct the behaviour of young people is wrong:

Mental health needs help not police cells:

The NHS waiting lists system sucks money into acute hospitals at the expense of every other part of the healthcare system, where better value can be achieved:

We cannot simply pour more money into the NHS — it needs reformed:

This is the first area I have earmarked as particularly contentious — nobody wants to hear that the first thing the NHS needs right now is reform but the argument is completely compelling. Lamb goes on to provide details of the sort of radical reform he is talking about. It is not tweaking the centralised system that the statist Labour and Conservative parties have repeatedly tinkered with.

The first argument is for the NHS to be run on a mutual model, to give staff and patients a stake in its success — this would strip away the natural bureaucratic barriers to innovation (more on this later):

Governments for the past 30 years have tinkered with the same centralised system in the NHS. The same thing happening in Government finance with the Conservatives currently obsessed with deficit reduction. What the country really needs right now is reform and innovation:

Central control is part of the problem:

Instead of blunt, untargeted deficit reduction, we need to improve in key areas, such as in early years education:

Mutual structures also offer an innovative means of improving productivity:

We need to unleash entrepreneurial forces — forces to which the public sector central bureaucracy is structurally opposed to because it places no trust in people:

Raising taxes centrally means power lies centrally:

The argument for the radical decentralisation of tax-raising powers:

The argument that Beveridge — one of the architects of our welfare system- warned against the dependency culture:

Our centralised public services are faceless and don’t give staff or local communities any control:

Our public services need social mobility baked in:

The argument for a new Beveridge report for the twenty-first century:

We need to get entrepreneurs involved in running the Government:

The argument that businesses can afford to pay more to employees:

This is the second area I noted as contentious. Lamb must be careful not to sound like he is hectoring businesses. Later, he makes a very strong argument for being the party of business. The language and the tone here is at least as important as the content of what we say.

As a form of organisational innovation, Lamb promotes the cooperative model, stating it offers a viable alternative to our monolithic central bureaucratic structures:

We should be the party of business:

Part of this is to recognise that to be pro-business does not mean to be entirely uncritical of the private sector:

Businesses support an alternative to the current eduation and skills agenda:

Our education system needs to turn out innovative, creative people:

Education, in the eyes of business, is not about the 3 Rs. Lamb is arguing for making an explicit connection between the needs of business and our education system, because it provides a clear argument for businesses paying tax. Businesses want more than a few tax breaks, he argues — they want educated school leavers with skills every manager can depend upon:

Lamb provides a compellingly insightful argument that entrepreneurs are not in it for the money but to change the way the system works. The money is a reward because it proves them right:

The argument for open societies, from Karl Popper:

This openness and preparedness to challenge the status quo is an attribute increasingly desired by businesses and the education system has a role to play here too:

Monopoly is slavery :

This is the third area where I found Lamb making a contentious argument. Monopoly is slavery in a mill in the eighteenth century operating the truck system — yes. But the argument against monopolies in modern society needs to be made carefully. The idea of breaking up a monopoly is, from the perspective of the employees and owners of a business, illiberal.

He goes on to say that our economy is unbalanced by big finance — he makes a link here between the overcentralisation of our country and of our economy:

Banks are not fit to support businesses:

Markets are right but all systems may on analysis be subject to the requirement they undergo moderation, where it is clear the market is not working as it ought to. He describes doing anything other than this as market fundamentalism:

The remaining arguments are that entrepreneurialism should be taught in schools:

Government should be modelled on fast-moving, entrepreneurial organisations, rather than the rigid military structures of old:

There is an interesting tension here — between the organisational structure of the military and twenty-first century super-corporations that were designed to provide stability, efficiency and growth; and the structure of the small, nible and risk-taking startup structures of the modern business. In the old model, it was understood the corporation should not fail and the welfare, livelihood and management ran within its confines. These companies reached far into society, sometimes supporting families through pension and funeral schemes and providing away days, sometimes even building housing and the urban infrastructure families needed, such as schools and hospitals. In the new model, it is understood that the Government provides many of these things through central funding or regulatory requirement. The problem is that Government has become like a giant corporation in the same style as those who used to provide these protections.

Underpinning Lamb’s argument seems to be a recognition that we are now living in an age where thanks to technology, the presumption of openness and an ever-more scientific understanding of education, healthcare and the provision of public services, we should be able to shrink the size of the welfare bureaucracy. We should be letting an open system take up the slack, where people can pay taxes and choose what they want in return, while preserving our progressive ambitions for vulnerable people and those in temporary need of support.

If this is what he is arguing, I am fully on board.