Time and again during Lib Dem conference I heard serious voices urging the party not to lament the voters we have in past year or so – but to focus on where we might find voters going forward.. It is of course quite possible that with time, some improvement in the economy, and an increasingly mad Labour party, some lost voters will return to us.
But hoping or expecting or praying for the lost to find their way back to us is hardly what you call ” a plan”.
So what should the Lib Dem plan be? First and foremost, of course, we MUST be true to ourselves. We have seen all too often other parties trying to shape policy according to the latest opinion poll or focus group. It is just plain nuts. Parties get found out that way. It may work for a while but it always ends up in tears as the natural instincts of the party eventually pull you back to base. At best opinion polls et al give you a spot price on the mood of the nation. But as we know the nation can be fickle – attitudes can change – sometimes overnight – and parties can, all too often, end up with an array of conflicting policies that says nothing about what a party stands for. This leads to doubt and mistrust amongst the voters – and confusion and conflict within the party itself.
So our plan should be grounded in our roots, in our DNA – ideas and solutions that everyone immediately recognises as obviously Liberal. It is why Nick’s stand against any changes to the Human Rights Act works so well – and our opposition to Free schools looks so phony. There is no underlying Liberal reason why empowering parents at the expense of Government (national or council) is wrong.
But opposition to coalition policies as we have said here before many times is not a plan. And if it is a plan, it is a wholly useless one. After all we are not in opposition we are in power.
So where should the Liberal Democrats be going, who should they be talking to and what policies should that then deliver?
It’s obvious isn’t it ? Small and medium sized businesses. The Conservatives are the friends of big business, the Labour party now firmly under the control of the Trade Unions is also increasingly obsessed with big business (whether workers of large public sector organisations or private enterprise). Ed Balls may have made overtures to small business in his speech on Monday. But referring to my earlier point – no one really believes that Labour is the party of small business or the entrepreneur. It’s just phony.
The Liberal Democrats on the other hand can legitimately claim the position of defender of the small. The most meaningful boost we have had in the polls recently came at the height of the Murdoch inquiry. It reminded the nation that we are not, nor ever have been, in the pockets of big business interests (media or otherwise). We argue for localism over big government. We stand for modernisation not protection of the status quo (and believe me the entrepreneur revolution is well and truly upon us). We are internationalists not protectionists. If any party should be able to win the hearts and minds of small business it should surely be the Liberal Democrats.
And if there is a group of people that every party should want to win it is small business. Small business is huge. There are about 23million people working in small and medium sized businesses. They are shopkeepers and entrepreneurs, lawyers and designers, engineers and specialist manufacturers. They are our kind of people. (And they are much more likely to operate close to where their goods/services are used which will keep the greener ones amongst us happy). SME’s are small and nifty. Able to downsize and up-size quickly according to market conditions. They are canny,resourceful, and flexible. They are also the engine room for economic growth. Who wouldn’t want them in their camp? All they really want is for Government to stop standing in their way…..
So here is a plan that is neither bold nor brave. It’s simple. Why don’t we, the Liberal Democrats, be the party that truly, meaningfully embraces the small and the local. We also actually have a Lib Dem minister in the necessary department. Let’s really go for it.
Let’s go into the next election saying it was the Liberal Democrats that swept away the acres of red tape that crushes small businesses. Big business loves red tape – it creates barriers to entry for the small to get bigger and new ones to start. It is the small and medium that get hurt. And let’s not be tentatitive about this. Let’s not just exempt the small from new regulation for a year or two.. let’s tear down this stuff good and proper, and forever.
Let it be the Liberal Democrats that rather than eat up headlines saying why bankers are spivs and need controlling – let’s go and just create whole new avenues of funding for small businesses eg.. Let’s give meaningful (huge even) tax breaks for indidivuals that are willing to invest in the future of our SMEs.
And why can’t the Liberal Democrats be the ones to say that companies employing less that 20 people will be exempt from compulsory pension provision and grant them exemption from paying minimum wage to under 25′s. I know that we will have unions and academics saying that this is child labour… exploiting the young, encouraging companies to fire the old to bring in “slave” labour…. But honestly we all know that small companies are just not like that. These business men and women are not evil capitalists seeking to oppress the workers – they often live in the communities in which they work. They employ neighbours or friends or heaven forbid – family members. Times have changed. Our perceptions should too.
Let it be the Liberal Democrats that stand up for small business and local communities. We should be the party saying that we have has messed around with the local corner shop once too often and heaped trouble after trouble on local pub landlords. The nation’s health is important – but law after law on tobacco sales will only drive smokers to the Tescos and Sainsburys of this world at best – and criminal gangs running ludicrously successful counterfeiting operations at worst. And banning smoking from ALL pubs was never the intention of Government – they intended to allow independents, private clubs etc exempt. It was the big business pub chains that insisted that everyone should share the same pain. Why don’t the Liberal Democrats stand up for the local shopkeeper and the pubs and working mens clubs of this country.Let’s call time on more big government health lobbies calling the shots and give the shopkeepers and independent landlords who live in our local communities a fairer shout.
All of the above would genuinely enable the local hubs of our communities to survive and many businesses to grow, to expand, to export and to spend more time and more cash on making their businesses more successful. And actually to employ more people. The days when a person joined one company and stayed with them for 20 or 30 years have gone. We really are living in the middle of an entrepreneurial revolution. We should not only recognise it but embrace it. And it may just pay huge dividends at the ballot box.