During the latest hiatus in this blog, I was struck by the coverage given to Lib Dem MEP Fiona Hall’s call to ban patio heaters and Greg Mulholland MP’s proposal that pubs should have to sell wine in 125ml measures. Both of these raise the problem of liberals calling for individual freedom in the abstract, but in practice calling for more regulation of people’s lives.
Of the two I think that Fiona Hall’s quest is the more questionable. Patio heaters are certainly bad for the environment and it may well be true that they consume more energy (or whatever) than running a car. And yet lots of other things that are not eco-friendly are not banned. What if someone didn’t want to own a car, but liked occasionally to sit outdoors on chilly evenings, and used their patio heater sparingly? Why should they not have that choice.
Greg Mulholland, on the other hand seems a little unfairly maligned. If I have understood right, he has not (as has been claimed) said that pubs should not be able to serve larger measures of wine, only that they should offer small glasses as an option. This is a fair point. I have come across some bars that serve wine only in large 250ml measures. If wine is up to three times as strong as beer, then this is the equivalent of serving beer pint-and-a-half measures and nothing less. But if the suggestion is sensible of itself, it is so easily misrepresented that it risks making the Lib Dems seem nannyish.
How we are perceived by the public is not just about our principles or policies, but also a question of what our representatives choose to talk about. For example, the Liberal Democrats support controls on immigration. But if a Lib Dem MP chose to talk obsessively about the need for more strong immigration controls, to the exclusion of other issues, this would seem at variance with our general approach to politics, even if said MP was not going against party policy. It would look like pandering to the illiberal far right.
Projecting a clear Liberal narrative means that our leaders, parliamentarians, council leaders etc. need to consider when launching any initiative how it fits in with our Liberal principles. No one wants the kind of control-freakery that Mandelson and Co. operated in New Labour. But my modest suggestion to the new leader, if he wants to project the Lib Dems as a consistently Liberal force, is to give a very firm steer to the party colleagues along the following lines:
“Before speaking out or launching a new initiative on any issue, think how well it fits our liberal message. Is it
• decentralising or centralising?
• pro or anti civil liberties?
• pro or anti personal choice?
• good or bad for the environment?
• likely or not to combat poverty and exclusion?
• drawbridge down or drawbridge up?
If it fails one or more of these tests, then think twice about going public. Ask advice from the leader/party spokesperson/policy team. Sometimes these values may conflict and we have to prioritise one over the other. Sometimes our view will have to be tempered by pragmatism. But remember that the transient publicity we get on a single issue will affect the overall image of the party. It can serve either to undermine or reinforce our general message. Think before sounding off!”