Paddy Ashdown writes…An essay to my party on the eve of Conference: Four dangerous ideas
By Paddy Ashdown in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats
So, here, as promised are four dangerous ideas for the future. Please be clear. I am not necessarily proposing these. Just asking why we are not even discussing them?
Dangerous idea 1
We are guiltily obsessed with student fees. The fact that we don't need to be, because the principle is right, does not make life easier (how I wish we had called them a Graduate tax!). But now with the student loan debt rising, do we not also have to consider how we get better value for what students pay? If we have a tertiary education system which cannot be paid for without loading more and more debt on our young, should we not be looking at the system, not just at how they pay? We persist in the medieval practice of taking students to medieval ivy covered buildings, to receive their education in the medieval manner from minds, too many of which, when it comes to delivering education, are stuck in the middle ages. Yet distance learning was pioneered in Britain at the Open University when communicating with your tutor meant stuffing your academic paper in an envelope, licking it, sticking a stamp on it and putting it in the local post-box. Today the whole planet is into distance learning. Many of our own Universities make tons of money providing distance learning degree courses to students all over the world. But none of them are in Britain! If we were to convert at least part of our tertiary education syllabus to distance learning we might reduce the cost of degrees without diminishing their quality, give students more flexibility, force lecturers into the modern age, widen access and create a superb platform for adult education all at the same time. Why, beloved Lib Dems, do we allow medieval vested interests to preserve our ivy covered tertiary education system exactly as it is, loading more and more debt on students and preventing us from doing what much of the rest of the world is doing already? Just asking.
Dangerous idea 2
We have long understood that property owning rights are one of the foundation stones of democracy. Yet each of us, gives away our most intimate of property free and daily to the most powerful corporations, who make millions and millions from it. I am talking of course, about our personal data. Why do we Lib Dems not assert the citizens right to own their own data and to have control over how it is used? Why about proposing a law - perhaps a European one - which says to Messrs Amazon, Google, Starbucks etc, that they can use our personal data for their commercial purposes, but only with our permission and if they give us a share of the profits. Can you think of anything which would more alter the relationship between these masters of the commercial universe and the customers whose information they exploit for such enormous profit? Can you think of anything which would more empower the citizen in the market pace? Isn't that what we Lib Dems are supposed to be about? So?
Dangerous idea 3
The political parties or movements that are thriving at the moment (e.g. En Marche, Italy's 5 star movement and Momentum to name a few) are those who have adopted an internet based model which enables mass younger membership, flat low cost management, modest entry fees, direct democracy, constant engagement, high participation and the opportunity to take part in politics as just one of the multi-transactional things we do in our busy lives. The older conventional political parties are stuck in the model of the1870s; vertical hierarchies, festoons of committees which claim democracy, but end up with management by those who can spare the time; low and ageing membership; high cost of entry; limited engagement; even less real participation and a dependency on political obsessives (like me). And they are dying. The number of people in political parties has dropped from 10.5% of the electorate 20 years ago, to 1.5% today. Should we be worried about this? Apparently not. I know this, because I sent a paper to our Party Board suggesting that we might take a look at these revolutionary new ideas being followed by those who are succeeding, where we are not. I did not suggest anything as radical as actually doing this. Just that we should look at it. I know it was discussed (and rejected with some muscularity) as I read about it, not always in the most admiring terms, in these and other pages where the Party, usually with delicious irreverence, exchanges its views. Fine. It probably was a dotty idea. But here's the thought. Imagine if this was one of our new members suggesting an idea for us to consider and they heard nothing more except rumours of its death, without even an acknowledgement, let alone an explanation or reply. Would they consider us, a Party open to new ideas? Or one defensively closed against them?
Dangerous idea 4
In Estonia and Lithuania they are thinking ambitiously about the application of blockchain and bitcoin to public services, and what these innovations can do to deliver greater efficiency, transparency and citizen power. Why aren't we?
I have concluded that all this is so, not because we have really lost our intellectual curiosity, but because of the dead hand of Brexit. I admit second place to no-one when it comes to fighting for the best Brexit we can, and preferably no Brexit at all. I am proud of our Party's clear position on this defining issue. But is our obsession with Brexit in danger of distracting us from what kind of country we want Britain to be, whether in the EU or out of it? For me the heart of liberalism is our crusade for the empowered citizen, not the powerful state. This is a radical disruptive and insurgent idea. But where is it? When did you last - at Conference or outside it - hear us arguing that case, debating new ideas to make it happen or proselytising it before the court of public opinion?
Look, for instance at this week's resolution on the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The answer to the abuse of tenants in places like at Grenfell, is to give them the power and support to manage themselves through tenants' co-operatives. I thought this was our policy. So where is it?
Answers on a post card please - preferably post marked Bournemouth and dated next week.
* Paddy Ashdown was the first Leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1988-1999. He is now a Liberal Democrat of the House of Lords