What does it mean to be a Liberal Democrat today? Essay nine

The most important thing about being a Liberal Democrat today is that it is not a spectator sport. Liberalism is under threat from the politics of blame, fear and isolationism. Everyone who believes in freedom, social justice and the need to look after our planet needs to roll up their sleeves and live those values in every aspect of their lives. We need to find ever more creative and effective ways of countering the forces that threaten liberty, scapegoat groups of people and perpetuate inequality.

At the core of our belief, uniquely, is respect for the individual. Enforced or even encouraged conformity makes us weep. Our optimistic view of humanity drives us to create the conditions for all to thrive. While education is the cornerstone of human development, we understand it’s difficult to learn without food and shelter. We will stand up for the rights of those who don’t conform to society’s norms and will challenge attitudes which impose an oppressive expectation of behaviour. Unless it harms others, let it be.

A key focus in that must be an acknowledgement that even in affluent parts of the world, women, who make up more than half the population, do not have equal rights. Whether it’s challenging the idea that only thin women who conform to a very narrow standard of beauty are worthwhile to championing the rights of women to control all aspects of their own destiny, from choice of life partner to the number of children they have to their career path, we recognise that the fight for gender equality has a long way to go and must be at the heart of all aspects of our work.

We do not accept that people should be confined by the circumstances of their birth. Success should be about the most talented people being rewarded for their contribution to society, not being held back by something as arbitrary as their postcode. While we’re on about success, we don’t define that as purely amassing vast amounts of money. It’s about what you give to the world to make it a better place. It might be growing a vast company and employing lots of people, but it might just as easily be a song or a painting or a lifetime of service to your community or risking your life in a foreign field hospital.

Breaking down barriers for people is what we do. That means we need to challenge the establishment, whether that be government or corporate. We will always stand on the side of the powerless. We are there to protect people from the excessive abuse of power in all circumstances. Where political systems don’t deliver that, we strive to change them. We are at our heart a radical movement which constantly challenges those who hold power. We must never let those who rule us feel that they are entitled to that privilege or to feel that it’s OK for them to intrude into our lives without very good reason.

We know that achieving all these things means that there has to be a powerful state to make sure that society functions in a way that enables everyone to contribute their best. We recognise that ‘markets’ are not focused on social justice, yet an oppressive, one-size-fits-all collectivist monolith with an ‘any colour as long as it’s black’ attitude is just as harmful. We want a state that ensures everyone has enough to eat and somewhere to live and access to health care, that individuals have a right of redress against abuse of power and which at its heart enables people to use all of their talents, and is flexible enough to meet a variety of needs.

A decent state costs money and to us ‘tax’ is not a dirty word. We know that you get the public services you pay for. We need to advance the argument that a vibrant, responsive, enabling state investing in the infrastructure that is in the interests of all citizens and not of any corporation is the best way to ensure freedom, justice and fairness in our society.

We must stand with liberals across the globe against the sort of pernicious nationalism which suggests that only people born in a particular corner of the map have value. That path will always lead to disaster and conflict. Liberal Democrats recognise the bonds which unite us as human beings and have as much empathy with those fleeing war and tyranny in other parts of the world as we do with those facing poverty and hardship within our national borders. We take our responsibilities of stewarding the planet seriously and know that it is only by working with others that we secure its future. We can’t tackle climate change or human trafficking or international trade alone. We must work with others to ensure that everyone across the world has the same opportunities that we would like for ourselves. Food, clean water, sanitation, healthcare, human rights all matter as much to people in South Sudan as they do in South Shields and it is in our interest as human beings to ensure that the world’s resources and opportunities are shared fairly.

We want decisions to be taken as close to the people they affect as is sensible. That means that it’s your local government, not mandarins in Whitehall, who should decide when your bin collections take place, but it makes sense for countries across Europe to work together on international trade and global human rights.

Being liberals, we will each find our own way of letting our liberal voices be heard. It is more important than it has been at any point in living memory for us to stand up and be counted, as rich and powerful people with vested interests fuel the advance of the forces of nationalism and small-statism. The future of our planet depends on our success in holding them back.