I think most people are now aware of an issue that has been plaguing our thinking for some time - the idea of portraying ourselves, and being portrayed, as being nothing more than a party of 'between the other main parties'. The wishy-washy, in the middle, don't really believe in anything party. At it's worst, it makes us the party of dull moderation seen as not wanting to actually stand up for anything or do anything much other than stopping the extremes of 'left' and 'right'.
Of course, there is some merit in stopping the extreme elements in other major parties from getting their way, but that isn't the point. The simplistic 'left versus right' narrative, so beloved by our media, gives an impression of the Liberal Democrats as being the party without anything positive to say, and without any core beliefs to base what we might be saying upon.
We know that is wrong, of course, but we have fallen all too often into the trap of engaging with this narrative and using its language ourselves. There are obviously times when that kind of idea of moderate, not doing anything rash, maintaining a steady course without veering one way or another, can be quite appealing to the public. It can, perhaps, actually serve us quite well when times are good for people, but during tougher economic times it leaves us as the party with no real answers to the problems - or at least no answers that anybody knows about. It leaves us seen as the party with nothing to say and no idea of what direction we want to be going in, and that's not something we can ever again afford to be seen as. When the steady course seems, to the public, to not be working, being seen as the party with nothing to say apart from 'keep it steady' is not a good thing, and even when it does seem to be going OK, it still makes us a pretty bland and dull prospect.
It is a completely false impression of what we stand for, of course. The 'left versus right' narrative is a convenient one for the media - it's widely understood, it paints clear battle-lines, and it creates a 'good guy versus bad guy' scenario to be nicely emotive about (which is which depending on which side you, or a particular media outlet, happens to be on). It's a very neat narrative to present, but it leaves us as the ones with no strong convictions, perpetually being squeeze in the middle, and it always will.
I think now we need to stop using the language of 'left' and 'right' altogether ourselves, and equally stop using the language of 'the centre'. Being said to be in 'the centre' is utterly meaningless - it creates nothing more than a false impression of non-belief based on a picture of politics that we know to be overly simplistic and often even hugely misleading. At best, it persuades a few people that we can keep things steady when times are good, but that's about the limit of its potential virtue.
We need to make sure we avoid that kind of language and narrative altogether - we need to tell people what we actually stand for, and I think it's actually much simpler than we often seem to assume. Politics isn't simple, as we know - different ideologies need to be seen for what they are, and that isn't something you can do in a soundbite that sums everything up neatly in a word or two. Any slogan that short will inevitably say nothing at all of any use. Was there ever a major party of any colour that, for example, wanted to present itself to the electorate as wanting something other than a 'stronger economy and a fairer society'? Or, for that matter, a 'stronger society and a fairer economy'?! I guess soundbites and slogans are a necessary evil in modern politics to an extent, but we need to do more than that to portray a meaningful image of what we are, and we need to be seen as more meaningful than 'those in the middle guys'.
Of course, the media will be glued to their neat little two-way model, and we, quite rightly, cannot control the media. We can, however, stop using the language of that model ourselves entirely - we can stop just playing into their hands so readily. With every slogan and every soundbite and every interview and ever paper we present, we can avoid being the party of the 'centre ground'. OK, but how do we present ourselves as being distinctive and different in a simple, understandable way that reflects our actual core beliefs, I hear you ask?
We can refer to ourselves constantly as what we are - the party of 'Freedom', the party of 'Liberty' and the party of 'Rights'. That is what we are, when it comes down to it, not the party of 'in the middle'. So what of the other two major parties - how do we paint them as being different from what we are all about - after all, they will, at times, try to use some similar language. Well, the difference is in the contrast between our core belief in individual Liberty and the core belief that the two largest parties share in relative 'government authoritarianism', and that is what we can present clearly an unambiguously every time we open our mouths.
We can, and I think we should, refer to them not (as we previously have) as 'the other two parties', or 'the parties of left and right', or 'the two big parties', but as the 'two authoritarian parties'. It puts us outside of that 'left/right' thing, and completely away from 'being in the centre' - it uses a different political axis, and the one that is actually relevant to the differences between what we believe and what they believe. As much as we cannot control the media, they cannot control us - they might want to stick to their narrative, but they can't stop us from using our own whenever we speak to them, or speak directly to people (in person or via social media). We can change the language that we use. It won't stop the 'left v right' narrative, of course, but it could create another narrative that people will still be able to hear.
Our belief in Liberty and Rights for the individual is what marks us out as unique among the 'traditional' parties, and even among the now wider spectrum of UK politics. We are the party of Freedom, of Liberty, of Individual Rights, of Human Rights, and even of Workers' Rights. They are the parties of government control and authority, of 'Snoopers Charters', of 'ID Cards', of maintaining the Power of the State and the Ruling Classes (whether that be the 'old order' or their own 'new order'!) over the people. We need to present that clearly in the language that we use. We need to stop being 'the party of in the middle of the other two parties', and start standing proud as the party of 'Liberty' against the parties of 'Authoritarianism'.
As it says in the old advert pictured, 'Liberty', and the language of 'Liberty', could for us be 'The Way to Healthy Development'!
(I was going to put a picture of the Statue of Liberty or something, but I thought that would be a little cheesy and predictable. I'm sure you agree that my final sentence wasn't cheesy at all! Yeah....well, OK.....sorry - I just couldn't resist!)