Your life is your business – not theirs
Wednesday, December 15th, 2004
I've been vaguely meaning for a while now to write something about ID cards, personal privacy and how the Liberal Democrats should campaign on the issue. Last night the words fell into place in the form of an article for Liberal Democrat News, the party's weekly newspaper. Alas, there's no room this week, so it's appearing at a quarter of its length as a letter. Such is life. But the full text appears after the cut – don't read unless you're interested in hardcore politics. (Of course, David Blunkett's resignation throws things up in the air a bit… in a good way.)
From where I'm sitting, on the outside of active Liberal Democrat politics looking in, we seem to have things pretty well under control for the next general election.
Compared with when I stood last time round, we seem to have candidates set up in places where previously there were last-minute scrambles, a media profile where there was once silence, tactics planned for every constituency rather just a few, and a snappy set of policies that Simon Hughes has proved can be recited in one breath without going too red in the face.
We may have missed the big TV opportunity – getting Lembit Öpik on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here – but Charles Kennedy on EastEnders is a good second best, and there's still Celebrity Big Brother to come in January if Tony Greaves is up for it.
But there is one area where we're still lacking, and I hope even as I write there are hordes of fresh-faced youths slaving away in the bowels of Cowley Street filling the gap – but somehow I doubt it, because it's an area we as Liberal Democrats have not traditionally been strong at.
The area I refer to is, of course, the noble art of kicking the opposition repeatedly in the knackers.
Of course, we have to have a set of coherent, costed policies to present to the electorate – but let's be honest, almost no-one reads them except our opponents and the media, who will say exactly the same things as if we'd dashed them out on the back of an envelope.
One only needs to look at the fate of John Kerry to realise that having positive policies and a discredited opponent are not enough – we need to put some of our effort into planning a fearsome attack strategy as well.
It's not one of our traditional strengths because it represents the sort of politics we don't believe in. We'll go in hard when it's justified – our by-election campaigns prove that – but we're too ethical to go negative if the only reason is to scare voters into supporting us.
Which is entirely the way it should be.
But we shouldn't allow our dislike of gratuitous negativity to hold us back from shooting into an open goal when one is presented to us. And what an open goal we've been presented with.
It's a sad fact that if one of our Parliamentarians ever did manage to take part in a reality TV programme like I'm a Celebrity, they would certainly garner more votes in the phone poll than all of the rest of their colleagues would in the ballot box combined. And the reason for this is that what the public most wants from their politicians is for us all to go away and leave them alone. They don't like us, they don't trust us, and they resent us having power over them.
All of us, as liberals and as democrats and as believers in an active citizenry that exercises control over its own lives, wish this was not so. We would all like to see a Britain where people look at politics as an accessible route to making their lives better and not as an intrusion. But that won't happen before the next election.
The next election will be fought against a backdrop of public cynicism, which all parties will attempt to counter by evangelical cheerleading and relentless smiling. And by doing so they will miss a golden opportunity to do exactly what they claim they most want to do – connect with the electorate.
The public do not trust politicians or the power of the state, and we as liberals know they have never had greater justification for this mistrust. The decision this week by the Conservatives to support the introduction of ID cards leaves us as the only major party actively fighting this gross invasion of privacy. Nor is it simply ID cards – time and again successive Conservative and Labour governments have inched the power of the state over the individual forward until the concept of the private citizen is almost meaningless.
We as a party have many simple, constructive policies to promote the freedom and privacy of the individual, and we as activists can recite from memory countless examples of these freedoms being eroded by the other parties. The ordinary voter would be shocked and horrified to discover how easily their emails, mobile phone calls and personal details can be perfectly legally monitored or shared around, and they will find the reality of ID cards an imposition that will quickly anger them. But if we present this information as a dry policy document they will never even notice it.
Instead, we should scare the life out of them with it.
When the election comes and people start saying 'we don't trust politicians', we should reply: 'You know what? You're right not to'. And we should hit them between the eyes with all the things that will scare them the most. They think the government's out to get them? We should show them exactly how it is – and tell them how we'd change that if we were in power.
So yes, when the election begins I want to hear our positive proposals for health and education and the economy and all the rest of it. I want to hear the phrase “a Liberal Democrat government would…” again and again until I'm sick of the sound of it.
But I also want to see big pictures of David Blunkett, with the caption: “This man wants you to pay £85 for a bit of plastic to prove to him you're British.”
I want to see photos of Tony Blair with the caption: “In 2000, this man approved a law that gave the Secret Service the right to read your private emails.”
And most of all I want to see us reaching out to jaded and suspicious voters by telling them: “Your life is your business – not ours.”