Friday, 22 May 2015

A long-term, 360 degree policy for well-being can see us rise above the mire.

I was a candidate in the 2015 general election in a seat we had no chance of winning. An election address was put out in my name that contained messages I had at best moderate enthusiasm for. The "3 great reasons to vote for me" were things that sadly sapped some of the excitement out of voting for myself.

I've never thought about the Liberal Democrats as a party that just shuffled money around from one place to another, but that was my message to the people. Raising the personal allowance for income tax was great when we were letting people earning a £10,000 salary take home much more money. Raising it further was only going to help those earning above £10,600. It had morphed in to a tax cut for the middle classes, rather than the poorest paid workers, and the Conservatives were promising the same thing anyway. When your tax policy is copied by the Conservatives you really should re-examine your priorities.

The second "great reason to vote for Ewan Hoyle" was that I would help pass a law ensuring that the pensioners of the UK would become less and less affordable for society as their numbers grew. Old people vote more than the young, so fire-hosing them with money for all eternity is of course good politics. It is however completely unjustifiable at a time when the rest of the welfare budget is in drought. The pensions triple-lock was always populist bribery that left me cold.

Reason three was another fire-hose policy, this time spraying money at the NHS in order to meet the need identified. This is one way of ensuring that the needs of patients are satisfactorily met. When Labour got into government in 1997 they had great ambitions to increase the level of spending on our health services. They were successful in matching those ambitions... but what would our society look like if they had instead attempted to reduce demand on our health service? You know, helped citizens become healthier and happier so they didn't need to go to their GP or go to hospital.

This is what should be at the core of our next pitch to the Scottish people (we've got an election next year rUKers :) ). A bold, long-term ambition to reduce demand on government spending rather than vision-free, short-sighted promises to increase its supply. Rather than promise x-thousand extra nurses or police, how's about we reduce the workload for our existing nurses and police so they can do their jobs more effectively under less pressure.

But this isn't a right-of-centre plea for the state to be rolled back, it's a plea for an enormous expansion of capital spending: Well-being capital spending that invests in education, outreach and community activities that engage effectively with those members of society who will (bluntly) cost us the most in the coming years.

For the unemployed, the other parties seem intent on compelling people to either work for their benefits, or to accept compulsory employment. These strategies are troubling to various degrees but both remove the ability of the individual concerned to make their own choices about their future. I attended a conference on measuring well-being a while back and the only useful take-home messages from a very dry day were that unemployment is awful for your well-being and that volunteering and getting outdoors are the best things for improving well-being and self-esteem.

So instead of offering volunteering opportunities to the entire nation's workforce, would it not be a better idea to target volunteering at those who desperately need it (the unemployed and those on ESA) as a means of both increasing their well-being and self-esteem; and of introducing them to roles in the workforce that they might enjoy. Let those on benefits choose their own volunteering placements with no compulsion, and those with a bit of get up and go will be eager to identify a work role they are comfortable and able in. They will accumulate positive and recent references and will ascend to the workforce so much quicker. Those who choose not to take up the volunteering opportunities should receive no greater punishment than watching other people gain confidence and get jobs, and will always have that same path available should they wish to follow it.

Unemployment is a soul-crushing experience, and at present the state with their hair-trigger sanction regime is harassing people on JSA to the point where they are frequently eligible (through stress-related mental and physical health conditions) for ESA instead... only to then be kicked off ESA for not being sufficiently demonstrably impaired. This shuffling of people from one benefit to another and none until they give up and stop claiming has to be stopped in favour of a regime that offers humane treatment, sympathy, opportunity, choice and hope of a path into a fulfilling life in work.

If we are to present a long-term vision for health and well-being then we have to propose a revolution in our schools, creating a greatly expanded personal, social and health education programme which can effectively prevent and intervene in some of the great drivers of suffering that can set lives down dark and dangerous paths. There are a great many subjects that have broken through taboos to expose the harrowing experiences that constrain opportunity. We now live in a culture in which child abuse is being exposed, mental health and addiction experiences are being openly discussed in the media, and graphic, violent pornography is accessible to children.

Schools education has never been effective at preparing young people for the challenges that life can present. We need to equip them with the tools to identify instances of abuse, addiction and mental ill health, and the information necessary to effectively act to limit their impact. Early intervention and prevention is absolutely key to limiting the impact of traumatic experiences. Delivering the right programmes at the right time (for pupils and their families) can arrest the passage of trauma horizontally through society and vertically through generations.

There will be many more policies and programmes that could slot easily into a long-term ambition for well-being: An ambition that saves us spending money on the cleaning roles in government spending that tidy up the mess that society makes. As well as broadly asking the Scottish people what they want the Lib Dems to do for them, could we not invite academics and charities to identify the policies and programmes that will help realise this long-term well-being vision?

Politicians don't really do long-term visions any more. It's a short term game and it serves the population poorly as a result. As a left-of-centre party in a bloody crowded marketplace in Scotland, we have to rise above the short-term empty promises, and present something better that we can be proud of.

Marketing the Liberal Democrats should mean setting us free.

A couple of weeks ago Daisy Benson shared a video on twitter of a Tim Farron speech from 2010. In it he described our opposing parties as "soulless marketing operations". Five years on from then, it is clear to me that the Liberal Democrats had tried in this election to outdo the other parties with our marketing operation, and fallen spectacularly flat on our faces.

In July 2013 we had a visit in Glasgow from Ryan Coetzee, our party's director of strategy in which he unveiled the great slogan we would be marching under and parroting for the two years (TWO LONG YEARS!) to follow. Apparently the slogan "Stronger Economy, Fairer Society" had tested really well with our potential voters (or some other marketing guff-speak). "Well goody for it" I thought at the time. "But how will it make voters feel after two years of solid exposure?"

As an interesting aside, Ryan presented us with a really strong metaphor for message consistency that day based upon his son's playroom activities. Apparently his son had lots of Star Wars lego and lots of Harry Potter lego, but he had warned him against allowing any of the Harry Potter lego to contaminate the construction of his great Death Star project, because we all know a Lego Death Star just won't work if it has yellow and brown bits of Harry Potter Lego in it. Everything has to be pulling in the right direction and in just the right place if the Lego Death Star is to fulfil its destiny and carry us to glorious victory (or something). I don't know if this metaphor was trotted out at other stops on the campaign roadshow, or if somebody had pointed out to him that he was likening our consistent message to the most potent monument to pure evil in the history of cinema, or an inconsequential children's toy that would quickly be either left in a corner or dismantled to resource the creative imagination of a child. I suspect considering Ryan as Lord Business and Liberal Democrat candidates as Master Builders (bagsy Benny the 80s spaceman - replace the word "spaceship" with "drug policy campaign" and that's basically me ;) ) will make The Lego Movie even more enjoyable.

Politics isn't a good field on which to impose slogans and other marketing gimmicks. For me, every time our representatives said the SEFS words they stopped being honest, plausible representatives and turned into robots churned out by a party machine. Ryan tested one presentation of SEFS. He didn't test the extent to which people listen to what you have to say if what you have to say consistently contains the same phrase. If a friend says the same thing every time you go down the pub with them, and that thing he says is obviously advancing the interests of him and his employer, you're going to stop inviting him to the pub. I know I want my politicians to be thoughtful and interesting, and I think our target voters (if there even is such a thing) would prize independent thought, carefully thought out solutions, and (say that dirty word) a sense of humour, before a politician's ability to slavishly adhere to a party message.

Incidentally SEFS itself was fundamentally flawed. Basic inference from what it conceded led you to the statement that the Conservatives can deliver a strong economy and Labour could deliver a Fair Society. I believe neither of these statements to have been particularly demonstrated over the course of the campaign, or the behaviour of those parties in the last 18 years (since 1997).

So how should we market ourselves?

Well here's a radical thought, inspired by my studies of evolution from back in the day. We've just suffered an extinction event. Extinction events throughout the history of life have led to rapid bursts of evolution. But for evolution to have a chance of creating success it needs variety. Forget the slavish adherence to a consistent message. Let our activists talk with passion about the things that make them passionate. Help them to grow in confidence and in authority into the niches where we need them. The ideas that are unpopular will be evolutionary dead ends, but the good ideas, put forward by authoritative advocates who are passionate about those ideas, will bring back the voters, and continue to grow our membership as people realise we are a party that believes in freedom inside the party as well as for the people we seek to represent.

We have many brilliant people within this party. Our new membership will contain many more. We need to find the confidence to grant them the freedom to shine in public. Take the great ideas we have to improve people's lives, help each other figure out how best to present them, and let us talk with passion about how we want to change our society for the better.