Influence Without Power

Most people who go into politics do so because they want to change the world around them - whether it's their local community or the whole country. But change can come in many different ways. 

Now is the time to remind ourselves that change isn't only delivered by achieving direct political power.

I worked for the Lib Dems for six years in opposition and five in government. So I've seen at first hand the different ways to deliver. Of course, nothing beats being in government when it comes to investing in public services (like the Pupil Premium) or changing the law (like delivering equal marriage). But after the crushing defeat of 2015 we need to relearn the other ways to change our country for the better - and though they may be slower, they're still vital.

The first is to be a source of ideas. In my first week working for Ed Davey he put forward the idea for an Empty Dwelling Management Order - a power for councils to take over and let out long term empty homes. Then housing minister Keith Hill took a look at the idea - and put it into the Housing Act. It was a small change and of course the political dividend to the party was probably non-existent. But does it matter? Ideas generate change - and as a small party the Lib Dems have an intellectual freedom the other parties do not and we need to use it. Invest in policy and in creative thinking. And if other parties copy our ideas, or even implement them: we have to recognise that as a win for liberalism and keep going. From big to small, our party can be the intellectual motor of our political system as it has been in the past: from advocating independence for the Bank of England, proposing new ways to tackle climate change, and designing new models of housebuilding.

Next we need to work with civil society, in our communities, and generate change that way. I worked on mental health in government, and there were many things we introduced that only government can do. But in my new role as Director of Money and Mental Health, I have the opportunity to work so much more closely with people - citizens - and advocate on their behalf. We're working to break the link between financial difficulties and mental health problems, and that will require change from the financial services industry, legislators, retailers, the NHS and more. It's much easier to bring people together on these issues from inside a charity than it was in government; the sad truth is that often political tribalism gets in the way of progress. As a small party, it’s vital the Liberal Democrats don’t retreat behind party lines but be collaborative with all who want to see a fairer, more liberal country.

Finally, of course, comes direct campaigning - though if it isn't informed by innovative ideas and connected into communities, it will fail. And we need to look for successes as well as honourable failures: of course, many of our proudest moments involve fighting against the Iraq War. But there’s no real happiness to be found in the phrase ‘I told you so.’ I also remember proudly the moment when we won the vote in Parliament to secure citizenship rights for Gurkha veterans; yes, we had to cooperate with the Conservatives and Labour rebels to win, but for me, that’s better than standing in isolation and achieving nothing.


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