Rethinking Security presented its case for a Human Security Strategy at the Lib Dems conference in Bournemouth in September. Richard Reeve here advances five evidenced arguments that should inform Lib Dem policy and strategy before the next general election.

As ever, early autumn is conference season in the UK and Parliament will not sit until its members have finished meeting with their party faithful, councillors and activists in conference centres across the land. This year’s conference season is particularly significant due to the expectation that a general election will be held next year. So all the parties are currently busy trying to set the parameters, if not fine detail, of their election manifestoes.

For Rethinking Security it is also significant as we have our own research findings and analysis to share ahead of not just a looming election year but the anticipation of yet another national security review process in the months that follow these polls. So last week Leonie Mills-Woanya and I attended the Liberal Democrats’ conference and shared our findings at a special fringe event, Security Reclaimed: Towards a Human Security Strategy for the UK

Talking security without talking about security

Having been in government during the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and helped push through the (now abandoned) legal commitment to spend 0.7% of UK National Income on official development assistance (ODA) in 2015, the Lib Dems should know a few things about national reviews and juggling spending commitments. Yet it’s unlikely that security, defence, development or international affairs will be a key part of their offer to voters.

Unlike Labour, which is highlighting its four-square commitment to the trans-Atlantic nuclear alliance and seems poised to foreground Rachel Reeves’ Securonomics’ buzzword (essentially micro-economic security) in its campaign, the Lib Dem’s pre-manifesto (Policy Paper 153) uses the term ‘security’ precisely twice. Were we, then, on a fool’s errand to try and foster a conversation about human security?

My sense is not, for several reasons. The first is the past form of certain Lib Dem MPs in introducing the Human Security concept into parliamentary discourse during the present term. Wera Hobhouse and Jamie Stone sponsored Early Day Motion 1384 on the topic in 2021 (with Plaid Cymru, SNP and Labour co-sponsors) and Hobhouse has subsequently introduced two Westminster Hall debates on Human Security.

The second is that the party’s pre-campaign slogan ‘For a Fair Deal’ is, rather obviously, all about fairness. And fairness – though a pale synonym for equality and justice – is a key concept in alternative approaches to security such as Human Security and Shared or Common Security. Indeed, Justice – alongside Inclusivity, Solidarity, Sustainability, Accountability and Reflexivity – should be a key principle of any human security strategy.

The third and fourth reasons for optimism follow on from those principles. Environmental sustainability is increasingly high on the Lib Dems’ agenda, featuring only after the economy and business in the pre-manifesto, which proclaims that “Climate change is the biggest threat to human existence.” And the principle of accountability continues to feature prominently in the party’s approach, given its ongoing focus on governance and constitutional reforms.

Fundamental to a fairer UK should be the idea of new social and ecological contracts between the UK government and three realms: with the people of the UK; with the people of the World; and with the Planet. One might call these contracts, or fair deals, human security, common security, and planetary security, respectively. The cumulative purpose of them would be to move starkly from the existential competition that defines the current UK approach (e.g. as laid out in the government’s recent Integrated Review Refresh) towards existential cooperation.  

Defining security

Rethinking Security and Coventry University Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations’ forthcoming Alternative Security Review research findings raise similar themes, albeit with different terminology. As, indeed, they seem to chime with the reported findings of the Labour Party’s own focus groups in Red Wall constituencies that generated its ‘Securonomics’ focus.

When we asked (via pollsters Savanta in Q1 2023) some 3,000 people to choose descriptions of what security meant to them, two definitions came out as clear, near equal, favourites. From eight definitions offered, about 40% of people selected ‘ability to go about my daily life without threat’ (what we might call Freedom from fear) and a similar proportion chose ‘financial and economic wellbeing’ (Freedom from want). This is about twice as many as chose being ‘a strong military power’ or having ‘good relations with other countries’ (20-21% each), and far more than those who chose ‘effective law enforcement’ (about 17%). So poverty or precarity is clearly a cut-through issue with voters when they speak about their own security, in a way that policing and military defence seem not to be.

We also asked people to rate 28 issues as they impacted their own quality of life. In our survey, the seven issues a majority of people felt positive or very positive about were: having supportive communities and friends (‘people to ask for help’), access to food, healthcare, education and the natural environment, living in a multicultural society, and freedom of speech. In short people value community, environment, services and rights.

When we asked people to rate the same 28 issues as threats to UK national security there were again seven key issues identified, each attracting at least a plurality (if not outright majority) who rated them as significant. Perhaps surprisingly, the lead issue was corruption, followed closely by the actions of the UK government, pandemics, climate change and the state of the economy. Slightly further behind were Brexit and the national media.

Our key take-away from this is that there is currently a colossal lack of trust in the UK government among citizens, and that we see that distrust greatly magnified among 18-30 year olds, more than two-thirds of whom rate corruption (74%) and the actions of their own government (68%) as significant threats to national security. If the Lib Dems are to regain the trust and votes of youth and students that they enjoyed before 2010, they would do well to heed such concerns.

What should this mean to Lib Dems?

So what might all this mean for Lib Dems as they look to finetune their electoral platform over the coming months?

The first is that people matter. All recent and historic UK security reviews have been unfair in that they eschew the perspectives and interests of ordinary people for those of elites. They work from the perspectives of the most secure and privileged and thus fail to address the insecurities of those most vulnerable and marginalised. So committing to a review process that systematically seeks out and values those perspectives is essential.

The second is a reminder that “climate change is the biggest threat to human existence” and needs to be prioritised as such. Lib Dems see a disjuncture between what they see as leading policies on climate and environment and a perception among voters that the party is less trustworthy on the issue than its three or four main rivals. Perhaps they need to write this more into everything they do.

The third is that trust in government matters. Right now, the contract between governed and governing appears to be broken. Without trust in government there can be no resilience of society against other threats and challenges. In a context of polycrisis, that matters enormously. Governance is security. But reforming governance and restoring trust will require a new kind of contract.

The fourth is that, in an international context, trust is influence. Hypocrisy and double standards will not cut it in a hyper-connected, hyper-informed world. So whatever the UK advocates overseas, it needs to be seen to practice itself, not least among its own people.

Finally, there is the importance of positive messaging. Our evidence shows that people – especially, but by no means only, young people – want to live in a fairer society. This is possible if people are put at the centre of policy. With trust in the Conservatives tanking and Labour offering safer management of the status quo, who will offer the UK public the fair socio-economic contract and the green new deal that they seem ready to vote for?

Full findings from our Alternative Security Review and the Human Security Strategy report will be released by Rethinking Security in November 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image CreditLib Dems via Flickr.

Leave a Reply