Bloody Christmas. This year in the People’s Republican grotty grotto we have unemployment, overdrafts, deceased relatives and fathers detained several hundred miles away*. On the plus side, we also have cheese. A lot of cheese. Still, overburdened as you are with all those wry and amusing “looks” taken by newspaper columnists at the ribtickling social implications of Yuletide, you will be pleased to hear that I intend to talk a bit about Nick Clegg’s family panels, rather than my actual family. No hilarious escapades involving a snowball fight, a pool of catsick, an unsteady great aunt and a brussel sprout shortage will be related here (oh, use your imagination). Absolutely no tales of woe about being unable to procure a violet calf-skin Smithsons diary for my god-daughter will ensue, because I don’t have a god-daughter (or, for that matter, a god) nor any inclination to piss away my werewithal on hysterically over-priced luxury goods. Thank you.

No, this is very much a post for families. Last week, James Graham asked Nick Clegg to elaborate on this:

That’s why I will set up a network of real families, who have nothing to do with party politics, in every region of this country to advise me on what they think should be my priorities.

It’s the prospect of continuity that is key to this idea. Nick emphasised that he wanted the people on the panels to feel that they could email him and keep in touch with him. He’s getting at an important truth of political discourse here. Discussions which take place within the ambit of an evolving relationship are always more meaningful than one-off contacts. This is, emphatically, not about focus groups – it’s as diametrically opposed to a focus group as you can get. It’s not necessarily about telling people they’re right about everything either, although this is going to be a tricky one for Nick to pull off without opening himself up to charges of elitism. One man’s robust approach to argument is another man’s arrogance, as this comment on Alex Wilcock’s blog made clear. However, he is better qualified than any other politician I can think of to make a good job of it. This is where the “Would I go for a pint with him?” test may have served us well in electing him.

Still, he’s got his work cut out to persuade the wider media of all this. They’ve heard this reaching-out tack before, and politicians say the word “families” like most people say “the”.** I think Nick can do two things to show them he’s in earnest. First, and most obviously, he can publicise these relationships. That doesn’t necessarily mean a ghastly glitzing-up of every single contact he makes – and that would compromise the development of the relationship anyway. What about a quarterly round robin letter reflecting on what he has learnt and what he has taught, which names names and issues? “As a result of x, I was able to refine my opinion of y. However, I was able to explain a satisfactorily to b, and they now agree with me on that.”

The other thing he can do is flesh out what he means by “family”. If nothing else, doing this will be an important move in the Campaign to Shake David Cameron Off Nick Clegg’s Ankle (banner designs welcome). Step one is clearly to refute the 2.4 children model, and he has already done that, as James Graham describes. It’s a no-brainer for a liberal. There is, howver, a more abstract step two and since it’s Christmas, I’m going to allow myself a little petulant tantrum. When I hear a politician say the word family, I am one of those who switches off rather than on. I stay switched on intellectually, of course, but my heart remains totally unmoved. That’s because my birth family has separated into the individual components of retired couple and grown-up, moved-out children; I’m not in any sort of family unit of my own making; I have no personal reason to give a damn about pupil premiums, tax credits or care homes. I’m in between all of that. And I know that when most politicians talk family, that’s the stuff they’re really talking about.

In the online hustings, Nick said that his family were the most important thing in his life, far more important than politics. That my family is the most important thing in my life is equally true, but only in the sense that it encompasses my college friends family, my school friends family, various work friends families, and my neighbourhood family (flatmates, bar staff at my local, friends of friends living nearby etc) as well as my parents and brother. Now, it’s probably true that I would instinctively dive in front of a bus to save my brother, and wouldn’t perform the same office for Darren the landlord at the Maid (sorry, Darren). But no single component of this family of mine overrides the rest in any practical day-to-day sense. They all help me get through the day. I break bread with them, chat to them, form my opinions with them, say good morning to them. They’d notice if I dropped from view.

Politicians are generally, in the nature of things, part of fairly conventional and visible family units, and it’s easier for them to assume that most people experience family in this way. But really your family is simply the social and cultural forum where you evolve your private and political opinions and sketch out the shape of the impact you make on the wider world. That’s the unit of individuals that Nick could usefully talk to. Because families are self-perpetuating political engines. And it is the sum total of these little social and cultural engines that make up society. Information he feeds into a proper, effective family unit will be processed and talked about as part of its internal life. This is, to my mind, what makes his family panels idea really quite exciting. By promoting continuity of relationships, and by adopting as wide a conception as possible of what a “family” is, Nick can tap into a web of social and political networks bursting with the potential for liberal thought.

UPDATE: I’ve only just noticed that Jonathan Fryer has blogged a measure of justifiable disquiet on this.

* I mean detained on other business. Not at Her Maj’s pleasure.

** That is, often. Not in place of the definite article. That would be silly, and very confusing for Hansard transcribers.