Sunday, November 06, 2011

Clegg tells Lib Dems to come out from behind the sofa

From the Independent website this morning:
Nick Clegg's ministers have been told to go on TV and declare proudly "I'm a Liberal Democrat" in an effort to improve the party's poll ratings. Party strategists are demanding better "messaging" from politicians. It includes using the phrase "as a Liberal Democrat ..." at every opportunity, and regularly uttering the word "coalition", which research finds is popular with voters.
The report goes on to say that "aides to the Deputy Prime Minister" fear too many low-profile Lib Dems are viewed by the public as "little-known Tories". The party needs to emphasise its successes, including raising the income tax threshold and the Pupil Premium.

I think this sensible advice - as the report also notes, the Lib Dems remain below 10 per cent in some polls, while the Tories have barely suffered.

At the back of this reticence to trumpet our achievements in government are, I think, two factors.

The first is that we are not used to being unpopular. When you are the third party, being ignored is a far more familiar experience. Perhaps as a way of coping with this, we had convinced ourselves that if only people knew us they would love us.

Then came the row over tuition fees and the emergence of the party and its leaders as objects of hatred. It was a shock to us, but we should not have been so surprised.

Remember the opening words of The Liberal Party by R.J. Cruikshank, which I once quoted here:
People on the whole are very civil and obliging to Liberals nowadays - at least in public. How times have changed! When this writer was a small boy in the days of the last Liberal Government, quite nice, rosy Conservatives threatened to hang Ministers on lamp-posts, and there were Shelleyan Socialists who promised that at the coming revolution their first tumbril would be reserved, not for Tories, but for Liberals. 
In those days, Lloyd George used to tell a story of a man who saved a stranger from drowning at risk to his own life. Presented with a medal by the Mayor, the hero said diffidently, "I did only what any other Englishman would have done in my place. I first turned him over to make sure he wasn't Lloyd George, then I dragged him out of the water."
The second factor is that we are not really sure what Liberal Democrat economics look like.

In the easy years under Charles Kennedy our policy was essentially to jog along, spend exactly the same as Labour only on slightly different things. Those who now claim they are Keynesians were not generally to be heard warning of the need to cool the economy.

Meanwhile some of the brighter young MPs were developing an interest in a more free-market approach, but the debate between these two tendencies never really took place

In fact, you can attribute our difficulties over tuition fees to this lack of debate too. Was subsidising higher education so generously ever compatible with such a rapid expansion of the number of students? I don't think it was, as we found out when we entered government.

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dreamingspire said...

I would appreciate a graph of year by year proportion of the cohort leaving school who actually went to university. 5% in my day, I believe - generous grants, too, without which I would never have gone.

Gary - Leicester said...

As one of many mown down in May I still look on in dismay that a party leadership should have judged the mood of the country so badly.
This combined with a complete nievaty of how to operate in collation when many of us had first hand experience and were being cynically ignored combined to make us - not Labour the whipping boys electorally.

Now, if the Party leadership want us to make real headway in the difficult Labour heartlands, like here in the Midlands, get out from behind your comfy Whitehall sofa's and start really nailing Labour as the Party of debt, inefficiency, nepotism & betrayal of the broad left.

Only we can do that and only we can carry the fight for the broad left forward against an increasingly right wing Tory Party

T. C. R. MacDonnell said...

I don't think voters could give a hoot one way or another as to whether something is left or right wing, unless they already belong to the core vote of a particular party. The only reason so many in the Liberal Democrats, Labour and radical fringe groups delight at the identity of "left wing" is because those people are so emotionally invested in being opposted to the "right wing", usually represented by a hornéd Thatcher burning a single mother on a pickfork on a fire fueled by welfare programmes.

The recommendation we stake ourselves out as Liberal Democrats, as opposed to left-wingers or right-wingers or even centrist, is a far better policy than promoting ourselves as the "genuine" party of the "left". Those who respond warmly to our policy suggestions will respond warmly to us. All we do by presenting such a broad coallition as ourselves between, as Johnathan identified, free-marketers and "Labour but a bit different" as a party or either wing is alienate the people who feel betrayed when one part of the party wins out over another.

As a Liberal Democrat, I am a Liberal Democrat.

teekblog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
teekblog said...

Thanks for pointing this out - sensible advice as you said, although some twelve months too late according to many party members.

I and most of the party understood the need for near-complete unity within the Coalition in the beginning - it was central to our strategy of showing the country that the whole concept of coalition government was something we could all live with.

But this process of differentiation should have started pretty much soon after it became clear that the coalition was strong enough to withstand it - say after three months or so. The biggest reason for the need to stand out as Liberal Democrats (and T.C.T MacDonnell is right in so far as this should be about a clear LD identity not some nebulous lefty one...) isn't, IMHO, tuition fees, not is it the NHS. It is the five hundred pound gorilla in the room, the single most important issue for the majority of people out there - the economic prospects of our nation.

Jonathan you're right to say the party hasn't got a grip on its economic policy. There's nothing more frustrating amongst progressive politicians (this applies across the party divide) than defining their politics as 'allow the free market to do its thing, then we'll argue on a left-right axis about how to share the spoils.' New Labour sterilised the debate around the political economy by subscribing to the 'end of history' argument that the core of our economic problem had been solved - the depression that they saw in demonstrates how useless that assumption was.

Time to get off the sidelines in the debate about how the political economy should be run, time to show the country not only how our 2015 manifesto will be different on the economy than t'other two parties, but how we are making a difference right now in government - and to enunciate exactly what we mean by a Lib Dem economy. I've contributed to this debate with a Plan C (sorry if you're bored of me saying so), see what you make of it... :-)

Matthew Huntbach said...

Meanwhile some of the brighter young MPs were developing an interest in a more free-market approach, but the debate between these two tendencies never really took place

I'd like (well I all ready have many times elsewhere, but once again) to question that "brighter". It seems to me that there is too much readiness to assume anyone who knows the jargon of the free market line and can spout it out with enthusiasm is "bright". It's rather like in my younger days when you could get a reputation for being "bright" by knowing Marxist jargon and spouting it out with enthusiasm.

So is it really that the "brighter" MPs have developed an interest in free market economics, or that those MPs who have developed an interest in free market economics are deemed "brighter"? Bear in mind that we live in a world where there are big media powers who have a vested interest in promoting free market economics, and therefore in pushing the idea that anyone who support them with enthusiasm is "bright" and therefore should be first in line for any top jobs going.

It seems to me the most interesting question now is why the free market ideology that has bee

Matthew Huntbach said...

Sorry, had a system problem, so continuing ...

It seems to me the most interesting question now is why the free market ideology that has become the new orthodoxy in recent decades has not delivered what it promised. I do not believe people in this country now feel happier or more free than they did so before it was pushed down the free market path by Margaret Thatcher and following governments. I do not feel that more of the same in a more extreme form is the solution to the question "what should we do to make it better?".

All this reminds me so much of the days when socialism was the dominant ideology, it was obvious it was not delivering what it promised, and yet if you questioned it in the circles where being a "socialist" meant you were part of the in-crowd, the answer was generally that all existing socialism was not really socialism, and what was required was a more extreme version, then it would be fine.

I do not regard people who jumped on the free market bandwagon at just the time when it was most trendy and yet its failings becoming more obvious as particularly "bright". I would regard as truly "bright" people who can look beyond current orthodoxy, and can stand up to trendiness and stand up to the dominant powers in society.

David said...

I do think the words "free market" are bandied about too freely by neo-liberals AND their opponents. Free markets are not so-called because they should be free of all regulation but because they meet certain theoretical requirements. They are, for example, free of subsidies or other restraints on free competition. Also ideally all producers and all consumers in a given market have equal access to information. Free markets are an ideological construct. In practice there are no free markets and we have to deal with markets that are more or less free. The modern problem is the assumption that all goods and services can be supplied in much the same way as consumer durables. Liberals should like markets but not expect all markets to meet the same criteria in their operation.

David said...

@dreamingspire: I searched BIS and Dept of Education sites and drowned in short-term statistics. Finally I found a useful graph for participation 1960 (5%) to 2000 (35%)here:
I believe today's figure is 42%.