Since the budget in March, the British Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition government has been having a rough ride in the media. This is showing up in its poll ratings, with Labour romping ahead. Mostly this is Westminster bubble nonsense, but Liberal Democrats, in particular, need to ponder what is happening – and do more to lift the government’s PR performance.
The list of issues that the government is said to have handled badly grows. It started with taxing pensioners, takeaway food, and charitable donations, which arose from the Budget. This week the issues have been queues at Immigration at airports, poor GDP figures for the British economy, and revelations that the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was a bit to close to Rupert Murdoch’s News International media group.
Mostly these are either non-stories stoked up by the opposition, or quite sensible policy decisions that are attracting opposition from vested interests. The Jeremy Hunt problem is the only one that looks a bit more serious, but it is part of a much more complex story that sits rather outside the government’s main purpose. The GDP figures do relate to an important issue, the economy, but were of little significance in their own right, and told us nothing that was actually new.
So why can’t the Government get on the front foot and just swat this stuff away? There is some nostalgia for “big hitter” government spokesmen that previous governments have been able to trot out to do just that: Labour’s John Reid, or the Conservatives’ Ken Clarke (in another era – he’s older and off-message now). There was a rather interesting discussion on BBC Radio 4 yesterday morning on this, featuring Mr Reid and Norman Tebbit, who has also performed such a role. These spokesmen blamed the government’s lack of narrative. Lord Tebbit scoffed at Lords Reform and gay marriage as ideas too small to make a compelling story. Both added that the fact that the government is a coalition made this very difficult. These creatures of the old politics would say that of course, but it’s worth trying to tackle the argument rather than the man on this one.
First there’s the rather complacent point that all governments suffer from mid-term blues, and can get bogged with apparently trivial news issues at round about this time. It’s not clear that the big hitters helped much this. Things get better in the natural cycle.
Secondly the lack of a clear narrative is hardly new either. Mrs Thatcher was clear enough – though that did not stop very poor mid-term poll ratings. And as for John Major, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown – none of these governments had a clear mission, beyond being competent managers. Mr Major was lampooned for his “cones hotline” as being his biggest idea – beside which gay marriage and House of Lords are clearly a big deal. But Mr Blair’s main thrust in the 1990s boiled down to “the same, only different”. He was elected in 1997 with a huge majority and little mandate beyond introducing devolution in Scotland and Wales, ideas that were evidently forced on him from outside. Mr Brown’s lack of clear narrative is the stuff of legend. This is what modern managerial politics has become.
But actually there IS a perfectly good narrative, if only you look for it. First is the economy: Labour left a horrible mess, which went beyond trashed government finances to a highly unbalanced economy. The Labour economy was built on massively unsustainable levels of government expenditure, both for services and benefits. Painful though this is, they have to be cut back, and there’s never a good time to do that. But it wasn’t just the government being too big, there were too many of the wrong sorts of services, and not enough things we can export. All this means that you can’t just stimulate the economy back to growth – because as soon as the stimulus ends the economy sinks back to where it was before, with even more debt. This is a long haul – let’s be thankful that unemployment is at lower levels than in earlier recessions. What is really needed to get us moving is more investment by business – but that’s difficult in the current world climate. Now just what is it in the message “this is a long haul” that do you not understand when carping about 0.2% in GDP figures that are going to be revised in a month or so’s time?
But the narrative has to go further – Lord Tebbit conceded that there was a reasonably clear narrative on the economy. And this is the Big Society/Localism/Community Politics agenda. We need to make central government smaller so that people can be empowered locally to change things to the way they want them. That means reforming the whole shape of government – including the NHS. We’ve been so addicted to the old centralist ways that it is bound to take time for these things to work themselves out and there will a lot of protest on the way. And finally we need to clean up politics. This involves tightening up the electoral system (equal constituencies) and reducing the number of MPs. It means tackling that out of control and ineffective patronage factory called the House of Lords. Of course people are squealing. There are no omelettes without broken eggs.
I could go on to bring in Europe (not the time for radical changes in the UK relationship with the economy so delicate), and immigration (this is something most of the electorate agreed on at the last election and the Lib Dems promised to grit their teeth). This narrative is surely no worse that Tony Blair’s government that got re-elected twice.
The first problem is that the government is not clearly articulating this narrative. They are doing quite well on the economy, though could do better. But not the bigger picture. The problem is lack of narrative itself, it is that the Tory right, and their friends in the press, don’t like it.
Of course there are tensions in the government – between parties and within them. But that’s not new. Mrs Thatcher had her “wets” on the Tory left. Mr Blair had both the Labour left, who felt utterly betrayed, and the brooding presence of Mr Brown to deal with.
There’s no excuse for the government not to be trying harder to present a more coherent case for what it is doing. The Prime Minister David cameron should be leading from the front here, but seems strangely absent. But I think the Liberal Democrats should be doing more too.
For the Lib Dems the position is rather intriguing. The party took a huge hit in the Coalition’s first year, while the Tory standing increased, if anything. Now it is the Tories that are taking the main pounding. But there is little comfort for the Lib Dems here. They may not be heading for the opt-predicted wipe-out. But for them to advance beyond their current reduced poll ratings, the Government as a whole has to be seen to do better. And if the party fails to advance from its current standing, it will not play a major part in the next government, even if there is a hung parliament. The first lesson for the Lib Dems from the Coalition was to show differentiation. Now they must understand that it has limits.