The battle the Lib Dems’ soul

On Saturday the Liberal Democrats’ main annual conference starts, this year in Glasgow. As this parliament moves from mid-term to end-game, the party’s professionals will no doubt want us to focus on the fight for survival at the next General election, scheduled for 2015. I am more worried about the party’s soul.

Being part of a coalition government has been a searing experience for the party. It remains strong in some areas, but it is much weaker through most of the country, as members, activists and supporters have drifted away.  In national opinion polls the party languishes at about 10%, or about half the level it achieved in the last General Election in 2010. It used to be that the party was ignored as an irrelevance. That problem has been solved, at the cost of it coming under relentless attack from all sides: from the party’s coalition partners, the Conservatives, from the Labour opposition, and less attached observers generally. Most of this criticism is not particularly fair, but that’s politics. It is a necessary stage in the party’s evolution if is ever to be a major political force. But it is not entirely clear that the party will survive the experience.  If it is to survive, the party will need to have a clear idea of what it is for: otherwise it will fail to recruit new activists and win back the people that have drifted away.

The party’s leadership, and its professional staff and advisers, seem to concentrating on another question, however. And that is the case that the party needs to present to voters in 2015.  There is some clarity on this, as suggested by the party’s slogan: “Stronger Economy in a Fairer Society”. Framed positively, it is actually a double negative, contrasting with Labour’s alleged economic irresponsibility, and the Conservatives’ focus on making lifer better for the rich. This is fine as far as it goes: negative messages have a wider appeal than positive ones, and it should help the party benefit from the negative campaigns the other parties will wage on each other. But it is not enough to rally the faithful. Firstly because many are not convinced that the Coalition’s economic policies have been right, and secondly because, without spending more on public services and benefits, it is not clear to many how society is to be made fairer.

And here, I think, we come to a much wider crisis in British politics. Politics is increasingly the domain of a professional political class who have spent their entire working careers in politics or at its fringes. They pick up their ideas on policy from a series of lightweight think tanks and university politics departments. Their main concern is to compete with each other to attain the status and prestige of office. They operate within a series of assumptions about what government is and how it works: that it is about adopting the right policies at the centre of government, passing the necessary laws in parliament, and then getting the civil servants to implement them. Missing from this are two things: any clear idea of how power can or should be devolved away from central government, and practical skills in the design and implementation of policy. It seems to be quite fashionable amongst political types to blame the civil service for policy failures at the moment. And yet civil servants are often asked to implement policies that have not been thought through, and which are often contradictory. The politicians and their advisers don’t seem to see it as their problem to resolve the contradictions, as this carries political risks.

And this criticism applies to the Liberal Democrats as much as it does to the Labour and Conservative parties. The party’s MPs are mainly professional politicians with little experience in either the outside world, or even in local government. They are surrounded by like-minded professionals who want to be MPs themselves. They are charming, intelligent people – but do they really understand how to make things work? Or what motivates the army of amateur enthusiasts that the party needs to keep going?

What I think is needed is for politicians to hold a different model of government in their heads: one that pushes political power away from the centre so that local communities can solve problems for themselves. That sounds like advocating support for motherhood, but it means rejecting generations of accepted social democratic wisdom, which sees issues in terms of generic problems – crime, healthcare, unemployment, etc. – rather than people. The old Liberal Democrat idea of community politics is a very good place to start this revolution – and no other political party has a better tradition to build on. But neither the party’s national professionals, nor, I am afraid, its younger activists seem to have much idea of what this is all about.

So, in Glasgow next week, I will not be paying so much attention to the grand set-pieces – though I will still follow them with interest – but I will be looking for any signs of bigger ideas taking hold: ones that will shape the party’s soul, and offer the country at large real hope.

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The battle for Britain’s political centre

The idea of a centre ground in politics, where elections are won and lost, is a persistent one, especially here in Britain (and England in particular) and in the United States. Winning politicians are said to “triangulate” a political position in this centre ground; notable exemplars of this idea were Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. David Cameron is supposed to have rescued the Conservative Party from oblivion using this strategy in 2010 to turning it into the UK’s largest party, if not outright victory. Now, in Britain, there is a lot of talk about it, and what political strategy each of the three established main parties (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat) should be; take this article, Both the Tory and Labour leaders need lessons in politcal geometry by Andrew Rawnsley. What to make of this?

This all starts with the idea that political views can be placed on a spectrum with the left at one end, the right at the other, and ground, the centre or middle, in between. Over the years I have repeatedly heard people claim that this idea is no longer a helpful analysis of modern politics. But it is remarkably persistent, and it appears to have been helpful to Messrs Clinton, Blair and Cameron. What seems to define the left-right spectrum is attitudes to social solidarity and the state. On the right there is a strong view that individuals are responsible for their own wellbeing, and that the state should do the minimum to help them, because such help is counterproductive. This view unites social conservatives, distrusting socialist values, and economic liberals. On the left there is a feeling that most people have little influence on their social outcomes, especially poorer people, and that they should band together, organised by the state to tilt the odds back in their favour.

And for all the talk about the differences between the political parties disappearing, it is very easy to see this fault-line separating the core followers and activists in the Conservative and Labour parties. Think of the last Labour government’s attempt to get state supervision, through Primary Care Trusts, local authorities and other agencies to take a broader role in achieving social outcomes, like reducing “health inequalities”. Compare this to Tory ministers who delight in dismantling this infrastructure in the name of austerity.

But elections are clearly won and lost by floating voters, who aren’t convinced by the true believers of either party. Appealing to these voters makes the two main parties look very similar in terms of their election promises at least. Strange then that both parties seem currently more concerned to shore up their core votes and activists, rather than make a play for the centre. By this stage before Mr Blair’s victory in 1997, he and Gordon Brown were challenging the party’s core supporters by, for example, signing up to the Conservative austerity policies and promising not to raise income tax. Similarly Mr Cameron was doing photo ops in the Arctic with huskies to show his concern for global warming well before the 2010 election.

But the political priorities have changed. Neither party has made its activists so desperate for power by being out of office for a decade that they will sign up for anything. Labour needs to nurture the anger felt its supporter by the current government’s austerity policies, especially amongst those claiming benefits and those employed, or formerly employed, in the public sector. The Conservatives are shaken by the rise of the distinctly right wing Ukip, who are stealing away its core activists, even if they are also pulling in actual votes from elsewhere too. Both parties will need its foot-soldiers when the next general election arises in 2015.

But there may also be a bit of a problem for those chasing votes in the centre: the centre itself is fragmenting. This is suggested by some survey work reported in The Economist a couple of weeks ago, here. On the one side are those whose living standards are being squeezed (one definition of the “squeezed middle” of which much has been talked). These people are not just those in the direct line of fire of cuts, but those who were not particularly well off, and are now finding that their income is frozen while prices keep going up. These voters are open to Labour’s rhetoric about the government’s failed economic policies, and ideas for kick-starting it with things such as a temporary cut in VAT. A second group of centrist voters are not badly affected in their personal living standards, and are much more convinced by the government’s line that austerity is a necessary evil, following the irresponsible profligacy (by both government and individuals) that occurred under the last government. Each side seems to be doing a reasonable job of appealing to one of these two groups, but not headway in appealing to both. This does not add up to a winning majority for either party.

The big unknown is how the economy will be faring in 2015, as this could influence the balance between these groups. The Conservatives hope that the current fragile recovery continues, inflation falls and people feel that things are getting better; they will then be less willing to risk any change in economic policy. If economic stagnation predominates, Labour narrative might get stronger, though. No doubt both parties are keeping their powder dry to see how things shape up. The Conservative fall back will probably be to persuade the squeezed middle that Labour’s policies will mean higher taxes for them. Labour might do a Blair and say that they will adopt the government’s current spending plans except for some carefully chosen minor exceptions, and so reassure the better off middle. Of these I think the Conservatives will be the more credible, and combined with Mr Cameron’s politically well crafted policy on Europe, the party will do much better than people currently expect.

And what of the Liberal Democrats? They do not have a heartland in either left or right, but it is wrong to suggest, as Nick Clegg is prone to, that it has an ideological affinity to centrist voters, as the centre is not a coherent ideological group. The big problem for them is that they are very much on the government side of the economic debate, and will struggle to appeal to the squeezed middle, though banging on about raised income tax thresholds is meant to neutralise this. But the collateral damage that the Labour and Conservative party’s do to each other in the campaign could help them. They can try to develop the idea that centre voters are better off backing a centre party, which moderates the left or right through coalition, rather than trusting the main party ideologues to stick to their manifestos. So far though, that line of argument seems to be getting little traction.

 

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Will the Dark Forces save the Tories and crush Ukip?

My advice to Ukip is to savour this moment. After being repeatedly being dismissed and written off, their performance in last week’s local elections was the story of the day. They took over a quarter of the vote where they had candidates, and that was in many more seats than before. They won well over 100 council seats. The commentariat are reeling, and were talking about little else over the weekend. As the dust settles somewhat, what are we to make of it?

The obvious comparison is with the Lib Dems and their predecessor parties in their two separate golden runs, in the 1980s with the rise of the SDP, and in the 1990s after the merged parties recovered from their near death experience. Those were golden moments for their supporters. But by and large they presaged disappointment in the subsequent general elections (though not in 1997). Many predict the same fate for Ukip. But their influence on British politics could be profound.

They are, of course, a very different party from the Lib Dems and their predecessors. The latter always had one foot in the political establishment, however much they were outsiders to government itself. Ukip are complete outiders; while they pick up the odd defector from the Conservative party, they are not high flyers – like Roy Jenkins or Shirley Williams were. Ukip are from the political right, and rebel against Politically Correct notions, where the Lib Dems were liberal and, if anything, more PC than the others. But both parties have a set of clear core values which can bind activists to the cause, and both have proved able to pick up a mid-term protest vote. Many voters feel badly served by established politicians, and want to kick them by voting for somebody else, when not much is at stake.

But the Lib Dems have been able to do more than this. They have built a big wedge of MPs and a solid presence in local government, which in turn has led them into coalition government at national level. Could Ukip do the same? We should put aside two common criticisms of the party. First is that it is a “one-trip pony”, obsessed with Britain’s membership of the European Union, an issue which doesn’t really engage the British electorate. The party has successfully branched out into capitalising on anti-immigrant feeling however, giving it a much broader policy appeal. Attacking immigration policies is a wonderful political tactic for opposition parties; the government can’t do that much in practice about it, and to the extent that they can, nasty consequences would flow. And they can add a few other goodies of more local appeal, like attacking wind farms. The second criticism is that they are too dependent on their leader, Nigel Farage, who is a bit of a media star. There may be some truth to this, but we must remember that it is of the nature of minor political parties that the media concentrate on just the personality of the leader. It was a common criticism of the Lib Dems that they were too dependent on whoever their leader was at the time. In fact strength and depth was being built from beneath. This could easily prove to be the case for Ukip too.

Ukip still has two deeper problems. First are its libertarian and socially conservative policy ideas. Worries about immigration and the EU can rally a broad spectrum of voters, but when you start wanting to dismantle the welfare state and cut taxes for the rich, you are backed into a minority. The second is linked, and it is that both their activists and voters are predominantly drawn from older people. Can such people put together hard hitting and disciplined ground war machines in the way the Lib Dems achieved?

And this leads to their main significance to British politics (this applies almost exclusively to England – but the implications apply to the whole country). To the extent that Ukip are able to capitalise on their current success, it will be at the expense of the Conservative Party’s core vote. Ukip are currently drawing voters from all over the place, but when it comes to activists and committed voters, this will surely mainly come from the Tories. Labour politicians fantasize that they will split the Tory vote, and let Labour into a majority, much as the SDP split the Labour vote and kept Mrs Thatcher in power for so long. Some Tories are suggesting some kind of electoral pact with Ukip to stop this from happening.

Behind all this I see the murky presence of what I call the “Dark Forces”. These are a collection of newspaper proprietors (Murdoch, the Barclays, Dacre and Desmond) and big party donors, who have a political agenda not dissimilar from Ukip’s. So far they have found Ukip a useful stick with which to beat the Conservatives. If Ukip do well, then it proves to them that their policies are vote-winners. But the one thing that unites the Dark Forces more than promoting their conservative-libertarian agenda is their hatred of Labour. If Ukip are posing a serious threat to the Tory majority in parliament that they crave, then they will turn on them.

There is plenty of time for this. The more the Conservatives are running scared, the more they will curry favour with the Dark Forces. There are signs of this already, with the Tories softening their stand on press reform. Ukip will be allowed a clear run up to next year’s local and European Parliament elections, where in the latter case they stand a good chance of being the top party. Then the worm will turn. The press will start stoking up fears about Labour’s plans to raise taxes (the truth never did stop the British press – Labour’s softer stand on austerity policies will give this line all the credibility it needs), and building up the Tories as the only people that can stop them. Will it work? It might. The press remains extremely powerful in the British media (the BBC seems completely cowed by them these days); I can’t see any obvious signs that the Labour leadership understands the danger.

The British political soap opera edges towards a gripping climax in 2015.

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As aqua fades, should the Lib Dems drop Helvetica?

Helvetica example

Today British political commentators are absorbed by the 2013 Budget. I don’t believe in the value instant comment, and my commentary on the 2012 Budget proved way off the mark anyway. So I will talk about graphic design instead.

In the run up to the 2010 the Liberal Democrats launched a new house style, featuring a new colour palette and a new font, Helvetica Neue, in three weights (light, medium and heavy) and with an “italic” (which sloped rather than really italic). This was all part of the party’s new, professional image. Getting a political party’s activists to stick to a house style is a pretty hopeless task, but this time the party did quite well. The central campaigns department stuck to the new principles, and centrally produced literature still does. The picture comes from the conference agenda for this March in Brighton.

The most conspicuous part of the new house style was extensive use of the colour aqua, a hue on the blue side of turquoise. At times this even seemed to replace the traditional gold (an orangey yellow) as the party’s main colour. This was certainly new, but not very popular with the activists: too similar to Tory blue. Conference sets have now returned to almost exclusive gold, with aqua relegated to contrast work, alongside a dark red.

What about the font? Political fonts are meant to be boring, and Helvetica certainly fulfils that objective. You see it about a lot (I’m looking at a set of Marks & Spencer vouchers printed in that font as I write this). Graphic design types don’t like it, but I think it works well enough if there isn’t too much text: on posters and title pages and so on. Having three weights makes it a bit more flexible than the very similar, and free, Arial which just comes in normal and bold – though I really don’t like the Helvetica heavy. In text blocks, though, it is much less happy. It reminds me of marketing brochures which are meant to be seen rather than read, and where anything interesting in the text has been edited away long ago as a hostage to fortune. Unlike marketing guff, political text should have content and it should be read.

There is another problem, which will bother only a few. It’s a cheap font without lower case numbers (or “old-style” numbers, contrasting with upper case or “titling” figures). This is a bit of problem because the style guide recommends avoiding the upper case where possible. You can see this in the date “saturday 9th march” in the picture. The number 9 sticks out horribly – compare it with the one in the text of this blog (where lower case numbers, unusually, are standard). Unfortunately being cheap is no doubt one of critical features for any Lib Dem standard font. Probably easier to drop the advice about avoiding upper case letters: the text above would look much better if day and month had the normal initial capitals.

An alternative to dropping Helvetica is adopting a text font to work alongside it, perhaps a serif one. There are many cheap ones available, though  the commonest, Times New Roman, is probably too over-exposed.

Will the Lib Dems adopt a new house style for the 2015 campaign, to reflect the fact that the political context has completely changed? A new image for an older and wiser party – and distancing itself from the rash pledges of 2010? Or will it want to emphasise continuity – like the keeping of the pledge on personal allowances. I would prefer the former. After all the centrally directed campaigns in 2010 did not work that well in the end: the party lost seats, especially where fresh candidates tried to get away with contentless campaigns with lots of house style. I’m not holding my breath though.

 

 

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Lib Dems hope for a turning point

The Lib Dem conference at Brighton last weekend was a low key affair. There was enough space in the Metropole hotel to hold the whole thing, including the very limited fringe. All this is in contrast to the last spring conference I attended in 2011 in Sheffield, amid a huge police presence and shouting demonstrators. In 2011 the party was already over the edge of an abyss, though it took that year’s disastrous local elections for many to realise it. This year conference goers thought the outlook was better.

The immediate cause is not hard to see: the party’s victory in the Eastleigh by-election. Most of those there had helped in this election one way or another. The win may not look all that convincing to an outsider, but activists talked it up, as if it was a landslide. This was a reflection of solidarity under assault, from not just the usual suspects, but from the liberal media too, including the BBC. To have overcome those odds, people felt, was a triumph. Also it was a reflection that the campaign was impressively organised, and did not shy away from the party’s role in government, or Nick Clegg’s leadership – issues that many considered to be toxic.

Rather bizarrely the BBC, in its coverage on Friday and on Saturday morning, expected the activists to be a bit grumpy, full of questions about who knew what and when in the Rennard and Huhne affairs. But it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Eastleigh would overshadow all. In fact a nasty row over secret courts was the second story of the conference: the parliamentary party had backed the government’s plans, in spite of a passionate debate and motion against them at the Autumn conference. There were resignations. But this is not the sort of row the media feel comfortable about reporting, so it didn’t get much coverage. Huhne and Rennard hardly featured, though there were a regular compliments to Mr Huhne’s work on policy and as a minister, and not all from men (Shirley Williams started it). The party leadership chose to confront the Rennard affair frontally at a women’s day rally on Friday evening: and that was all that most people wanted to hear on that topic. There was a second row about government economic policy: an emergency motion on the topic wasn’t taken, as the result of a manoeuvre that most representatives thought was a bit dubious. But cabinet minister Vince Cable’s stirrings on the economy were some compensation: he gave a speech at one of the fringe meetings. The official business was low key. Uncontroversial motions and speeches by junior ministers. An emergency motion on secret courts was a bit of an exception.

The main point of the conference, if there was one, was to lay groundwork for the 2015 General Election. There was a stirring speech by Paddy Ashdown, who is chairing the campaign, as well as Mr Clegg’s leadership speech. There was also a rather low key consultative session on the manifesto. In each these, and on other occasions, the party aired its campaign theme: “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” (“enabling everyone to get on in life” if you have space to pad it out a bit). The plan is to keep repeating this line ad nauseam for the next two and a bit years.

The slogan has its critics. Its direct message is not distinctive: every other political party stands for the same things, even if they define the terms a bit differently. It makes no reference to liberal values. Both criticisms miss the point. The party must win by attracting mainstream voters, who are not particularly liberal, though not anti-liberal either. The slogan is meant to draw people in to two further messages: you can’t trust the Conservatives on “fairness”, and you can’t trust Labour on the economy. The calculation is that each of the two main parties has a severe weakness which the party can exploit, as the only sensible, mainstream party left standing.

Will this work? It might. The Conservatives really do seem to have a problem. David Cameron was never able to mould his party in the way that Tony Blair moulded Labour. Many of the party’s MPs are right wing fanatics, as are their grass roots supporters. Such people are convinced that they have caught the public mood, because their views are reflected in much of the press. But most voters are put off. Mr Cameron has a good instinct for the “centre ground”, or the public mainstream – but his party looks divided. The very bendable word “fairness” is a good as any word bring attention to this Conservative weakness. In policy terms it is cover for taxing the rich and preserving social insurance, such as social security and the health service.

And Labour has a problem too. Their situation is not unlike the one that they faced in the early 1990s under Neil Kinnock, which led them to lose the 1992 election against a lacklustre Conservative government under John Major. They were riding high in the opinion polls, and the economy was in a mess. But they were inclined to make promises to spend more public funds, and their leader wasn’t trusted. Right now Labour are drawing a lot of energy from activists (many of them public sector workers) who feel that government cuts are motivated by ideology rather than economics. They grasp at a Keynesian critique of current government policy to think that sorting the economy out is as easy as boosting public spending, which will sort the public finances out through the multiplier effect. But polling shows that the public does not share this view: they feel that public expenditure should be cut back. That leaves Ed Miliband with an unenviable choice. If he pushes ahead with a publicly credible economic policy, and says he will match the government’s public expenditure plans, subject one of two populist tweaks, he will anger his activists and trade union donors. If he fudges, his campaign is likely to break apart under pressure, as Neil Kinnock’s did in 1992. It doesn’t help that his economic spokesman, Ed Balls, is closely associated with Gordon Brown’s economic policies, which are widely viewed as disastrous. Mr Miliband’s own public standing is weak, as was Mr Kinnock’s, though for different reasons.

This could give the Lib Dems an opening, especially in seats where the party has plenty of activists to deliver the message, tack in local issues, and get out the vote. With fifty or so seats the party may be able to win a place in another coalition government. Buoyed up by Eastleigh, Lib Dem activists think they can do it, and that an important turning point has been reached.

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Eastleigh: a blow for the Westminster bubble

My first reaction to the overnight result of the Eastleigh parliamentary by election was, as a loyal Lib Dem, relief. For once the party isn’t having to explain away a lost deposit. A more considered reaction is that it shows just how out of touch with ordinary people the Westminster bubble is – I nearly wrote “has become”, but I think it has always been thus. Will they will be chastened by the experience? Alas, there is no chance of that.

By “the Westminster bubble” I mean that community of London-based politicians, journalists, lobbyists and their hangers-on, who control the main levers of political power, but who talk chiefly amongst themselves. There are plenty of enthusiastic Lib Dem bubble-types, but the Lib Dems are better grounded than most. They mainly responded to the Eastleigh challenge by actually going there and talking to the voters, rather than just trying to influence the media coverage in classic bubble fashion. The by election has been a sobering experience for the party, along with the joy of victory. First the Lib Dem vote share fell sharply, and the voters showed no great enthusiasm for the party. Second, the experience has shown just how much the party is disliked by most inhabitants of the bubble. This is hardly a surprise when it comes to Labour and Conservative politicians – but that it includes most supposedly objective news journalists, including at the BBC, is a little disappointing.

Exhibit A in this case is the Chris Rennard sexual harassment scandal. Almost all the news media have been giving huge prominence to some rather old accusations about sexual harassment by the former Lib Dem chief executive. I can do no better than refer readers to the Guardian’s fair-minded Michael White on this. The media coverage has everything to do with trying to influence the Eastleigh result against the Lib Dems, and little to do with the merits of the story. I will give a partial exemption to the BBC’s Martha Kearney on the World at One on this. She has given the story very heavy coverage – but does seem to have been genuinely interested in exploring the social issues the story raises about the behaviour of men to women. For all its flaws it sounded like good journalism to me. But the glee shown by BBC’s Today presenters about the possible effect of the story on the election was entirely another matter. The BBC should be ashamed of itself.

But the voters of Eastleigh just weren’t interested. Mild and old accusations of sexual harassment against somebody that has never held elected office was not the same thing as MPs overclaiming expenses. Neither did the other Lib Dem scandal, that of Chris Huhne’s confession of getting his wife to take his speeding points, seem to have played all that heavily. That issue was at least a legitimate issue for the by election, since Mr Huhne had been their MP, and his resignation is what triggered it. The Westminster bubble’s inhabitants seem incapable of understanding the voters’ lack of interest.

Meanwhile the bubble seems equally incapable of comprehending the extraordinary performance of Ukip, who stormed from nowhere into second place, and came  close to winning the seat. This seems to vindicate the stand of some right-wing bubblies, exemplified by Daily Mail journalists, on Europe and other issues, but Ukip themselves are complete outsiders – more so than even the Lib Dems. They have been trying to link the party’s rise to Westminster’s own obsession with the country’s relationship to the EU, and whether or not to hold a referendum. But it seems highly implausible that this had much to do with it. It seems much more likely their rise is a reflection of an anti-politics mood: a bit like the success of Beppo Grillo in Italy. Of course the journalists in the bubble are doing much to stoke the anti-politics mood, in order to help their own standing within the bubble. But this is turning out to be a highly destructive game. No doubt the journalists calculate that what they have built up, in the rise of Ukip, they can just as easily destroy when it presents a real threat. But politics as a whole is being degraded.

Instead of reflecting on this, the bubble journalists are emphasising the humiliation to the Conservative and Labour parties and their respective leaders. But for these parties the election should be seen as a useful reality check, and no more.

My politically objective advice to David Cameron is: don’t panic. The election says nothing about his recent policy move on an EU renegotiation and referendum. I think this is a brilliant move: but it is part of the groundwork for the 2015 General Election, and will show few benefits before then. The election also shows that the Lib Dems will be no pushover, even though many bubblies think the party will vanish without trace in 2015. Ukip are a challenge, but their weaknesses are poor organisation and lack of media friends. There is plenty of time for them to burn out, and the time for pricking their bubble is after the 2014 European Parliament elections, and not before. Tories might reflect that if the by election had been held under the Alternative Vote (the system that they so vehemently rejected in 2011), they they might well have won. Though, to be fair, Ukip would have been more likely victors on this occasion.

For Labour, the result is pretty unsurprising, but it may help their more enthusiastic supporters to confront reality. The public does not share their view of the economy: that austerity policies are laying criminal waste to the British economy. And it will be hard work for them to make progress outside their diminishing working class heartlands. The leadership probably realise this already, even if Polly Toynbee followers don’t. But the time to fix this is not necessarily now.

And for the Lib Dems? It’s difficult not to see this as a small, but positive step forward. The party is earning a place as part of the political establishment: a party that is capable of progressing even when the media is against it. The party can’t pretend, as it liked to, that they are super-clean, and new kids on the block. The public see all the human frailties they see in other parties. But Labour and the Conservatives have succeeded in spite this. In the end people like to vote for respectable, establishment parties when the stakes are high. Instead of trying to promote themselves as a new kind of political force, they need to focus on promoting policies and competence. For all the noise, that is happening.

 

 

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European elections: saving the Lib Dems from wipeout

Winner Lib Dem Golden Dozen Blogs – 9 December 2012

The Liberal Democrats have just selected their candidates for elections to the European Parliament in June 2014.  These elections are important to the party – it takes itself seriously as a player in this forum, and it contributes a lot to the party’s strength and depth nationally.  But the party faces a wipe-out.  It needs some radical thinking to have a chance of avoiding such a fate.

The problems start with the party’s low opinion poll standing.  The typical 9-10% is not enough to get the party representation in any of the regional constituencies, except the South East, under the PR system that is used.  But it is worse than that.  The party has always underperformed in these elections.  Its usual campaigning methods are worse than useless.  The party’s appalling showing in the London 2012 elections is a much better guide: closer to 5-6%.  Complete wipe-out.  How to save the party?

The first point is that the party needs to acknowledge the root causes of its campaigning weakness in this type of election.  The party’s electoral successes in local and Westminster elections have been achieved using campaigns that focus on three things in particular: identifying local issues that stir the passions of floating voters, a ruthless third party squeeze (“Labour can’t win here, etc”), and identifying voters and getting to them to the polling stations.  All three are useless in Euro elections – and yet they are so deeply embedded in Lib Dem campaigners’ thinking that they infect everything the party does.  The party fails to put over a message that motivates voters, and since canvassing covers such a small proportion of the potential electors (and usually they are based on other sorts of elections anyway), the polling day knock up has very little impact on the result.

Unfortunately, it gets worse.  The party’s Euro candidates tend not to be, shall we say, the party’s most inspiring campaigners. They are very interested in the goings of the European Union.  This makes them well qualified to be Euro MPs – and indeed the party punches well above its weight there.  But they are not good at finding messages that connect with voters.  Even when they think they have found a killer, like using European arrest warrants to catch terrorists and paedophiles, this in practice has little resonance with the public.

So the party’s normal messages and techniques are ineffective, and the Euro candidates struggle to find an alternative.  In the last election I remember delivering piles of tabloid newspapers that were clearly going to have little or no effect.  Motivating the activists is a real problem, never mind the voters.

So what to do?  The basic strategy is quite clear, and has been talked about for some time.  Find enough voters who feel positive about the EU’s role in Britian’s future to turn up and vote to reach about 15-20% of the vote share.  No other significant party is rallying that vote.  The Labour Party is trying get these voters by default, but without prejudicing its chances with the more sceptical majority.  The Tories don’t seem to think these voters even exist.

Next, how can effective campaign be mounted?  What will be needed is poster and Internet advertising, mass direct mail based on promising demographics, and a good freepost (the single leaflet delivered for free by the post office).  This is supported by an online and social media campaign.  All this activity, combined with the right messaging, will draw in media attention.  Almost no need for local activists to do much legwork – they can get on with their local campaigns.  This will cost a lot of money – so the first priority will be to raise it.

The party is getting better at fundraising, but many party activists have little idea about how it works.  Donors, rich and not so rich, need to be motivated in a very similar way to ordinary voters.  They need to be inspired by the campaign’s messages, and think they might catch on with the wider public. You don’t raise the funds first, then decide on the campaign’s messages; it is the other way round.  So the work on messaging needs to start now.

Here is my humble suggestion.  The campaign theme should be “Save Europe!”.  No doubt this can be improved on, but note the key features.  First and foremost it is pitched as a response to a threat.  People are more motivated by response to threats than positive ideas, and motivation is critical.  The “No” campaign for the AV referendum was highly successful as it pitched AV as a threat to the status quo.  So is pulling out of the EU a threat to the status quo.  The party can be progressive and conservative at the same time!  Further is the idea of “Europe” – vague and big.  The idea is to appeal to people with an international consciousness.  There is a double meaning: first to save Britain from leaving the EU, and second for the country to play its full part in solving a continental crisis that will affect us anyway.

How to build on this idea to make the threat seem real?  “Save jobs” and “Save the Environment” should be the focus.  Messing around with EU membership is a clear threat to jobs – and indeed one of the main appeals will be to businessmen who fear for the future of Britian’s relationship with the EU.  The environment allows the party to play on its international outlook.  Indeed it is an appealing idea to use an Earth from space picture with Europe visible on the surface as a campaign logo.  It also sets the party up for some skirmishing that may be needed with the Greens.  And it contrasts with Ukip’s outlook.

Ukip are the rising starts of Euro elections, which frightens the two main parties.  But if the Lib Dems are after core voters rather than floaters then Ukip’s strength is an opportunity.  It helps define the party: “We are the party which is against everything Ukip is for.”  The more they know about Ukip, the more they know about us.  The party should indulge in some relentless negative campaigning against Ukip – including how they have behaved in the European Parliament – though not straying into accusations of racism.

So you get the general idea.  The best next step would be to appoint a national organiser to work on messaging and strategy.  This needs to be somebody comfortable with challenging the Lib Dem conventional wisdom on campaigning, but with a degree of political realism (contrast some of the Yes to AV campaign types).  Though much of the campaigning needs to be done in the regional constituencies, a lot of the design effort can be done nationally – and the Internet and media campaign needs to be led nationally too.

I do hope the party wakes up to the danger and tries to a bit radical!

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What is the core Liberal Democrat identity?

One thing that most people who take an interest in the Liberal Democrats agree on is that the party needs to develop a clearer identity and, to use the popular marketing speak, a clear “brand”.  This has characterised much of the coverage of the conference, such as this from the Economist, showing not a particularly good understanding of the party, and this from Michael Meadowcroft, who has an excellent understanding, but does less well in explaining what the party actually needs to do.  Unfortunately these articles are all too characteristic of the debate.  On the one side outsiders, including recently recruited party staffers, who simply assume the whole thing is about deciding on a politically convenient position and then moving the party to it, and on the other by insiders who fail to articulate exactly what they mean by the clear liberal (or Liberal) principles they want the party to espouse.  Let me try to pick a way through.

First: does the party really need to worry about this?  Just because all the pundits agree doesn’t make it true.  The answer is yes.  There are two problems with the party’s current standing, or lack of it.  The first is that it struggles with a “core vote” strategy.  This is particularly important for elections fought under proportional representation.  The ones we fought in London earlier this year were a disaster; party campaigning was directed to floating voters who had long since floated away, and bringing out the vote people who supported the party in other elections for largely tactical or local reasons, and who large did not vote for it on this mandate.  Contrast this with Greens, who for much less money and effort got out a similar vote based purely on setting out who they were and what they stood for.  This matters because a disaster beckons for the party in the 2014 Euro elections, fought under PR, unless this changes.

The second reason is that there is the perpetual danger of policy confusion.  This has been clearly on display in the debate on NHS policy.  Do we want to follow the Liberal idea of a service with strong accountability to local communities, but flexibility on who actually delivers it?  Or do we want a Social Democratic service which is pretty much the same throughout the country, provided by a single organisation?  With the help of Lib Dem ministers, the government started off with something that looked a bit like the former, only for activists to reject it for the latter.  This confusion matters when you are an aspiring party of government rather than one simply of protest and opposition, and a party of government is what the party aspires to be.

But a word of warning: you can overdo the clear identity.  Successful political parties are coalitions, combining both a sense of common identity and a high spectrum of disagreement.  The Conservatives, for example, identify with the rich and those who aspire to be rich: but this brings together social conservatives with those who just want to cut taxes.

It is instructive to consider the two attempts to rebrand political parties that have shaped British politics in the last couple of decades.  The first was Tony Blair’s New Labour project, and the second David Cameron’s attempt to de-toxify the Conservative brand.  Both involved challenging some deeply held beliefs, and have left a deep sense of betrayal in their parties.  In Mr Blair’s case the effort has not been unsuccessful.  The party won three elections and even in opposition is cohering much better that the Conservatives have in a similar position.  I think that is for two reasons, one intended by Mr Blair, and the other not.  The intentional part was the illiberal, strong government aspect, clamping down on civil liberties.  This has played well with the working class communities that are the core of the party’s identity – and has also helped forge bonds with paternalistic ethnic minority communities.  When Mr Blair assiduously wooed liberals in the 1990s, he never really meant it.  The unintentional part of Labour’s rebranding is its identification with public sector workers, expanding their numbers and protecting their interests.  A modern economy requires a large state, and appealing to these workers is a powerful political strategy – but one that Mr Blair tried to resist, unlike his successors Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband.

The Conservative rebranding, five years or so on, looks a lot less happy.  What quickens the pulse of most young Tory activists seems to be an entirely different agenda from Mr Cameron’s, reminiscent of US Republicans: lower taxes, smaller state, escape from the EU, climate change scepticism and an outmoded idea of “competitiveness”.  While some of this chimes with public sentiments at large, as a package it it is not a winner.  Combine that with an electoral system that is tilted against them, and the project is likely to be a failure.  The Coalition with the Lib Dems, as Mr Cameron clearly saw, was an opportunity to consolidate this rebranding, but the price stuck in the throat of his party and he was unable to follow through.  The lesson there is don’t try to take a party to a place that it will not stay.

So what of the Lib Dems?  Firstly the party needs a core identity which is able to withstand a large diversity of views.  This is both easy, and tricky.  The easy bit is that the party stands for openness, freedom for individuals to choose the life they want, all underpinned by a sense of social responsibility and compassion.  All Lib Dems, pretty much, will identify with this, and they will think that the other parties do not.  The first difficulty is that this identity is an anti-identity: an identity that rejects, or downplays, the usual identities of class, nationality and race.  That is a difficult trick to pull off.  The second difficulty is that each of the other main parties (and the Greens for that matter) will think that such nice and inoffensive people can be appropriated into their own coalitions with a few warm words.  And indeed, many people with these values work for these other parties.  It is not quite enough.

But it has two important advantages.  First is that it is a natural second choice: not the most liked position, but not the most hated either.  Second is that the forces of history are with it.  The old identities of social class, nationality and the rest are gradually being eroded – and to the extent that the other parties lean on them, it makes them unattractive.

This is enough for one post.  What will count is not this sort of abstract speculation, but the practical steps that follow from them to create a successful political movement.  That, I will return to.

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The Liberal Democrat conference: life outside the bubble

The “Westminster bubble” is a useful expression.  It refers to an ecosystem of politicians, journalists, think tankers and numerous hangers on based Westminster who have there own version of reality.  The Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton, which ended yesterday was firmly outside that bubble.  Lib Dem conferences tend to inhabit their own bubble, of course.  But after two years of appalling local election results, the complacency that characterises that bubble world was largely absent.  Liberal Democrats are coming to terms pragmatically with a very uncomfortable reality.

Westminster bubble types expected the party to be obsessed, as they are, with the leadership, and mobilising to ditch Nick Clegg, whose personal ratings with the public at large are miserable.  But that was not so; the party maintained admirable cohesion on the matter.  It’s not that members don’t think that Mr Clegg’s standing is problem, but they recognise that there are no easy solutions and that public agitation would be unhelpful.  The whole issue has in effect been outsourced to the parliamentary party, who were making no attempt to stir things up.

For me that party’s mood is best caught by three debates.  On Tuesday on local pay in the public sector and the Justice and Security Bill, and yesterday on housing.  On local pay (sometimes wrongly referred to as regional pay, which would be a non-starter as we do not have recognisable regional economies) the party resisted attempts by the Chancellor, George Osborne, to abolish national pay agreements and let local bodies, including hospitals, schools and local governments, to set their own pay rates.  The interesting thing about this is that localism, delegating responsibility to local authority level, at least, is supposed to be a key part of the party’s ideology.  But the party’s politicians and activists are acutely aware of the fear felt by many in their communities that this would simply mean lower pay, which would not be compensated for by a private sector revival.  Local pay does not have to mean lower pay, and often doesn’t – but it is an understandable fear, since, after all, that is why Mr Osborne supports it.  For me though, principle trumped pragmatism and I was one of a small number of people who voted for the motion.  I hold the deeply unfashionable view that the purpose of national pay agreements is for the Treasury to hold public sector pay down, not keep it at artificially high levels, and that unions only go along with it because it gives their national leaders a raison d’etre.  And as for national pay being simpler, any idea of that has been shaken by the encyclopedic size and complexity of the national agreement on teachers’ pay that occasionally lands on my desk.  Still, the party’s mood was a reflection of the feelings in their communities, and not the theoretical arguments so characteristic of the Westminster bubble.  The concluding speech by John Pugh, Southport’s MP, was a ruthless and effective hatchet job, in which people like me were characterised as having a fetish for markets against all evidence and reason.  I am trying to work out how to get revenge.

Funnily enough, though, on the Justice and Security Bill it was the pragmatists that were drowned out.  At issue was the possibility of allowing secret evidence in cases of national security, where, for example, intelligence sources might be compromised.  No matter the impressive unity of parliamentarians to support this idea, the party emphatically rejected this attack on natural justice.  There were a number of stirring speeches including many from people like London’s MEP Sarah Ludford, who are usually rather disappointing public speakers.  On an issue that is not widely talked about on doorsteps, the party allowed itself the luxury of the moral high ground.

And then there was housing.  There is a clear feeling in the party that housing should be a top priority.  More homes should be built; developers resisting the supply of affordable homes, while sitting on “land banks” of property with planning permission, should be faced up to; private sector lettings should be regulated more strongly.  Once again the debate was characterised stories from the front line; this was one topic in which the principled and pragmatic converged – but the voice of local communities came through the loudest.   Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the parliamentary party, another speaker who usually disappoints, delivered a barnstormer in favour of the motion.

The strongest set-piece speech that I saw came from Sharon Bowles, an MEP who delivered a powerful attack on critics of the EU and business leaders who were keeping quiet instead of speaking out.  She got a standing ovation.  So did new minister Jo Swinson, though her speech was nothing very special – it was the person they were applauding (mind you she delivered an excellent speech in the conference rally on Saturday night).

I missed Mr Clegg’s speech – though I’m not really a fan of the leader’s speech since Paddy Ashdown.  From reports it sounded as if he struck more or less the right tone.  I don’t think his attempt to portray the party as a natural one of government was all that wise.  There is a tendency for Westminster bubble types to assume that things will carry on as they are – but it is most unlikely that the Lib Dems will be in government after the next general election.  It all gives the impression that he enjoys being in government too much.  Still, he is right that government is what the party should aspire to, rather than being a constant party of protest.  And if the party can survive the next few years, then a return to government is very much on the cards.

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The Lib Dems struggle with education policy

Saturday was education day at the Lib Dem conference. Education is dear to the hearts of most Lib Dems, but the party struggles to come up with a clear party line beyond the important policy of Pupil Premium, where state funding of schools is uplifted for those with poorer pupils. This drift was on show yesterday.

There were two motions, one on early years and the other on schools. Both came over as  worthy but wishy washy wish lists, with a rather nanny state tendency on show. The most contentious point on the early years motion was support for increasing professionalisation of nursery and childminding provision. This all feels a bit New Labour and not particularly liberal. The idea that this might be a source of jobs for non graduates doesn’t seem to have taken hold, which is a pity. It would be nice to think that more jobs would be available to single mothers who have had a disadvantaged start in life. But the focus seems be on pushing graduates into those roles.

There was more contention around the schools motion. There is a body of activists who are upset by the way the party has been handling education policy in government, with very little consultation of the party at large, and seemingly tagging along to a Tory agenda. This boiled over a bit with the recently proposed reform to the GCSE exams, which was presented to the world as the result of negotiations between the Lib Dems and Conservatives. But work done by activists on the subject was ignored. The motion was not about this issue, but there was an attempt to spatula it in, rejected by the Conference Committee, which caused tempers to fray.

The motion itself was the usual worthy fare. An amendment on governance was passed which sought to ensure that no interest group had a majority on state school boards…something which would be an issue for faith schools and sponsored academies. It also had some nanny state stuff about training governors. Interestingly the conference also passed an amendment rejecting the proposal to abolish mandatory external tests at the end of children’s primary school careers – SATS. This clearly took the motion’s movers quite by surprise, and showed that the conference was taking bit of trouble over the policies it was passing. I supported this amendment, as a school governor I find these tests invaluable as a means of holding the school to account.

But it would be nice if the party could develop something more radical and interesting, to contrast with the emerging Tory/Labour consensus. This will require some strong leadership. David Laws, the new education minister, is the man who should provide it. But though he is widely respected, he does not seem to be good with the gruelling process of consultation and bringing the activists on side. We shall see.

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