Turning the Nice Party into a successful political force

Over the last two weeks the Lib Dem conference has awoken this blogger from a rather inactive period (so far blogging is concerned).  Today I will complete this active period with a longer post, before going quiet for a couple of weeks.  I want to follow through the thoughts provoked by my last few posts to set out what I think the Liberal Democrat strategy and policy stance should be.  I am not part of the party’s Westminster set, and failed in my attempts to join it.  Neither am I standing for any of the party committees.  But I want to get this off my chest, and I hope it provokes a constructive train of thought amongst Lib Dem readers, and offer insights into British politics to others.

In Monday’s post I discussed the question of the Liberal Democrats’ core identity.  I concluded that the party should base this around the values of tolerance and freedom, allied with a strong sense of civic responsibility and compassion.  An identity that rejects the classic identities of class and nationalism that the two other main political parties still depend on.  In other words, the Lib Dems should be the Nice Party.  Within this identity should be plenty of scope for differences of opinion around community politics, economic liberalism and so on.  But how to turn this rather challenging proposition into a successful political movement?

And here we run into the grim realities of how you create sustainable success in politics.  It isn’t very nice.  But it is a challenge that the party has successfully risen to in local politics in some parts of the country.  I have met a number of people in the Kingston Liberal Democrats, where the party has both an MP and runs the council.  I think they are nice people.  I don’t think their Tory (or Labour) opponents will share that opinion: they manage their politics with a certain killer instinct.

I think the best place to start is with where the party should be campaigning, and whose support it needs to win.  There are three groups: floating voters where the party is strong; core sympathisers everywhere, and potential donors.

The first group, floating voters, is entirely within the party’s comfort zone.  Other parties may be catching up, but there is a lot experience and wisdom promulgated by organisations such as the ALDC (Lib Dem councillors) or gurus like Mark Pack.  It is question of local campaigning, meeting people fact to face, good messaging (usually including a ruthless squeeze on whichever other main party is weakest), and ruthless targeting.  This is all very good, but it is not enough.  It needs activists and it needs money, and increasingly these have to be drawn from outside the targeted area, which is, by implication, being neglected.  And even the best local campaigns are helped by a bit of national bounce that comes from broader popularity.

So the party needs to build core support everywhere: say about 10% of the electorate who become reliable supporters at any election, anywhere, and who are a source of activists, who can then be used in target areas.  And here the party is completely out of its comfort zone.  It requires a completely different style of low-effort/high-impact campaigning from that used in target areas, where huge efforts are made to gather the last few votes.

The London elections earlier this year show us this graphically.  London is quite a liberal place, but the party’s Mayoral candidate, Brian Paddick, failed even to secure the 5% necessary to keep his deposit.  The funny thing was that, by the party’s standards, the campaign was quite well funded – much more so than in previous London elections.  The messaging was wrong.  With an ex-policemen as its figurehead, the party tried to reassure voters worried that the party was a bit soft, by showing a “tough” face.  “You break, you pay” was one slogan, emblazoned on billboards.  All this did was put off the party’s potential core.  They should have done the opposite – instead of trying to paint Mr Paddick as a Mr Nasty to reassure sceptical floating voters, they should have tried to reassure the core than in fact he was really rather nice and liberal (which he is).  It’s the difference between going after core votes and floating voters.

Also the party needs to do more of what I have called “insurgent campaigning” – light touch, quick impact campaigns than move on quickly.  The party needs to focus more of its campaign training on this type of campaigning, even though it wins no elections under first past the post, and celebrate success.  Unfortunately every trained activist seems to want to fight a full-strength floating voter campaign even in areas where this is clearly not appropriate.

But while this sort insurgent campaigning may be relatively cheap on activist time, it helps a lot to have some money – and money is increasingly important in target campaigns too.  If nothing else it makes the party look slick and credible – and our increasingly consumerist society puts the two together.  I have noticed this especially here in London amongst ethnic minority voters, who tended to laugh at our cheap, old-fashioned literature.

And money requires donors.  It also requires success at things like European elections, where the party’s weakness at core-vote campaigning threatens oblivion in 2014.  But this is where coming into government should be a big help.  People tend to assume that the present is a template for the future.  While the party was confined to the sidelines it was often assumed that the party would never get beyond local government.  Now people assume that future coalitions are a strong possibility.  And the party’s serious work in places like the European Parliament (compare it to UKIP!) make this a party that companies and rich individuals might see the virtue in helping.  But this requires the party to think about how it might go about persuading such people to part company with their money.  Here too the party seems outside its comfort zone.  All too often party activists think that fundraising is either local dinners and raffles that raise paltry sums, or else in the scope of professional fundraisers who can be left to get on with it.  But it has to be integrated into the whole campaign process.  Donors need persuasion in very similar ways to voters.

Now comes my next jump.  The party’s policy stance, both in what it says and the messages it chooses to prioritise, are an important part of its success, especially for core voters and potential donors.  They translate abstract notions into things that people might be really concerned about.  And here we can afford to raise our eyes for a moment away from the grubby business of political campaigning to higher things.  What is it, exactly, that the party wants to achieve in politics that is different from the other parties?

And here it is not just a question of doing a bit of work with focus groups.  We need to look at the bigger trends in society, and try to make sure that we concentrate on policies going with the grain of history – and not leading to cul-de-sacs.  The party needs to play long, and profit from slip-ups by the other parties.

For what it’s worth I suggest focusing on three broad policy themes: fair growth, limiting government, and global responsibility.

The idea of fair growth takes as its starting point the growing inequality of distribution in both income and wealth.  Modern economic growth, it seems, benefits only a small minority.  A large number of people are completely marginalised, and a lot of others fear that will be their fate.  The economic orthodoxy that growth benefits all society, and that pay reflects the marginal cost of labour are both flagging: not so much untrue as not enough.  A lot of the unequal distribution of wealth is not about due rewards for benefits conferred on all society – but about a skewed distribution of power.  This clearly affects policy on tax, benefits, and public services, which may redistribute wealth.  But there are also issues about how pay rates are set within organisations.  These are issues that Labour has now taken to heart (after being a bit blind in the Blair era), but where the Tories have a complete blind spot.  Here the party can distinguish itself from the Conservatives, but not Labour.

Limiting government, on the other hand, is Labour’s blind spot.  Unfortunately it is uncomfortable for many Lib Dems too.  I described the core problem that this addresses in this post earlier in the week.  The costs of most public services are destined to grow in proportion to the rest of the economy, and costs as a ratio to output.  This applies most clearly to healthcare (where it is being helped along by demographic trends), but we can see the same issue in education, policing and defence – not to mention the issue of pensions.  Tax is an imperfect way of funding anything – it  is difficult to make it accountable, and it is difficult to form a consensus on what a fair tax take is.  So it will not be realistic to fund these increased costs entirely from taxes.  The state will have to do less, and it will have to use new structures to do things more efficiently.  Here the Tories have a good understanding of what is happening, even if they muddy it with irrelevant talk about “competitiveness”.  If there is a unifying theme for the Coalition, this is it.  Labour, meanwhile, want to row back on many ideas to reform public services, for example by using private and third sector providers.  Their only cost saving idea is to freeze public sector pay – not at all sensible in the long run.  This is where the party needs to challenge Labour rather than quietly going along with it.

And on global responsibility we have to break free from the idea that this country can go on its own happy way, while the rest of the world deals with trade, regulation, carbon emissions and what have you.  This is most clearly visible in the Euroscepticism that fast becoming a national consensus, so say nothing with a general loss of momentum on climate change, and knee-jerk opposition to immigration.  There are friends and foes in both other parties on this – but the emerging Euroscepticism of the Tories offers the biggest opportunity.  I like this theme not so much because it plays well with the general public, but because it will resonate with large parts of the business community – who might start to realise that exterminating the party is not such a good idea.

Concentrating on these three broad themes, means excluding others.  These include a more explicit focus on global warming and the environment, Paddy Ashdown’s idea of re-enfranchising electors through localising politics, and constitutional change more generally.  Worthy as these ideas may be they are not going catch on quickly enough.

To exploit these themes the party rapidly needs to develop some heavy-duty and distinctive policies on taxation and Europe, and perhaps education; it needs to hold the line on health reform and university finance, and in needs develop insurgent campaigning on everything else.

Taxation is the critical issue: but it must be understood that that the total tax take is just as important as which parts of the economy are taxed.  If there is a torpedo heading for the good ship Miliband, launched with such a fanfare this week, it is the tax burden.  We can rely on the Tories to fire the torpedo, but we mustn’t let it sink us too.  Besides limiting government expenditure, and so taxation, this answers the question as to why we are in coalition.  But tax also plays to the fair growth agenda – we need to find ways of taxing the very rich that do not throttle enterprise.  A tricky issue will be the top rate of income tax; there is a strong case for cutting out the 45% rate, and no doubt this would help the party’s appeal to donors.  But it might be too difficult to sell.

Europe is critical because this would a central plank of the party’s appeal to business.  But the party needs to have a convincing answer on how we stay clear of the Euro, while still at the heart of the regulatory process.  The party is dripping with European experts – if it can’t come up with some good looking ideas here you really do have to ask what the party is for.

Education is important because it is a central part of the fair growth agenda.  There is a space for more constructive policy that stays clear of Conservative grandstanding and micromanagement.  I do wish the party hierarchy would make more effort to reach out to members invovled with education, though these can be quite tiresome: it may help to win over educational professionals, whom I am sure are being put off by the government’s current rhetoric.  But this does not sound to be a make or break issue for the next election.

On health and education finance I think the party needs to stick with the current governments reforms, more or less, on the grounds that the tax burden will get out of control if we don’t.  It will help with the proposition that Labour are profligate. We may be able to come up with some variations to soften the message, but I think the party has to grit its teeth.

And by insurgent campaigning, I mean grabbing a headline here and there, especially in areas where it plays to liberal principles and will motivate core voters and activists.  Human rights and the security state provide some issues, and environmental policy no doubt more. and there will no doubt be local issues that can be taken up, not just in target areas.

There I need to leave it.  This post is not quite as well developed as I hoped, but I hope it provides food for thought.