I’ve made no secret of my view that a change in leadership is likely to do little to revive Liberal Democrat fortunes at the polls given the rather more structural reasons for the decline in support for the party.
But I also recognise that to continue doing and saying the same things over and over again and expecting a different result is not only the definition of insanity but is unlikely to lead to an electoral revival:
We should not simply keep calm and carry on, but nor should we lose our heads either. The long-term success of the party is best served by us using our collective endeavour not to fight a months-long leadership campaign but to refine our strategy and prepare our game plan.
I am also of the view that we have as a party a good story to tell, but we need to get better at telling it, as the Independent’s Andy Grice said over the weekend:
With the economy improving, there is still time for the Lib Dems to win a grudging respect from voters for opting for the national interest in 2010. Putting the party interest first would not impress anyone. The Lib Dems will need to shout even louder about what they have achieved in government, notably the £10,000-a-year personal tax allowance, and what they stopped the Tories doing. There is a good story to tell. Doing so requires discipline, not self-indulgence.
Discipline when it comes to communicating our “message” is absolutely what is required, and there was a very good example today of why it is required.
You will no doubt have seen in the news that European Commission has been giving its two-penneth on what reforms the UK government might like to consider to economic policy. One might think that the Commission would be better placed concentrating its efforts on the Eurozone, where growth remains sluggish and the threat of deflation looms large. Although actually, the advice — that the government should take steps to cool the property market — is actually quite sensible.
Unsurprisingly, Nick Clegg was asked to comment on the story, and his views have been widely reported — including on BBC Radio 2’s 3 O’Clock news bulletin, where I heard his comments. The Commission, Clegg said, should be concentrating on reforms rather closer to home. Here is a transcript of the clip played on Radio 2 (available as a video here):
I think that [reform of the EU] should be the focus of what the European Commission is doing, rather than delivering…lectures to one government or another across the European Union, especially when frankly we have proved, in this government, to actually be leading the way in how to create growth in these difficult circumstances compared to many other countries in the European Union.
That quote is fine. It perfectly adequately explains the government’s position. I even happen to agree with it.
But is it going to contribute to anybody voting Liberal Democrat in a year’s time? Unlikely.
The reason I picked this particular clip is because this news story provides the Lib Dems with a great opportunity to do several things very easily: to remind voters that we believe in reform of the EU, that we have cut taxes for the low paid, that we wish to see taxes on high value properties increased to cut those taxes further, that we have made a significant contribution to the country’s economic recovery and, in a positive way, that we disagree with the Conservatives.
As it is, the clip, if anything, only communicates the first of those points (reform of the EU), which is actually probably the least important.
Clegg could, for example, in a similar number of words of said this:
The European Commission should focus on fixing the problems in the Eurozone and reforming the European Union, but I agree with the analysis that expensive properties are under-taxed in this country. That’s why I have pushed for higher taxes on houses worth over £2 million so that we can go further in our efforts to cut taxes for hard-pressed workers, which have already benefitted millions of people by £700 a year and helped create the strongest economic recovery in Europe.
It may be, of course, that in the previous 30 seconds before that clip Clegg had said something very similar, but that is sort of the point: every potential soundbite has to communicate what we think is important.
And one thing that is increasingly important, as the economic growth and job creation figures continue to improve, is for us to be linked to that success. As the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman says over on the CoffeeHouse blog, well-meaning schemes on pubs (or even school lunches) don’t really help us do that:
Beyond pubs, what the Lib Dems really need to do is to claim or at least share credit for the Coalition’s economic successes. Nick Clegg pleased his base but alienated the electorate with his ‘party of IN’ campaign, and then tried to recover from it by differentiating the Lib Dems from the Conservatives on international development spending. But these are concerns of the Lib Dem base, rather than the electorate as a whole. As James says in his column in this week’s magazine, ‘a large part of the party’s problem is that the voters are aware of so few of the things that it has done in government’. And the things that the party should try to get credit for are the big issues, such as the recovering economy, over and above reforms for pubs.
The motion passed at last year’s autumn conference, and the rejection of efforts to distance the party from deficit reduction, was a start, but deficit reduction is only a necessary pre-requisite to an improved economy, not an end in itself.
What we have to do is remind the public of our big achievements over and above fiscal consolidation — tax cuts, apprenticeships, the business bank, reform of the financial sector, the Youth Contract — that have a direct link to the economic recovery.
True though it is, simply saying that the economic recovery would not have happened without the efforts of the Liberal Democrats is not enough: we have to say exactly why that is the case. And more to the point, we have to take every single opportunity to make the point, because, as is often pointed out, no-one is going to make that case for us.
Photo by garryknight
* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.