There’s a by-election! Chaaaaarge! This pretty much sums up Lib Dem strategy in Crewe… or is it tactics masking as strategy? And if there are any voices in the party who think our blind rush to by-elections is as mad as the Charge of the Light Brigade, I have news for you. It’s the only strategy we have.
Tactical voting is our ‘strategy’ even if the circumstances don’t suit it – for example, if we are third in polling data and the main strong challenger is not us! In Crewe our message was, err… ‘Vote for us because we can….ummm……win’. After we came third, our main pronouncements were, in effect, ‘Hooray, Labour got a pasting because it increased taxes on the poor,’ and, at the same time, ‘People voted Tory as a protest but they don’t want a Tory government’. To describe this as unclear for the public and limp as a position (whether deliberate or not) would be euphemistic.
What’s worse is… well… let me put this as a question: what percentage of the voting public now identifies us with which policies? That is a more important question than what our main ‘headline’ policies actually are.
Tactical voting as an approach can help us in some circumstances, even in a general election, but it has come to dominate. Some might say it filled a nearly-empty space. Blind Charges of the Lib Dem Brigade need to be stopped, however. This will force us to face an uncomfortable truth. At the root of the ‘strategy deficit’ are the fragmented policy development and implementation processes across the party. By this I mean the actual, not theoretical, system.
There is too much (often poor quality) detail on issues of low importance, and not enough focus on practicalities and potential unintended consequences. Often we live with very weak and unclear narratives – for example those that describe succintly the problems we are trying to solve. Local income tax is a classic example.
Our policy processes are thus wasteful of resources, and often work on the basis that senior Lib Dems in the various party cliques have somehow aquired a monopoly of wisdom on UK society. We have a perilous combination of too much policy driven by vested interests, and too many MPs and inner clique members moneymaking from their positions; and I write from personal experience.
The party puts often enormous energy into short bursts of top-down policy activity, as if suddenly from nowhere. Trident is the best known example, but there are many others. All of our many policy systems – both the formal and the less formal – need to work more coherently together, and they should be based on good ‘quality’ rules, for example with systems for ensuring the analysis and problem-definitions are clear, that consistency or otherwise with other policies is known, and so on. Clear themes, and consistency with themes (or not as the case may be) should always be spelt out.
It’s not easy for sure, but it is time for Nick Clegg’s leadership campaign promises of policy process reform to be iniated… thoroughly and speedily. No more blind ‘charges’ please!
* Paul Reynolds is Professor of International Government at the University of Westminster, and approved Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate, and former Lib Dem councillor in Lambeth.