In my New Year review of the party’s position, I emphasised the need to get the basics right; political competence before all else. I touched on the party’s messaging only perfunctorily, because my view was (and to an extent still is) that there are more pressing concerns than the message itself (we can have the best message in the world, but if we are failing when it comes to the basics of political strategy and tactics it is next to useless). Here’s is what I did say, in my concluding remarks:
There’s already been talk over the Christmas break of Lib Dem strategy for the year ahead: emphasising the “economically competent and socially just” message that has been long talked of but little emphasised. It’s a good enough strategy as far as it goes.
And on this front there is tentative good news: for the last month or so there has been a noticeable discipline in sticking to this message. The key test, though, will be whether that lasts.
One of the crucial things I will be looking towards is Nick Clegg’s speech to Spring Conference in March. In the past Clegg’s conference speeches have been interesting and often headline grabbing, but they have too often failed to deliver any sort of narrative that has a chance of a lasting impact. Given the vast amount of energy expended in preparing such speeches, that is a real shame.
What I want to hear this year is the message fleshed out. I want to know how it “fits” – with Nick as an individual, into liberalism as an ideology and with the Liberal Democrats as a party of government. I want to know that it is more than a soundbite.
Having thought about the message, I am coming round to it. I think it can fit into a compelling narrative. The one concern I still have is that we are defining ourselves in relation to our opponents’ positions. That can be an advantage – it helps get around the “independence” problem. But it also has the potential to weaken our identity, making our vision reliant on the current state of other parties.
However, the way to make the message distinctively liberal is to define our terms independently of the other parties, and to put things into a little context.
I see the party’s message as essentially one about opportunity. As liberals we believe that freedom is meaningless if as individuals we don’t have the opportunity to succeed, and if we are not as individuals allowed define the meaning of that success. Yet we recognise that individuals alone often don’t have the power either to create those opportunities, or to maximise them when they do arise.
Government’s role, therefore, is as a mostly as a facilitator: doing what it can so that those opportunities are present for as many people as possible.
There are two key ways in which government can act as a facilitator: first, by helping to create an economy in which people can succeed, and secondly by using the state’s resources to empower individuals to maximise their inherent potential.
My view is that the government’s power over the former – economic activity – is limited, particularly relative to its second function, where I think the state has a much greater role to play.
But on both fronts Liberal Democrats can make a difference in distinctively liberal ways which we won’t see from the other parties. Over the next couple of days I’ll share my thoughts on how to put some flesh on the bones of our “economically competent and socially just” message, starting tomorrow with a post on a distinctively liberal economic policy.
* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.