Putting the party’s message in a distinctively liberal context – Part 1

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 Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.

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10 Comments

  • Geoffrey Payne 30th Jan '13 - 1:29pm

    I can’t work out how this is distinctive from the other political parties. Is anyone against opportunity? Most economists are now predicting that the economy will barely grow over the next few years, so I suspect the party will have to find something else to pin to our mast. For example I thought we passed an excellent motion on industrial democracy at our last federal conference, but all I have heard since is Beecroft. The party seems incapable of emerging from the deadly embrace of the Tories.

  • Simon Titley 30th Jan '13 - 1:34pm

    Nick Thornsby’s requirement of “political competence before all else” is highly questionable.

    ‘Competence’ can be judged only against a set of standards, which are supplied by a coherent set of values. For example, a government that reintroduced capital punishment for a whole series of offences, then executed large numbers of people swiftly rather than keep them on death row for a long time, would be ‘competent’. But would it be right?

    Politics is not fundamentally about ‘competence’ or ‘efficiency’ because it can never be value-free. Despite this, Nick Thornsby has fallen into the trap of believing in a spurious pragmatism. Leaders of all three main parties claim to be pragmatic, when in fact they are smuggling in a set of values that are debatable. Only when politicians are honest about their ideology can we judge whether they are competent in fulfilling their values.

    So please spare us “putting some flesh on the bones” of your flawed assumptions and instead read this explanation of why claims of pragmatism are wrong:
    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/blog/against-pragmatism-blair-cameron-clegg/

  • So – in this socially just and economically competent message, where does the environment feature, which is probably society’s biggest problem worldwide? And that’s irrespective of the hollow guffaws which will be uttered about the state of the economy. Geoffrey and Simon are of course, quite right when they say that you can’t divorce politics from values.

  • Nick Thornsby Nick Thornsby 30th Jan '13 - 3:33pm

    @ Simon Titley

    I get the impression you are arguining against things which I have not actually said.

    On the ‘competence’ point, surely you would agree that, for example, a party can communicate with the electorate in an effective way and in and ineffective way? I am arguing for us to be more effective, not just in communications but in other areas. Why do you disagree with that?

    On your wider point, I agree it is about communicating our values but a message is about doing that in a way (1) which is comprehensible and (2) is likely to maximise our support. Again, what is wrong with either of those aims?

  • Nick Thornsby Nick Thornsby 30th Jan '13 - 5:08pm

    Simon, many thanks indeed for the education on what I think – very helpful!

    The whole point of the coming posts is to talk about our values, and how they relate to a poliical message that can achieve the aims mentioned in my previous comment. Perhaps you should wait until having read those before accusing me of having a “failure of imagination”?

  • Bill le Breton 30th Jan '13 - 7:07pm

    I wonder whether Neil would accept that there is always a narrative – we see everything as stories. The art of story telling is to ensure that the narrative that the public ‘gets’ is the one that is intended by the playwright.

    So … in this case by going on stage, looking out at the audience and declaring “Beautiful child, have a bite of my delicious economic competence and social justice” at a time when the audience sees a backcloth of economic incompetence (zero growth) and social injustice (cuts to the living standards of the least well off and preferential treatment for the best off) they see the villain trying to deceive their hero.

    That is the script they know: The wicked step-mother offering Snow White an apple that the audience is used to believing is poisoned.

    As I have said before, if your problem is that you are not trusted by the audience, what you say will be distorted by that evaluation. If what you say reinforces that perception (however unintended) you are not doing yourself any favours.

    Now is not the time to focus on economic competence and social justice. The possibility of using that story was squandered two years ago.

    Better to re-establish trust by action and delivery – however small – and then focusing on that. It is called service. Best of all, ensure that those actions communicate your values. It is called respect for the audience.

  • Tony Dawson 30th Jan '13 - 7:15pm

    @Nick Thornsby :

    “On the ‘competence’ point, surely you would agree that, for example, a party can communicate with the electorate in an effective way and in and ineffective way?”

    Yes, but what he is saying is that there is no point in conveying ‘rubbish’ competently.

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