Opinion: We need to get better at talking up our achievements and rebutting the lies

Liberal Youth at Eastleigh - Some rights reserved by Helen DuffettI joined the party in the autumn of 2012; I did so more out of interest than any burning zeal, on the basis that the Liberal Democrats were the party I disagreed with the least profoundly, on the smallest number of issues.  In that time I’ve met wonderful, inspiring people, and come to feel increasingly that joining this party was one of my better ideas.

We are at a time of profound reflection in the Party; with that in mind, in the spirit of shedding light and not heat, I thought I would share my thoughts.

For a start, we absolutely must champion, a lot more trenchantly than we have, what we have achieved in government.  We must also be prepared to call out others on their misrepresentation of us.  No, we don’t want nothing to change in Europe; no, we don’t not want an EU referendum – in fact, we’ve already put into law a guarantee that there will be one!  We must remind people what we’ve stopped a radical-right Conservative party from attempting.  We have been able to get 75% of our 2010 manifesto enacted, with less than 10% of the MPs in Parliament – 75% of what we promised, we’ve provided for, which is more than some single-party governments.  To not recognise all this would be to throw away what painful gains and successes we have had, and would make a craven mockery of our time in government, in which we have been a positive force.  No-one is under any illusions that we have lost much while we have been in government; it would be a poor show indeed for all that to be for naught.

More crucially, on the doorstep, we need counterpoints to the inevitable criticisms we’ll come across.  A set of talking points and rebuttals to the inevitable criticisms we’ll face.  The three big ones I’ve encountered are:

– Propping up the evil Tories: We can counter this argument by showing what we’ve been able to prevent the Tories from doing in government – at-will employment, a waved through, straight-up, straight-down Trident replacement, Michael Gove’s attempted stripping out of climate change teaching, and much more.  Just in the last year, the Tories dropped plans to privatise the national road network, for instance – due the Liberal Democrats in government.

– Only ever a party of local government: We can counter this argument by providing a list of things we have done: raising millions out of taxation, increasing apprenticeships and the green investment bank to name a few.  Nationally, we were the only party prepared to stand up boldly to UKIP in a big way, rather than chase their tail-coats like Con/Lab.

– The tuition-fees “betrayal” and other ‘broken promises’: The only way to counter this is with frankness.  We didn’t win the last election; there was no way we could get it through the parliament that was elected, and it was unaffordable given the national finances, so we championed the most liberal programme we could.  We aren’t a party that lets the perfect be the enemy of the good, or the impossible be the enemy of the achievable.

But most crucially, we need an overriding message.  All this is all very well, but with so many strands to keep in mind, our core philosophies have become muddied, at least in conception if not in actuality.  Too many buzzwords is a criticism often levelled at politics these days, and I fear we are not immune.  A strong theme, not reliant on external factors or other parties for context, needs to be arrived at.  And what’s to say it need not be a radical one?  The recent British Attitudes Survey showed that 60% of the public broadly agrees with our core principles; this more than anything else encourages me that we are not down and out.

People in the party are hurting, and we need to listen to what they’re saying – some with decades of experience and service – even if we disagree with their conclusions.  We must accept that there are always going to be people who hold our record in government against us – that’s not a sign of failure, it’s an inevitable consequence of being a party of government.  Giving up, breaking the Coalition and bringing down the government would have seen us rightly lambasted for creating political chaos and uncertainty for the country precisely when it least needed it.  How we deal with our legacy is up to us; the only responsible thing to do is own it – accept it, not airbrush it: champion what we believe we did was right, and speak up where we feel we can do more.

There has been a lot of negativity around all of those approaches, but too much negativity can be damaging.  Negative and positive attract; it is inevitable that those who express positive ideas and ideas for positive action attract naysayers and those who would rather despair than act.  But it is also true that negative attracts positive: calls of despair attract calls for hope.  In the medium term, we must resist the negative voices and embrace the positive; it can be comforting to sit back and despair; it has the attraction of not requiring much further action.  But we are a party that has never chosen the easy road for its own sake; here, as with so many other crossroads, we need to demonstrate our maturity, our resolve, and our belief.  I’m supremely disinclined to give up and go home.

 

* John Grout is a admin of the Lib Dem Newbies Facebook group and lives in Reading.

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38 Comments

  • Bill le Breton 1st Jun '14 - 1:49pm

    John, would you list here exactly who in our Party is calling for; “Giving up, breaking the Coalition and bringing down the government would have seen us rightly lambasted for creating political chaos and uncertainty for the country precisely when it least needed it.”

    A half a dozen names will do. I am afraid I can’t help you because I don’t know any member of our Party calling for that. It is a straw man that Nick Clegg constructs and as Lord Bonkers recently said, they must inhabit every room of his house.

    And by the way, do you think it was right to call on the Party in the Commons and Lord’s to vote to bomb Syria? To introduce a bedroom tax? To back Lansley’s extreme reorganisation of the NHS with its avenues to privatisation? Just so I know what type of Liberalism you advocate.

  • Remaining “believers, deny this;
    If it’s about trusting the word of science then why won’t you remaining “believers” at least respect science’s 32 year old consensus of nothing beyond their laughable; “95%” certainty that THE END IS NEAR?
    You can’t tell kids that science “believes” as much as you remaining “believers” do.
    Did Bush exaggerate a crisis to billions of innocent children just to make sure they stayed environmentally aware and turned the lights out more often?
    Move on;
    *Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.
    * “Socialist” Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).

  • @ John Grout

    One of the three issues you have encountered on the doorstep is tuition fees.

    There are two aspects to this.

    Firstly not achieving what was included in our [“fully costed”] manifesto. This you say was unaffordable given our national finances. Why then was it included in our manifesto?

    Secondly the individual pledge that election candidates gave to vote against an increase in tuition fees. This pledge was not predicated on being a member of a majority single party government. I don’t believe your piece addresses why so many Liberal Democrat MPs (albeit with some 20 honourable exceptions) voted against the pledge they had given their electorate.

  • John Grout

    Have you read this from Martin Tod ?

    http://www.martintod.org.uk/2014/05/25/neither-in-sorrow-nor-in-anger-but-its-time-for-nick-to-go/

    This is the sort of thing people are actually saying. Debate this, rather than setting up straw men to knock down.

  • This website may well help: http://www.WhatTheHellHaveTheLibDemsDone.com

  • David Evans 1st Jun '14 - 4:00pm

    Mark I think not. To take but one

    What The Hell Have The Lib Dems Done?

    Established the Equitable Life Payment Scheme and begun payments to people who lost their money, ending years of stalling under Labour

    Lib Dem Manifesto p.18 – Meeting the government’s obligations towards Equitable Life policyholders who have suffered loss. We will set up a swift, simple, transparent and fair payment scheme.

    Equitable Life Policy Holders got only 22.4% of their losses. When the banks were failing, we did whatever it took and everyone was protected 100%. How is that fair?

  • @Mark Conservative Manifesto p.12 – We will implement the Ombudsman’s recommendation to make fair and transparent payments to Equitable Life policy holders, through an independent payment scheme, for their relative loss as a consequence of regulatory failure.

    Is there a website called “What the hell have the Lib Dems done that the Tories wouldn’t have done anyway?” That would be genuinely useful.

  • @Caractus
    Agrees, no friendly newspaper, with maybe the exception of the Indy which is on life support (although the i newspaper fares much better.)
    Meanwhile, Nick Clegg’s still running with many of his same communications team and the question must be whether they will be up to rebutting the spin that CCHQ will be putting out against the LibDems when the coalition ends. If you don’t believe how rough it’s going to get you only have to read Peter Hitchens’ comments about the Tory spin machine and how it dictates the agenda of that party’s supportive press.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2645013/PETER-HITCHENS-And-tricks-Dodgy-Dave-make-poll-disaster-disappear.html

  • Bill le Breton 1st Jun '14 - 5:14pm

    John, I believe you have posted on this site since my comment above. Does that mean you cannot find a single member of the Party advocating “Giving up” and “breaking the Coalition” and “bringing down the Government” now. You can change the leader without triggering an election. Would the Tories want one now? Of course not.

    I think you should retract that accusation which actually is offensive to those who have never shirked their duty to their fellow Liberal Democrats and their fellow citizens.

  • …….and I notice Mail Online have disallowed comments under the Hitchens piece, almost certainly because the Mail group fears its readers will make the obvious connection. This revelation is a welcome first for a journalist revealing how his own newspaper group did as it was told in towing the party line, with the help of crib sheets and quotes in case journalists thought of going off message.

  • Bill – I feel compelled to point out that I did *not* say there are party members calling for a coalition exit, though it cannot be denied that there are people (not necessarily party members) who are advocating that, some of whom have done so on the very Twitter feed for this article. For the most part, I have found the tone of comments threads to be so negative as to utterly put me off engaging with it.

  • Peter Watson 1st Jun '14 - 5:45pm

    @John Grout “We have been able to get 75% of our 2010 manifesto enacted, with less than 10% of the MPs in Parliament – 75% of what we promised, we’ve provided for, which is more than some single-party governments.”
    What is the basis of, or evidence for, this claim?

  • Steve Comer 1st Jun '14 - 5:54pm

    The trouble is John, most of what you say has already been done. Indeed as far as what you say under:
    ” Propping up the evil Tories,” and “The tuition-fees “betrayal” and other ‘broken promises” I’ve seen the artwork and used some of it!
    Its not working is it? For three years we have been told to ’emphasise the positives,’ but I’m sorry the voters just aren’t buying it.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Jun '14 - 5:58pm

    John thank you for answering. I can’t see anything here that is not fair comment. It is good that you now admit that you know of no members of our party publicly advocating , “Giving up, breaking the Coalition and bringing down the government”. I am pleased that you weren’t merely repeating the Leader’s straw man argument to the same effect.

    What non members are saying on Twitter seems totally irrelevant.

    One only wonders why you bothered to mention it in the first place.

  • Steve – The thing is, I don’t think it has. I’m saying we need to get better at pushing back against inaccurate characterisations, particularly outright wrong ones, eg. that we don’t support EU reform. I’m saying that the Party needs to come up with a coherent set of talking points which can be used as the basis for doorstep engagement with voters. I’m saying the Party needs a new message that gets away from buzzwords. I don’t see much evidence that we’ve got any of those things, yet.

  • John,
    Have you been putting your thoughts to the test at Newark and if so what will be the response on polling day.

  • Bill – I brought it up because it is what people are saying; not only on Twitter (it was a handy example), but in public and on the doorstep. There does seem to be a feeling amongst some that it’s what we should have done, and I do think it requires a response.

    Steve – That 75% figure is based on a simple numerical comparison of the 2010 manifesto with what the government has done. A deconstruction of it would, I’m sure, make for fascinating reading; it has, after all, been floating around for a while now. 😛

  • (that last to Peter, not Steve; apologies)

  • A Social Liberal 1st Jun '14 - 6:40pm

    John

    It isn’t what The Lib Dems have prevented that causes so much ire, but the illiberal acts of parliament that have been passed.

    Does it matter how much we watered down ‘Secret Courts’, we still have the act which Lib Dem MPs voted for. Agreeing that it is illiberal whilst seeking to mitigate by saying it would have been a lot worse just doesn’t cut it.

  • Peter Watson 1st Jun '14 - 6:47pm

    @John Grout “That 75% figure is based on a simple numerical comparison of the 2010 manifesto with what the government has done.”
    Three years ago the contested claim was being made that 75% of the manifesto made it into the Coalition Agreement, based upon work at UCL. That is very different from claiming in 2014 that “We have been able to get 75% of our 2010 manifesto enacted”. A later revisit of that original claim suggested that the coalition agreement was 60% exclusively Tory, 25% exclusively Lib Dem, and 15% stuff the parties agreed on (e.g. pupil premium, which was also in the Labour manifesto). And being in the Programme for Government is not the same as being “enacted”; consider electoral reform and Lords reform, for example.
    So, where is the “simple numerical comparison of the 2010 manifesto with what the government has done” which supports the claim you made. It is all very well exhorting the party to talk up its achievements and rebut the lies, but that will fail disastrously if you cannot produce evidence, especially in the face of a hostile media and lack of voter trust in the party’s leader

  • paul barker 1st Jun '14 - 7:00pm

    One thing we dont need to do is spend all our time fighting each other & helping The Media attack us by feeding them spurious stories about a members revolt. We dont need to waste Months holding a Leadership Election. We dont need all the bitterness being created by a noisy minority.

  • Peter – A distinction needs to be made between claiming credit for the proportion of the 2010 manifesto that has been actioned, versus the proportion of the total amount of things done by the government. I don’t think even the wildest optimists would suggests that we can claim credit for 75% of what the government was done. We do need to acknowledge that we are a minority party in the coalition, after all. That 60% of the coalition agreement is Tory is (if it’s true, of course!) probably to be expected, given that they provide the vast majority of the government’s MPs; in that case, the Lib Dems are definitely punching above our weight in terms of proportion!

    Paul – Hear, hear.

  • Peter Watson 1st Jun '14 - 8:02pm

    @John Grout “A distinction needs to be made between claiming credit for the proportion of the 2010 manifesto that has been actioned, versus the proportion of the total amount of things done by the government.”
    Indeed.
    There is evidence to support the claim that 75% of our manifesto was in the Coalition Agreement (see https://www.libdemvoice.org/threequarters-of-lib-dem-manifesto-becoming-government-policy-independent-research-24008.html), though there was some misunderstanding that this meant that the coalition agreement was 75% Lib Dem. The relative contribution to the Coalition Agreement of the two parties was revisited and clarified (e.g. https://www.libdemvoice.org/lib-dem-manifesto-coalition-agreement-ucl-29188.html), partly because the original analysis did not account for the fact that the Tory manifesto contained many more items.
    But that was three years ago, and not everything in the Coalition Agreement was enacted (and some that was not in it has been).
    If you are going to claim that “a simple numerical comparison of the 2010 manifesto with what the government has done” shows that “we have been able to get 75% of our 2010 manifesto enacted … which is more than some single-party governments”,then you should be able to demonstrate that. I suspect that you have simply picked up on the original 75% figure and repeated it out of context.

  • Chris Manners 1st Jun '14 - 9:21pm

    “For a start, we absolutely must champion, a lot more trenchantly than we have, what we have achieved in government. We must also be prepared to call out others on their misrepresentation of us.”

    You can start by calling yourselves out on the misrepresentation of your tax policy.

    You were supposed to pay for your income tax cuts by closing loopholes, air travel tax and a mansion tax. Not by raising VAT and cutting tax credits.

    You’ve banged on and on about taking people out of tax as though you think they’re stupid.

  • daft ha'p'orth 1st Jun '14 - 10:17pm

    @John
    The tuition-fees “betrayal” and other ‘broken promises’: The only way to counter this is with frankness. We didn’t win the last election; there was no way we could get it through the parliament that was elected, and it was unaffordable given the national finances, so we championed the most liberal programme we could.

    I read this and facepalmed so hard that you could probably dust my forehead for fingerprints. Are we not beyond this nonsense yet??
    The broken promise, and I will thank you for not abusing the humble apostrophe in such a way, because a broken pledge is precisely what it is, did not require the LDs to win the election or get a new policy through the parliament that was elected. All that was required was for the LDs not to vote for increased tuition fees (or, more accurately, to vote against). That was all. Not voting for increased tuition fees isn’t that difficult: millions of people do it every day. Don’t claim that the LDs were unable to vote no, because it is clearly a silly claim. Claim, if you will, that they chose not to; claim that they thought they knew what they were doing and they believed it was for the best, but don’t claim that they were unable to organise a no vote because this sounds, and is, ridiculous. And don’t conflate pledge and policy. The general public are wise to that form of sophism and they don’t like it.

    Now I would cheerfully agree with you that abolishing tuition fees wasn’t about to happen and wasn’t realistic given the parliament that was elected, but I put it to you that nobody particularly wanted ‘the most liberal [whatever that is] solution’ (the more I see of this government the more I realise that the word ‘liberal’ can mean anything, much of it not very nice and much of it stuff that I would not want done in my name or on the basis of my vote). The electorate wanted the solution the LDs promised, which was a solution that involved their MPs voting against an increase in tuition fees — a solution that permitted those who did not want an increase in tuition fees to feel that the people they had elected had done their level best to fight against increase in tuition fees, such as by voting against any increase in tuition fees (i.e., moral victory). Nobody feels that this happened, for the very good reason that it didn’t happen.

    Free marketing lesson for you: don’t tell the general public that 9,000/year (whatever the repayment conditions!) is considered liberal and fair, unless you want people to start conflating ‘liberal’ with ‘we believe that ordinary people should spend their lives in debt for stuff that our generation had for free’.

  • daft ha'p'orth 1st Jun '14 - 10:20pm

    Correction: The lib-dem-voting proportion of the electorate wanted the solution the LDs promised.

  • “Are we not beyond this nonsense yet??”

    It is amazing that it is still being trotted out, although the distinction between the personal pledges and the manifesto policy has been explained about 500 times.

    What I can’t work out is whether the people who continue to say it genuinely can’t grasp that distinction, or whether they just believe the electorate it too stupid to grasp it.

  • John Grout – ” I’m saying we need to get better at pushing back against inaccurate characterisations, particularly outright wrong ones, eg. that we don’t support EU reform”

    The leader needs to get better at pushing back against particularly outright wrong ones. After all he had two debates with Nigel Farage about the EU – and failed on both occasions to talk about EU reform. If he couldn’t be bothered to say it – are you really surprised that our opponents and the press think that we are not in favour of EU reform.

  • Caracatus & Sean Blake, on the subject of ‘friendly’ papers.

    “However, if the Guardian had a vote in the 2010 general election it would be cast enthusiastically for the Liberal Democrats. ”

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/apr/30/the-liberal-moment-has-come

    Friday, 30th April 2010.

    There is a rage amongst its readers that the Graun continues to support the LDs. & you can see the evidence of this anger on any of the political reports/blogs.

  • Phil Rimmer 2nd Jun '14 - 12:57pm

    @John Grout
    “In the medium term, we must resist the negative voices and embrace the positive; it can be comforting to sit back and despair; it has the attraction of not requiring much further action” and then you have the barefaced cheek to say, “For the most part, I have found the tone of comments threads to be so negative as to utterly put me off engaging with it.”

    In response, I would simply remind you that some of us see calling for Clegg to go as positive action in the face of an impending disaster. Like others above, I am sick to the back teeth of Clegg and his supporters setting up what Bill le Bretton and Lord Bonkers both correctly call ‘straw men’.

    Next time, try a more honest attack.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Jun '14 - 2:22pm

    daft ha’porth

    Free marketing lesson for you: don’t tell the general public that 9,000/year (whatever the repayment conditions!) is considered liberal and fair, unless you want people to start conflating ‘liberal’ with ‘we believe that ordinary people should spend their lives in debt for stuff that our generation had for free’.

    £9,000 a year is what it actually costs. The change in the way universities are financed has not brought new money to the universities. What has happened is that this is now funded by tuition fees paid for by loans, whereas previously it was funded by the state. If state funds things it must still be be paid for. If it is not paid for by taxation it must be paid for by government borrowing, and if it is paid for by government borrowing, the loans must STILL be paid back somehow, so it will STILL be the next generation paying it back, only through more tax rather than through the tuition fee system.

    Saying this does not mean I think the tuition fees and loans system is a good idea. I think it would be better for universities to be funded directly by taxation. However, the line, which we are hearing from MOST people attacking them, which makes out that the state spending they are effectively calling for comes from nowhere, is a ridiculous one. I appreciate it is a good one for attacking the Liberal Democrats. That does not stop it from being ridiculous. I have not heard ONE opponent of tuition fees, NOT ONE, use a line which accepts if we don’t have them the subsidy must be paid for through taxes and go on from there to give a suggestion as to where the tax would come from.

  • daft ha'p'orth 2nd Jun '14 - 3:04pm

    @Matthew Huntbach
    Eh what? I know it costs money. I know it costs the government (which is to say, ultimately, all of us) money either way; I’ve expanded on the subject in detail in other threads. So what? Here, if you really need ONE opponent of tuition fees to say it: If we do not have tuition fees, the subsidy must be paid for through taxes. Incidentally, since our tuition fees are high, then we will end up having to pay for much of them through taxes anyway in the end, because we are unrealistic in our maths. So, we are lying to ourselves about the likelihood of shifting this debt onto the individual by waving around our dodgy IOUs and going ‘see? see?’, which is not exactly clever of us either. One would’ve thought we’d had enough of storing up debt problems for the future.

    The fact also remains that standing in front of the electorate and justifying a tripling of tuition fees on the grounds that it was the most liberal option is a pretty silly thing to do. Nobody knows what liberal actually means anyway, so now politicians link the term to undesirable outcomes and wonder why the LD brand suffers. This is exactly what successive governments have done to the EU: ‘oh, it isn’t our fault, it’s the EU wot made us do it,’ and then they wonder why people are increasingly negative about Europe. The difference is that the EU are mildly indignant about being used as a scapegoat, whilst the Lib Dems seem to be lining up to take a turn at playing the fall guy.

  • ” have not heard ONE opponent of tuition fees, NOT ONE, use a line which accepts if we don’t have them the subsidy must be paid for through taxes and go on from there to give a suggestion as to where the tax would come from.”

    Did you not read the last Lib Dem Manifesto? It’s all in there.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Jun '14 - 1:28am

    daft ha’p’orth

    The fact also remains that standing in front of the electorate and justifying a tripling of tuition fees on the grounds that it was the most liberal option is a pretty silly thing to do.

    Yes, I agree. It is a demonstration of how incompetent the current leadership of the Liberal Democrats is that they keep doing this. Some compromise is reached with the Tories, and it is then presented by the LD leadership as if it was what they wanted in the first place. It should have been justified as all it was possible to get from the Tories, a sad necessity given that the Tories wouldn’t accept the tax rises necessary to pay for university subsidy, and accepted with sorrow because we did not want to accept what would be the other Tory way of handling this – massive slashes to the number f university places. Not as “the most liberal option”.

    If Clegg feels he cannot come out and say this sort of thing because of collective responsibility, he needs to be replaced as Leader by someone who can.

    Nobody knows what liberal actually means anyway, so now politicians link the term to undesirable outcomes and wonder why the LD brand suffers

    Yes, again I agree. When we have one of the LD MPs trying to get extreme Thatcherite economics labelled as “authentic liberalism”, and others on the right-wing fringe of the party trying to steal the word “liberalism” to mean this, the brand most definitely will suffer. Again, this is a reason why the current Leader must go, because he has shown huge favouritism to this fringe of the party, and has never disassociated himself from those of his colleagues wanting to push it that way.

    It ought surely to have been established by now that, despite the constant claims of these people that this is the way forward, there is no big bunch of voters out there looking for this sort of thing, but plenty of voters who were beginning to become committed Liberal Democrat voters very much put off by it. When this sort of capture of the word “liberal” is used, it undermines any defence of what is coming out of the Coalition as a “sad compromise, necessary under the circumstances”, since it suggests that it’s what the LibDems, or at least the right-wingers trying to take over the word “liberal” really wanted in the first place.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Jun '14 - 1:35am

    Phyllis

    Did you not read the last Lib Dem Manifesto? It’s all in there

    Oh sure, I meant after this policy had come out of this government, not before.

    I quite agree that as those responsible for this manifesto said it was “all costed”, they should tell us just how it was to be paid for. It would make it easier to defend the Liberal Democrats in coalition if we could more easily point to specific tax proposals and say “but the Tories wouldn’t accept that”. That INCLUDES the tax proposals that were meant to balance the rise in income tax allowance. Our 2010 manifesto made clear that rise was going to be paid for by tax increases elsewhere, not by cuts in spending. Therefore it is untrue to claim that just raising the tax allowance in isolation is fulfilling a manifesto promise. I cannot go out on the streets and push this message, I would be ashamed and embarrassed to do so.

  • The point here I agree with is the need for an overriding message. People haven’t the faintest what we stand for, and I don’t mean a raft of policies, I mean a core message. In that respect we’re back to the first year of the merged party if not before. Where people thought they knew what we stood for locally, they now often don’t know because what they saw locally and what they hear nationally seem quite different.

    Yes, we can get over achievements better. But where have I heard this before: “We’re doing badly because we’re not getting our excellent message across effectively”? For many years we’ve told Tories and Labour, “No, mate, it’s not the presentation, it’s the policies.”

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