Conference: it’s the Conservatives, stupid

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New think-tank-stroke-consultancy Liberal Vision launched their first report at a fringe meeting yesterday lunchtime. Julian H, of Orange by Name was there…

12:55pm on Monday and liberals, lots of them, streamed into the subterranean Harry’s Bar in the Highcliff Hotel, drawn by the brilliant orange fliers around Conference that asked:

HOW DANGEROUS IS THIS MAN?

Which man? Harry? No! David “Dave” Cameron, of course. He is dangerous. And I don’t like him.

The event was the inauguration of Liberal Vision and to kick off, they produced a report, which shows every single Lib Dem seat (or potential seat, given boundary changes) in England – and the threat posed to each by the Tory resurgence in the polls. It’s the talk o’ the town – read all about it. How many seats could we lose? How do we stop this from happening?

To discuss, a panel of four, Sal Brinton (Lib Dem PPC, Watford), Gareth Epps (Lib Dem PPC, Reading East), Mark Littlewood (Lib Dem Head of Media 2004-2007) and Chandila Fernando (Director, Liberal Vision). Chairing the event, Mike Smithson – long time Liberal Democrat, founder of politicalbetting.com and gambling-psephologist extraordinaire.

The Tory resurgence has a “serious and measurable effect” Mark Littlewood began.

“SPEAK UP!” they cried at the back. “WE CAN’T HEAR!”. “LOUDER!”.

The Tory resurgence has a “SERIOUS AND MEASURABLE EFFECT” he continued, before admitting to ripples of laughter that in publishing the evidence he was walking a “tightrope between being controversial and treacherous”.

Yet, he argued, we cannot bury heads in the sand and the fact is that the Tories are no longer the “staggeringly weak” force they have been in the past three elections. In these they scored an average of around 31% of the vote. Currently in the polls, they stand on 45%. Thereby, while in recent elections (in which we have gained seats) the Con-LD ratio has been around 3:2. Now it’s looking more like 2:1.

Littlewood then dropped the hammer blow. In spite of his paper taking local nuances into account, at current polling levels it showed that…

35 of our 53 seats in England could be lost to the Tories.

At this portent the room hushed, yet doom-mongering was not his intention. “Conservative votes therefore count double”, he continued, “and while Cameron’s support may be wide – it is not deep”. The point here was that the polls show a considerable section of the electorate (10-12%) did not vote Tory last time but are now considering it. They are flirting with Cameron, but they are not real Conservatives. Their votes count double – and they are most certainly winnable.

So – how to win them? Littlewood reinforced the arguments made in the report; we need clear and concise messages that the media can latch onto and voters can instantly understand. A good start being two-word concise: lower taxes.

Second-up: Gareth Epps.

“There is a quote from Bertrand Russell” he started.

“SPEAK UP!” they cried at the back. “WE CAN’T HEAR!”. “LOUDER!”.

“THERE IS A QUOTE FROM BERTRAND RUSSELL” he repeated, storming to the front of the panel’s desk.

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.

Epps warned against a too-dogmatic response to the report’s evidence. His primary concern though, was that Liberal Vision’s proposals went “too far”, and would not be seen as “credible” by the electorate.

Epps also stressed the dangers posed by Cameron, whom he described as an “anti-immigration, anti-Europe, neo-Con Tory”, citing a Democracy Movement event in which Dave had made some rather bizarre proposals such as the UK leaving the EU and joining NAFTA (?!) But, advised Epps, the way to tackle the Conservative threat is primarily through local campaigning, a point he reinforced at several stages with local examples.

The dapper Chandila Fernando, then spoke, stressing that “taxes are a huge electoral issue”.

“SPEAK UP!” they cried at the back. “WE CAN’T HEAR!”. “LOUDER!”.

“TAXES ARE A HUGE ELECTORAL ISSUE” he stated, also storming forward while the rest of us collectively thought – “microphones”.

Sure, he went on, Dave may be a charlatan, but he has somehow captured the imagination of the public. He’s taken the blue, added a sprinkling of yellow and suddenly it’s all … Green. We know this is a farce but somehow it’s working – and think, he continued, of all the hard work we put in at constituency level that could be entirely undone if polls continue at the current rates.

“Assuming Gordon can keep the wolves at bay”, Chandila resumed, to a chorus of Labour-baiting chuckles, “we have eighteen months to change this” – and it must be changed with a clear and bold message on tax.

This is not for the rich, he stressed – tax affects everyone. And we must hit Cameron where it hurts, taking advantage of his airy-fairy policy-lite approach. With a clear and open tax policy to take on the Conservatives we can hammer away at their vote while they “umm” and “ahh” and think some more about “decontamination”.

Next up, Sal Brinton, our wonderful PPC for Watford and victim of the bewildering campaign of hate crimes committed by local Conservatives. Tomorrow sees the sentencing of the ex-Tory candidate Ian Oakley. Sal received deserved applause for her efforts in Watford and, projecting her voice successfully to the back of the room, summarised her thoughts briefly.

The report, she said, was “psephologically-sound”, but she has been working in an area which has bucked national trends, and like Gareth Epps has faith in existing methods. In her area they have been consistently winning Council seats from the Tories in spite of the polls, and achieved a 14% swing to the Lib Dems in the last election.

This has been achieved, she said, by “translating” to the electorate local policies into national ones and emphasising the unchanged nature of the Conservative Party.

“The Nasty Party are Back”, she warned. “They think they have the right to power” and, as she knows too well, will on occasions do anything to achieve it.

Applause marked the end of the panel’s contribution, and a star-studded floor darted their arms upwards to comment. Greg Simpson, Lib Dem Head of Policy & Research, argued that emphasis must still be put on the lack of fairness of a tax system that favours the rich, while Taunton’s David Hughes warned against “denial” of the threat and the assumption that local exceptions will save Lib Dem seats. There was a dissenting plea against becoming “a Mark II Conservative Party”, to which Mark Littlewood responded that this would instead make us “a Mark I Liberal Party”.

Edward Lord and Gavin Grant welcomed the launch of Liberal Vision, concurring that the report’s proposals would prove a considerable boon to the party, while another speaker praised the report for “injecting realism” into the party’s internal debates. Henry Vann, PPC for Bedford & Kempston made the point that tax cuts are a weapon against both the Tories and Labour.

There was agreement, it would seem, on the threat of the Conservative resurgence, albeit disagreement on the best means of response; then Sal Brinton interjected one last time to propose the best means of stealing Conservative votes:

Use Vince Cable more

And just like that, we had consensus.

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9 Comments

  • Grammar Police 16th Sep '08 - 5:13pm

    Chamali Fernando?

  • Alix Mortimer 16th Sep '08 - 5:27pm

    Chandila is her brother.

  • Grammar Police 16th Sep '08 - 6:47pm

    Ah

  • The “Liberal Vision” report was rather amateurish and flawed.
    For example, when calculating local election results it says in a ward where the Lib Dems polled 1250 votes and the Conservatives 300 one year and next time the seat is contested, the conservatives failed to stand they have not included that seat. This is an absurdity, which as they point out themselves has the effect of making the constituency look a bit (sic) less Liberal and a bit more Conservative. So the more wards the Conservatives have given up in, the more likley Liberal Vision think the Lib Dem are to lose.

    Furthermore, where thay have no data or whenever complicating factors such as other parties or multi-member wards they have simply given up and and gone for figures that are easy to calculate rather than for -figures that are more meaningful.

    A tax cutting message is not always a vote winner, Gordon Brown has been cuttting taxes, it hasn’t won him many votes.

    Context, narrative and other factors are important.

    Anyone like Liberal Vision, who seeks to catergorise how liberal you are on whether you oppose the smoking ban doesn’t understands Liberalism.

    It merely confirms that anyone can set themselves up as a pressure group or think tank and gets loads of publicity for very little effort.

  • neverapriest 17th Sep '08 - 9:34pm

    The only notion of dissent at this meeting, apart from the venue’s terrible acoustics, was the boorish intervention of Grant.

  • Mark Littlewood 18th Sep '08 - 11:42am

    Mouse,

    I think you’ve misunderstood how we decided to exclude local election results. From what I can glean from your critique, we have done the exact opposite of what you criticise us for.

    The problem with a 2003 result of, say, LibDem 1250 Tory 300 and a 2007 result of the LibDem being returned unopposed is that you need to exclude BOTH results. This is what we have done. Otherwise, the 2007 figures look a lot worse for the LibDems COMPARED TO 2003. I can’t see any other credible or viable way to compare 2003 with 2007. This ensures that the same contested areas are being analysed and the swing is therefore valid.

    There is a detailed explanation in the pamphlet about how we calculate multi-member wards and it is completely wrong to say we “just gave up”. I think the mechanism we selected is fair and reasonable – particularly in comparing the LibDems to the Tories, which is the main aim of the pamphlet. (if we were trying to compare LibDems to Greens, we might have used a different approach).

    I’m not quite sure how/why you think Gordon Brown is a tax cutter. He is exactly the opposite in my opinion.

    I have some sympathy with you on “narrative”. In fact, Liberal Vision’s pamphlet deliberately focused on message and narrative rather than policy. We deliberately didn’t argue for tax cuts of £15bn or £25bn or outline exactly how these would be delivered. If you’ve read the pamphlet’s conclusions, you’ll see it is all about making a narrative/message that is compelling. Obviously, having a budget that adds up is crucial too – but that’s a project for another time!

    On the smoking ban etc., I don’t agree that our philosophical approach shows that we don’t understand what liberalism is. Fortunately, the meeting itself managed to avoid this sort of patronising name-calling, and started to tease out some interesting differences about what constitutes “other regarding” behaviour and the extent to which freedoms should be based on property rights. I still take the view that if smoking is other-regarding behaviour then there are a whole host of other activities that need to be banned (and probably long before we get to smoking in pubs).

    I think your view that its easy to get publicity for very little work is way off the mark. The work put in to get Liberal Vision off the ground was extensive. Even if you don’t like the methodology we used in analysing the local elections, I defy you to compile something similar (or better) without many, many hours of work.

    I think the key reasons we got so much publicity were:

    (a) good media planning and communications
    (b) picking topics that were exciting, interesting and controversial (both fringe meetings were packed to the rafters with around 100 people attending each one, even though we didn’t offer food or refreshments)
    (c) putting our case in a numerical as well as a philosophical context. In both the Cameron Effect and the liberal league table, we included a raft of riders, and accepted that we were not presenting something that is an “exact science”, but I think we helped to trigger a useful debate.

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