Dealing with the political weather: three lessons to learn

Chatting recently to a Liberal Democrat colleague, I fear we sounded like a second-rate version of the Monty Python four Yorkshireman sketch. That there were not four of us, none of us are from Yorkshire and I’m no John Cleese probably didn’t help the imitation as we exchanged tales of past poll ratings (10%? I remember when we used to dream of 10%) and the travails of leading figures (Speeding? You were lucky – what about missing Parliamentary debates due to drink? Pah, that was luxury. What about conspiracy to murder?).

Exchanging stories of past problems can be fun – especially as it recalls too just how improbably brilliant our victory in the Dunfermline by-election, in the midst of all the post-Kennedy disasters. One of my favourite election memories is returning from Scotland the weekend after with Paul Rainger driving and me reading out to him the commentary from awe-struck political commentators who couldn’t quite believe what they had just witnessed.

But we can’t assume that similar future events will automatically occur to boost the party’s popularity, especially given how often we’ve relied on the past in winning by-elections from the governing party.

Instead we need to both improve our ability both to cope with the political weather and also even to make some of the political weather.

A key factor in this is the changed attitude of the tabloid press. Pre-coalition their coverage was mostly either knocking or ignoring the Liberal Democrats. That meant the reaction to stories was often to ignore them, in the (often justified) hope that they would quickly blow over and that the quicker they were over the sooner the tabloid paper in question would stopping running knocking stories and revert to ignoring the party.

David Laws got it right and Chris Huhne got it wrong

That pattern no longer works in government. The knocking stories will just keep on coming. So one lesson in being better at donning the waterproofs to help get through stormy political weather is that, in PR terms, the party needs more often to be like David Laws than Chris Huhne.

That is, when faced with allegations, address them directly, quickly and firmly. David Laws’s comments have, of course, not won everyone over – but his quick and clear responses worked far better as an approach than Chris Huhne’s initial style of saying as little as possible as infrequently as possible.

Fast, to the point and fulsome responses – that’s the lesson many on the left learnt in the late 1980s and early 1990s as Labour in the UK and the Democrats in the US struggled to win in a hostile media landscape. “Speed kills” was the lesser known sister slogan to “the economy, stupid” that adorned Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign war room. It was about more than rebuttal, but it was about rebuttal – responding to attacks quicker than they can be made.

Like it or not, Lib Dem members read Guido Fawkes

Second, and related to this, is the need to understand how the internet has speeded up the media cycle. It’s a familiar enough comment to have become a cliché, but even so often does not result in the necessary speed of response.

The role of Guido Fawkes is a good example for I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Liberal Democrat communication (or would-be) people talking a day or two after he’s published a story about how to respond or – even worse – not appreciating that his blog is one of the most well read online news sites amongst Liberal Democrat members and helpers.

Don’t treat supporters as passive spectators

Third – and particularly because the implication of points one and two is that over-worked staff need somehow to find more hours in the day or more resources to call on – is a return to one of my regular themes about needing to see party members and supporters as active participants, not passive spectators.

Whether it is supporters writing letters to newspapers, members ringing radio phone-ins, bloggers accumulating the evidence for a key argument or activists working the Press Complaints Commission rules or editorial guidelines to make effective complaints there’s much that can be done to extend the party’s media impact.

Some of that requires other people in the party to take the lead or make decisions (hint, hint) but don’t fool yourself if you’re reading this by thinking it’s just an excuse to bemoan what others do.

It’s up to you too.

That, after all, is what liberal and community politics is all about. There’s power out there, waiting for you to take it and use it.

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18 Comments

  • As well as minimising damage we need to find ways to actually take advantage of the fact that the press are no longer ignoring us, and that it’s now Labour who are worried about being marginalised.

  • I think that this is a crucial set of suggestions. The third point in particular should be pursued relentlessly.

    The question is how one could start and then facilitate this kind of ‘crowd-sourced media presence’ or whatever you might want to call it. Because people are clearly responsible for taking action, but you’ll find it easier to harness people’s willingness to act if you provide them with tools to act effectively.

    Members and activists who want to get involved need a way of getting hold of crucial information quickly – within hours rather than days. If you really want an impact on stories like those (and there were several different ones) published about Chris Huhne recently, it’s crucial to have the facts (as the party sees them) and, where necessary, information about the legal background, too.

    You’d also have to find a way of letting people know about the most effective ways of registering their complaint in each case (apart from the usual stuff, such as letters to the editor) – e.g. let people know when writing to the Press Complaints Commission would make sense, and provide their contact details.

    We all lead busy lives – thus, I would guess that making it easier to get involved by providing crucial information (and the odd reminder saying: ‘get involved now… you could make a real difference if you do X, Y or Z within the next 24 hours’) could make a huge difference. I sincerely hope that the party has some kind of ‘rebuttal unit’, and I’d think that some of their time would be well spent to set up this kind of facility for activists willing to be involved in this manner.

  • Ed Maxfield 25th May '11 - 3:30pm

    Very good points (also from Guido).

  • I am being constructive here, so I would hope I am not automatically moderated again.

    I am shocked to find I am in agreement with Guido.

    Since the formation of the Coalition, any negativity justly or injustly thrown at the LDs has been met either with a trashing of the messenger or deafening silence. To me it seems as is many LDs don’t think they could ever be capable of doing something that someone would object to. I think among many LDs there is a collective feeling of invincibility and you are simply not used to people being *against* your actions or policies.

    When confronted with these negatives you, as a party, often do trash the messenger. Look at the way the Oldham East election turned out: the candidate ended up calling the entire area “bigots” or some such words. After the horrible election results earlier this month many LDs proceeded to not look inward and question themselves or policy, but blame and curse the voting public. Same thing with your unpopular policies such as the NHS reform: you don’t believe anyone could be against them so you end up telling us we “don’t understand them”.

    And that’s the thing: being a party of government, you are bound to anger people, bound to have people disagreeing and bound to lose votes from time to time. Smearing the public and calling us names doesn’t make us want to vote for you, it only pushes us away. Telling us we don’t understand policy, when we do, but just don’t like it, is childish as well.

    Also, you’d do well to come to terms with the millions of left-of-centre voters you’ve lost in the North of England and in Scotland. We are not all “Labour Trolls” as you seem to think. Most of us are simply decent left of centre people whose votes you courted, who hate what the Tories did to us in the 80s, and still hate the Tories. But then you tell us you no longer want us to vote for you when we complain about the policies you campaigned on which you’ve now dropped. This is childish as well.

  • David Allen 25th May '11 - 5:52pm

    Guido Fawkes said: “I can only think this is because of a self-perception that you yourselves and by extension your colleagues are morally superior political beings.”

    Call me naive if you like, but, in the good old days BC (Before Coalition), that was indeed my general preconception. Labour and Tory politicians were the people who had chosen the easy way to power by signing up to a large class-based party and advocating the vested interests of a particular group of voters, thereby making it easy to capture their votes. Lib Dems were the people who had chosen a harder way, because to them, moral and political principles were more important.

    Well, now that the Coalition has been born (watched over by Middle Eastern kings bearing gifts, perhaps?), and we move into the period AD (After Disaster), things look a little different. The principled and the idealistic are still there, but alongside them we see others who have reacted quite differently to their unexpected access to power, which has gone to their heads. The obvious transgressors are not the only problem. The more insidious damage is amongst those who relish doing Ministerial jobs, boast to themselves how well they are performing, and put to the backs of their minds the disquieting thought that they were not elected to implement Conservative policy programmes, whether competently or otherwise!

  • libertarian 25th May '11 - 8:14pm

    @David Allen

    Really ? I guess I dreamt Jabez Balfour,Lloyd George,Jeremy Thorpe & Norman Scott, Paddy Pantsdown, Simon Hughes, Mark Oaten, Charlie Kennedy and all those other fine moral upstanding, principled BC Liberal/Lib Dem politicians. You people ( political groupies) really do inhabit your own bubble don’t you.

  • Old Blue Eyes 25th May '11 - 8:48pm

    @libertarian

    Well said sir.

  • Laws played the sexuality card – it’s as simple as that. Imagine the position if he hadn’t been able to divert the argument from fiddling to homophobia. Many gay men know this and despise it.

  • @Herbert

    “Laws played the sexuality card – it’s as simple as that. Imagine the position if he hadn’t been able to divert the argument from fiddling to homophobia. Many gay men know this and despise it.”

    What on earth do you mean, he played the sexuality card? He felt he had to remain in the closet. With religious parents and a background in the conservative world of banking, is that so totally surprising? In retrospect, he was wrong, but I can’t help feeling that an awful lot of the condemnation he faces is because of people’s underlying feelings about gay politicians. He didn’t gain financially from the way he claimed (to repeat the obvious, had he been more open, he could have claimed much more for living expenses), so what other reason was there to do what he did?

    As a gay man, I can tell you that I despise the people who are determined to make Laws’ life hell for what he did. The same people who label him as a liar for concealing his sexual orientation are probably the same ones who blame gay people for ‘flaunting’ it at every opportunity. Basically they are damned if they are open about it and damned if they aren’t. With the level of prejudice that still remains, it is always a dilemma who to tell you are gay and who not to tell, simply because people always assume you are heterosexual unless explicitly told otherwise (unless you are screamingly camp). I think Laws new his life would be made hell if he was openly gay and his caution has been justified, frankly.

    The crucial moral point about Laws was the motivation. Was he motivated by trying to obtain more money than he was entitled to? The answer is no. Therefore I believe this sense of moral outrage that some people purport to express is driven by underlying prejudice and nothing else.

  • As for the main substance of the piece, I have to say I agree but I think there is a limited amount we can do via the conventional media because they are hopelessly biased against us. The Telegraph and the Mail are the worst offenders. What hope is there when their proprietors’ interests lie in the Liberal Democrats’ destruction?

    Guido Fawkes’ comment “You have to learn to roll with the punches not go into total denial,” just made me laugh. What about when your opponents are determined to punch you – and only you – to destruction, usually below the belt. The sustained media campaign to destroy Nick Clegg has not let up since the leaders’ debates last spring. It has been unrelenting. None of the other leaders has seen such a torrent of hatred and distorted reporting.

    What we need to do is to start pointing out the vested interests behind these newspapers: the Murdochs and the Barclay Brothers to explain to people why they have mounted this campaign of media violence. They feel threatened because finally there is a party in power which they do not own or control. That is why they are so vicious and determined. They are afraid that their cover might be blown and that the party they support – the Conservatives – will never wield total power again.

  • Tony Dawson 31st May '11 - 8:59pm

    I think Mark’s points are well-made – I would however suggest you look hard at the overall output of this site against those criteria.

    The other thing is you can be as wise and as clever as you like – it will o no good at all when certain individuals are trotting about like emperors in ‘new clothes’.

  • Tony Dawson 31st May '11 - 9:01pm

    I think Mark’s points are well-made – I would however suggest you look hard at the overall output of this site against those criteria.

    The other thing is you can be as wise and as clever as you like – it will do no good at all when certain individuals are trotting about like emperors in ‘new clothes’.

  • RC

    Therefore I believe this sense of moral outrage [about Laws] that some people purport to express is driven by underlying prejudice and nothing else...He didn’t gain financially from the way he claimed….

    No, mine and others moral outrage is driven by the fact that if Laws was not Laws but a benefit fiddler he would be facing a prison term rather than a ‘punishment’ dreamt up by his own club. I suggest you go back and read up what Laws actually did and how it could very reasonably be claimed that his partner did benefit financially from their cosy arrangements.

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