Learning the lessons from last week #1: The missing policies

Aside from the major changes in tax rates (such as income tax allowances up, capital gains tax brought much closer to income tax levels, cuts in tax breaks for the richest on pension contributions), one of the most significant economic policies that the Liberal Democrats have brought to government is the massive expansion of apprenticeships.

With Vince Cable overseeing the creation of a minimum of 250,000 more apprenticeship places by 2014, the number will be at record levels – and should bring three major benefits.

First, they are good for the apprentices, giving people the opportunity to learn skills which help them escape low-paid poverty.

Second, they are good for British businesses, which often complain about the shortage of skilled labour – so much so that we’ve seen the large influx of skilled workers from other countries because skills couldn’t be found in Britain.

Third, they are good for the government’s own finances. According to a recent study arried out by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, for each pound that the government invests in apprenticeship jobs, apprentices generate a return for the government of £40 during their lifetime.

Vince Cable speakingThat leads to a political conundrum for this should be an extremely popular policy, both in its own right and because –as I reported previously – the public highly values ‘fairness’ from political parties and view reducing unemployment as one of the best ways of increasing fairness in our society.

Yet I wonder how many Liberal Democrat members, let alone voters, are aware of this? Doing some straw polls of Liberal Democrat members at various events over the weekend, the answer looks to be a minority even amongst activists. Looking through leaflets from last Thursday’s elections, this policy is certainly a hard one to find (although, to give due credit, I have seen it mentioned in several emails).

So whilst I’m instinctively sceptical of people who react to a poor election result by saying ‘we’ve just got to explain better’, I think there is an important point about the big gaps in how our achievements in government are being communicated, both internally and externally.

I’d much rather have turned out to be wrong, but it looks as if at least one of the “Liberal Democrat challenges for 2011” which I identified at the start of the year was spot on:

The trickier question … is whether a collection of liberal victories scattered through government will add up to a convincing overall picture for the public of what Liberal Democrats have achieved in government. The danger is that, rather like a good speech writer, the party may end up making many significant changes to government, improving what is being done, but whose good work is not noticed by the public as it is behind the scenes.

It’s not as if Liberal Democrat achievements are few and far between. With three-quarters of the Liberal Democrat manifesto being enacted by the government, there is a huge list of them. But turning that list into a coherent, simple and compelling story of what the party is about has not yet been managed.

One reason for that is that we have co-opted the language of others rather than staking out our own ground; but more on that later in the week.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Excellent Article Mark

    It shows that despite the problems the government faces at the present time the Liberal Democrats are trying to improve the employment prospects for young people.

  • You can’t spin your way out of this one, Mark.

    #”So whilst I’m instinctively sceptical of people who react to a poor election result by saying ‘we’ve just got to explain better’,
    – eeer, that’s exactly what Mr Clegg has been saying on the airwaves!

    #I think there is an important point about the big gaps in how our achievements in government are being communicated, both internally and externally
    – what? the very thing that you’re sceptical about! Shome mishtake surely?

    Wake up! It’s not about the communication. Mr Clegg was walking on water during the Cleggmania high-tide. The public understands and are not happy with the Lib Dems.

  • I am not sure that telling people about our achievements will swing them our way. As far as most voters are concerned we are supporting an extreme right wing Government, which is not what we were expected to do. Of course the Tory vote remained steady they are doing what their supporters expected and however we spin our influence we are not doing what our supporters thought we would do.

  • LondonLiberal 9th May '11 - 10:00am


    better and more explanation is fine, but if that is what you think the cause of last Thursday’s meltdown was, you’re sorely mistaken. Us liberals woudl love to thinkt hat people look at shopping lists fo policies at electionsa nd plump for thebest lookign one, but the reality is that most people go ojnt he basis of gut instinct and the odd caught bit of news here and there. And the basis of their vote against us, in Scotland and the North at least, was our alignment with the Tories. I daresay we could give everyone in sheffield a million quid each and they’d still call us Tory scum.

  • Apprenticeships? Can’t see it being a vote-winner. It is a myth trotted out on the internet on a regular basis that a plumbing/electrician etc apprenticeship is a golden route to employment, but it is rarely true. And it is a poor man’s substitute for really taking on the boomer generation who have run riot in this country over the past 20 years.

    The stark reality is something like this – at the 2010 election, Clegg talked about influence, where confluence would have been a better description. It may very well be that parts of the Lib Dem manifesto are being implemented (though, of course, that is not to say that those ideas were all unique to the Lib Dem party). However this Coalition has gone off in a direction that is very, very Conservative. It is, of course, true to say that with a ratio of about 1:6, this is hardly surprising. But the influence that an awful lot of people thought that they were voting for just isn’t there.

    I think that the problem is that an awful lot of people are very aware of the Lib Dems and what they have brought to government. Not influence, but confluence. They are also quite aware of the ‘sacrifices’ and the situation the party found themselves in. You can communicate/spin it all you like – it is not the point.

    Big question now is how far is Cameron prepared to throw Andrew Lansley to the wolves? If he does, perhaps he does think his position is weak. If he does not, prepare for a snap election.

  • Martin Land 9th May '11 - 10:51am

    Mark, you are trying to be rational and intelligent. Last Thursday was about the tribal and the visceral hatred of an individual. No attempts to justify the position we are in are going to work in the face of the irrational.

  • Martin Land’s opinion typifies the problem. Absolutely zero understanding of where most Lib Dem votes came from in the past – ie voters who actually believed that line about “voting Lib Dem would keep the Tories out” or “the left-wing alternative to Labour”. Believe me Martin this is not just about Clegg, it’s about the Lib Dems as a party saying one thing and doing another. They’re even at it again this morning, trying to disown the NHS proposals so enthusiastically endorsed by Clegg, Cable, Alexander etc just months ago.

    As for your “tribal” and “irrational” jibes – do you seriously think that Insulting the voters is going to help win back their votes?

    Well good luck with that.

  • here’s a samll analagy for those in the Lib Dems putting their head in the sand and saying ‘ we need to sell our message better’ or ‘the right wing press hates us’ or ‘its all just a personal thing against Nick’ or ‘when things improve voters will thank us’……

    The other day I was really thirsty so before jumping on the train I popped into a well known store in St Pancras station. The cost of my snacks, newspaper and water was higher than expected so i queried it with the check out guy. It turned out that the cheapest bottle of water was £1.79 for 500ml. Much I was thirsty I decided this was just too expensive so gave it back and asked for a refund. I refused to pay on point of principle and went without til I got home.

    Before the last election I voted Liberal Democrat. It doesn’t matter what percentage of your manifesto is enacted whilst the price is the propping up of a Thatcherite government; the price is simply too high and I wish i could take my vote back. Unfortunately there are no voting refunds. But just as I won’t be buying water from the shop in question again so I will also avoid voting Lib Dem for some considerable time.

    – More apprenticeships sir? Oh yes please.
    – That will come at the cost of destroying the NHS and the marketisation of public services.
    – Oh no thanks then.

    Take your head out of the sand. The voters may be happy that you introduce some policies but you won’t be forgiven for the price that we’ve had to pay for them. What you have delivered just isn’t worth it. That is why you didn’t receive a higher share of the vote on thursday and I’m sorry to say (as i have close ties to the Lib Dems and value a strong third party in British parliament) this will remain the case for quite some time yet…..

  • Oh dear. Has it occurred to you, Mark, that maybe the public are aware of the Lib Dem achievements and voted accordingly? It seems the only people who like what you’ve done in government are the Orange Book part of your core vote. Witness the, almost certainly permanent, wipe out in Scotland. A centre-left alternative was available, and it was taken. You should be worried that Ed Miliband and Labour rediscover their mojo, because once they start offering achievable centre-left policies that will be the end of the Lib Dems. You’ll be an annexe of the Tories.

  • Steve Hicks 9th May '11 - 2:36pm

    It’s time we followed the lead of Andrew George, Lib Dem MP on the Health Select Committee, and called for Andrew Lansley’s Health Bill to be scrapped. The party needs to be seen to have some backbone, and this issue is key to our electoral success. Fail this test now and tuition fees will be a kin to a midgey bite:

    St Ives MP, Andrew George today on NHS reform: http://stiveslibdems.com/andrew-george-mp/andrew-george-mp-says-nhs-reform-better-start-afresh/

  • I think it’s clear that we have to find a way of presenting our achievements in government – this is true whatever your analysis of the election defeat last week might be (including the ones offered by posters in this thread).

    But we have to find a better way of doing that. Over and over again high profile politicians trot out the list. I have done so, too, (somewhat sheepishly) on the doorstep. But we can repeat the list as often as we want, it doesn’t work if there isn’t a tangible sense that it’s true. And at the moment, the cuts and everything else are just covering some of the good things this government is doing.

    In any case, whatever happens, there has to be a better way of presenting those bullet points with which we are all becoming so familiar. On a local and personal level, we’ll have to find a way of showing people what the tangible changes are… the headlines alone simply won’t work.

  • Stuart Mitchell 9th May '11 - 5:28pm

    The Tory manifesto promised to create “400,000 work pairing, apprenticeship, college and training places over two years”.

    The Lib Dem manifesto promised no new apprenticeships at all as far as I can see (save for a throwaway reference to a new farming apprenticeship).

    So how do you arrive at the conclusion that the increase in apprenticeships is “one of the most significant economic policies that the Liberal Democrats have brought to government”?

  • @Martin Land:

    So me, a disabled person who can work but is worried about other disabled people (and the welfare state for when I need it) and the attacks on the NHS are being “irrational”? Your MP promised me he would fight for these things if re-elected. So why did he then decide not to fight for these things upon the formation of the coalition? Why did he suddenly think Tory welfare cuts and NHS changes were good ideas? And I’m “irrational” for being angry because my MP reneged on promises like tuition fees and the NHS?! Seriously?!

    My god there are no words for this continuing arrogance.

  • Sorry for another comment, but @Martin Land’s labeling of people like me as “irrational” really gets me.

    He says “Last Thursday was about the tribal and the visceral hatred of an individual.”

    How wrong you are. Last Thursday, for me, was about principles and the visceral hatred of the right-wing, anti-NHS, anti-disabled, pro-banker, and anti-student policies you’ve now adopted. I am a social democrat; your MP campaigned on a social democratic platform. Your national campaign was to the left of Labour. If your MP is going to go back on what he said he would and would not support (coalition or not, I assumed the LDs would have safety of the NHS as one of their red lines in negotiations, for example) then I will withdraw my vote and give it to someone else.

    That’s democracy. You can’t break personal pledges and then blame the electorate (or call said electorate “irrational”) for rejecting you after you broke those promises.

    Grow up and stop acting like New Labour circa 2005. It’s unbecoming and rather pathetic for a supposed “party of government”.

  • Barry George 10th May '11 - 12:18am

    I think I know why my last comment fell afoul of the moderation filter so I have removed what I think was the offending phrase and posted this again….

    muxloe said…

    Before the last election I voted Liberal Democrat. It doesn’t matter what percentage of your manifesto is enacted whilst the price is the propping up of a Thatcherite government; the price is simply too high

    Yes it really is that simple. To believe that the poor rating of the party is about failure to communicate would be naive.

    The voters hear us loud and clear. They hear everything we say, they just aren’t going to listen.

    Unfortunately there is nothing we can say that negates the fact that we are propping up a Tory Government. That alone means that you can shout as loud as you like.. Nobody is listening…

    G said

    maybe the public are aware of the Lib Dem achievements and voted accordingly?

    Exactly, people are acutely aware of what the Lib Dems have done in government and they don’t care a jot.

    We are propping up a Tory Government. We can say anything we like; we could as LondonLiberal said…

    give everyone in sheffield a million quid each and they’d still call us Tory scum

    The broken pledge about tuition fees matter to students and they are angry…
    The welfare cuts matter to the sick , uneployed and disabled and they are angry…
    The inferred U-turn on the rise in VAT has made a lot of people angry…

    But none of this is relevant, it is merely a side show, as it all pails into insignificance to the fact that we are propping up a Thatcherite Government.

    Unless you are a Tory, Most people (the real progressive majority) despise the Tories. They couldn’t even win an outright majority after the illegal Iraq war, a worldwide recession and an economic mess.

    Even after all that the British public wouldn’t give them the keys to Downing Street. They gave them 307 Mp’s which by precedence actually gave Gordon Brown the first chance to form a government.

    It was the moment of betrayal. The moment when senior Lib Dems went into a private room and decided to abandon our manifesto commitments and pledges (the very reason we got the votes we did) in favour of a coalition agreement that the public neither voted for nor were consulted on…

    That was when everyone stopped listening to us.

    We said the economic crisis required it. But if the public actually believed that to be true they would have given the Tories the 326 seats they needed to put the economy right…

    They didn’t

    We did…

    So shout as loud as you want that Labour left a big financial dog poo in the garden, nobody is listening…
    Shout as loud as you want that we had no choice but to enter a coalition, when the Party came third and had absolutely no consent from the electorate to negotiate with the Tories. It matters not because nobody is listening.

    Shout it from the rooftops that we are getting 75 % of our manifesto through government.. Nobody cares..

    The only words that will get real people considering us as an viable party to vote for is “We are leaving this coalition”

    Every other combination of words or polices you can dream of will be pointless until then…

    The Public can hear us perfectly well.. They are just not listening…

    As for the recent trend on LDV with some commenters calling the voters ‘stupid’ and ‘irrational’ ,

    Yeah that really helps !

    Clegg has already ensured that we have lost the floating left wing votes.. he doesn’t want them
    We have ensured that we have lost the student vote…
    We have certainly lost the Anti Tory vote for at least a generation..

    So what few potential supporters we have left would probably prefer it if we didn’t go round insulting them..

    Just a thought…

  • Kevin Colwill 10th May '11 - 1:28am

    @Martin Land… I’ve stopped wanting to kick Nick Clegg for going into coalition and started kicking myself for voting Lib Dem last year. So I guess I’ve become more rational and less visceral but it still ain’t doing your party much good!

  • @ Martin Land

    Totally agree. You are 100% spot on. Not just primitive tribalism and personal scapegoating of Clegg, but also a triumph of money and power (press power) over rational debate. I was utterly sickened to the core by what happened last Thursday. It demonstrated very clearly to me what fetid, putrefying organisations both the Tory party and Labour are. In particular, the Tories’ naked lust for power and their desire to trample over everyone else to achieve it were shown red in tooth and claw.

    We are paying the price for the sins of the other two parties: Labour’s ruination of our public finances and the Tories’ refusal to raise taxes sufficiently to avoid massive cuts.

    The only choice is to talk about what we are doing, time and time again, in the hope that once the economy gains momentum and living standards start improving (which they will), there is less free-floating anger which means voters have less reason to lash out at the nearest political hate figure they can lay their hands on.

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