Lib Dems must stop being the tail end batter with all the kit

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I wasn’t very good at cricket when I was a youth.  But I could bowl and bat and field well enough that I was asked to join the senior 3rd and 4th teams when I was 14 or 15.

They were a friendly bunch who played for the love of the game.  We weren’t going to win the World Cup (nor even the local league).  The success of the team was in the values we shared with each other and the people we played against.

We were sporting also-rans, but one man evidently couldn’t accept that.  He was our number 11 batter.  While the rest of us showed up with a bag full of standard kit: whites, bat, pads, jockstrap and box, our number 11 was the best prepared player in the league.  He had a large coffin-style hold-all, replete with at least two bats, changes of whites (all club branded, of course), alternative pads for all parts of his body, a helmet, a spare helmet, a few hats, plenty of sun cream options and even changes of sunglasses.

There was only one problem: he very rarely got to bat for any length of time.  And when he did, he was more preoccupied by his own kit than the reason he was standing at the crease.

He presumably thought people were impressed by all his kit.  In reality, his teammates ribbed him gently, while his opponents and anyone else watching on wondered why on earth he bothered.

It may not be obvious how this relates directly to Liberal Democrat politics, but bear with me.

There’s no doubt that one of our party’s strengths is empowering members to get involved in policy.  But the approach we take in doing that reduces our political status to that of a village cricket number 11 batter with ludicrous amounts of kit.

We put huge resources and preparation into the detail of our policies.  Many clever people spend a long time pondering complex matters.  Everything is always costed and deliverable.  We make very sensible suggestions based on evidence.

But then when it comes to an election, our costed and deliverable policies become about as useful as my former teammate’s inner thigh guard.  Because everybody knows that while we are on the ballot paper and quite a lot might like what we stand for in the broadest sense, we aren’t going to be in charge of the government.

The amount of time we spend debating the intricate details of our policies may be an interesting intellectual exercise.  But it is also an act of self-deception – just like the £300 cricket bat my former teammate used to wield on his way to getting another duck.

Worse than that, our approach makes us less likely to trouble the scorers.  The fact that the detail behind our message is reliant on costed and deliverable policy almost always makes it more difficult to persuade people that we are worth voting for.  Pitching ourselves as the people who can solve a detailed governmental problem is pointless if people know we aren’t going to be in charge of the government.

We certainly can impact things by influencing the debate.  We certainly can make a positive difference in British politics.  Our MPs make a difference to their communities every day.  But when we aren’t going to be running the government anytime soon, we won’t be more successful in electing more liberals by having more ‘ready for government’ costed and deliverable policies.  And it certainly won’t happen if our convoluted policymaking process finds the middle ground between Labour and the Conservatives on key matters like the economy, health and climate policy.

As we move towards the fevered policy debates in Spring conference season, we ought to take time to consider whether we want to continue being the number 11 batsman with the expensive kit.

* Max Wilkinson is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Cheltenham. He’s also a local councillor and cabinet member for economic development, tourism, culture and wellbeing.

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15 Comments

  • Paul Barker 15th Jan '21 - 4:35pm

    Fair point.

  • I agree. Our party should develop policies on no more than 5 themes and then work on the best possible presentation. Often the problem is not what we say but rather that we say nothing. Things must change and quickly.

  • Steve Trevethan 15th Jan '21 - 5:56pm

    Nice metaphor!
    As an experienced 11, with somewhat crummy kit, my advice is to attack!
    Double digit batting gives the power of freedom from complex expectations.
    Might we do some attention catching stuff like shouting for decent pay for N.H.S. and other essential workers and voicing support for Assange J. who has been the victim of some naff and nasty umpiring?

  • Michael Sammon 16th Jan '21 - 1:36am

    Good point. I have wondered if instead of the smörgåsbord of policies combined from different conferences, we should start a fresh slate of new policies with a more defined scope for 2021.

  • Sadly we are not even a part of the national conversation at the moment. Top priority should be to identify 3 or 4 clearly articulated policies that strongly reflect our values and that will resonate with voters and get us in the conversation. And they have to be on mainstream issues. That means COVID, poverty, dealing with the fallout from Brexit etc. Not China’s treatment of Uighurs, our views on Julian Assange etc. which, however important, will just reinforce public perceptions that we are a fringe party with no credible policies on the issues that concern 99% of the electorate.

  • I sincerely hope that sooner or later more people will come to realise what a completely incompetent self serving government we have at present, therefore the Lib Dems must continue to highlight and attack the many areas where they have shown to be so deficient from the pandemic, Brexit and so many other areas of our lives! I live in hope

  • Excellent article. As I have said before (many times), as far as most people (and the media) view us, we are irrelevant to their needs, and nothing we have said or done in the last five years (except Brexit, our one hope which has now gone) has had any effect on that view.

    We are a small party with next to no parliamentary presence, and all the great policy ideas being pushed on LDV will not change that fundamental. We need to prove to people, once again, that we are capable of delivering what they want and need now, not what we would like them to want, nor what would only be delivered when we could form a Lib Dem government some time in the future.

    Ultimately we need to look at what is successful, and that means being prepared to learn from, those who are successful – our few MPs who get elected time and again, and our councillors who do the same at a smaller but equally vital level. Because they are the only ones doing anything that actually delivers on building and safeguarding that fair free and open society.

    Debating earnestly the positive effect of policy X and repeatedly telling each other how good it would be if only we could win an election, will get us nowhere, because that election win is not only not coming, it edging ever further away as we type.

    We have to show people we are relevant to what they want and need, so that when local elections do return, we actually have a chance of winning them. That means every local party making sure it has at least one candidate (and in most cases several) where all local efforts are focussed to make a gain or defend a difficult seat.

    From South Lakeland to South West London, St Albans to St Neots and Colchester to Copeland we need to make ourselves relevant once again, and delivering a leaflet is the right start.

  • John Roffey 17th Jan '21 - 9:08am

    This is an extremely valuable article in context of the Party’s future – which, at present, seems far from assured!

    Two articles demonstrate how careful costing of policies can undermine good policy choices. Having climate change as the first highlighted in the 2019 manifesto appears a sound decision – since it is difficult to imagine many potential Liberal Democrat voters being climate change deniers. However, the carefully listed costed actions to be taken removed the passion included in:

    From the BBC 02/12/2020 – Humans waging ‘suicidal war’ on nature – UN chief Antonio Guterres

    From the Guardian 13/01/2021 – Top scientists warn of ‘ghastly future of mass extinction’ and climate disruption

    Both of these articles highlight the risks taken if a significant reduction of CO2 emissions is not achieved by 2030. Given that the, currently increasing, emissions cannot be reversed overnight – a lag of at least a few years is locked in even if the largest emitters are eager participants at COP21 – still it is far from certain that temperature rises will not hit a tipping point which would result in the extinction of many species including humankind.

    Without portraying this drama when presenting the policy much is lost, including what use will any cash saved – by careful costing – be to our children and grandchildren facing the extinction of our species?

    Links:

    BBC 02/12/2020 – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-55147647

    Guardian 13/01/2021 – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/13/top-scientists-warn-of-ghastly-future-of-mass-extinction-and-climate-disruption-aoe

  • Since The Covid Crisis “began” in the Spring we have been absolutely steady on 7%, the reasons are pretty plain. Politics, as far as it exists at all has been dominated by Covid with a small side-order of Brexit. Parties that happen to be in Power at Westminster or National level get a boost, Main Opposition Parties hardly get a look-in, “Other” Parties get completely ignored. Local Elections & By-elections have been largely suspended.

    It looks like this will continue until the 1st Stage of the Covid Crisis is “over”, maybe in The Summer or Autumn.
    We are not going to get a real idea of where we are as a Party until The Local Elections are held in May, June or September. If You are an active Member then stop worrying & keep campaigning.

  • Paul – I am not a member of the Party – so I am not worried about the Party’s future. However, it is important that there is a strong third UK/GB party to keep the two main parties on their toes.

    Presently the Lib/Dems are the most likely to fill that role – my comments were aimed at addressing this issue – for if the Party does not find a successful formula for growth once the Covid crisis has diminished – one of the other smaller parties almost certainly will.

  • A good metaphor and an excellent point.

    Doing something time and again even though it always fails meets a popular definition of insanity. Does anyone expect a different result if we rinse and repeat yet again?

    For years we have sweated the small stuff, doing detailed policy work such as attempting to work out to the nearest penny how to apportion benefits or whatever. And worse, this has mostly been built on a tacit acceptance of Tory memes with too little effort put into a *Liberal* understanding of what made those benefits necessary in the first place.

    In fact, the Conservatives don’t have a clue how the economy works which is why the wheels are coming off the Brexit deal so fast; the fishing industry is in meltdown with others not far behind.

    So, rather than the traditional working up of siloed policies that never work politically, why not focus on strategic objectives and then hammer them hard? We should choose things that matter to people so new thinking resonates.

    One *strategic objective* is to work out how to cut government bloat or, if you prefer, improve governance (there’s a big overlap). Obese organisations just don’t work effectively plus they are unaffordable. But we DO need good administration, or the best government will fail. Most know this already so it’s pushing on an open door.

    Moreover, the cost of Brexit red tape means living standards will fall unless costs can be cut elsewhere. Tories will always cut wages but that’s wrong; good wages are the objective – it should be waste and inefficiency that go. And there’s plenty of that to cut starting with crony procurement in PPE.

    Another *strategic objective* must be building internationally competitive manufacturing. Again, most people instinctively know this is important, especially now the Tories have screwed our key service exports, fishing and more.

    This differs from recent Lib Dem preoccupations and might seem odd to those with a public sector or charity etc background. But it’s important because manufacturing depends on a healthy ecosystem and, like the canary in the coalmine, only thrives when the environment (read ‘human environment’) is healthy. That is why it has fallen so far under Tory dominance. Manufacturing works only when pay is fair and training, infrastructure and much more are right.

  • John Littler 17th Jan '21 - 7:11pm

    In this day and age, to grab people’s attention among the populists you have to be harder hitting.
    Long detailed policies are not what the public want, even if they exist.
    Respectful, polite leaflets might be to the taste of many members but they will often not even get read.

    People are so brainwashed by the tabloids in many cases, they often cannot see what is going wrong with this appalling nationalistic government and they need to have the waste, incompetence, severe corruption through contracting and excess lives lost ( more than 3 times that of larger Germany, spelled out to them.

    Since the UK is a set of Islands, it could have keep the disease largely out, as have Australia, NZ, Taiwan and Newfoundland

    The public reacted to money savings headlines for the No2AV campaign and Leave Campaign. That works and we should turn it on the Tories

  • John Littler 17th Jan '21 - 7:32pm

    We should focus on the industries now in trouble through Brexit and on the jobs lost, tax revenues lost , destruction of the High Street to a point. A few points. The boot should spare nothing!

    Manufacturing leaving the UK, shrinking and with loss of car models and shifts, e.g Honda, Sony, Panasonic, Philips Dyson etc all leaving the UK. Nissan, Toyota, Ford and Vauxhall all having just shrunk

    Services, including Finance lost to Frankfurt where a boom has taken place, also Dublin, Paris and Lux

    Fishing and the movement of animals such as pets no longer viable

    Farming unable to get the 70,000 seasonal workers it needs with crops rotting in fields because of expensive, slow bureaucratic work permits and restrictions, making UK local food harder to obtain

    Loss of rights to pensions, benefits, free education and hospital care on the continent

    The slow lane at airports

    The loss of rights to free roaming of Mobile Phones

    Duplication of 40 Industry bodies previously covered by EU needed costing many
    billions

    Customs IT system needed at a cost of £16bn and it may not work, nor is it ready for 4 years

    New paperwork for firms costed by Treasury at £7bn p.a , equal to total EU fees

    50,000 extra Customs Staff needed
    50,000 extra private sector Clearance staff needed
    25,000 extra Civil Servants needed

    Lorry Parks needed near ports with more pollution and eyesores

    Charges being levied on UK retailer exports to Europe making them uncompetitive. M&S & Debenhams having stopped exports. Other EU based firms will stop supplying UK people

    Deeper recession this year and long term growth reduced, with a prediction that France will push the UK into 7th place on GDP, only just inside the G7, the world’s economic top table.

    That means less jobs, less money for schools, hospitals, council services such as Libraries, Police, Fire & Rescue or for Care Services and less educational or working opportunities

  • Christine Headley 20th Jan '21 - 12:41am

    We were able to dust down policy languishing under the spare helmet and Steve Smith’s hundredth pair of gloves to use in the coalition. Who knows what will happen in 2024? What goes down may go up! Did you expect India to win this morning, remembering their 36 all out a few weeks ago?
    I remember sitting in the conference hall after the vote on privatising Royal Mail and being glad that we wouldn’t be in a position to achieve it. Except we were…..

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