Opinion: Ideas or leaflets?

Something that stays with me from Monday’s East Midlands leadership hustings was Tim Farron saying that under him, our arms would ache with the quantity of leaflets we have delivered, while Norman Lamb pointed out that our pounding at the polls was not through any lack of leaflets, and that he wanted us to do more to stimulate liberal ideas, as the party had done in Jo Grimond’s time.

I shouldn’t over-do the contrast: more activists deliver leaflets than write articles, so maybe Tim was right to focus there at a hustings for party members. But if we are to hit above our weight, we need to be coming up with the game-changing ideas which are then taken up elsewhere.

A shocking article a few months back in the Cambridge Evening News showed someone surrounded by all the election leaflets they had received (from all parties), and suggested that the deluge was a form of harassment.

Leaflets matter, but there has to be something of value behind the slogans and sound bites. We need to be more than Labour-lite and Tory-lite.

Kirsten Johnson said something along these lines on Lib Dem Voice a few weeks back, suggesting that we need to be on a y-axis and not just on the same plane as Labour and the Conservatives.

Our history and mindset does enable us to take up a creative space that is distinct. Bringing that to the fore is vital. In hindsight, perhaps one of our failures in the last election was to be too focused on what we might bring to a coalition, probably with a much harder negotiation because we would have fewer MPs, so we held back from things that were truly distinctive.

Here are just a few possibilities:

  • Taxation: is it about “the rich” versus “the poor”, or “wealth re-distribution” versus “trickle-down”? What we are lacking is the voice that says a good taxation system is about generating opportunities which are good for everyone. The familiar language is rooted in past class rivalry, not future possibility. Not being “enslaved by poverty” goes in a rather different direction of opportunity and possibility — at the very least, it is about improving people’s lives without attacking those who have been more successful or fortunate. Pushing that home, Nick Tyrone’s analysis of a recent opinion poll suggests Labour have a big problem for 2020, losing to UKIP the traditional supporters who feel trapped and fear the alien, and to the Tories those who aspire to more. There are interesting possibilities if we can reframe the debate.
  • Europe: Nick Clegg’s linguistic skills made a very positive impression on our European partners. In the European Parliament our MEPs have made a very rich contribution — it is a major loss for the Parliament to have them replaced by members of UKIP whose saving grace is their poor attendance record. Can we shift the debate from “Euromyths” to showing the real understanding we have of the value of the EU?
  • NHS: We’re used to arguments about lack of resources, to rumours of privatisation, and, on a good day, to the need to include social care. Norman Lamb has been making good points about the need for cross-party support for changes, to stop new government’s gratuitously tinkering with the NHS. But where is the bigger debate about increased life expectancies and new treatments, which are both good but push up costs? Housing and transport are also affected by people living longer. Can we do the big thinking that explores how these relate — not as covert cost-cutting or tax rises, but as a way of celebrating the positives and working out how to pay for them?
  • Immigration: Can we explore the value of migration, which is something richer than fearing the alien or pushing for an open-ness that gets dismissed as naive? At the very least, the internationalist instincts of the Liberal Democrats offer a way to talk of migration as improving international connectedness, from which we all stand to gain.
  • Climate change: As others either scare-monger or bury their heads in the sands, can we explore the value of moving to a zero carbon economy? That is about being responsible over CO2 emissions, but is also about living in a sustainable balance with nature, conserving petrochemicals for uses where they are needed, and being at the forefront of developing renewable energy.

Some leafleting is vital, but we also need the creative thinking which engages on other levels, and can enable us to punch well above our weight. I want to find myself looking in The Economist, The Guardian and The Independent and seeing Liberal Democrats quoted as sources of the ideas we are being encouraged to take up.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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  • Liberal Neil 12th Jul '15 - 11:34am

    I see no contradiction between the two. We need both.

  • George Potter 12th Jul '15 - 11:58am

    Why not both?

  • Michael Berridge 12th Jul '15 - 12:35pm

    Well said, Mark, let’s get off the Left-Right axis. One more point: can we treat organic food as good for the soil and good for us, not a lifestyle choice for the rich or a potty idea for health cranks? I regret to say that I know no other Lib Dems who eat a diet based on organic produce.

  • Daddy or chips? As Neil and George say: why not both?

  • I agree with the thrust of this article. You can have both, but we’ve certainly over-leafleted in this area in the past and haven’t done enough to demonstrate we have clear, cohesive ideas.

  • Tim wants both. Silly article…..

  • I’ve heard Tim make this same comment before and he generally says it in a wider context, which you haven’t given here. His point being that leaflet delivery is just one of the things we need.
    It’s such a mistake to paint this contest as ‘Tim is all campaigning, Norman is all policy.” They are both much more rounded than that, and whoever wins they will both have a big part to play. For me, Tim edges it, but its totally wrong to reduce it to a false choice between ‘campaigning’ v ‘ideas’.

  • Tony Dawson 12th Jul '15 - 7:29pm

    This article muddles up two separate matters: what we should be communicating and how we should communicate it.

    The ‘what’ bit has certain things going for parts of it,the ‘how’ however, shows a serious naivety which cannot be ignored.

    While it certainly needs supplementing with all sorts of modern techniques, to reach all demographics, and people who have only recently moved in or who do not otherwise have contact details available comprehensive leafleting is a mus. Moreover, it needs to be leafleting with honest trustworthy and pertinent messages laid out in a way which is attractive enough to the reader to keep their attention – NOT formulaic twaddle.

  • Sammy O'Neill 13th Jul '15 - 2:57am

    If the Lib Dems adopt a ruthless campaign focusing on the positives of immigration, praising the EU and demanding an immediate shift to a low carbon economy (funded by the taxpayer of course) then we won’t have 8 MP’s left, we’ll have about 2 if we’re lucky. It’s not really possible to be more out of touch with majority public opinion if you tried.

    One point I would add is that the party needs to get better at leafleting and canvassing in different languages in constituencies where the non-UK born population is very high. In my particular neck of London both Labour and the Tories have begun doing this, the Lib Dems have not because the local party bigwigs don’t seem to properly understand the demographics of the area. The game has changed, but the thinking hasn’t.

  • Richard Sangster 13th Jul '15 - 9:14am

    We should be promoting a Liberal-Conservative Axis. I would suggest that Labour would sit towards the conservative end of such an axis.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Jul '15 - 11:03am

    I suggest reading John Harris’s article in today’s Guardian, on-line here.

    To me it is saying that there is a great big hole in British politics, which we could be filling. Indeed it was my seeing that hole, then not so big, back in the 1970s, and thinking then that the Liberal Party could full it that led to my involvement in the party, and is what has kept me in it ever since.

    I grew up in a working class part of the south of England, and the attitudes which John Harris observes are now common in what were once Labour’s heartland were already in place in working class people where I grew up back then. That is, Labour and the Conservatives were seen as equally alien, both groups of distant people who are to be despised because they have no idea about the life of ordinary people and no care for them either, and just want to take power and rule over them. It’s not that southern working class people voted Conservative because they liked the right-wing politics and attitudes of the Conservatives. Rather, it’s that they supposed ALL politicians were like that, but if anything Labour was even more detached from reality as it seemed to consist of intellectual dreamer types who were involved in politics because of their own hang-ups.

    The reason this was seen in the south before the north is that the south didn’t have the Trade Union and heavy industry culture of the north which was the thing driving Labour’s committed support. But now it’s seen everywhere due to the collapse of industry and trade unions and the culture built up around them.

    I am sorry if people here don’t like the phrase “working class”, but the reality is that social divisions and inequality in wealth and income have become much greater since those days. So we now have a society which is much more class divided than it was in the days when that was more what politics was about.

    What the Liberals did in the 1970s and afterwards in the south was to re-establish the idea of democracy, the idea that you didn’t have to accept the political establishment, that you COULD change things through the ballot box. That is how the Liberal Democrats came to be the main opposition to the Tories across much of the south – until it was all wrecked following 2010.

    Why is no-one talking about re-establishing that, in the north now as well as the south?

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Jul '15 - 11:20am

    Mark Argent

    Norman Lamb pointed out that our pounding at the polls was not through any lack of leaflets, and that he wanted us to do more to stimulate liberal ideas, as the party had done in Jo Grimond’s time.

    Ok, but the problem is that when people say things like that these days, so often they seem to use it to mean adopting the economics of the Conservative Party in an even more extreme form, and searching for a few little old-style small-c conservative hang-ups they can make a big thing out of being against so they can say “See? We are not Tories”. Well, isn’t that just the image that the Liberal Democrats put out about themselves 2010-2015, and where did that get us?

    The idea that the biggest, and sometimes only, barrier to freedom is the state and the taxation it imposes has been pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed, mostly by people who have a vested interest in that sort of viewpoint (i.e. the very wealthy), but also by many naive people who are looking for a simplistic ideology that seems to be an answer to all problems.

    I think the biggest true liberal question now is “Why hasn’t decades of that sort of thinking led to a society where people feel free?”. Just as in the 1960s and 1970s, it was quite right to question the assumption that “progress” inevitably meant a move towards a more centrally planned and socialist society, isn’t it now right to question the assumptions that have dominated political thought from the 1980s onwards, about how markets are always the best way to provide services, and anyone who disagrees with that is just a “protest politics” person trying to “turn the clock back” and so should be ignored.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Jul '15 - 11:48am

    Labour are currently in turmoil over what their interim leader said on tv on Sunday.

  • @Matthew Huntbach “The idea that the biggest, and sometimes only, barrier to freedom is the state and the taxation it imposes has been pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed, mostly by people who have a vested interest in that sort of viewpoint (i.e. the very wealthy), but also by many naive people who are looking for a simplistic ideology that seems to be an answer to all problems.”

    Matthew again you’re pushing the tired old canard that Economic Liberals believe in no role for the state and an unfettered market for everything. It’s simply not true – you’re an intelligent man and you know this so please stop with the straw men.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Jul '15 - 12:59pm


    It’s not that southern working class people voted Conservative because they liked the right-wing politics and attitudes of the Conservatives. Rather, it’s that they supposed ALL politicians were like that, but if anything Labour was even more detached from reality

    As I said, the attitudes that I once saw as “southern” are now universal in this country, that’s what John Harris was saying. The Liberal build-up in the south, which won us seats like Lewes and Eastbourne, and at one point looked like it might win us many others where we had already won power in local government, often started off in the poorer parts, the wards that might have returned Labour councillors had there still been a functioning and relevant Labour Party in the area. It did not involve the thought pattern “Ooh, people round here don’t like Labour, so we’d better adopt Conservative economic policies”.

    Now we see the Labour Party rushing to move to the political right, feeling that it lost the last election because people believed it was too left wing. Well, that just shows how very much out of touch they are.

  • Martin Hunt 13th Jul '15 - 1:57pm

    Leaflets are great if they say something sensible. Many of the ones we put out in the General Election under direction from those above us were total rubbish. As for the amount delivered, on one particular week during a horrendously long campaign which turned most people off, I realised I was putting either leaflet or letter through the same doors the third time that week. I stopped and went home.

  • sally haynes-preece 14th Jul '15 - 10:02pm

    I am not going to debate policies but focus on the practical. I threw away almost all of the election leaflets that arrived through my door….and as I contributed to the mounds of leaflets and blue letters that were going to land on other peoples doormats, I wondered how effective they would be. ( As an aside I was horrified when doing a short stint of telephone canvassing to find myself talking to a very annoyed lady who informed me she was with the TPS.)

    I can understand people – especially the more mature members of the population – feeling harassed by leaflets, and canvassing. We will only start to win when our actions mean people actually want to listen to what we have to say.

  • I believe we devoted too many person-hours to leaflet delivering in the election and not enough to canvassing. But also the leaflets often lacked a simple, repeated message people would remember. It’s possible to have too many ideas.

    Tim was no doubt referring mainly to leafleting outside elections, or in local elections. Here regular leaflets, if they genuinely reflect community politics and aren’t just a hymn to how good Bertha Bloggs is at getting potholes filled, may well have a positive impact. They need to be part of a broader effort, of course.

    As for winning the battle of ideas, that will have limited impact, at least in the short term, unless we can prioritise and get the message over more effectively. Think. Speak. Be brief and forceful.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Aug '15 - 10:14pm

    Labour’s interim leader has lost authority. Leadership candidates await the result. Just as well the Commons is in recess.

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