Opinion: But is it really time for a change?

Party strategists have bet heavily on their assessment that voters think it is time for a change.

Perhaps simplistically, they hold to the notion that British political fortunes are governed by a pendulum. You often hear them criticise what they term the blue/red red/blue swings, but privately they accept it as a fundamental ‘law’ of political physics and have allowed themselves to be governed by this supposed law these last two years.

2010 will be one of those ‘Time for a Change’ elections, they have deduced.

From that deduction they moved on to suggest that the Conservatives (to whom in their estimate the pendulum has swung) have won the argument among the British public that they, the Conservatives, are the party of change.

The next step in the analysis was to presume that attacks on Conservatives or Conservative policies would thus position the Liberal Democrats as against change and therefore implicitly pro the status quo and, deep down in voter consciousness, pro-Labour.

Among leading Liberal Democrat MPs this conclusion may have been conveniently close to their political preferences, for others – and I think we may include Cable in this – it makes for an agonising and uncomfortable position.

A subjunctive of their belief in the Conservative monopoly of support among voters looking for change is that in these economic circumstances ‘change’ means getting a handle on Government Expenditure in order to reduce debt – always an emotive word.

By further extension, the strategists decided that, as the Conservatives have won the argument for ‘cuts’, Liberal Democrats cannot counter this and must therefore position themselves as advocates of this policy too (for fear of being against the fundamental force for change). If possible, they must be stronger advocates of this policy. Hence the Leader’s carefully choreographed ‘savage cuts’ declaration in Bournemouth.

Again, I believe that this sits uneasily with Cable’s personal inclination and his concern that such a policy would be rejected by the majority of Liberal Democrat supporters and an even higher proportion of party councillors (who would be asked in their councils to vote through many of the reductions if they were imposed). It gives him sleepless nights, I’m told.

However, the policy probably fits better with the political perspective of the Leader and certainly fits nicely with those who advise leaders that they need to express their leadership qualities by standing firm against their activists in a series of ‘Clause Four’ moments.

So, if you wondered why your party with its roots in Lloyd George, Keynes, Tawney, Shirley Williams and Jo Grimond found itself to the right of the Conservatives during a grave recession, now you know.

But is it time for a change?

Neil Kinnock was convinced that it was in 1992 after 13 years of Conservative Government. And 2010, if my arithmetic is right, is 13 years after 1997.

Perhaps the key question is, how long does it take for a sufficient part of the ‘unbound’ electorate to forget the mistakes of the opposition when it was last in power or when it was last going through the turmoil that follows the loss of power – the Winter of Discontent and the times of Foot for electors in 1992- or Thatcherism, Black Wednesday and the times of Hague for electors in 2010?

Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report has had another look at November’s Populus poll which had found that 53% of people who said they voted Labour in 2005 would vote Labour in an election tomorrow, but which had then asked the other 47% to say, “in their own words”, why at that time they couldn’t vote Labour again.
The most popular answers were indeed along the lines of ‘It’s Time for a Change’. 17% gave this reason. A further 17% offered reasons connected with the poor economy, unemployment and too much borrowing. And 14% said it was because of Gordon Brown himself.

Wells lists other reasons given to Populus by disaffected 2005 Labour voters as 3% immigration, 3% Labour “not being for ordinary people anymore”, 2% too soft on crime, 2% defence and 1% expenses.

Any reason missing? Impressed with another party and or its leader, Conservatives or Cameron?

Just 1%.

Now, if perceptions about the economy become more positive, and there are signs of this occurring, then that 17% who gave ‘the economy stupid’ as reasons for leaving Labour may easily decide that the Labour ‘nurse’ is better than ‘something worse’.

One may also surmise that a large proportion of the 17% expressing that it was ‘Time for a Change’ and the 3% who said Labour wasn’t for ordinary people anymore may have been most influenced by economic worries, and could also return to nurse.

This would be especially so if the equivalent emotions raised among ‘conservatives’ (small c) by Kinnock’s Rally performance were raised among ‘labour people’ by the Old Etonian values they are being reminded of in Labour’s timely near-term campaign.
Etonians sneer that they smell poverty when they visit Harrow for away matches.

You can bet that Labour’s Focus Groups have been directed at those ‘lost voters’ and the near term campaign will have been directed by the thoughts of those voters and for those voters just as the crude and seemingly implausible Conservative Tax Bombshell near-term campaign of November/December 1991 was directed at ‘lost conservative voters’.

Where does this leave Liberal Democrat tactics? As those who bet in the pre-post market know, the odds you get are better because there is a chance that the racing certainty you have put your money on goes lame before it even reaches the course.

If the pendulum doesn’t swing far enough THIS TIME we will have alienated all those tactical voters and gambled on an exodus in Labour’s heartlands that stays where it has always been in the end.

As well as being an insult to the primacy of individual electors and a denial of liberalism, gambling on the ‘tips’ and form books of political marketeers is not without risk.

Politics is not an ordinary service industry where marketing is about following consumer demand. Politics is about leadership, it is about creating new markets, new supporters.

If Apple had followed mega bucks Microsoft we wouldn’t have the iPod.

This should still be an election about change, but it should be about the very special and unique reforms that would come from Liberal Democrats.

Smash the pendulum!

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I wasn’t aware that the Liberal Democrat tradition began with Lloyd George. I thought Palmerston and Gladstone were in there as well, not to mention Roy Jenkins. An interesting piece of left-wing historical revisionism, but hardly an auspicious start to an implicit condemnation of the party.

  • The Tories were doing better in the polls (52% in one) before the crisis though. Recovery doesn’t necessarily equal increase in Labour support.

  • Labour’s best chance is to persuade the electorate that the Tory strategy of repaying public debt quickly would cause a double-dip recession (which indeed it would). If the man in the street can see that ‘time for a change’ means ‘out of a job’ then conservatism rather than Conservatism could become the order of the day. Quite where that leaves us, lumbered as we are with Clegg’s ‘savage cuts’ policy, is anybody’s guess.

  • David Allen 10th Dec '09 - 6:27pm

    “Time for a change” is of course the motto of the mentally lazy. As an election approaches, many people become uncomfortably aware that too lazy a judgment could hurt them, so they do make an effort to rethink where to place their votes. We can expect a consequent drop in Tory support – but it won’t be a big drop, unless they start losing the argument more often.

    For us simply to line up on the side of “savage cuts” is to become Cameron’s cheerleaders. Do we want to emulate Mr Guido Westerwelle, the German “liberal”, who is now taking on that role in his country – and pushing Mrs Merkel further to the right than she would have preferred to go?

    Why don’t we tell the truth instead? Labour and the Tories are both posturing and playing with your economic livelihood to try to win votes. Labour are kidding us things are better than they really are, so they risk a debt crisis. The Tories are kidding us things are worse than they are, so they risk an output collapse crisis. Vote for a party whose candidate for Chancellor does not posture and play party games, and will therefore avoid both these risks.

  • The “savage cuts” line has to go up there with the very stupidest sets of words ever
    put in the mouth of a politician. What Clegg SAID was quite correct, we need to cut spending overall without hurting the essential services for the needy or the big infrastructure/greening projects that are needed to kickstart the recovery.

    This is a really easy sell and would have been
    quite simple to phrase as “cutting waste not services” or “We’ll cut the fat, Tories will cut the meat” but instead – and this is the true failing of the current crop in the Leader’s Office and central Campaigns – they were too unambitious and assumed the public were too stupid to understand that. So we ended up with a soundbite that fits better with a cartoon baddie than a leader of the Lib Dems

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Dec '09 - 7:54pm

    The first time I ever fought a council by-election, I was in complete control of the campaign material – essentially I find myself the candidate in a ward which we held but the local party organisation had collapsed, so I did it all myself. So, of course, I ran a somewhat left-wing campaign.

    The ward was a three-way marginal, so I feared the sort of campaign I had run would put floating voters of us and they would go to the Tories. What actually happened was that the Tories were pushed into third place for the first time ever in that ward, and Labour won it.

    From that I learnt that the idea that to win over floating voters from the Tories you have to become mini-Tories yourself is wrong. The way ordinary people vote is rather complex and doesn’t have nearly as much connection with the left-right spectrum as the political elite suppose.

    Our party OUGHT to be winning huge support in the current situation. Why isn’t it? I say too many right-wingers at the top wanting to make it “me too” for the economic policies that have wrecked this country since they were introduced in 1979 and then endorsed by Labour in 1997.

  • Conclusion: The country was wonderful in 1978.

  • Bill le Breton 11th Dec '09 - 11:09am

    Two apologies straight away.
    Jenny, sorry to have spoilt your read with a mention of the f***ing ipod. I promise to rethink my analogy.
    Edward, sorry not to have mentioned Roy Jenkins. Very remiss of me. Although I do think that, in the 1983 election campaign under his leadership, we spent too long attacking Labour when Labour were already ‘defeated’ and we needed to turn our attack to the Conservatives sooner than the last few days of the campaign, which would have brought even more Labour supporters over to the Alliance. That really was a chance to smash the pendulum. But it is interesting to be reminded of the similarities of the tactics then to the decisions being taken now.
    I did write ‘party with its roots in’ not ‘its root’. One of my heroes has always been Charles James Fox, so I could have gone back that far or even to Simon de Montfort and would therefore have mentioned Gladstone.
    It maybe a sin, but to date I have never warmed to the GOM. The New Liberalism of the 1890s was in part a reaction to him and I see LG (and Churchill) as the most effective practicing politicians who begun to bring New Liberalism into action.
    Please believe me that my stance is not an implicit criticism of our party. It is an explicit criticism of its tactics at least from Bournemouth 2008. I have the temerity to suggest that mine is the position of a considerable majority of the Party, 95% of our MPs and 50% of the present Leadership Duo.
    The pendulum argument (explained in the article) is used by those who do not share this view either because they sincerely believe it to be the best tactic for us or because it fits neatly into their political perspective which is nearer to Jenkins than Ashdown and nearer to Asquith than Lloyd George.
    Why do I make these challenges here? Because virtually all of the former channels and forums for this kind of review have been shut down. We should be thankful to LDV and those who give their time to keep it going.
    Why do I make them at all? Because there is still time to get this right. Still time to save seats that might otherwise be lost. Still time, if the British public decide for change, to persuade them that a strong team of Liberal Democrats would be best for Britain’s recovery.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Dec '09 - 12:36pm


    Conclusion: The country was wonderful in 1978.

    Well, I went to university with a full grant that year, didn’t have to worry about debt, or effectively turn my degree into part-time study because I had to do a job to get by – as most of the university students I teach now have to. My parents didn’t have to worry about us all becoming homeless because they lived in a council house, then available to ordinary people – not like my constituents when I was a councillor a few years ago who came to me in tears finding it that what was taken for granted on that estate in the past – you would get a home there when you came of age – had gone, homes now only go to those who have spectacular misfortunes. The public libraries were much better stocked than they are now, I got most of my education from them. The main thing that concerned me was the very low wage my dad earned, so much lower than all those miners and car-workers and others in skilled manufacturing jobs up north I read about in the news. I was not aware of there being any gang violence or bullying on the council estate where I lived. I was free to roam about wherever I liked, I find it astonishing that young people today tell me in all seriousness that they can’t do that, because step out of place into some other gang’s “territory” and you’re in real danger.

    No, it was not all wonderful, but the idea that every development since then has been an improvement is, I think, wrong. Much of what happened since then and sold to us as good things has turned out to have damaging consequences further down the line. In particular, I feel there’s been a big loss in the sense of security and from that control of one’s own life. The fact that those coming of age now simply cannot get a home of their own as we took it for granted in those days is a big thing, a huge diminution of liberty. The wealthy, who dominate our society today, whose views are put forward in almost all discussion places, whose interests appear to be the only thing that really matters, just cannot see this because they don’t know. They think society is very free because it is – for THEM and their money.

    Now we see how much our country has been put into work for just a few thousand financiers. So much other industry has been closed down. So much has been centralised in the hands of the big companies controlled by these financiers. Our grandparents may have fought and died for this country, but these financiers have no loyalty to it, in its hour of need they will give nothing to it and threaten only to leave it if we touch their privileges. Everything is so tied up under their control that we cannot do that. They say they have “created wealth”, but what sort of wealth is it? So much of it seems to be based just on debt, they asked us to close our eyes and pray to the gods of the free market economy, we opened them and found we had the debt, they had the wealth. Those of us who have had to borrow large amounts of money for housing just big enough to live in now live in fear of loss of jobs and repossession. So we must serve our masters ever more slavishly to get by. What are all these jobs created? Nice ones for the rich and their children, rubbish ones just serving them for the rest of us. And if we don’t like it, there are plenty of East Europeans who will work for less, so don’t make a fuss. Anyway, we’ve been taught not to make a fuss. We have been told politics is a bad and dirty thing, don’t worry your little heads about it, don’t get involved, leave all that stuff to the smart set. Consume all that celebrity stuff, propaganda for the idea that wealth, fame and celebrity are all that count, and you may just make it there by winning the lottery or a talent show. Learn to love Big Brother Banker.

  • Conclusion: The country was wonderful in 1978.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Dec '09 - 5:37pm


    1978…didn’t have to worry about debt

    Indeed not, because gross mismanagement of the economy then, as now, by Labour economic illiterates (Healey included – the singing chancellor indeed!), meant that inflation took care of all that for you.

    No, that is not what I wrote, my point was that my parents were not forced to take on a mortgage they could not afford because council housing was then more plentifully available. The consequence was more freedom for all of us in our family.


    Conclusion: The country was wonderful in 1978

    No, I am saying there were good things as well as bad things. I am a free man, therefore I am free to think the unfashionable and not just to mouth what Big Brother Banker tells me is the truth. To say some things have got worse since then is not to say everything was wonderful then. Someone with the capability of independent thought would be able to see that point. The ability to make critical judgment, to look at pros and cons, to accept there are more than one way of looking at things is all part of true liberalism. Accepting what the ruling class tells us, swallowing their propaganda whole, engaging in that game where they hold up the old defeated enemy
    as still menacing us to defend their own stranglehold of power and ideas is what our bravest political ancestors fought against.

  • David Allen 12th Dec '09 - 6:13pm


    The supposedly terrible danger you mention, that we might be perceived as a bunch of crazy lefties, is not something that should be genuinely difficult for us to avoid. We only have to point out that it is the Labour party that has changed, not ourselves.

    Labour became the allies of George W Bush in an illegal war of religion. They allowed bankers’ bonuses to run riot. They have doubled the prison population and watched as the British police lost their proud reputation for fairness and decency. They have seen social inequality rise under Thatcher, and their response has been to let it rise further. Labour have become a right-wing party. We – I hope – have not.

    This is not, genuinely, a difficult point for us to make. So if Nick Clegg does not want to make it, why not, I wonder?

  • Bill le Breton 14th Dec '09 - 9:11am

    In politics steering by reference to the position of others is *dangerous driving*.

    I remember Adonis, when he was a Liberal Democrat, advising Ashdown that ‘we should never allow ourselves to get to the left of Labour.’

    ‘OK,’ responded John Tilley, ‘what do we do when Labour declares for capital punishment?’ Theory had met practice.

    For reasons of election tactics (see above) our strategists have now programmed the Sat. Nav. to ‘never allow us to get to the left of the Tories’ just as the Conservatives are repositioning themselves back to the extreme right on economic policy.

    The Tilley question would now be, ‘what do we do when the Tories declare for the Irish experiment in economic policy?’

    To remind us, these below are present Irish policies, recently praised by Osborne as “a shining example of the art of the possible in economic policy-making.”
    * Child benefit being cut by 10%.
    * Unemployment benefit being cut by 4.1%, with larger cuts for those under 25.
    *Public Sector workers facing pay cuts of 5-8%.
    * Prescription charges being increased by 50%.
    * Other increased health charges including A&E, inpatient and outpatient charges and a higher monthly threshold above which people cannot get free drugs under the Drug Payment Scheme.
    * Health budget being cut by €400mn on top of previously announced cuts
    * €960mn cut in investment budget
    * Further departmental cuts to be announced
    As a result:
    • Irish unemployment is 12.5 per cent;
    • The country is experiencing deflation at –6.6 per cent;
    • GDP has fallen 7.4 per cent over the past year and 10.5% from its peak;
    • And despite the cuts they have still had their credit rating downgraded.

    I would prefer to be guided by the stars.

  • A.H. Gillett 14th Dec '09 - 1:06pm

    Aside from the cringing equestrian and Birtspeak allusions, I take issue with your concession to the ‘change’ focus-group babble.

    A quotation from John Humphrys’s book ‘Lost for Words’:

    ‘Change, that all-encompassing word, has become a universal…mantra. ‘We must change to survive’. But change from what and to what? Change for change’s sake is no solution to anything. Most people actually eschew change. It is emotionally disruptive, stress inducing and threatens that most fundamental of human needs – stability.’

    A slim majority of America was swayed by the sort of empty noun-phrase rhetoric to which he was referring; it elected Obama whilst dramatically decreasing his credibility for anybody with a brain. It is why he is suffering now.

    But America is the home of entertainment politics, and people expect to be given a good deal of glitter, safe in the knowledge that they’ve really only two choices. In Britain we still have a modicum more of contemplation and scepticism. To copy the Obama campaign would be to appear to help Labour and the Conservatives in their aspirations towards X-Factor leader politics.

    I don’t trust Howard Dean’s grasp of the British political mood, and I’d rather we kept our distance.

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