Opinion: Is anyone listening?

Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear) By John Baldessari, Saatchi Gallery - London.My perspective comes from being born and bred in Rochdale, part of the ‘urban North’. This is my community. I don’t have to conduct focus groups or opinion polls to know what people think. Partly because I am a ‘local lad’ and partly because of the by-election people are very happy to tell me directly. I always take this as a positive sign – if people want to have a go then they must be wanting to engage – but the Party should be under no illusions that unless things change then the Lib Dems will follow the Conservative experience in the 1980s of going from a Party that controlled 8 out of the 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester to one where virtually all of the councillors and activist bases are effectively wiped out. And 30 years later the Tories are still hated.

In some wards we have lost 90% of our supporters. People are angry with us now but unless things change that anger will evolve into hatred or even worse apathy. My original attempt at trying to explain this was about 10 pages long and went into a whole load of issues and analysis. Then after a couple of beers I realised that it could be summed up in one sentence.

People do not think that we are on their side.

It is important to understand who the ‘we’ are in the above sentence. In Rochdale (which is in this respect no different from any of the other 100 northern towns and cities) most people have lived in the town all of their lives. It is a close community where everybody tends to know everybody. Or if you don’t know someone you know someone they know. This is why progressive politics works so well. Some people do right well and some people less so, but no one minds a society in which those who are dealt bad cards or who have played them badly are still treated with dignity and respect. People see things not just in terms of how it affects them but also in terms of how it affects people that they know.

My clear view is that there is disconnect between policy makers and those affected by the policies. I could give you a dozen examples of this, but will just mention just two.

  1. I don’t know anyone who does not believe in welfare reform, but I don’t know anyone who thinks that our welfare reforms are working. Top down centralised reforms based upon targets rarely work. Especially if they involve humiliating people. We, as a community, will react strongly against this if it involves people that we know and like. As a Liberal I know that localised schemes based upon long term help and support run by people from the community for the community are a million times more effective. All of the ones that I was involved with have now had their funding cut, sometimes completely. Toss out the A4Es of this world and allow Working Men’s Clubs, Churches, Community Groups etc to do this work.
  2. For many young people from Rochdale life is very tough indeed. We have record numbers of children going into care and the sexual abuse of vulnerable young people continues. Social services and the police are ineffective in dealing with this. On some estates the number of children this affects is into double figures. In other places there are far less problems. On one of my old estates they have never had a child taken in care or groomed since local people set up a local project. Again, local people providing local solutions. By the community for the community (mostly volunteers). Their reward again is to have virtually all of their funding cut. They survive but are mighty angry that what little they had has been taken away.

So what is the campaigning message?

My days as a candidate are over. I will do leafleting and the last thing that I want to do is to demoralise someone wanting to have a go. But when people from my community ask me about the examples given above (and other areas) I have no answer for them. In this case one could put out a leaflet every day and complete a full canvass every week to no avail. In fact it would probably just annoy folk.

Is anyone listening?

* Elwyn Watkins is an ex Parliamentary candidate and councillor from Rochdale/Oldham

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • The real world

  • Daniel Henry 30th May '14 - 7:25pm

    Well said.

  • Being born and bred in Rochdale – this is my community
    Errr – where are you now Elwyn me old mucker?

  • Steve Comer 30th May '14 - 7:33pm

    Elwyn. Your experience echos mine in Bristol, we built a good reputation many parts of the city, poorer areas as well as wealthier ones based on old style community politics. You know the sort of politics which is based on talking to ordinary people about what matters to them, not just trading insult with other politicos on twitter! In several wards this year people DID think we were on their side and voted for us, in others where we’d had big majorities in recent years they thought the Green Party were more on their side.

    As Grimond said “we are the party of the governed.”…….or at least we were.

  • Bang on the money!! Our core values are the community and local decision making. Pupil premium is a great example of what we stand for, extra money for those that need it most to ensure everyone gets a decent start with the money being put directly into the hands of those that need to spend it. So how did we come to let ourselves be identified with IDC’s welfare reforms which are a disaster? We should have distanced ourselves from them from the beginning. Our roots are in local volunteering and case work and it is what has brought us our success over the years. We seem to have forgotten that in our delight to be in Government thinking that the Govenment could solve all the problems in London. It can’t.

  • Thanks for sharing your perspective and experiences with us Elwyn and congratulations to Rochdale FC on securing promotion to League 1 this season.

  • Shaun Cunningham 30th May '14 - 9:27pm

    Thanks for a great article.
    Been struggling to convey this message in my posts.

    Today’s front page of the “I” newspaper …….Coalition hires debt collectors to target public. Many of those affected are among Britain’s poorest families. Is it no wonder we are seen to be out of touch.

    I do believe our leadership have lost touch with reality, we have become tarnished with the conservative bush, this party needs to have a period of quiet reflection and return to its roots. We need change. To those who say there’s no one else besides Nick, they would be surprised, because if we had a leadership election I bet you some one would shine through. So let’s us have one for the sake of this great party of ours.

  • Telling post……In a few words….”LibsDems have lost the trust of those who supported them”

    Tory/Labour have always been seen as ‘top down’ parties whereas the Lib(Dems) have always been seen as a ‘bottom up’ party…Since Clegg there has been a shift away from the grassroots to a centralised power base…..Grassroots feelings have been neutered (NHS) or ignored (Secret Courts)….

    The “I will survive” thread says it all….Yet another personality cult….

  • I understand your feelings & like most of the Party I am in favour of devolving power & money to Local communites.
    However, only Westminster can give away that Power & that means a goverment dominated by Libdems, the other Parties wont do it. Without power at the centre Local Councils can only do so much & what good they do can always be snatched away.
    The Election we face next May is about power at the centre & voters will judge that very differently from The Locals or Euros. Most voters wont be making protests or sending messages they will trying to get The Goverment they want. Voters will return to us if we keep our nerve, UKIP will be pushed back to the margins & Labour have nothing to say.

  • That’s a nice fantasy.

  • In the dying days of the Major administration, the superb David Rendel stood on my mum’s doorstep and spoke to a 14 year old as if his opinions mattered. This was a touchstone in my political awakening. I gave up my membership when I felt the party’s direction no longer represented me, but I lurk on LDV hoping to see some point of (re)connection.

    Elwyn Watkins, you have it a nutshell. One of the things that stood out to me as I grew in political awareness was that liberal democrats made the case to me as to why they were on my side, and didn’t lazily expect my vote to fall into left/right tribalism but rather persuade me of their merits and the hope of a better country in their ideas.

    As this has had to become much of a top down party, inevitably posturing has taken the place of winning over hearts and minds. I do feel very sorry for local level members, who have to support the more painful compromises of the coalition without being able to relate them back to the core principles that made them first take an interest in local democracy. Saying that this is the pragmatic reality of government is a message many feel patronised by and party loyalty can only gp so far. I do feel guilty about jumping ship but can’t be an activist for things I can’t defend.

    I am hoping that through being the only party willing to take UKIP on at the level of ideas will help reconnect with many of us who believe in a progressive Britain. It’s not a silver lining, but this horrid week has made me see that I still identify as a libdem as it has just been so painful – I’ve come close to rejoining but have no idea what use I would be.

  • Michael Main 31st May '14 - 8:15am

    Couldn’t agree more – but will anyone listen ?

  • paul barker30th May ’14 – 10:24pm
    The Election we face next May is about power at the centre & voters will judge that very differently from The Locals or Euros. Most voters wont be making protests or sending messages they will trying to get The Goverment they want. Voters will return to us if we keep our nerve, UKIP will be pushed back to the margins & Labour have nothing to say.

    No,No, No….If it were only about getting the government ‘they’ want, no-one would ever vote LibDem…
    LibDems have always been seen as ‘honest brokers’ (the party of conscience, if you like) People voted LibDem because they believed in what was said….
    Those many hundreds of LibDem councillors lost their seats, not because the electorate didn’t think they were doing a good job, but because the National Party was deemed toxic….
    If the electorate ‘vented its spleen’ on popular local representatives, how much worse will they treat the party nationally?
    Meaningless phrases like ‘holding our nerve’ will have as much impact as ‘throwing snowballs into Hell’…

  • Ian Stewart 31st May '14 - 9:03am

    Well said Elwyn. Within our DNA is the knowledge that the unmeasurable benefits of working on a small scale with people far outweigh the accountants ability to measure cost reductions through outsourcing. It may be that this is a dilemma that can only be solved by the ability of those in Government to follow the Nike phrase and JDI (just do it!)

  • This should be standard reading for all the party heirachy, the MPs, The Lords and HQ staff. It should be the lead item on all training courses, if any are held now, there is hardly anyone left to train, It should leave no doubt in the minds of those who advise the Leader that this is what it has come to and it is time to wave goodbye. It is a bit like Nixons farewell, a long time coming but inevitable and the actual end, well it all happened quickly. It is sad but necessary.

  • Bill le Breton 31st May '14 - 9:06am

    It is the Parliamentary Party that must listen. The leadership is declaring each day that it won’t.

    We get emails every day from the Party in denial. Why don’t they send an email asking each and every member for whom they have an address a simple question. Do you favour a new leader now?

    Rather simple idea for a democratic and Liberal party.

  • Michael Da Silva Pearce 31st May '14 - 9:07am

    The phrase that resonated for me is:

    “My clear view is that there is disconnect between policy makers and those affected by the policies”.

    I watched a member of the electorate being interviewed in Newark last night who confessed she had only voted once in her life. The reason she normally doesn’t vote is because she doesn’t understand it all. I am sure she speaks for lots of people who would express a similar view.

    The general public have a very vague view of what it means to be a liberal democrat; of the underlying principles that govern our views but we do not make these principles explicit when responding to current issues and policies. It is almost as if we assume everyone understands our rationale. Do they know that we hold community at the heart of our principles and believe that local people not central government are best placed to make decisions which affect their daily lives?

    We have seen the huge disaffection that the electorate have demonstrated through voting for UKIP. Now is the time to offer an alternative way of living; a different way of seeing things. We must change our message so that we get our ideals across rather than focusing on offering alternatives to political issues that people feel removed from. Simply we have to repackage ourselves, speak plainly and most importantly relate our message to the everyday experience of people.

  • Noone is listening but if you hang around a PR chap will be along sharpish with a large bucket of whitewash.

  • Bill le Breton 31st May '14 - 9:21am

    Michael, there are two difficulties in your wise call to ‘change the message’:

    1) the present message is the brain child of NIck Clegg. He has developed it and campaigned for it and built an edifice within his office in Downing Street (over 20 highly paid advisers) and set up a Parliamentary team dedcicate to pushing it within Government policy and through the airwaves (Laws, Alexander are in key positions along side him, both committed to this message). He is not going to change it, because it is the expression of his fundamental beliefs. It is an expression of his conscience.

    2) if he did change, people would (rightly or wrongly) see it as another of his opportunistic initiatives to hold onto office. He isn’t being listened to. People think he is the leading example in this country of all they dislike in politicians. THat isn’t necessarily fair, but it is how he has come to be perceived.

    So, you cannot change the message without changing the leader.

    THe BBC repeated the mantra put out by the central press team within the DPM’s office that there are anyway no other candidates.

    As soon as he steps down there will be at least six candidates; Alexander, Featherstone, Farron, Harvey, Davey, Lamb,

    Note, the name that is missing. I don’t think Cable would stand. But of course it services the leader’s bunker to say he would and that all disaffection with him is aimed at him by Cable’s followers and to say that all those wanting the leader to go want out of the Coalition. That is manifestly not true and a typical straw man argument.

    Come on Parliamentarians. LIsten to the membership and do the right thing for Liberal Democracy.

  • Shaun Cunningham 31st May '14 - 10:30am
  • Michael Da Silva Pearce 31st May '14 - 10:39am


    I obviously didn’t express myself very well although you have misquoted me by not relating it to the context in which it was written. It is not the message itself I want to see change but the way it is delivered. I wholly support Nick Clegg who to my mind clearly adheres to the principles of liberalism as I hope we all do, but at the moment those principles are not being made explicit to the electorate as a whole. We do not need to change the message or the messenger but simply the way we package liberalism and sell it to the electorate.

  • Shaun Cunningham 31st May '14 - 11:40am

    Perhaps my ward was an oasis and outside the ward boundaries every thing was in order and the voters were singing and dancing in the joy of Nick, but some how I fear not. The honest truth is the message and the messenger need to change. I have this horrible feeling the party will not wake up to fact until the morning of the 8 May 2015. A year wasted because people will not listen. Nick may walk then leaving the party in a political landscape more in tune of a desert and political wasteland.

    You are so right. When Councillors start to think twice before using the party logo something is seriously wrong.

  • Great piece by Elwyn! Agree with much of what he says.

    Agree completely with Ruth above – for the past 3 years I’ve been advising council candidates to do just like she says – stick to the local issues and become as independent as possible. Otherwise, they wouldn’t survive the upcoming elections.

    Michael Da Silva Pearce’s viewpoint is indicative of why the party won’t recover for a long time – it’s not just branding, it’s the message and the messenger. Bill le Breton, as is so often the case, hitting nails on the head.

  • Ian Bailey (Labour) 31st May '14 - 12:49pm

    I’m also from Rochdale, though now sadly in exile in Yorkshire (boooo). When I go back to the Dale and see my parents I despair at what has happened to the place, it’s just run down. I have school friends living in outer “townships” who always now say they’re from littleborough because they don’t want Rochdale associated with them.

    The town’s problems are not party political. Growing up there I seem to recall councils of every combination of parties and them all being similarly derided (so I blame the officers!). A prime example, the town has a half shuttered main shopping street, two half empty shopping centres and the council sells land in the centre to build a third shopping centre. Utter madness.

    So it’s not the LibDems fault exclusively that people feel so trapped. Why are you being all but wiped out in Rochdale and Bury and similar proud ex industrial towns? Because you are see as punishing those who are stuck.

    The welfate reforms are nasty, punative, unfair and fundamentally illiberal, and you all know it. Yet all your MPs all vote it through repeatedly and defend the government for its actions. That makes it your fault, your doing, your policy. Nor can you claim that you restrained the Tories and deserve credit. Yes we just helped shoot you dead, but the Tory wanted to keep shooting more bullets into you. Doesn’t wash. Nor does telling broke people that they are actually better off actually because the economy is actually recovering and actuay etc etc. Actually doesn’t change the reality that for most people in this country the economy is still buggered so insulting them just winds them up.

    What people need is hope and a rebuild plan. Sadly none of the bug 3 have any clue what to do as we are all stuck in the broken laissez faire free market paradigm. Perhaps your hope is to go back to localism and start from each street light inwards – admittedly hard for yiu having slashed so much money from councils.

  • Bill le Breton 31st May '14 - 2:27pm

    Michael da S P, forgive me if I inadvertently failed to provide the proper context for your conclusion.

    I am afraid that Nick Clegg’s definition and practice of liberalism is very different from mine. He is very clear about his and although he did not campaign on his definition when seeking the leadership (but actually nearer mine) he has used that office and the power that has come to him to advocate and implement a very different kind of Liberalism to mine.

    Which is why I think Liberal Democrats have a clear choice. The message and the messenger are one in this case. He couldn’t change that message nor would I ask him to – his message I hope comes from his conscience,

    So, if you like the Leader’s expression of Liberalism then you need to accept his definition and back him. If you do not agree with his expression of Liberalism and his use of this party to promote his version, you have to campaign for his removal as leader.

    It really is simple.

    His version is not very popular and has led to catastrophic results in elections. At the start of the Parliament his supporters said it was too early to advocate his resignation and the public would come to see the attraction of his kind of Liberalism. Now we are being told it is too late.

  • Shaun Cunningham 31st May '14 - 5:31pm


    Yes you are right. The Party does have clear choice, change or face certain political defeat. Change is always difficult. People come custom to labels, whether is breakfast cereal, tin beans or their daily newspaper, they have this habit of projecting a comfort zone and while this comfort zone remains snug even if the world outside is fracturing and collapsing around them , and in the party’s case our support is haemorrhaging away with enormous momentum, they still feel comfortable in their zone because their faith in hope is misplaced. Nick knows in his heart he can’t turn the party around because the label he projects is tarnished and because this label is seen by many not to be not fit for purpose no matter what Nick does he will not be able to reverse the publics perception of the party. Nick is no fool and he is an honourable person however being honourable does not remove the problem and that problem is one of the public having lost faith in his leadership. Last Thursday I put myself forward to the residents of my ward, I lost by 42 votes, it was heartbreaking for me but I lost. In the same way Nick led this party to another crashing defeat in both the local and the European elections, in the same way I lost so did he. it’s time for change

  • Tony Dawson 1st Jun '14 - 10:44am

    @Shaun Cunningham :

    “I have this horrible feeling the party will not wake up to fact until the morning of the 8 May 2015.”

    We have a DREADFUL history of avoiding the difficult questions over the past five years. Starting with refusing to look into the loss of seats in 2010 – but that could, perhaps, be forgiven due to the top of the Party being swept away with the euphoria of the opportunities of Coalition. Then the 2011 local elections cutting swathes through most of our municipal base which had been carefully and painstakingly worked up over decades. The AV debacle and the thrashing in Scotland. Every single time, you think that someone is going to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’. The corporate resistance to the coffee smell over several years suggests that the body politic at the top of the Lib Dems has been in a moderate to deep coma.

    Even now, one might have thought that the 2014 near wipe-outs both in London and in the European Parliament, would each have placed powerful pressure on our MPs. The former, because it is so close to the Westminster ‘bubble’ to be easily ignored, the latter because, quite apart from the serious effect on EU Liberalism, it has also massively-undermined the support for Lib Dem campaigning in many regions. Looking at the apparent inertia in Westminster, it is difficult to judge whether a sizeable chunk of those who are in positions to take decisions which could mean something either do not understand the British electorate or simply do not care.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Jun '14 - 10:50am

    Bill le Breton

    Note, the name that is missing. I don’t think Cable would stand. But of course it services the leader’s bunker to say he would and that all disaffection with him is aimed at him by Cable’s followers and to say that all those wanting the leader to go want out of the Coalition

    Yes, article after article has appeared in the national press on these lines. That is typical of the Westminster Bubble, they think it is all about them, they can hardly conceive of the idea that politics consists of more than a few personalities in Westminster. The idea of a political party run by its members with what it does determined by its members and not passed own from the smart set running the party at their top in Westminster is beyond their comprehension.

    I am absolutely sure from what I have seen and heard from Vince Cable that he does not want to be leader of the party, that he’s happy doing what he does, that he doesn’t want to take on that job, and that actually what he really wants to do is retire while he’s got a bit of time to carry on with his dancing hobby. The idea that discontent about Clegg’s leadership is all whipped up by a group of plotters headed by Vince is absurd.

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