Opinion: Open doors and open minds

yellow door ppb

So then, we all saw it, did we? The starting gun for the Liberal Democrats election campaign was well and truly fired on Wednesday with the airing of three different versions of a very similar Party Political Broadcast.

‘Open Doors’ puts a focus on the LibDems as a campaigning force, but importantly for me, it also makes a very clear point about how we operate as a party – we listen to our communities, and we work with them to achieve change. Rather than it being Nick standing around eulogising about our policies, or mooching around St Pancras waiting for Kav Kaushik to board the Eurostar, the film puts voters at the centre of things – talking about their hopes and concerns as well as their views of our party. In an election campaign that will be focussed more on the Party Leaders than ever, putting our emphasis on real people has to be a positive move and a good place to start.

But the real, emotional reason that I like this broadcast is slightly different. I like it, because it reflects something that I’ve told people on the doorstep time and time again. That we knock on doors all year round, and that whoever you are, wherever you might live, whoever you might choose to vote for, we’ll listen to you and carry your thoughts forward. I think we come to just accept it, but it’s actually really important. Why? Because mainly, the other parties knock on doors asking for support, rather than asking what they can do to help.

It’s really important too, because of the times we’re living in. There are areas up and down the country that feel lost, left behind and uncared for. The rise of UKIP has far more to do with people feeling left behind than it does with the EU. I’m proud that as a party we’re not chasing them down the rabbit hole of extremism. I’m proud that unlike Labour, we’re not touting around our ‘tough new approach to immigration’. I’m proud that unlike the Tory Party we aren’t releasing sound bites every few days about who we think should be sent home or deprived of subsistence benefits. We are the only party reaching out to those people – the great left behind – and offering them hope.

What I’ve seen of the discussion about this broadcast has been a bit troubling to me though, if I’m honest. Rather than welcoming this change of tone – no more Nick standing on the spot talking, no more apologies – all I’ve really seen is people commenting on where the accents are from and whether there are any from the North East, or Watford, or the valleys. Are we really that parochial? Do we really think that’s the point that people will take forward?

Similarly, there’s been some consternation over the use of each of the Party Leaders rather than just Nick. I love seeing Kirsty Williams and Willie Rennie being used on a platform like this – just as Nick is, they’re authentic and powerful voices for the Liberal Democrats. More than that, they send a clear message that we aren’t a party ruled from the top down, we’re an active and growing party in each part of our United Kingdom.

To me, it doesn’t matter where the accents are from. I didn’t notice one from my neck of the woods, but it doesn’t matter. What does make a difference is the message that the broadcast sends. It says that whatever the polls say, we’re not running scared and you can expect a knock on your door sometime soon. I, for one, hope that we keep that promise to the voters – that we’ll knock on more doors than we ever have before.

Paddy likes to say that this campaign will be the fight of our lives and I think he’s probably right. Let’s start that by doing what we do best – not sniping about accents or regional variants – but campaigning in our communities to make a positive difference, by treating people with respect and by listening. Let’s go to those open doors with open minds – I have a feeling we’ll be rewarded for it.

* Sam Phripp is a District Councillor from Frome in Somerset. He blogs at www.sosamsaid.blogspot.com

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  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Jan '15 - 11:31am

    Sam Phripp

    More than that, they send a clear message that we aren’t a party ruled from the top down, we’re an active and growing party in each part of our United Kingdom.

    The material that comes from our party nationally is FAR too leader-centred. Sorry, I don’t know where you got this impression from that people have been concerned that there’s not enough Nick Clegg in our Party Political Broadcasts. All I’ve seen is concern that there’s too much Nick Clegg.

  • More than that, they send a clear message that we aren’t a party ruled from the top down, we’re an active and growing party in each part of our United Kingdom.

    Isn’t that exactly the problem though: you were prior to 2010 a bunch of local parties with local policies based on saying whatever would get you elected in the local area even if that meant contradicting what the local party down the road was saying (and knowing that without being in power you would never have to worry about actually backing up what you said), but then you discovered that with a place on the national stage comes national scrutiny and nowhere to hide when you try to give different messages to different people?

  • “they send a clear message that we aren’t a party ruled from the top down, we’re an active and growing party in each part of our United Kingdom”

    They tell lies, then.

  • My point was, each of the clips actually doesn’t focus on Nick Clegg. In one he features more, in the others we look to our leaders on a national party level. That’s a good move, as far as I’m concerned, it shows we’re more local, that we believe in devolution and that we have more than one big hitter.

  • Bill Le Breton 30th Jan '15 - 12:52pm

    I liked the PPB unreservedly and congratulate those who devised it and carried it out. Content, tone and placement seemed crack on.

    Over the last five years hundreds of councillors an campaigners will have knocked on thousands of doors and asked the open questions with which they have come to better understand the communities with whom they have wished to campaign.

    The process is straigh forward and has been practiced by good Liberal Demorats for forty or more years? That process is to inform, to listen, to devise solutions from that intelligence given by the community, to consult, to campaign and to report back.

    The listening focused up here is a fraction of the necessary whole.

    But this process has not been followed by our Westminster leadership, which has not engaged with our grassroots capaigners to help them devise and campaign for solutions using this process which is why this PPB may have less traction than it should. They have used their power to decide, without listening.

    Where have been our monster petitions an our great campaigns, where has the public support been won and used in negotiations with our coalition partner?

    Leadership is necessary, but only legitimate after information, consultation and campaigns.

    Have we really opened doors and practised participative politics?

  • What Bill said

  • Alex Sabine 30th Jan '15 - 7:02pm

    If you added ‘open markets’, I’d say that would be a much better encapsulation of (what should be) your wider message than tepid and unconvincing managerialism about splitting the difference between the Tories and Labour on borrowing.

    ‘Open doors, open markets and open minds’ – I much prefer the ring of that to the rather lame ‘a strong economy in a fair society’.

    Not sure the ‘open doors’ bit (in particular) would catch the public mood, sadly; but then you’ve always prided yourselves on making unpopular but principled arguments…

    As long as you didn’t pick battles with public opinion on too many fronts, and did so as part of a coherent ‘narrative’ about Britain’s role in a global economy, I reckon you’d stand a better chance of winning support than the more defensive positioning you’ve actually opted for is likely to yield.

  • Alex Sabine 31st Jan '15 - 2:18am

    @ Sam Phripp
    “I like it, because it reflects something that I’ve told people on the doorstep time and time again. That we knock on doors all year round, and that whoever you are, wherever you live, whoever you might choose to vote for, we’ll listen to you and carry your thoughts forward…mainly, the other parties knock on doors asking for support, rather than asking what they can do to help.”

    Shall we all sing Kumbaya? I realise we’re in the vote harvesting season, but this really is laying it on a bit thick… You can try selling this sort of guff on the doorstep as much as you like, but voters appear to be intent on shopping elsewhere.

    Less generous souls than myself – Tory or Labour party activists, perhaps – might detect in this statement the authentic hallmarks of Lib Dem campaigning rhetoric down the ages. It’s all there: the self-congratulation, the claim to higher and purer motives than the vote-grubbing politicians from other parties, the sanctimoniousness, the all-things-to-all-people tendency, the soothing yet empty promise to “listen to you and carry your thoughts forward”, the debasement of language (what does “carry forward” mean? It suggests a receptiveness without a corresponding commitment actually to do anything, an artful political tactic worthy of any other )…

    Those foot soldiers from other parties contrast this fuzzy Lib Dem self-image with their experience ‘on the ground’, which is that their Lib Dem counterparts are every bit as combative (they tend to use saltier adjectives) and no more scrupulous than anyone else.

    As Matthew Parris quipped following the Ribble Valley by-election in 1991: “To witness the destruction of a human being at a by-election is the closest modern Britons come to the joys of a public execution… watching fox cubs having their tails pulled off is tame by comparison. But with Liberal Democrats, as with foxes, you must remember that they’d do the same to you.”

    Peter Tatchell, whose bruising experience of fighting Simon Hughes at Bermondsey in 1983 is well documented, saw the feel-good rhetoric of community politics as a camouflage for a more opportunistic agenda: “With an insatiable appetite for ‘parish pump’ and negative ‘knocking’ propaganda, usually against Labour councils, the Liberals take up a few individual cases of broken windows and cracked paving-stones and then make a huge blaze of publicity about them through their Focus newsletter. By this means, they project the appearance of being much more concerned and successful than they really are, while dodging the far trickier questions about what they actually stand for.”

    Personally I have no axe to grind and no reason to impugn the motives of Lib Dem activists or politicians any more than those of their opponents. I cleave to the unpopular (some would say eccentric) view that most people, irrespective of party affiliation, go into politics for creditable reasons: to do their best for the people they represent and to change things for the better as they see it. Since they are flawed human beings like the rest of us, self-interest and ego and vanity no doubt play a part; but in most cases, a sincere commitment to public service lurks not too far below the surface.

    That’s not to say we should trust politicians, still less governments, to behave well. Lord Acton’s warning that ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ was spot-on. Anyone who aspires to rule over his or her fellow citizens needs to be watched carefully.

    But there is a difference between proper scepticism and the nihilistic cynicism that has become increasingly pervasive. Small wonder that there is such a discount on glib soundbites rather than ideas and scapegoats rather than solutions.

    I’d like to think this is can be changed, although I don’t think anyone has a panacea. It might be a start if we recognised that the difference between politicians of the left, right and centre is not the sincerity of their motives but their interpretation and analysis of events, of human nature, and of how much weight to give to various competing desirable objectives. It’s a difference of opinion, priorities and temperament rather than of integrity or virtue. Self-righteousness laced with cheap aspersions about the motives of political opponents only serve to fuel cynicism, as the public sees right through them. It’s not a good look.

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