Opinion: our ministers need to communicate better – and fast

I have previously been a big supporter of the coalition government.

During the negotiations back in May I wrote that we should take the Tory deal for the good of the country and that it was effectively the only game in town.

I was also supportive of many of the actions taken in the early days of the government including the decision to focus more heavily on reducing the deficit. I broadly accepted the arguments that the government as a whole have used to justify this.

I have not blogged myself since the start of August but have found myself in mid-October unable to contain my feelings about how Lib Dems within government seem to be approaching the task of communicating with the public about the decisions they are taking.

It is typified by (but not limited to) the recent controversy regarding tuition fees and the justifications used by Nick Clegg and Vince Cable for the change in tack by the party but it is broader than just that. It is the fact that they and other Lib Dem ministers seem to be determined to communicate an entirely united front from the government which will ultimately make it very difficult for activists on the doorstep to argue for the ways in which our party has made a difference in government.

No nuance of difference appears to be allowed in the rhetoric. Clegg himself is even on record as stating that this is the right way to go about it implying that he does not want to give the media ammunition for stories about splits. But this is a coalition government. We all know that the splits are already baked in!

I am also discomfited by the way in which Clegg now seems to be actively in favour of increasing tuition fees rather than just sticking to the coalition agreement. I fully understand that the Lib Dems agreed to abstain on tuition fees as part of that agreement. I am sure there are lots of things in there that the Conservatives did not want to agree to either.

If we start to unpick it then there is a real risk that the whole thing will unravel. Tory MPs for example would then have no problem voting down the AV referendum. Where would it stop?

For all these reasons and more I would accept the party in government sticking to this agreement to abstain. We would have a chance of explaining how the compromises of coalition government necessitated us to do so but to actively vote for what we so strongly campaigned against just a few months ago will frankly baffle people and is the sort of thing that could ultimately lose Lib Dem MPs their seats (including potentially Nick Clegg if recent polling data is to be believed).

Lib Dem ministers need to find a tone and a language to communicate that they are doing their best fighting internally for what the party wants and getting the best that they can.

This is not achieved by positioning themselves to never allow a cigarette paper between Tory and Lib Dem ministers. And it is certainly not achieved by disingenuously trying to claim that the finances are worse than we thought for cover regarding tuition fees.

We could ditch Trident for example to help pay for free tuition but the government has chosen not to do so. It is a compromise and as I have argued repeatedly the Lib Dems have got some good policies as a result of the negotiations. We need to continually talk this up rather than pretending that we completely agree with every policy that government produces.

I suspected when the government was first formed back in May that the public, activists and back-bench MPs would take a good while to adjust to the reality of coalition politics. What I was not really prepared for however was for Lib Dem ministers to find it so difficult to find a way to communicate the realities of what is happening within the government.

They need to find a way and quickly, otherwise how can they possibly expect Lib Dem activists to be able to do so on the doorstep?

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34 Comments

  • Gareth Epps 18th Oct '10 - 4:05pm

    Great article Mark.

  • Good to see you blogging again, Mark. I would mention that even within one party, one can make statements like “we have reduced X by 10 but we would like to do more in future”. The Lib Dems could therefore still outline their longterm aims without it being called a split

  • gavin grant 18th Oct '10 - 4:41pm

    If you want to see a conservative/liberal coalition government arguing about disagrements in public then take a look at germany. Then look at the respective political partners poll ratings – disasterous. I had the pleasure of meeting several german liberal mps last week. They asked for advice on communications en how well the uk lib dems are doing!

    Odf course it’s taking time for our team to find otheir feet. The conservatives spent years preparing for government, just as labout did in ’97. The lib dems spent 3 days preparing at the end of an exhausting general election campaign.

    Frankly some of our policy positions simply did not stand up to serious scrutiny. Ask those who are responsible for running our universities what they thought of our position. These highly intelligent, liberally-minded poeple thought it was ridiculous at best and utterly irresponsible at worst. Ask serious greens what they thought on our energy policy and you get much the same response.

    Also look at what’s actually happening since the coalition was formed. Our party’s membership continues to rise (unlike the other two). We are losing less principle council by election defences than we usually do, and are gaining some, particularly from the Conservatives (By the way 71% in Con Home’s last survey feel too much has been given to the Lib Dems in the coalition!). Look at the unity and sheer size of our last conference.

    Communications can and should be examined critcally for how it should be improved, and it always can be. But lets not do our “thing” of talking ourself out of a position of putting liberal values into practice, being taken seriously by many voters for the first time and playing in the big league. We managed self destruction it brilliantly in 1982 by destroying the electorates faith in the new politics our of the Liberal SDP Alliance and again in ’87. Almost 30 years on we’ve got another, real shot at breaking the mould finally and for good . Like our current leadership and our colleagues who are the leaders of the major councils we run, i’m in favour of our taking it this time.

  • The root of the problem is twofold:

    (1) The high degree of incompatibility between the aims and values of the two parties.
    (2) The weakness of the Liberals Democrat side compared to the Tory side.

    The so-called “Coalition” (in reality, Liberal Democrats being forced to prop up a right-wing Tory government in exchange for a few token policy concessions) has the potential to ruin and marginalise our party. It could put us back in the position we occupied during the Thorpe affair or the later merger negotiations.

    The “Coalition” tars Liberal Democrats with all the bad things that the government does. It forces us to go back on solemn commitments and spin lame, dissembling excuses for so doing. It prevents our leaders from promoting our distinctive aims, values and policies, and forces them to mouth casuistic defences of Tory excesses.

    The “deep dive” (to use a trendy managementese term) is going to be the cuts. Can Liberal Democrats conscientiously support a policy which Price Waterhouse Coopers says is likely to lead to one million people losing their jobs? Can what is morally wrong be politically right? And will the electorate forgive us for it?

    We would do far more to tame the Tory government by forcing it to govern as a minority for the next four-and-half years.

  • Gavin Grant,

    Your post hoc denunciation of Liberal Democrat policies has a hollow ring to it, in that I do not recall you voicing your concerns either during the General Election campaign or when those policies were formulated (maybe you did and I just didn’t hear it, in which case I apologise in advance).

  • We could ditch Trident and not have to gut public services at all considering it’s £140 Billion of worth cold war idiocy.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/sep/18/trident-replacement-hidden-cost-revealed

    As for the ‘message’ the public is taking from Nick and his ministers, I admire the tenacity of those who are still trying to argue most of the public don’t think Nick and his clique are almost indestiguishable from the Tories, if not their ability to face reality.

    Saying you don’t support certain Conservtive policies doesn’t mean an argument.
    It simply means you aren’t the same as the other Party in the coalition.
    It oly becomes an argument if MPs from both Parties start taking pot shots at each other and that only happens if their is anger at the leadership. Which makes the tuition fee debacle all the more damaging and incompetent.

    It should have been done from the beginning with Nick stating Liberal Democrat Policy where there were obvious differences and not letting his and Cameron’s fear of the media painting the coalition as (shock horror) two completely different political Parties in Government. There is no way around that simple fact and it’s long passed the time where it was faced head on.

    What makes the tactic of keeping quiet all the more idiotic is that it cannot and will not work in next year’s elections or for the AV referendum. So instead of the media getting used to the fact that we are two different Parties the media will only begin to portray the two Parties as different after the cuts and on the eve of the elections when it can’t be put off any longer.

  • An alternative to the minority government is to have a coalition based on policy where both parties broadly agree.

    So, the Lib Dems and Conservatives would work together to do things they agree on, like getting rid of Id cards.

    Perhaps the Conservatives would not have agreed but that would have been better with the sense that the Conservatives get to do bad things in return for a change in the voting system.

    Things supported by only one side would have to be saved for another occasion

  • “We would do far more to tame the Tory government by forcing it to govern as a minority for the next four-and-half years.”

    However what they would do in practice is 3 months of populist nonsense and a snap election

  • Simon McGrath 18th Oct '10 - 5:52pm

    @ldv bob not sure where you get £140bn for the cost of trident. Even the clearly ludicrous greenpece figure only says £97bn.

    @sesenco do you really think a general election is the right time to start criticizing a policy, however idiotic.

    Gavin is right about some of our policies. We need to change our policy making process in light of the fact that they will be subject to serious scrutiny and that we might be able to implement them. The only three policies anyone had heard of in the election were tuition fees (popular but unaffordable), the euro (clearly bonkers given what happened to Ireland and Greece) and the immigration amnesty (fabulously unpopular).

  • Hywel wrote,

    “However what they would do in practice is 3 months of populist nonsense and a snap election”

    Whcih is what Jim Callaghan and John Major did, I guess.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 18th Oct '10 - 5:56pm

    “… I admire the tenacity of those who are still trying to argue most of the public don’t think Nick and his clique are almost indestiguishable from the Tories …”

    Is Nick’s clique by any chance related to Tony’s cronies?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 18th Oct '10 - 5:58pm

    “However what they would do in practice is 3 months of populist nonsense and a snap election”

    I doubt whether that will be a realistic option for them after the next week or two, but we’ll see.

  • Simon McGrath,

    “@sesenco do you really think a general election is the right time to start criticizing a policy, however idiotic.”

    No, I don’t. It should be done at the formulation stage. What I am hinting at is that some people may be denouncing these policies now out of loyalty to Nick Clegg and support for the coalition and to wrong-foot internal party opponents by smearing them as unrealistic looney liberals. A consistent record on these policies would vitiate that charge.

  • @Simon McGrath

    I trust the an in-depth greenpeace study more than an MOD which is famous for always underestimating costs. The £140 Billlion comes with other defence spending such as the carriers and the JSF aircraft. But £97 Billion worth of pointless Trident cold war posturing would still cover the costs of the cuts.

    And those who think the Conservatives can call a snap election now are living in a dream world.
    The cuts and tax rises are going through and it’s going to be downhill all the way from here on in for the Conservatives polling. We’ve had to take the brunt of the poll shock so far but there will be no escape for Cameron after the cuts. We all know there’s no way Cameron will risk calling a snap election when he’s behind in the polls. That short window of opportunity Cameron had for that tactic has now gone.

    Liberal Democrats will actually have a strengthened negotiating position once Conservative polling starts to fall. And be in no doubt, it will. We’ve been the ones who had everything to lose so far, but that equation changes when the Cameron fears losing an election.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Oct '10 - 6:44pm

    A lot of good sense here – this was clearly the mood of people at Liverpool. Ignore one or two of the usual headbangers like Gavin Grant. As for Germany and the FDP in a rather different political culture – let’s see how it pans out in the end. The FDP further into the parliament than us have lost two thirds of their support according to the polls. We, only 6 months in, have so far lost about 40% on average. We can still win council by-elections against the Tories if we fight on strictly local issues. I don’t think any of these seats have been won by putting out lots of leaflets about the coalition. But our average votes in non-target seats are consistently going down.

    All is as yet fast from lost but there will need to be a considerable shift of approach at the top if we are going to survive to 2015 as a successful party in good heart. For the moment, to the many active members having serious doubts, I say – stick in here, we can make it work.

    Tony Greaves

  • Mark Inskip 18th Oct '10 - 8:59pm

    A well argued piece!

    @Gavin Grant
    I think you’ve got a little learning to do about German politics

  • Good article

    Coalition is not fusion.

    I would rather see the two parties sit separately in the Commons and I find it incredible to watch Clegg nodding at comments made by Cameron et al that he actively campaigned against 6 months ago.

    This is the behaviour that has lost the party my vote – and it seems like I am not the only one.

    I just cannot see how the next election will be approached by the party – what are they going to put forward as realistic policies that are opposed to the Tories – the planks of the last manifesto and things that the party has held dear for a long time have been discarded

  • George Kendall wrote:

    “Where I completely agree with you is the need for our ministers to defend the deficit reduction programme.”

    So what do we say, then?

    How about: “One million more unemployed! The Tory (oops Coalition) government has really made a difference!”

    Or: “We have to make these cuts, otherwise the economy will collapse. Yes, we said exactly the opposite when we were trying to get your votes last May, but the economy took a sudden turn for the worse while we were having terms imposed on us by the Tories (sorry, negotiating the Coalition Agreement) and we now admit we were talking a load of rubbish during the election and the Conservatives were right all along.”

    “But, if we are seen to have been able to take necessary but extremely tough decisions, then our credibility as a potential party of government will have been immeasurably enhanced.”

    And black is white.

  • @Mark Thomas.

    have you ever considered the possibility that Nick Clegg doesn’t actually have much political distance between him and cameron and is now simply saying what he beleives. Do remember the talk during our leadership election (including by Chris Hulme ) about NIcks hidden agenda . Do remeber the savaging of most of his own front bench on an aeroplane as reported in the press and never (to the best of my knowledge) denied.

  • @Tony Greaves
    I say – stick in here, we can make it work.

    Good sentiments Tony ..but realistically what is the plan ? (Not making a cheap comment simply really and truly can’t think of one myself..) ?

  • Good article Mark.

    It has got to the stage where the party needs to ask “what do we believe in”?

    The recent weeks have shown not compromise from LD ministers – but capitulation. Loyal party members may be able to accept that out of deeply-held passion for the party – but these people make up what – 2 to 3% of the LD electorate?

    Without a clear narrative distancing the party from the Tories, the public will continue to turn their backs on the party. I’ve lived under Coalition in Germany – and its nothing like the version that Cameron + Clegg have built.

  • 1 we don’t have any choice but to stick in there and try and make it work – alternative? our party runs away from power, unfettered Tory government….
    2 a lot could be done with a change in tone: a few fewer smiles, a shift along the lines Mark suggests (we miss your blog Mark)
    3 this is in danger of becoming a “government ministers” v “the rest of the party” show. We have to pull them towards us, not let them drag us towards them. There’s only 20 odd of them – surely we can exert some gravitational pull back towards the centre of the party?

  • Trevor Morgan 19th Oct '10 - 10:46am

    Gavin Grant supported mark Oaten to be Party Leader.
    That says plenty about his political acumen!

  • “we could ditch Trident”

    Not really. That’s not realpolitik, and it isn’t likely at all given the Tories have 5 times as many seats, and Labour don’t oppose Trident either.

    Please stick to sensible, workable solutions please.

  • @Mark Thompson

    That’s another great article on the Coalition. Completely agree. My own fear is that our leadership has little strategic thinking in its intellectual approach to being in government. And this has been in evidence since before the election, when activists were being told that they could win in seats that we, actually, had no chance of taking from the Tories/Labour. Our leadership would do well to heed the advice of this poster.

  • @blanco
    “we could ditch Trident”

    Not really. That’s not realpolitik, and it isn’t likely at all given the Tories have 5 times as many seats, and Labour don’t oppose Trident either.”

    I think you misunderstand. I don’t think the poster is saying this is what the Lib Dems should be suggesting, as you are right, there is no chance of success with this path. No, I think the poster is merely showing that the real reason we are ditching our tuition fees policy is that it is not a priority, over and above all the other things the Lib Dems and the Coalition as a whole, must/want to/have agreed to do.

  • Has it occurred to anyone that maybe the electorate (or at least a big proportion) might not respond positively to the Lib Dems going on about how they don’t like X or Y policy but are forced to accept it? Or that we screwed this or that out of the Tories? Do the polls not still indicate that most of them like the idea of the 2 parties genuinely co-operating to tackle the enormous economic and other problems? Are they necessarily all that interested in whether the Tories like this bit or the Lib Dems don’t like that bit?

    It is we the activists that worry about these things. In a sense we need a message stream of comfort for ourselves about how influential we are being – which incidentally I am convinced we are, including the Trident deferral this very day (sorry yesterday, forgot how late it was). Our success with the electorate at large will at least partly be based on being seen to be in there in government and hacking it.

    George Kendall makes a perceptive point about the cuts – we must be seen to own this as well as most if not all of everything else if we are to get our share of the accolades when it all works. If it doesn’t work we’re all f****d anyway.

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