Opinion: Towards a Strategic Narrative

What good luck to experience an event which illustrates the complete futility of a course of behaviour. Could our party be more lucky? Yet many still ascribe the defeat to the SNP , the media, whatever; despite the decline happening across the period of this parliament.

Our defeat is due to the lack of a strategic narrative The regular voter prefers a party with a clear programme which they stick to. They have been offered a party which explains its position only in relation to other parties and with unconnected policies diluted by the compromises of coalition.

“A stronger economy, a fairer society”? Why not just, “A Fairer Society”? Success, is persuading the public to adopt your narrative. Specific policies must be linked to a coherent account of what the party wants to achieve, how it is going to achieve it and why it wants to do so.

A liberal may believe that preserving the liberal viewpoint and avoiding the excesses of the other parties will be sufficient. A Liberal Democrat narrative needs to be more positive and specific.

The preamble to our constitution talks about balancing Liberty, Equality and Community. We want people to be free, equal and linked into their community.

Liberty has different aspects: it includes that control of government should be as close as possible to the people affected and free from the powers of large organisations. It includes the active interference of government to prevent power concentrating. Equality includes not accepting gross inequality. Value has to be spread more widely. Socialism? Possibly, but not in the centralised planned manner that has failed so many times since 1945. Without Community, all else fails. We cannot say, “devil take the hindmost”. We are far too complacent about the massive “tail” of dispossessed, disadvantaged, disturbed and disabled people that our society has sloughed off onto the bottom of the heap.

The construction of a narrative that persuasively and dramatically links this ethos to the programme and policies is more difficult. Above all we are a party of change. It is impossible for such a party to go into coalition with a Conservative party. There can only be manipulation and domination of one party by another. We tried to do something impossible. The result was as expected.

A narrative will lose votes as well as win them. But a coherent view of liberalism is essential. That may mean a fight. And those that lose it may need to go. And the new leader, whatever their strengths, must not be a politician directly associated with the coalition government.

The aim of the party is a Liberal Democrat government. Not a coalition. If a Liberal Democrat government is best for the country then anything that prevents that is bad. “Going into coalition for the good of the country” makes no sense. So, no coalition – but if an accommodation is necessary, a clear core of belief needs to be demonstrable, both before and after negotiation, and be central to how we present ourselves all through.

Without a strategic narrative the strength of a campaigning machine is irrelevant. The narrative, once developed must be the dominant element, locally as well as nationally.

The term “Strategic Narrative” is taken from Emile Simpson’s “War from the Ground Up

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Sammy O'Neill 26th May '15 - 4:46pm

    Our defeat is down to being fundamentally weak on policy, and failing to inspire what should be our core electorate. “Narrative” is a meaningless term to me, and I would say most people outside of the political world. I’m a student and aside from funding for mental health, the awareness I found from friends/peers of Lib Dem policy at the last election was effectively no existent. The party for those wanting radical change or “thought out policies “(not that I agree they were thought out personally) was overwhelmingly the Greens. On campus at least they were far far more effective at getting their message across to students than the Lib Dems, or indeed other parties were. The social media part of the Lib Dem machinery needs real work in preparation for 2020. A facebook like for a policy announcement is free, but is infinitely more powerful in spreading the content of said policy than an old fashioned leaflet will ever be with the young. Questions probably need to be asked about how to increase the number of young activists in the party as well; I have observed a significant rise in the average age of local activists in my area in the past few years. Absolutely nothing wrong with that of course, but younger activists are critical to any recovery I feel.

    I accept the above is a very student/young person-centric view, but in urban areas this is where the lib dems have shed much of their support from. The solutions for seats with different demographics are likely to differ I accept.

  • Good post Sammy

  • Jonathan Pile 26th May '15 - 5:35pm

    Strategic Narrative ? – #deathbyfocusgroup . The party lost it’s connection with the 24%. Simple. Every general fights the last war instead of preparing for the next. The party promised no austerity, no tuition fees , fair votes and a different kind of politics. It delivered none of these. From a position of principle we need to advocate things that the people (especially our voters) actually want and support instead of the opposite. For example when 60% of voters oppose HS2 (including our voters) why be its most enthusiastic advocates ? – We need a simple message like Britain United for example.

  • Richard Marbrow 26th May '15 - 6:24pm

    This post filled me with sadness.

    “Our defeat is due to the lack of a strategic narrative ” No. Our defeat was due to a number of reasons, all of them contributing to the scale of it.

    “That may mean a fight. And those that lose it may need to go.” Another poster advocating a purge of those who do not agree with their version of Liberal Democracy. Apart from that fact that political parties are a broad church while pressure groups and cults are those that do not tolerate purity, anyone who wants to make the party smaller rather than larger is not thinking things through.

    “Not a coalition. If a Liberal Democrat government is best for the country then anything that prevents that is bad.” _ Liberal Demcracy is a pluralist philosophy and therefore does not view coalition as inherently bad. There are good coalitions and bad coalitions. Also, there is a phrase ‘never let the best be the enemy of the better’. If a coalition will be more LIberal Democratic than the alternative that is not necessarily bad. Imperfection is part of any democracy and as a good democracy requires governments to protect the rights and voice of the minority as well as the majority, any commitment to majoritarian absolutism is not a Liberal Democratic commitment.

    A poor post in my opinion.

  • David Evershed 26th May '15 - 6:26pm

    I agree that most people don’t know what the Liberal Democrats stand for, nor what the implications are of developing policies from a liberal point of view.

    However, where I am probably going to depart from Tony Harms is that liberal is and should be applied to Liberal Democrat economic and business policies, as well a social policies. So being liberal means agreeing with free markets, free trade and freedom for businesses from government intervention as well as individual freedom from government control.

  • Mavarine Du-Marie 26th May '15 - 7:22pm

    Having looked at the process before commenting.


    I think with working towards the aim as to be in government as a political party, this is strategy is necessary and essential.


  • “Narrative” is just a fancy way of saying “story.” Perhaps part of the Lib Dems’ narrative — and one which may not go over terribly well — is that they are the party of fancy words!

    But other parties don’t really have or need stories. They do, however, have identities which can be expressed in extremely brief terms. The Tories are the party of the well-to-do. Labour are the party of the working man. UKIP are the party of brassed-off Little England. The SNP are the party of patriotic Scots. And so forth.

    The Lib Dems have for quite a while been the party of the dissatisfied floating voter and the tactical voter. That’s a little hard to express (without sounding opportunistic and cynical, anyway) but it is actually a workable identity. The problem with identity, however, is that you have to protect it. If you’re not careful about comporting yourself in a manner consistent with your identity, you can lose your identity, or have it stolen from you. To some extent this is what has happened to the Liberal Democrats.

    Some people tried to create a new identity for the Liberal Democrats as “free marketeers for same-sex marriage.” This is a valid political identity, and probably appeals to people like Jeremy Browne, David Laws, and a few others. The problem is that there may not be enough people who are satisfied with that identity to elect a single MP, and the Tories already have that demographic pretty much sewn up. And while we were working on tilling that barren field, all of the floating voters that had once voted for us went off to the SNP, the Greens, and UKIP, and the tactical voters went back to Labour or the Tories.

  • A workable story — one that’s worked in the past for the Lib Dems, at any rate — would be that the Liberal Democrats are the party of clean hands, straight talk, and good government. But to make that work, hands would actually have to be clean, talk straight, and government good, and right now we have a problem with all three of those.

  • Jonathan Pile 26th May '15 - 8:05pm

    andy & tony
    Having re-read my post, Tony’s article and your response – I kind of agree. Tony’s point that we need to tell a strong and simple story that people can understand and buy into is correct. My only qualifying point is that is had to be a story people want to believe. our story in 2010 was strong and people wanted it. in 2015 it was weak and people didn’t want to hear it.

  • George Potter 26th May '15 - 8:16pm


    This is actually one of these topics where “valence issues” come into play. People didn’t vote Green because they knew Green policy in detail and thought it was the best policy – they voted Green because the few policies they’d heard of gave them the impression that the Greens shared their values and could be trusted on the issues they cared about.

    Voters don’t vote based on policies, by and large, they vote on gut instinct about parties. We have plenty of well developed, well thought out policy – and many of our individual policies are often far more popular than our party is. The problem is that we’ve never been able to weave our policies (whatever they’ve been) and our values into a convincing narrative to make enough people think we’re the best party to trust on particular issues.

    Have a look at polls of which party is best on a particular issue – there’s not a single topic in my recollection where we get a lower proportion of people who think we’re best on an issue than our overall national support level.

  • Little Jackie Paper 26th May '15 - 8:48pm

    Jonathan Pile – ‘we need to tell a strong and simple story that people can understand and buy into is correct.’

    I have to admit that I’m less and less sure about that. The Conservative manifesto was a strange mix of an identifiable hard-right programme but running through it were things like triple locked pensions, increased NHS funds and rail price freezes. Whatever you or I might think, clearly someone voted for it. Similarly look at Ed M’s biggest successes as Labour leader – opposition to conflict in Syria, energy reference pricing, non-dom abolition and some sort of mansion tax. All of those had more than a simple appeal in the sense that they all had some credible level of support across the classic (outdated) left/right spectrum.

    The next few years will be, in all probability, dominated by debates about the EU – an issue that historically has divided most political parties.

    Whatever the future holds, I suspect it won’t be simple.

  • Sammy O'Neill 27th May '15 - 12:58am


    To me the core electorate in a lot of our former urban seats were students and young professionals/aspiring professionals under 35 reinforced by a healthy protest/none of the above vote. In others which are more rural though (I’m thinking of places like Berwickshire, Berwick, the South West seats etc) it seemed more diverse and far less student/young person-centric.

    In the younger seats we got slaughtered partly due to tuition fees, partly due to the Greens emerging and because of the toxicity of being linked to the Conservatives. This vote is going to be difficult to recover without a wholesale shift in policy positions and a clear out of leading figures in the party. Realistically I wonder if it’s actually possible outside of a few choice exceptions such as Bath and Cambridge without said clear out. That is why I am dismayed that the new leader will be one of our surviving MP’s. Someone tainted by government is not what we need.

    The other broad category of seat is where I personally see our recovery coming if it does indeed occur. The ground work local parties have put in over the year is likely to count for more given the population is less fluid (students constantly moving on means student heavy areas are less susceptible to this form of campaigning arguably) and probably have a stronger tradition of voting lib dem/stronger remaining council representation.

    I may well be naive/ignorant/foolish to believe all of the above, but it’s how I feel.

  • Mavarine Du-Marie 27th May '15 - 6:25am

    “Liberal Democrats: are the party of straight talk and good government”

    That is a workable story and identity.

  • peter tyzack 27th May '15 - 10:09am

    The Preamble to our constitution defines who we are, and who should be members. Anyone who supports the preamble should be part of our movement, anyone who doesn’t does not belong.
    The preamble sets down the principles by which we operate and on which our policies are based. They are the true British principles which define us, and we are going to stick to them. We should expose anyone who doesn’t support them as being anti-British and anti-democratic.
    Other parties have made much mileage talking of ‘British jobs..’, of waving our flag, of the fear of being swamped by migration; and a common thread throughout has been a quest for ‘what does it mean to be British’. We have the answer, the very definition is implicit in our constitution, and that’s what we should be identifying and talking up. If you are truly British then you believe, as we do, in these fundamental values, and you will want to join us.

  • @david-1

    >part of the Lib Dems’ narrative — and one which may not go over
    >terribly well — is that they are the party of fancy words!

    We can’t help it, we’re mostly terribly middle class. To make matters worse, most of our ideas are about helping people less fortunate than ourselves who would never vote for us. We don’t understand those people, but we’d really like to help them!

    I sort of agree with what I understand the original point to be – we’re telling a poor story.

  • David-1

    “Narrative” is NOT just a fancy way of saying “story.” That is no doubt its derivation but Tony Harms is using it quite correctly here in a technical way – as jargon if you like because, as in so many other fields, ordinary language really doesn’t have a suitable word so one has to be invented or borrowed.

    It’s all very well to have values (for instance as expressed in the preamble to the constitution) but those would be widely shared across the political spectrum so of themselves they advance the cause very little. Nor does it help to call for motherhood and apple pie (also widely supported across the spectrum) so saying for instance that LD’s are “the party of straight talk and good government” gets you nowhere. Who would argue the opposite? And can LDs credibly argue that is what they are for until tuition fees and top-down reorganisation of the NHS are long forgotten?

    For me narrative is like a skeleton. It’s absolutely necessary to give shape and form to an organism, it supports and protects vital organs and gives muscles attachment points that enable leverage. Without it an organism is an amorphous blob of jelly like an amoeba which is constrained to remain small and act only locally even when numerous – which is indeed distressingly like the Lib Dems.

    Narrative in the political sphere must begin with an analysis of how society works and what is needed to keep it going and improve it. If you look at other parties you will find that they all offer something of that although with limited credibility which is why the electorate is so unhappy. Some of them lie, others are merely dangerously naïve. So, (to simplify grossly) the Tories think everything wrong is the fault of greedy and lazy workers encouraged by unions and that the solution is to create markets for everything; the SNP blame it on Westminster and propose that running everything from Edinburgh would be so much better, the Greens think it’s all about lack of concern for the environment and that “green” everything will fix it.

    In each case specific policies merely serve to put that narrative into effect – more anti-union legislation and more marketization from the Tories, more independence for the SNP and so on. By and large the public aren’t very interested in specific policies; they have better things to do with their time than become political anoraks so they go with the party that most speaks to their understanding of the world.

    The great weakness of the Lib Dems is that they have never tried to articulate a narrative – or even apparently understand that it was essential remaining content to go with (supposedly) Good Things turned into policies which lacked any internal coherence and were always bound to fail if exposed to stress of being in government.

    Quite why the Lib Dems should be so narrative-blind is a mystery that others can perhaps help with. My suspicion is that it’s partly to do with the formal organisation of the party in general and policy-making specifically as both militate against joined-up thinking. I also think that over the years the leadership has steered away from any debate, possibly because it’s been aware of a deep divide between ‘economic liberals’ and ‘social liberals’, whereas what we need is to find a synthesis that unites these positions. (I think that is difficult but possible). Unfortunately, the only result has been to leave the party marooned in the political shallows. Over many years that in turn led to a subtle change in ambition from challenging for power to merely seeking a ministerial limo.

    On the bright side the GE defeat does represent an opportunity to reboot on a sounder footing. Also, with such a small base and nothing to loose, it’s surely the time to be bold and visionary, to actually offer an, ahem, liberal prospectus rather than trying to find the mythical centre ground.

  • David Allen 27th May '15 - 7:32pm

    It’s really simple – A party needs to have a clear identity, based on clear principles, on a clear description of how it will put those principles into practice, and one a track record which shows that it will generally do what it says it will do. Also, if it decides to target a specific class of voters, or else to identify with a popular cause, then it will make it much easier to define a clear identity.

    The Tories and Labour targeted by class. The SNP, UKIP and Greens each targeted a major cause. The Lib Dems made it far harder for themselves by doing neither of these things.

    Then the Lib Dems decided that their principles, as set out in the Preamble to the Constitution, could be put to one side. They tried out “bold” new ideas such as AV and Lords reform, thereby positioning themselves as anoraks. They declared that they existed in order to be somebody’s sidekick. They talked about a centrist position, but acted as if only the Tories could be their partners. They boasted about achieving things such as raising the tax threshold, while their larger partners happily told everybody that they would have done these things anyway. Above all, they established a clear track record (which I don’t need to spell out) for doing the opposite of what they said they would do.

    They still don’t know why they lost.

  • Mavarine Du-Marie 27th May '15 - 7:34pm

    Nor does it help to call for motherhood and apple pie (also widely supported across the spectrum) so saying for instance that LD’s are “the party of straight talk and good government” gets you nowhere.

    Why does anyone have to throw the baby out with the bath water? As for instance creating a narrative and identity that is easy to bring to mind to the potential supporters to remember as soon as LD name is mentioned. Therefore, how can it be decided in one baby-tossing moment, that it gets someone nowhere, when it hasn’t even began to cry or gurgle with happiness yet?

  • @ Mavarine Du-Marie

    I don’t think anyone is throwing out the baby with the bath water. Motherhood statements have value as slogans and as a call to arms to rally the troops but they are not NARRATIVE. A narrative is a connected account (hence the link to ‘story’) of why things are as they are. From that it usually follows fairly directly what can be done to improve things. It may or may not be true but if not true it will eventually collapse in its own inconsistencies and the bad policy prescriptions it suggests. Lib Dems have not really got beyond motherhood/slogans which, absent narrative, is the sound of one hand clapping. Not surprisingly, no-one heard.

  • @ David Allen – “A party needs to have a clear identity, based on clear principles, on a clear description of how it will put those principles into practice… “

    I think you are missing a step – analysis turned into a narrative. Look at how the Tories do it. Back in the 1970s they proposed that the big problem was the unions using their power to demand unreasonable wages and disrupt services. There was much truth in that and of course it was only the muscle unions (miners train drivers etc.) that benefitted, not teachers, unions and shop workers. They also said that Labour-inspired nationalisation was failing – true enough in many ways with lamentable service from BT and others. So that led naturally and easily to a programme based on reducing union power and (eventually though not initially) privatisations.

    Labour was left reeling; they knew they had no answers. In contrast the Tories told a story that chimed with many people’s experience of strikes so their policy prescriptions seemed reasonable – and to a point they were – and they got elected. Beyond that they managed with remarkable success to argue that There Is No Alternative (TINA) when there clearly is – just not one any of the opposition parties had the wit to articulate.

    The trouble started when the Tories went beyond those early ideas; privatisation of a few state monopolies became a wholesale drive to privatise and outsource everything in sight. Public monopolies subject to state control became private ones, no more efficient, theoretically regulated, in practice largely unregulated. The economy has been gradually reshaped to benefit speculators in the City and in property. Rent extraction is the order of the day. The very process they sponsored has created powerful vested interests who now feed lavishly at the public trough and fund the Tories to secure their position but give society little in return.

    The Tories still cling to this narrative – hence the demonization of unions that continues almost daily on the news even though they haven’t been a power since the mid 1980s. What many now recognise even without any political party calling them out is that the Tories have run out of road, that their policy prescriptions have become increasingly destructive and that the whole edifice and such continuing success as it has depends largely on a property-based Ponzi scheme while the real economy has been hollowed out and shipped offshore.

    So, I think that’s the beginning of a liberal narrative. We should argue forthrightly that too much power is a problem irrespective of whether it’s a union or a plutocrat which at the moment means plutocrats in practice. No-one loves speculators so why not call them out and argue that speculative profits should be subject to a super-tax? If we really wanted to control self-serving PLC directors (surely a hugely popular policy) then we can easily find a way to do that. For instance what about more industrial democracy with real teeth to throw out those who only line their own pockets (something the employees of a firm will have a clear understanding of).

    Of course, any such arguments would draw withering attacks from the Tories. But that would be because we were beginning to draw blood and show that there IS an alternative.

  • Great posts by Gordon!

  • David Allen 28th May '15 - 1:18pm


    I think your analysis and mine are complementary. I have tried to point out why the things the Lib Dems have done over the past ten years have failed to catch the popular imagination. By contrast, you have pointed out the kind of approach which does get through to people.

    “Narrative” is an interesting word. It can perhaps be spelled out as “Write a story around the facts which convinces people that you have rightly identified, and can deliver, a political project which really matters.” With that in mind, it is easy to see why the non-projects and minor projects we have each of us mentioned – Lords reform, coalitionism, “straight talk”, etc – do not fit the bill.

    You are also right to point out that it is not only the “cause” parties (SNP, UKIP, Green) who need a narrative. The “class” parties also need a narrative. In the right circumstances, Macmillan’s simple “You’ve never had it so good!” was an adequate narrative. A key feature of a successful narrative is the ability to deliver. The Greens offered a very strong diagnosis of our disease, but didn’t convince people that they had the medical skills to effect a cure! Labour’s narrative at the last election failed for similar reasons. It included much of what you say above about reining in the plutocrats – but Labour didn’t convince people that Miliband could actually put that into practice effectively.

    As things stand, I am not convinced that either Labour or the Lib Dems have the capacity to learn the lessons and develop a successful narrative. Labour’s lurch back to reheated Blairism ducks these issues and sounds suspiciously like capitulation to the Tories. Lib Dem talk about general principles like freedom and civil liberties hides ourselves away in contemplation of second-rank political topics, and ducks away from the conflict between wealth and poverty. The Tories won, despite a pitifully weak narrative, because their opponents had no viable narrative at all.

  • David Allen – Nicely put. And I totally agree with your last point. The Lib Dems simply aren’t fit for purpose as currently organised and their inability to tackle that deficiency makes them unfit for government given that one of the key tasks must be to make that government fit for purpose in a way that it clearly isn’t at present.

  • Gordon defines a narrative as beginning with how society is and then put forward a way to change it. Recently I have seen Steve Hilton (former Conservative director of strategy) on the BBC publicising his new book “More Human” where he states that government needs to be brought back to the people and large companies controlled to allow new companies to enter the market. This sounds quite liberal to me. I reject his solution of elected mayors but feel we could be calling for more power to local councils. As a start we should return all the powers they have lost since the nineteenth century. We could be calling for regional government with some of the powers that the Welsh assembly has. This would be our way of controlling a dictatorial central government.

    Controlling large businesses and encouraging new entrants is more difficult but we should be looking at how we regulate business in the UK. As Steve Hilton said more needs to be done to ensure that large supermarkets are not treating farmers unfairly. We will need to look at what support we can provide for new entrants and new businesses so they can compete with the “big boys”.

    However this leaves the social sphere without a message and maybe providing a Citizen’s Income and scraping Job Centres and giving the responsibility for helping people find employment should be given to local authorities and well as some powers to influence their local economies and the training provided locally.

    Some people just will not succeed in our current economic system. In the 1960’s they could. It is unlikely we can return to running the economy to ensure that these people will be employed, therefore we need to regulate the labour market to ensure they are employed by giving incentives to business to employ them and fines if they don’t.

    So we would have a clear message we want to help everyone and control the power of central government over people’s lives and control the power of free markets over their lives as well, but not be abolishing free markets but making them be more like the classical model of free markets with much easier entry into the market.

  • I enjoyed many of the comments. This has been my first attempt at a Lib Dem voice piece and editing it down to 500 words had made it much more prescriptive than I would have liked. There is an expanded version at http://tonyharms.com/liberal-democrats/
    I see the narrative as the missing link between the ideals of the party and the specific policies proposed.

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