Opinion: Vince Rocks (And So Can You!)

Vince Cable has deservedly won much praise for his recent performance as acting leader of the Liberal Democrats. He has set a high standard for next week’s victor to match. The danger is that we will treat Vince’s performance as an entertaining interlude before normal service is resumed. Instead, we should analyse and understand the generic lessons that the next leader (and other leading Lib Dems) can learn and apply.

There are essentially six things that Vince has got right:

1) Moral clarity – Politics is ultimately about making moral choices. Vince’s statements make it clear that he has a sense of right and wrong. You may not agree with him, but his moral standpoint is unambiguous. Such conviction is important because voters relate far more strongly to values than they do policies. The battle for hearts and minds takes place on the battleground of values, not ‘carefully-costed programmes’ or ‘ten-point plans’. We need detailed policies so that we have something we could implement if elected, but there is a crucial difference between programmes and values. We need to give people positive reasons to support us. These come from connecting emotionally rather than hoping the voters will pore over policy details. (Anyone interested in exploring this issue further should read George Lakoff’s recent book, ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate’).

2) Focus – Vince’s messages are uncluttered. He has focused on just a few issues (such as Northern Rock and the debt crisis) and has hammered them home again and again. He has avoided the temptation to speak out on too many diverse issues, which would have dissipated his impact. Instead, he has enabled the party to stake out distinct territory and set the agenda.

3) Simple propositions – Note “simple” and not simplistic. Vince’s statements did not abandon intellectual rigour. But there is an art to taking a complex idea and boiling it down to a proposition that anyone can grasp. This is not about “dumbing down” but being concise. As a result, everyone is clear what the Liberal Democrats would have done differently with Northern Rock. For all George Osborne’s shrill point-scoring, can one say the same of the Tories?

4) Balls – Vince has taken risks, but some have suggested that only a temporary leader can afford to do this. Why? There is no reason why our next (non-temporary) leader cannot show an equal degree of testicular fortitude. As Charles Kennedy demonstrated with the Iraq War, bravery pays dividends. Liberal Democrats are too inclined to pull their punches for fear of causing offence. We have acquired the unfortunate habit of adopting policies only to hedge them with qualifications or express them in mealy-mouthed terms. This “on the one hand, on the other hand” approach neither enthuses our base nor challenges our opponents. There is no point having any policy unless we are prepared to argue for it passionately. It’s time for Liberals to come out of the closet.

5) Killer instinct – Vince Cable and Gordon Brown are old friends from way back. This did not inhibit Vince from making his killer “Mr Bean” remark. Politics is not a nice business and there are times when we must be aggressive and go for our opponents’ jugular.

6) Wit – Vince’s jokes at PMQs may not have been in the same league as Dorothy Parker, but they were top notch by parliamentary standards. Wit, when used with economy and precision, can have a devastating effect. It also ensures that you are remembered. Vince himself has remarked that he overheard his jokes being repeated in the pub. Is there any higher political accolade?

* Simon Titley, besides helping to write and produce Liberator magazine, is also a public relations consultant.

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8 Comments

  • Vince disputes the description of him and Gordon as old friends…

  • As well as moral clarity (Saudi), Vince has also been an expert (Northern Rock). This is different, and we can’t all do it. Neither Ming nor Charles could have played Northern Rock as well as Vince. Vince has been banging on to the serious media about this sort of thing for years. He was credible.

    I would add one more point. Vince has shown that the leader needs to lead. Who did Vince consult over whether to accept the invitation to dine with Mr Saudi at Buckingham Palace? Not many people, I will wager. He did what was right because he knew it was right.

    Second, on debt and Northern Rock. Vince has spent the last couple of years working up a critique here. He has not taken it to party conference, FPC has not commissioned a working group to look at it. It is an area that Vince knows about, and he got on and did it – and now we, as a party, are reaping the benefits.

    In short, then, Vince has bounced us. The lessons that I draw from this is that (1) sometimes you need to make policy quickly, and that means on your own or with advisors (MPs or other), (2) when you have expertise, as Vince does on the economy, you can and should use it.

    The party was clearly supportive of Vince on the Saudi issue. He was principled, and right. On Northern Rock most party members have no clue as to what should have been done as the crisis began, or what should be done now: it is a technical issue. Here it does make sense to trust someone who understands the issue, and for the rest of us (frankly) to shut up and let Vince get on with it.

    [semi-cross posted to the 100 days thread]

  • Great questions from Vince today (and a good come back to GB on job security!). Very impressed. Now back to work..

  • Simon Titley 12th Dec '07 - 6:58pm

    Tim @3 – I don’t fully agree with your analysis. You are correct that Vince has considerable authority in economic matters, which comes from his undoubted expertise. This credibility is clearly an asset, which, as you say, not everyone has. However, I began my posting by observing that “politics is ultimately about making moral choices”. Expertise reinforces moral choices but does not trump them. To believe otherwise is to believe in technocracy. And in any case, one can find an expert to back any position you care to name.

    Second, I do not agree that Vince “bounced” the party into its policy on debt and Northern Rock. True, he did not submit his policy via the party’s formal procedures, but he developed this line in plain view and it clearly struck a chord with the party. Had his position not been broadly acceptable, the party would have reacted accordingly.

    You are right that Vince has displayed leadership on debt-related issues. But he carried the party with him rather than seek a confrontation.

    Finally, your belief that some political issues are too complicated for “the rest of us” to understand is plainly both technocratic and undemocratic in its sentiment. A similar argument is being trotted out to justify dispensing with jury trials!

    All political choices are ultimately moral rather than technical in character. That is why experts should advise but not decide.

  • I think Vince has deservedly won the plaudits in the media and here of course, for his porformance. He has done it by being himself, standing by his principles and issues he has already made his own. But self belief and a determination to raise the unpalatable truth with GB is all important in getting a different message across.

  • Teflon Tony 13th Dec '07 - 9:51am

    I think it is crazy that you are giving this guy the boot !!

    He would do very well as a leader up until the next General Election. His age might become an issue after Gordon Brown has been replaced – but until then he might be a useful thorn in the side of the Government..

  • @7

    We are not “giving this guy the boot”.

    He could have chosen to contest the election, but felt that he would be portrayed as “old and bald” by the media. I fear he was right.

    He has also, as a temporary leader, and no long-term threat, had an easy ride from other parties’ MPs.

    It suits others – especially the Tories – to “build up” Vince so that they can run down whoever is elected leader.

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