Opinion: We need to grab our current luck and champion the Lib Dems

Far too often, information about the work our ministers are doing reaches us, and the general public, through a cloud of white noise created by the media. The information that we local activists get from Lib Dem HQ can be drowned out by what we read and hear elsewhere. It’s often difficult to tease out our ministers’ achievements in government from the work of the government as a whole. But in the past few weeks we seem to have found a way of dispersing our uncertainty and showing the public that we stand for something tangibly different from our coalition partners.

The discussion about energy policy offers a way of unlocking the conundrum we have faced for the past two and a half years. How do we remain constructive partners in coalition, while reassuring voters that we are different from the Tories?

It was my great pleasure to chair a session with Ed Davey last weekend at the south central regional conference. He spoke with great conviction about the changes his department is making to energy policy.

David Cameron, by demonstrating how little he understands long term energy policy, has handed that opportunity to us on a plate. Our ministers are showing a united front. Danny Alexander has said that he will resist Tory attempts to do away with renewable energy subsidies. Vince Cable has described these attempts as “short-sighted and foolish.” We are consistent in our message that we are on a different side to the Tories when it comes to balancing short term popularism against long term, sustainable policy.

Over the past year, our South Central region has done very well in by-elections, especially against the Tories. Local elections have been successfully fought on local messages. Now we need to translate votes for us locally into votes for us in the general election. As we all know that is not an easy task. We need messages that spell out clearly what we stand for nationally.

We can put these messages in our Focuses, but it is what people read and hear in the national media that moulds their opinion of us as a party of government. Perhaps we have just been lucky with the row over energy policy. We should grab that luck and run with it. Where there are real differences between us and our coalition partners, we need to be courageous about speaking out.

When I worked in advertising, it was a well known fact that consumers had to see ads at least six times before getting the message. The same is true for our party. We have 18 months to re-educate the public about what we stand for. Energy policy is a start – now we need to find the other points of difference between us and the Tories and get moving on those too. There is no time to lose.

* Cllr Liz Leffman is the Leader of Oxfordshire County Council.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I agree, as the Tories go more and more Tory on things in the run up to the election, we need to stand firm and steadfast.

    If we do, then we could earn a lot of respect from the voting public which does not believe this should become a short-sighted country of hate and waste.

    Of course, we need to be realistic, it will take much effort to get the vast majority of the cynical voting public to trust us again, but this could be a good start in showing them that far from being the Tory lapdogs, we have actually spent the last five years – as it will be then – fighting tooth and nail against the most extreme excesses of Tory madness, whilst also trying to get a few of our own ideas into the mix, as well.

    I think the key will be to ensure we show the public not just what we have stopped the Tories from doing, but also what we have then managed to achieve in place of that. This way, we can show we are a real and constructive alternative to the status quo because unlike Labour, we do not just find problems, we create solutions, even when in the most difficult of positions.

  • I am sorry, we are going to need big sacrifices at the highest level to show people we have genuinely changed our minds and are on their side. If we don’t impose those sacrifices ourselves, we will all go down the same plughole. Yes, Liz, of course there is much in common between political and commercial advertising, not least psychologically. But what people want most from us as principled politicians (I almost put inverted commas around that phrase), is for us to distinguish ourselves from business and its pressures, not to show how closely we resemble, and in many cases how closely allied we are, with business. That is how we should be distinguishing ourselves from the Tories and nuLabour adherents. Anything less people will not find credible.

  • And a return to our long held principles, which of course, includes an anti-nuclear power policy, a commitment to local democracy actually running, controlling and funding major services, like education (rapidly being centralised and commercialised), social care (admitted to being on its last legs and “in crisis”), a commitment to using income tax (or an equally progressive tax system) to fund a variety of public services and utilities, and use of the public sector as owner, not a rolling programme of privatisation, which has become an extension of Thatcher beyond what we already had.

  • Ian Hurdley 4th Nov '13 - 8:12am

    On a very simple level we need to spell out what was in the coalition agreement, which we will support, albeit not always gladly, and what is not. We are not bound by policy initiatives by the Tories which are not in that agreement; they will be evaluated on their merits and their congruence with Lib Dem values. If they fail that test, they will be vigorously opposed. This already happens, but how many voters realise that that is what underlies the media’s “coalition in crisis” stories.

  • Patrick Smith 4th Nov '13 - 1:15pm

    I am as a community L/D activist completely committed to our main task of showing our local supporters that we are distinctive in government and have championed the causes of the needy and vulnerable in the `Coalition Agreement’; clear on state pensions,`pupil premium’ help for childcare for 2 year olds and the handing back of £700 per capita to all qualifying lowest earners in employment and abolition of ID Cards and Childrens` d/b records at airports.

    There is a phalanx of L/D distinctive policy stemming from the `Coalition Agreement’ that is clear Election vote winning food and drink and water for all L/D candidates.

    But I ask importantly, could someone explain given -that the L/D energy policy is united and relentless on safeguarding the green tax i.e.10% of annual billing for average energy consuming families how is the prospect of paying the additional 10% -now being charged by the `Big Six’ energy cartel providers-to be tackled, in real terms, of required national policy, on reducing the choice of `Heat or Eat’ for tens of thousands of vulnerable homes this Winter?

  • “On a very simple level we need to spell out what was in the coalition agreement, which we will support, albeit not always gladly, and what is not. We are not bound by policy initiatives by the Tories which are not in that agreement; they will be evaluated on their merits and their congruence with Lib Dem values. If they fail that test, they will be vigorously opposed.”

    That’s going to be a big problem for you, because it implies that you’ve decided that things like the NHS reorganisation and secret courts are “congruent” with Lib Dem values.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Nov '13 - 2:31pm

    How do we remain constructive partners in coalition, while reassuring voters that we are different from the Tories?

    Stop going on and on about how wonderful it is to be “in government” and how this means the party has changed so much and become completely different from what is used to be. Admit that what we have is a “miserable little compromise”.

  • Steve Griffiths 6th Nov '13 - 6:24pm

    Patrick Smith makes a very valid point about how the estimated 3.5M people in the UK in fuel poverty will cope this coming winter and how the Lib Dems sticking to their policy of safeguarding environmental levies will help these people in the short term. Liz, you state that you wish to reassure voters that the Lib Dem policy is different from the Tories – fine – it may be, but how reassuring is it for those in fuel poverty to know that? They need assistance now. How Liz, as someone that previously worked in advertising, are you going to sell that in Focuses and on the doorstep?

    I think this thread illustrates how the Lib Dems have changed in recent years and have largely forgotten the poor, as a Lib Dem peer wrote earlier this year on this website, of the Bedroom Tax that it;

    “is a typical policy devised and imposed by people who would never live in social housing, who would not apply any such restrictions on themselves, who have little understanding of what it is like to live on a low income (that is to say be poor), and have little knowledge or understanding of how social housing actually works, or the circumstances in such local communities.”

    So it is with fuel poverty. West Oxfordshire is an affluent area with few, I suspect, in energy poverty. It’s an area I know well, living as I do 2 or 3 villages away from Charlbury and having been 8 years a Lib Dem district councillor and more years as activist in the area. I know there will be some even here that will struggle to pay their fuel bills this winter and the Lib Dems seem to have only their ‘Tory differentiated’ policy to offer them.

    As a former Young Liberal and then secretary of the old Oxford City Liberal party in the 1970s I was pushing the party towards a ‘green agenda’ when it was unfashionable. I support renewable energy subsidies, but Lib Dems have to offer more than platitudes to those who cannot afford to heat their homes. With the recent haemorrhaging away of the left leaning members, so also goes the experiences of those who (like me) were raised in social housing, who know the fear of homelessness and know how it is to live on low incomes. I have made the point on this website before; that I suspect that those who advise the Lib Dem Leadership, the Parliamentary Party and the policy makers are unlikely to have had these experiences either, or even consult those who have. The party is collectively poorer and more ignorant as a result. Is it any wonder that so many committed activists formerly on the left of the party have departed?

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