Opinion: We’ve got our strategy the wrong way round

Liberal Democrat badge - Some rights reserved by Paul Walter, Newbury, UKLast Friday Lib Dem HQ sent out an email to parliamentarians, PPCs, council group leaders and other office holders about our party’s new message script. The full email, if anyone is interested, can be found herehere, courtesy of the Liberator.

Aside from the immensely catchy wordy message of “the Lib Dems are working to build a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life” (complete with an incredible 16 sub messages), a key point was this:

The Labour Party can’t be trusted to manage the economy.
The Conservatives can’t be trusted to build a fair society. 

Let’s never go back to the way things were, because Labour can’t be trusted with your money, and the Tories can’t be trusted to build a fair society.

But there’s a massive problem with this strategy.

Everyone knows that the leadership’s goal is to position us as fairer than the Conservatives and more economically competent than Labour. There’s nothing wrong with that idea. There’s certainly a big gap in British politics for a party viewed as meeting those criteria. But the problem is that the message chosen to try and achieve this will do almost nothing to achieve it.

Polling shows there is hardly a single policy issue on which we are the party most trusted by the public. And on the two big issues of fairness and the economy, it is the Conservatives who are trusted most on the economy and Labour who are trusted most on fairness.

But what is the wisdom of a strategy where we ignore the party viewed as most competent on the economy and just criticise the credentials of the party no one trusts on the economy anyway? Or where we ignore the party viewed as the fairest and just criticise the credentials of a party hardly anyone believes is fair?

Polling has shown, time and time again, what we all know already: If people want fairness they vote Labour. If they want economic competence then they vote Tory. And we will never change that if all we do is agree with the Tories that Labour are rubbish with the finances and agree with Labour that the Tories are rubbish on fairness. All we’ll do is end up reinforcing existing perceptions of the Tories as being unfair and Labour as being incompetent – and this will do almost nothing to boost trust in us on either of those counts.

If we want to be seen as better on the economy then we need to attack the frontrunner – we need to call the Tories out on economic idiocies like wanting to leave the largest market in the world, or thinking that the best way to boost the economy is to abolish worker protection laws and increase the amount of uncertainty and fear amongst consumers.

And if we want to be seen as better on fairness then we need to attack the frontrunner there as well. We need to call Labour out on 13 years where the gap between rich and poor got bigger, where ordinary people saw their incomes stagnate and where Labour regularly demonised the sick, the disabled and the unemployed to win Daily Mail votes instead of doing anything to tackle the problems facing the poorest in our society.

Now, admittedly, we can’t criticise the coalition’s economic record without criticising our own. But we can publicly criticise the more idiotic economic ideas put forward by the Tories as the damaging nonsense they are. And we can definitely criticise Labour on their appalling record of completely ignoring the poorest in society, while taking their votes for granted.

If we were to do that then we still might not be seen as being better on the economy than the Tories and fairer than Labour – but unless we try to achieve that then there is no way we will ever make any significant progress towards being seen as fairer than the Tories and more competent than Labour.

* George Potter is a councillor in Guildford

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  • Where is your evidence for the statement that Labour had ” an appalling record of completely ignoring the poorest in society, while taking their votes for granted.” ?

  • And if we want to be seen as better on fairness then we need to attack the frontrunner there as well. We need to call Labour out on 13 years where the gap between rich and poor got bigger, where ordinary people saw their incomes stagnate and where Labour regularly demonised the sick, the disabled and the unemployed to win Daily Mail votes instead of doing anything to tackle the problems facing the poorest in our society.

    I see today that IDS has called for tax credits to be abandoned – this was Labour’s highly effective way of redistributing some wealth – as well as the usual coalition bile spat at the unemployed and disabled.

    How can you write that paragraph with straight face? Labour were far from perfect, but compared to what the Lib Dems have endorsed by being in Coalition…

  • @George Potter

    I normally agree with most of what you have said in the past and the support you have shown towards the sick and disabled.
    However I am concerned to see your U-Turn on this governments record towards those said people.

    You have boldly taken on this government and your parties welfare reforms in the past, but now you say

    “And if we want to be seen as better on fairness then we need to attack the frontrunner there as well. We need to call Labour out on 13 years where the gap between rich and poor got bigger, where ordinary people saw their incomes stagnate and where Labour regularly demonised the sick, the disabled and the unemployed to win Daily Mail votes instead of doing anything to tackle the problems facing the poorest in our society.”

    This government is hugely responsible or demonizing and vilifying the sick and unemployed. There has been an huge increase in reported disability hate crimes under this government.

    I have got to say it George, I am extremely disappointed to see your U-Turn on this. I have stated before that I had huge admiration for you and I believed the future hope for the party was with the likes of people like yourself and Liberal Youth, now I am not so sure.
    Very disappointing.

  • So George, your idea is that we attack Labour on fairness and the Tories on the economy and continue in the coalition? You will need to flesh that one out a bit more. I do see some point in pushing LIb Dems as a party that strives for fairness with economic competence.

    Incidentally, Margaret, I imagine that George is referring to the extraordinary widening of the gulf between rich and poor during the 13 years of Labour and the triangulation policies that often meant ignoring the core vote whilst chasing for socially, politically and economically illiberal measures that they thought might appeal to Conservative voters. However you are correct to note a tone of hyperbole in the article: “completely ignoring”is not correct. Labour spent a lot that was unsustainable often with reasonable intentions, including creating many public sector jobs that do not do enough to be justified.

    Quite a number of those living in the traditional Labour fiefdoms and who were cynically ignored by Labour voted Lib Dem, mostly to minimal effect in terms of seats won. Most will return to the Labour fold at the next election (again to minimal effect) and will rapidly become disgruntled again if Labour take on the reins of government.

    What I feel is missing in the fairness v economic competence division is sufficient vision, promoting a Liberal society.There needs to be a distinctive presentation of how Liberal and Democratic values can enhance society.

    Nonetheless, The Liberator appears to have done useful service in publicising where the Lib Dems are positioning themselves with respect to the two other parties.

  • Paul Ankers 31st Dec '12 - 2:46pm

    This is an inspiring piece because it is very very correct.

    I used to bemoan Labour for concentrating their attacks on us when and fool could tell they needed to attack the Tories and in a way we are making the same error. The strategy does seem to be designed to make us everyone’s second option. It is defensive rather than offensive. That may be the error that is writ large in our DNA.

    I do wonder if it is a strategy that is designed to generate a base. ‘Do you like to be fair AND economically competent? Don’t know where to turn? Have you considered the Liberal Democrats? ‘ The time to generate a base would be now after all.

  • I do agree that we should be, and proclaim to be, both more competent and fairer than both Labour and the Tories.

    But I’d also change the message to be not entirely negative of other parties. Labour did do good things, and the Tories occassionally do something worthwhile too. I don’t think we should be afraid to say that. Did our “electoral market” really say they wanted more negative campaigning? We’re saying that Labour can’t be trusted and the Tories can’t be trusted, while trust in the LDs is of course unlikely to be high. Is that going to enthuse the British people – especially the young – about politics and voting in 2015?

    Our platform should be one of fairness and competence, that beats all other parties, but the emphasis should be on that positive vision of the future, with practical policies, rather than denigrating everyone else.

  • @George

    But your piece seems to suggest that the demonisation and vilification of the sick, disabled and unemployed was worse under the Labour government.

    I do not believe that to be true at all.

    Yes it is fair to say that the gap between rich and poor widened under Labour, and some of labours policies on welfare were very shocking, especially when it came to the WCA and ATOS.
    But this government has a much worse and shocking record when it comes to these policy area’s

    Benefits are seeing a real terms cut, supported by this party and embraced by Nick Clegg judging by his centre forum speech.
    Child poverty is on the increase and we are seeing a massive increase in the reliance of food banks to feed struggling families.
    The stick being used to batter the vulnerable has been getting ever longer and wider under this coalition government.

    You might claim that these are the Tories policies and are not part of the Liberal Democrats, but the truth is, this party has enabled the government to enact them.

    The party has shown a willingness to stand firm against the Tories when it came to HOL reforms and the Boundary Review, refusing to back the Boundary Review. There is also suggestions that Nick Clegg is skating on thin ice with the party over the secret courts policy. So the party does have a backbone, the problem is their priorities are all wrong, they chose to exercise this muscle on reforms and civil liberties, but not prepared to do so for the most vulnerable people in society. That speaks volumes.

    So I am sorry George, but in my opinion, this government and the Liberal Democrats have been far worse than the previous administration when it comes down the disabled, sick and unemployed.

  • “we need to call the Tories out on economic idiocies like wanting to leave the largest market in the world”

    Quite right. Needs saying again and again.

  • Ordinarily I would think to myself, why should I care how the Liberal Democrats chose to campaign on the next election. I am not a member of the party, so why should I care.

    But the truth is George as I said in my previous post. I saw the future of the party in people like you, Liberal Youth, I look to certain posters on here who I admire and respect their opinions.
    David Allen,
    Alex Marsh
    Matthew Huntbach (at times lol)
    to name just a few
    I await to see if these people can take back command of the party that I might possibly respect and vote for again in the future.
    I am not a Labour supporter as I have said many times, I am a floating voter.
    Labour lost my vote at the last election. I still await to see what they do in order to win back my vote.

    But truth is, I could not support Liberal Democrats again either if they were to be hypocritical when it comes to their record in government on the sick,disabled and unemployed. And I do not believe that it would wash with a majority of the electorate either.

  • Martin Lowe 31st Dec '12 - 3:44pm

    It certainly needs to be said that the reputation of the Tories for being good with the nation’s finances has little basis in fact.

    Wanting to leave the largest market in the world is only the most recent foolish act. There’s other examples, like ordering custom-specification Chinook helicopters for millions of pounds and only being able to fly them in cloud-free skies (thanks to Michael Portillo, Minister of Defence for that one).

    People in the past have asked me why I’m not a Tory, and the answer is very simple – because they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. But if we have to be honest, they often don’t know or care about the price either.

  • The point I’m making is that the Labour record on sick and disabled people is worse than the record of a Liberal Democrat government would be.

    Fantasy. A lib dem majority government was incredibly unlikely in 2010, it’s impossible for the foreseeable future. At best, as in 2010, the best the lib dems can hope for is to be a junior partner in a coalition. Their policies need to reflect this reality otherwise you are open to accusations of dishonesty and delusion.

  • Liberal Neil 31st Dec '12 - 4:14pm

    There is a huge difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘message’ and your article confuses the two quite badly.

    Whether this is the right message (and I happen to think it’s not a bad attempt at this stage) depends on what the party’s strategy is.

  • David Allen 31st Dec '12 - 4:41pm

    Liberal Neil,

    You are largely right to distinguish strategy from message. Our Leader’s strategy is and has been to stick his head up Cameron’s nether regions and keep it there. His original Rose Garden message was that this was a wonderful environment for our Party to be in. His current message is that he is there in order to wriggle his head around a bit and influence Cameron’s course a little. However, the two messages were both designed to support the same strategy. The message has now changed, not because our Leader wants to change the strategy, but because he doesn’t. He has merely calculated that an ostensibly more “independent” message will defuse some of the criticism and enable him to keep that head fixed in the Right place.

    George Potter has written a much more inspiring message, rightly declaring that a successful independent party would develop policies and positions which the electorate could see were better than the alternatives – which, as George points out, means beating Labour on fairness and beating the Tories on competence. Unfortunately, this new message would also mean a new strategy – genuinely trying to establish our own independent base to fight the next election. It would work better, if what you want is a party with more seats, more influence, and hence the chance to escape from permanent alliance with the Tories. Well, I want that too. Our Leader, I think, does not.

  • @George

    You will probably think I am being a melodramatic old sook for what I am about to say lol.

    But I do find it very difficult to disagree with you, in fact, it really does pain me because of the high admiration I have for you. For the stance that you made previously, standing up for the sick disabled and poor. In my eyes the voice you provided, to speak up for those who could not speak for themselves was moving.
    I listened to your speech at conference and it was heart-warming to see such a wise and compassionate voice on young shoulders.

    Nick Clegg has embraced the real terms cuts to benefits, in his speech “governing from the centre ground”
    he said
    “We know from experience now: if you protect the health and education budgets, as we correctly did, you can’t oppose every reduction in the welfare budget.”
    “And so we need both – a stronger economy and a fairer society; more opportunity and more responsibility.
    Every one of our policies needs to meet this test.”

    Nick Clegg supports these real terms cuts to benefits not only as part of coalition, but now as party policy, from which he has learnt by being in government.
    The Liberal Democrats constitution promises to end child poverty, and yet this real terms cut will create more child poverty and push more families into seeking help from charities and food banks.

    That is why I am sceptical when you claim that you would happily match Liberal Democrat policy against Labour policy when it comes to ideas on how to help the vulnerable and the poor.

    Yes Liberal Democrats have raised the income tax threshold which has lifted many families out of paying tax and that’s great for those families that are in full time work. But it does nothing to help those people stuck in Part time employment because they can not find full time work and do not earn enough to pay tax in the first instance.
    At the same time the coalition moved the goal posts on eligibility for working tax credits, from 16 Hours a week to 24 Hours a week. This has happened at the same time when people were experiencing cuts to their working hours and not increasing.

    I really think George that you would do much better challenging your own leadership on the welfare reforms they have helped to implement and which Nick Clegg seems to accept as part of party policy and governing from the centre ground, than to spend time criticising Labour on their record.

    I say this to you George as a supporter, from someone who wishes to see you retain your positioning and credibility and what I think would be a very bright future in politics. I wouldn’t want to see you make the mistakes that others have made and become tribal in your approach to politics and values.

    With greatest respect and Best Wishes


  • To Martin Lowe: quite! Whatever the polls say, both the Conservative’s reputation on economic competence and Labour’s reputation on fairness are ill merited.

    Labour may not be the principal cause of the economic difficulties in the UK but they are certainly responsible for making the problems a lot worse, yet all the evidence suggests that the Conservatives would have been as bad if not worse in encouraging fiscal irresponsibility.

    The economy is as we find it, whatever the causes. It is always more convincing when comments acknowledge the economic difficulties and explain how their alternative prescriptions add up.

    Personally, I would like to see some kind of incentive to firms whose remuneration (and workers representation) policies provide equitable reward for all employees. Basically an incentive that would not be available to companies that indulge in stratospheric salaries for their chief executives. I would also like to see incentives not only for taking on new employees but additional incentives for keeping them beyond two years.

  • Bill le Breton 31st Dec '12 - 5:28pm

    Martin – I am afraid that you always have to take the market as it is and not as we think it ought to be. The customer is never wrong. You have to work your socks in as smart a way as possible to change their minds about you and your competitors.

    Congratulations George on writing a valuable critique on the first published iteration of a strategy by the leadership’s recently employed chief strategist.

    One imagines that, during the evolution of this strategy, concerns similar to those you raised were debated and dismissed. In fact we are told that consultation took place with the wise and the good, so it would be a surprise if these issues were not aired. It would therefore be helpful if someone gave their reasons here.

    On the Liberator blog, Simon Titley exposes the crudeness of this kind of political mass messaging – a generation on from Clinton and Blair – that reinforces the negative view the public has on this kind of scripted ‘propaganda’.

    But even in terms of commercial marketing a decent agency would have advised against all but a single section of this approach.

    It is as if Perrier, Ratner and Duck Houses had never happened. As George points out, when you are the least trusted in a pack of generally distrusted ‘professionals’ you do not begin by focusing on issues of trust. Begin I say.

    Back in the Nineteen Seventies British Rail adopted the *Age of the Train* campaign message. The story goes that BR chief Sir Peter Parker was kept waiting fifteen minutes in the advertising agency’s lobby. Out came the guru saying ‘well, that’s how your passengers feel every day, Peter.’ Great theatre, good analysis put in the event a poor solution. Let me explain.

    Despite the spin put out by the agency the Age of the Train campaign was not a success. Increased numbers passengers??? The Seventies and the Eighties were simply NOT the Age of the Train, (that would come in the Noughties when Virgin made it cool to go by train, borrowing heavily from air-travel experience) nor were BR services in 1977 made clean, punctual or remotely aspirational by simply adopting that slogan.

    The inconsistency of slogan to reality simply drew attention to the fundamental weakness of the ‘service’ being marketed, which is exactly what George is rightly suggesting our new strategy is doing.

    Soon afterward British Airways placed a similar tender. It would have been easy to go with ‘The World’s Favourite Airline’. Great slogan and one day it would be the right slogan, but at the time it would have been totally untrue and self-defeating.

    BA had to get its service into shape first. An interim campaign was put in place to keep up the visibility of the brand while a comprehensive customer care development programme was developed for every member of member of staff to go through.

    That interim campaign concentrated on facts – the BA flies more miles than … campaign. Wow, that’s a bit thin! But actually it was the best that could be said at the time.

    The BA ‘experience’ was transformed over two years. And once surveys began showing that it was the favourite airline (then) for customer care … you know what they did … and how successful that was.

    So, the Lib Dems now need to rely on facts – three strong wins. We have them. And they are there in the strategy. And then we need to demonstrate and engage people in the next three strong wins that we are *campaigning* for. Helpful if Labour oppose and the Conservatives are shown to block. It is about building a deserved reputation for – you guessed it – economic competence and fairness.

    Happy New Year everyone.

  • Simon Bamonte 31st Dec '12 - 5:53pm

    I think it is going to take a long, long time for any message, be it a good one or not, to resonate with the public. It’s all well and good saying we’re more “fair” than the Tories, or more “competent” than Labour with finances, but nobody outside of the party or our 9% polling rate is really listening. And I see in countless online forums and comment threads that nobody left, right or centre outside of the LD clique believes a word we are saying. The message from the public to us is as clear as it was in Blair’s last days: “We don’t trust you.” When the public say they have no trust in you and their perception (rightly or wrongly) of you is that of someone who breaks promises, the game is up. We’re seen, at the national level, as a party who was willing to drop everything we believed in and willing to do whatever it takes to keep this coalition alive. Although I agree mainly with Matthew Huntbach’s posts about the current electoral system and the make-up of the parliament, our party has constantly screwed up, acted naively and been used by the Tories over and over once the coalition was formed. It was right to enter coalition, but our “leaders” have simply got the strategy wrong from day one. To most of the electorate, it is no good saying things like “we don’t agree with the Tories’ treatment of the disabled” while the majority of our MPs actually voted for these policies. It was a monumental failure for the first 2 years of the coalition to present a united front with the Tories, acting as if we agreed with them on everything, instead of standing up to them and showing the public we were willing to fight our corner. IMHO, the LD’s fortunes will not change until a) we elect a new leader and b) are out of the coalition. This will not happen until after 2015 at the earliest.

    Without the trust of the electorate, a political party is dead. See: Tories in 1997, Labour in 2010, etc.

  • Mark Inskip 31st Dec '12 - 6:10pm

    @Bill Le Breton
    “The Age of the Train” coincided with the introduction of the iconic InterCity 125 and led to significant growth in intercity passengers (more comfortable trains, reduced journey times). The story was covered in http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01mqv43

    All achieved without the equivalent of the £9 billion investment in the west coast mainline infrastructure from which Virgin has benefited (and with much more comfortable seats that Virgin’s ‘airline’ style).

  • I’m off to the pub.
    I’ll probably be picked up in a Spanish or German built taxi. I’ll be drinking beer brewed in France, Yorkshire or Germany. I’ll be watching fireworks made in China. At the end of the evening I’ll toast the New Year with a glass of Port brewed in, (well, have a guess).
    And even after the UK, has left the runaway freight train that is ‘The European Project’, we will ‘ALL’, still be willing to trade, and I will hopefully be doing the same two years hence.
    Have a good evening, and an enjoyable New Year.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Jan '13 - 9:48am

    Mark, I saw that post hoc interpretation of the Age campaign. The new train set may have changed the market for a few lines and a few towns, but for the rest of us the experience of BR in 1977 remained dire – the Age of the Train it was not.

    Saatchi and Saatchi won a great deal of business in the 80’s by using the Age campaign as an example of a dumb campaign. It was.

    Late, dirty and customer unfriendly was the then experience. You have to do some serious things to the product and especially to the (groan) ‘customer interface’ first before you have a hope of convincing potential customers of that.

    But even if you can’t accept that, surely as a marketeer, you agree that in 2013 making a political appeal based on the trust advantage is not smart.

    When people don’t trust you, facts are all you have. They are relatively incontestable if you keep them simple, straight and remotely relevant. They do begin the slow restoration of trust. They show that our ‘claim’ to be able to deliver more is credible – as long as we stay out of the Punch and Judy show, true to our values. i.e. that we live our values.

    The script uses 6 ‘facts’ – 6 surely is too many for focus. 3 or 4 of these are dodgy either because they are not (yet) credible or within the next 12 months are likely to prove false claims.

    Also 3 or 4 do not fit in with the ‘differentiation’ strategy trailed by the Leader in recent days. Focus on these 6 actually allows our ‘partner’ to steal the two or three that should be genuinely ours and genuinely differentiating.

    Philip Gould would laugh, Clinton would cry (he’s good at that) and Charles Saatchi would be driven to buy something figurative!

    Donkeys continue to lead the lions.

  • Nigel Jones 1st Jan '13 - 1:10pm

    I agree with much of what Simon Bamonte says, but of course we must also say that we have curbed the Tories and put into practice Lib-Dem policies from our manifesto that would not otherwise have happened.
    The key element missing from George’s piece is that when the public turns against a party in significant numbers, its politicians always fall back on the excuse that it is because of a lack of proper strategy of presentation. When large numbers of the public do not even want to listen to us, something more active is needed. We need to abandon our commitment to staying in coalition until 2015 and tell the conservatives that it all depends on what happens between now and then. Simultaneously we must push even harder for Liberal Democrat policies even if that risks ending the coalition soon; that way the public will see we mean to stand by our principles and not seek power just for the sake of it.
    When people are being made homeless as a direct result of changes in housing benefit, while the rich go on getting richer, how can people continue to believe that we are in power for the sake of the nation ?

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jan '13 - 2:11pm

    Nigel Jones

    The key element missing from George’s piece is that when the public turns against a party in significant numbers, its politicians always fall back on the excuse that it is because of a lack of proper strategy of presentation. When large numbers of the public do not even want to listen to us, something more active is needed. We need to abandon our commitment to staying in coalition until 2015 and tell the conservatives that it all depends on what happens between now and then.

    But that is NOT what is happening in the Liberal Democrats. Instead our leaders seem to think they have been brilliantly successful in their strategy of presentation and refuse to listen to members who have to go out on the streets and practice it and can see it isn’t working. They are still wed to the idea when the coalition started that it will all turn out fine by 2015, the economy will have recovered and a grateful electorate will reward the Liberal Democrats for that.

    I disagree with the message suggested because it is wrong. Labour were doing fine with the economy until it met the financial crash of 2007, or at least “fine” if one accepts what has been established as orthodoxy since 1979. What actually is wrong with our economy is gross mismanagement by the Conservatives when they were in government 1979-1997, with Labour doing not enough to reverse it, indeed being too willing to accept it.

    The Conservatives gave an impression of competence with one-off giveaway offers that cannot be repeated. We are now facing the consequence of that. Privatisation raised money for the government, but it can’t be repeated once everything is privatised. The long-term consequence of privatisation has been payment of inflated salaries and bonuses to fat cats and loss of UK independence as vital infrastructure resources have fallen into foreign hands. The money from North Sea oil was frittered away, now the easily obtained oil has gone. “Right to buy” of council houses seemed great, well it was to those who benefited from having council houses when they need them, but the houses are no more available to be let to those in need, with the result that huge amounts of taxpayers’ money goes straight to private landlords – this is the REAL issue with welfare payments, so why does no-one say it, and instead the impression is given that all this money goes direct to the people on welfare to live lives of luxury?

    We can see now that much of what was seen as Conservative economic competency was Ponzi economics, with private mortgage debt the driving mechanism. It really was supposed that house price rises were a money-making machine and we could live off that. Instead it was a debt-making machine, the “housing ladder” a conveyor belt pushing money upwards to the super-wealthy. So much of useful industry was closed down and enterprise pushed instead into managing this conveyor belt. We can see similar in other European economies – Ireland and Spain particularly – which had fake booms based on house prices being pushed up. While membership of the Euro might have been a contributing factor allowing cheap loans which pushed up property prices, I see the over-reliance on property ad the real issue. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the better performing economies in Europe whether in the Euro (Germany) or out (Switzerland) have low level of home ownership.

    The weird thing for our party is that having made a big thing out of “honesty” in the 2010 general election, we haven’t adopted a simple strategy after that of being honest. Instead we’ve had the salesman’s patter line where everything has to be put as super-wonderful, where difficult compromises and decisions made our of necessity are put as if it’s the ideal. The very first thing we should be saying, which would be simple honesty, is that we did NOT win the general election, we did not do well in the general election, we got less than 10% of the seats. We have a predominantly Conservative government because that’s what people voted for, and that’s what the electoral system with its distortion in favour of the largest party and against third parties gives us. Would it REALLY have been so difficult to have used the lines “You’ve got what you voted for (a Conservative government) – if you don’t like it, don’t vote for it next time”?

    Honesty means acknowledging the mess we are in needs to be got out of by reversing what got us into it – the overemphasis on house price rises as an economic driver. We have timidly proposes “Mansion Tax” and been shot down for it, but we need to be honest and say an economy where real reward comes from ownership rather than work won’t be successful. And THAT was the basis of Mrs Thatcher’s economic ideas, with the right-to-buy and “Tell Sid” privatisation.

  • Peter Watson 1st Jan '13 - 2:32pm

    Once again I find myself agreeing with what Matthew Huntbach writes.
    But what to do?
    If I disagree with the behaviour of Lib Dems in government – either because the party has changed under the present leadership or because I misunderstood what the party was always about, or because it turns out our leaders are rubbish in the sort of coalition we’ve always wanted – then should I stay and argue for change here or go to Labour and argue for change there? For someone who sees themselves as a middle-class, educated professional who is politically left-of-centre, is the current Labour party a better home than the current Lib Dem party?

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jan '13 - 2:43pm

    The two party system IS the problem. People had got fed up with Labour and thought they were doing badly – but under the two-party system the only way to follow up on this is to vote Conservative – which more people did than voted for any other party. But Labour were doing badly because they had carried on with Conservative policies and those policies had run into what was inevitable from the start.

    I don’t think there’s any future in us being a party which also accepts these economics but throws in a little superficial social liberal gimmicks like gay marriage. which seems to be where the Nick Cleggs and Richard Reeveses want us to be. What we should instead be saying is “OK, we’ve given you what YOU voted for – a Conservative government. We’ve followed the logic of the two party system and the electoral system which YOU voted for in the 2011 general election. But we have something different to offer, and the only way to get it is for you to vote for us in sufficient numbers that we can give it to you”.

  • Tony Dawson 1st Jan '13 - 2:46pm

    @Peter Watson :

    “If I disagree with the behaviour of Lib Dems in government – either because the party has changed under the present leadership or because I misunderstood what the party was always about, or because it turns out our leaders are rubbish in the sort of coalition we’ve always wanted – then should I stay and argue for change here or go to Labour and argue for change there? For someone who sees themselves as a middle-class, educated professional who is politically left-of-centre, is the current Labour party a better home than the current Lib Dem party?”

    The question is: “Do either of these Parties even want you?”

    There are clearly those who describe themselves as ‘closely-associated with the present leadership’ who have made clear that they don’t want the votes of people who think like you and me to support the party, let alone have those of us remain in it who are senior members who would still be happy to campaign on an update of the manifesto which helped us stay big enough to exploit the freak electoral arithmetic of 2012. And on the Labour side there is an appalling smugness in expectation of a ‘buggins’ turn’ election of possibly the intellectually-weakest Labour administration-in waiting which clearly doesn’t want or need the presence pf potential heretics like ourselves.

    I still think the Liberal Democrats is our Party and the days of the interlopers are, eventually, numbered. They will not stick around, when the money tree and the stream of media opportunities dry up, to try to pick up the pieces for either country or Party.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jan '13 - 3:11pm

    Peter Watson

    At the moment I can’t do any campaigning work for the party, because it seems to me to be pointless when so much of what comes out from its leadership just undermines what I would want to say. However, I retain my membership and I will do what I can within it to change things. Why should I or anyone else leave it because of what those at the top say or do? Whose party is it, theirs or ours? I say it is ours, it is a democratic party, its leaders should be the servants of its members and if they don’t do what we want them to do, we should get rid of them.

    Part of the problem is the way politics is reported in this country, as if it is all about the Westminster leaders, as if the Leninist model of political party is the norm. That is why I so hate it when we get this continual rubbish thrown at us which just seems to assume every Liberal Democrat member is a happy supporter of Nick Clegg and the line he and those he has surrounded himself with are promoting.

    I’ve been to the last couple of party conferences, and have just signed up for the next, having not bothered with all that sort of stuff for many years when all my political energy was spent on being a councillor. My experience at these two conferences encouraged me, as I found the mix of people and their views to be much the same as when I regularly attended party assemblies years ago. The sort of conversations and comments being made were way removed from the gung-ho right-wing economic views one finds amongst Conservatives. I was particularly encouraged by the discussion session on wealth taxation I attended at the Brighton autumn conference, which was so very different from the lines we get on that topic from the right-wing propaganda sheets aka British newspapers. So I don’t feel there has been a big change in the party as a whole.

    My dislike of the arrogance and anti-pluralism of the Labour Party, and the whole setup of the two party system which led me to join the Liberal Party in the 1970s remains as strong as ever, in fact with the Labour Party becoming more elitist and leader-centred is more so, so I don’t see joining Labour as a way forward. I would hope to see, however, some serious organisation within the Liberal Democrats to challenge its current leadership. So far we have all been far too timid.

  • Matthew Huntbach, it’s all very well bemoaning (quite rightly) the two party system, but remember the miserable little compromise referendum was screwed up on your party’s watch too.

    You need to add that to your leadership’s litany of catastrophic failures.

    And it’s no good blaming Labour. They managed to get forms of PR into every other democratic voting method used in the UK, with the exception of Westminster.

    It’s easy with the benefit of hindsight, but Clegg was given the option of a no questions asked switch to AV by Brown, obviously there were wider questions about coalition with an unpopular Labour government, but if nothing else it was a position that could have been used to extract solid commitments of democratic reform from Cameron rather than dodgy referendums and a now reneged upon deal on boundary reform.

  • chris smart 1st Jan '13 - 4:39pm

    Matthew H you are right.
    After many years voting Lib Dem. because I thought they stood up for the things I believed in, I joined the party at the last general election. I now find myself in agreement with most conference carried policies but horrified by the separation of the party mass membership from our parliamentary representatives. Abject apologies just don’t cut it for me and now Nick is ignoring calls to force the scrapping of the secret court bill. If we cannot trust our leadership to do the right thing why should uncommitted voters believe anyone in the party that we are principled. honest and trust worthy. The use of coalition as justification for ignoring the fundamental principles of the party is unacceptable.

  • Let have something snappy, like ‘better off out’.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jan '13 - 8:46pm


    Matthew Huntbach, it’s all very well bemoaning (quite rightly) the two party system, but remember the miserable little compromise referendum was screwed up on your party’s watch too.

    Yes, but there you go, how well you illustrate my point. You are STILL assuming that as I am a member of the Liberal Democrats I must be an unthinking supporter of the party’s national leadership and therefore it is an attack on me or supposed to come as a shock to me when you write the above.

    If you look back at my postings you will see I have been constant in my criticism of the party leadership for its abject failure on the AV referendum. I could see where it was going wrong – and stood up and said so at the party’s London regional conference – BEFORE the referendum was held and when opinion polls were still suggesting a victory for “YES”. Again, it boiled down to superior types with a patronising glib salesman’s attitude taking control of the campaign and making an utter hash of it. Again, what we SHOULD have done is been honest, simply explaining how the system works and why that gives more power to the voter – most crucially ending that way in which people are forced to vote for the candidate of one big party in order to avoid splitting the vote and “letting” in the candidate of another big party. But the big-wigs told us this was all boring, boring, and ordinary people couldn’t possibly be expected to understand all that, so instead we had meaningless slogans, silly celebrity endorsements, and no proper explanation of what AV was, which enabled the innumerate attacks on it from the “No” side to succeed.

  • Matthew, no personal insult intended, sorry if I let my dissatisfaction of the coalition colour my phrasing.

    I am curious though, are there any formal attempts to reign in the leaderships enthusiasm, by your telling they are going against the wishes of the majority of the party? Or are you just raging against the dying of the light?

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jan '13 - 9:25pm


    And it’s no good blaming Labour. They managed to get forms of PR into every other democratic voting method used in the UK, with the exception of Westminster

    Er, no, local councils in England are not elected by any form of proportional representation.

    The reaction from the Liberal Democrat leadership to Labour’s introduction of fixed party list voting for EU elections was an earlier example of the mistake of making out that a poor compromise which was all we could get from the government party was the ideal we have been working for over the years. Again, it’s the salesman’s patter attitude to politics, that somehow we must never admit frailty, that everything must be super-good if we have to back it and super-bad if we don’t. The party leadership’s line on fixed list voting was “Hurrah – this is the proportional representation we have always wanted”. But it was not – it was the PR system furthest removed from the STV we have always wanted. It was all Labour would give us because the control freak mentality of Labour loved the idea of centrally chosen party lists and hated the freedom which STV gives to the elector over the parties.

    The consequence of the way the Liberal Democrat leadership handled this was that people THOUGHT the fixed party list system was the “PR” we had been banging on about for years – and they didn’t like it a bit. They didn’t like the anonymity of a fixed party list and no vote for a person – which, of course, is the opposite of how STV works. Or more accurately, the fixed party list system is like a very restricted form of STV where you are forced to vote only 1, 2, 3 for the candidates of just one party in the order chosen by that party. So I think in the cause for electoral reform was actually damaged by the way the Liberal Democrat leadership praised the fixed list system as our goal reached instead of making it clear it was far from our true goal.

  • “the Lib Dems are working to build a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life”

    There is a simple test for whether a political statement conveys real meaning or not – trying the opposite. If that is something another party might say then the original statementy has meaning; if not, it is meaningless. For instance ‘We support comprehensive education’ becomes ‘We support selective education’ which is a credible position so the original has meaning.

    In this case: ‘We are working to create a weak economy in unfairer society where no-one can get on in life’. Leaving aside jibes that this is more or less what Tory policy is actually achieving, no party would ever make such a statement so the original stands revealed as mere blather, utterly devoid of meaning.

    As others have observed there is a big difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘message’ but this isn’t even competent messaging. As for strategy … David Allen has it about right.

  • Paul McKeown 5th Jan '13 - 5:42pm

    Good article, well said.

  • Paul McKeown 5th Jan '13 - 5:46pm

    “Carving out a new message is well and good, but it might as well be founded on fact and not on scary tales for bedtime.”

    Scary times for bedtime seems to be your forte, from reading your posts here and on the Telegraph. Some grow up from Hansel & Gretel, others project their childhood fantasies of evil on Brussels.

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