Opinion: Why conference season is showing us up

“Tory bashing” has been a key phrase this autumn as the Liberal Democrat rank and file use conference to let off some steam. The Daily Politics’ Andrew Neil notably dropped his warm, fuzzy style when grilling Tim Farron over his premonitions of ‘divorce’ – but we seem to be retreating back to ours. “Cuddly Liberal Democrats,” as the Prime Minister put it to his own party conference.

And David Cameron may be outlining the message of the Conservative party for 2015 – with a theme of “Leadership for a better future,” his party are opening up a dialogue between the country and its political leaders, whilst we are having a ‘Tory-bashing’ paddy on the sidelines of British politics.

My concern is that the difference between us swiping at the Tories while they outline a pro-business, forward-looking message is not simply one of placating members: it is an entire divide in the mentality, the strategy, and the maturity of both our parties.

Whilst George Osborne explicitly acknowledged the role of the Liberal Democrats on delivering a stable economy, and keeping our debt interest down, we grimaced at Sarah Teather’s puns on his past. Our general-election critique of ‘Punch & Judy politics’ seem distant now, and instead of taking ownership of the coalition as the ‘new politics’ Nick Clegg promised, we are being dragged down into the kind of tribalism which crushes us between the two larger parties.

The way forward is not just about how we perceive ourselves, but how we communicate with the public. We need to learn to be a party of government, of responsibility and communicate what we are achieving in power, rather than using conferences to be self-congratulating about every time we’ve thrown ourselves on the pavement and stopped a Conservative policy.

With current and upcoming debates on issues which form our core identity, such as human rights and Europe we have the platform to portray ourselves as equals – the voice of sensible, centrist Liberalism – and set out our case from within government, to the country, or else show ourselves up as the squabbling younger sibling of British politics, throwing a paddy at the very mention of something we disagree with.

And it is on these sorts of issues – where public opinion is broadly against us – that if we don’t set out a rational, well-reasoned case, the Conservatives will dismiss us as holding them back, and ask the public for a majority in 2015.

Our infidelities with the Labour party, and talks of an alternate coalition at this early stage will only increase perceptions of a petulant child, playing our parents off against one another. We can’t hope to pick up soft-Conservatives and swing votes if we’re perceived as opportunistic, and willing to ditch our partners at the nearest possible opportunity.

One of our greatest strategic gains from this coalition must be to show we are competent and mature – a party of power, not simply a pressure group – if we are ever going to advance beyond third party status. I felt in the minority when I was willing to give Nick Clegg the benefit of the doubt when he talked about an 18 month ‘ownership’ strategy of coalition policy: overlooking our Leader’s extensive experience in Europe, and knowledge of coalition politics, the party were more keen to hear what we’re stopping from happening, than what we are achieving.

The issue I’m raising here is fundamentally one of strategy and communication: put simply we must be outward- and forward-looking as a party if we are to advance in the polls, and develop our public perception. The alternative is navel-gazing conferences, where our ministers attempt convince us of tussles at the cabinet table, and predict our inevitable ‘divorce’ from a volatile marriage. Just don’t be surprised when the public blames us, and take the Tories’ side…

* Sean Davey is a Lib Dem member and has been Regional Youth Spokesperson for Western Counties over the last year. He has just moved to London to study Philosophy.

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21 Comments

  • Dave Orbison 15th Oct '11 - 11:27am

    Just a casual scroll though the latest topics selected for this blog this week surely illustrates the dangers facing the LibDems.

    LibDem politicians once could be counted on for publically challenging both Tory and Labour Governments in terms of policy and conduct, often with good cause and with gusto. On those occasions it was refreshing to see a party not falling into the trap of pathetically defending the indefensible, as so often happened with past Governments, irrespective of their party colours.

    But just look at how things have changed. How emasculated the LibDem voice has become on the political stage. This evidenced by simply scrolling through this week’s selected topics in this bog. Liam Fox? Silence. Oliver Letwin? Silence. Unemployment? Silence. The dismantling of the NHS supported by LibDem peers – silence. Instead we are served up with a whole host of incidental topics. I mean no disrespect to those who have contributed to such features – but given the weight of these other issues; can the LibDems really be satisfied with going to ground and being sidelined as an irrelevance?

    The LibDem Parliamentary Party seems to have taken a vow of silence of late or perhaps their strategy now is simply to adopt as low profile as they can get away with. The only ‘high profiles public appearances for LibDems that appear to be sanctioned are those justifying cuts after cuts.

    The LibDems are in danger of shrivelling up as a political force and losing their voice and identify all together. I take no pleasure in this as anything that holds Governments to question can only be healthy. But far from looking outward, the party is retreating from public engagement, is becoming inward looking and defensive, robotically seeking to justify all that the Government does or otherwise stay silent, even on weighty issues, whereas, once before, they could be counted on for adding to genuine political debate.

    The often used yardstick ‘of a week in politics’ and the silence of the LibDems tells us all we need to know as to the sorry state that has befallen a once independent party.

  • There were daft bits at Conference, but nothing like the ‘cat’ dispute, or the booing of Blair. Bad jokes are bad jokes whoever makes them.
    That doesn’t prevent our Conference being a good one and an enjoyable one as well. We do still make policy, so comparisons with other Parties’ events is unreal.
    I am delighted that no-one did a whole blog about Fox and Letwin. That is just gossip at the moment. The underlying issues, lobbying and data protection, are ones on which we do have views.

  • Sadie Smith, I don’t think Fox and Letwin are about gossip. The former concerns a minister forced to resign after extensive lobbying links and an undercover ideologically driven defence policy that was withheld from his civil servants. This is a huge story and one on which the Liberal Democrat leadership, and their proxies, were silent.

    It beats any defence scandal under New Labour. Now there is no reason to think that it tarnishes the lib dems, after all Fox is a hardcore Tory, but the silence on the matter is astonishing. Were you not in power you would have been calling for his head from the start, now obviously ministers cannot do this, but shouldn’t the back benches, or the blogs, have uttered at least a squeak of disgust?

  • Gareth Jones 15th Oct '11 - 1:08pm

    I have to disagree. If anything the Liberal Democrat conference shows us in a good light; whereas Labour and the Tories are talking about reducing or doing away with the irreverence of their conferences ours allow the membership to train, network, and most importantly hold the leadership to account. The memberships of other parties are looking at our conferences with envy.

    Another view of conferences is here:
    http://pretzler.net/blog/2011/10/14/party-conferences-and-democracy/

  • Daniel Henry 15th Oct '11 - 3:25pm

    There’s a difficult balance to be struck. Our early approach of “taking ownership” saw us defending things we don’t believe in answer left people questioning what we really stand for.

    In conference, some of the jokes and jibes came off as bitchy and childish rather than effective differentiation.

    I don’t think we should quite emulate the Tories – “love bombing” was the right strategy for them given their position but wouldn’t suit ours.

    We need to master the art of “respectfully disagreeing”. We need to use calm and constructive language but with strong substance. I think Vince has done this quite well with his calls for a mansion tax and calls for plan A.

    Such approaches minimise bitchiness and petty catfighting within government but still leaves listeners in no illusion over what it is we stand for.

  • @Dave Orbison:

    Brilliant post, which I agree with completely. In the past, LibDems would have been the first to criticise Tory sleaze (Fox) & Tory disregard for constituents (Letwin binning letters from constituents). Where is the anger from LibDems about the unemployment crisis engulfing the country? The public and medical professions are very much against the NHS “reforms” (and the anger towards them on Question Time this week was palpable), yet LibDems claim all is well. Where is the anger that the Tories are considering removing all benefits from disabled people who appeal their ATOS decisions?

    It seems that LibDems no longer have any answers at all beyond “do what the Tories say, don’t ever waver from their plans.” LibDems are putting more energy into having a go at Labour than confronting the very real issues and difficulties your government is inflicting on its people.

    Two years ago, there would have been many LibDems at today’s “Occupy London Stock Exchange” protest. Nowadays, you have taken the sides of the bankers against the people and I actually expect a piece here smearing the protesters, just like the Tories have done.

  • ‘We need to use calm and constructive language but with strong substance.’

    You don’t seem to get it – Tories by nature being genuine b…..ds only understand one thing – open and honest criticism – when they start to realise they have no majority in the Commons for their views will they really get it. Norman Tebbit typifies the arrogant Tory view (held incidentally by most bank benchers) when he stated a few weeks ago that Cameron and the Tories should simply ignore the LibDems and push through their policies as if they had a majority. Now if the LibDems actually voted down these ghastly so called reforms to the NHS which almost no one in the country actually supports would they at last get the message loud and clear!!

  • Agree 100% with what Daniel said above. Complete ownership was probably necessary for the first few months to stop the media having fits of melodrama every time there was a disagreement but is not a good strategy from now onward. At the same time, differentiation should be done in a mature way rather than just point-scoring.

    So I think we’re getting the amount of disagreement about right and it’s now a question of adjusting the tone to avoid sounding immature and bitchy. As much admiration as I have for Sarah Teather she does sometimes overdo the attack-dog bit…

  • Agree with the general thrust of the article. Our Tory-bitching came off as childish (and I am pretty rabidly anti-Tories in the Lib Dems).

  • Tory bashing is a completely undrstandable means by which various Government Ministers can salve their conciences. However this is will not erase the common correct view that we can never be trusted after the Tuition Fees betrayal which places us firmly in the ‘never trust a politician’ camp. Sorry.

  • Peter Chivall 16th Oct '11 - 10:35am

    @Brian D – I’m not sure that ‘never trusted again’ after the tuition fees fiasco is a correct linking of cause and effect. The howls of pain, real or synthetic, from the columns of left-of-centre bloggers started as soon as we reluctantly joined the coalition and supported the austerity budget in the summer of 2010. The acceptance of the thrust of the Browne Report simply highlighted the gulf between our pre-election portrayal as innocent (but impotent) do-gooders and the ‘realpolitic’ which coalition had thrust upon us.
    I believe to move forward as a Party, we need to apologise, openly and from the top, for signing the NUS Pledge in the first place – it was foolish and naive not to think we would have to renege on it if (the very likely) coalition with either Labour or the Tories came about.
    Where that fits with this blog is the way we were rolled over by the Tory right’s ‘blitzkrieg’ tactics, first by Gove & co. over ‘Academies will be the only schools’ in July 2010, then by Lansley with his chaotic, crackpot NHS restructuring – totally against the spirit and letter of the Coalition agreement – and finally with Cameron’s political perfidy in the AV Campaign.
    Our Conferences in September 2010 and last March made clear statements of our differentiation with the Tories’ marketisation of public services in both education and health. If there is a thread common in our attitude to both, it is democratic control – and preferably local democratic control. From this it follows that, while we should avoid silly ‘ad hominem’ attacks on Tory ministers or MPs , we should take every opportunity to attack the ‘Pol Pot/ 2010 is Year Zero’ attitudes whether over Speed Cameras or Planning, that we came into Coalition to prevent.
    Finally, as a Party, we should be clear where the current deliberations of Conference and our Policy Committee, in tandem with our Parliamentarians, are taking us. We should be looking for clear statements at each stage or our policy-making process, leading towards a Manifesto in 2015 which will be popular, justifiable and above all, uniquely Liberal and Democratic.

  • daft ha'p'orth 16th Oct '11 - 11:07pm

    @Peter Chivall
    Why apologise for having once held a recognisable political stance? Affected individuals and party can and should (repeatedly) apologise for not having fulfilled the pledges or defended the policy, but for heaven’s sake, it would be ridiculous to apologise for having pledged anything in the first place. There are enough parties out there without any coherent aims beyond self-aggrandisement already. Pledging to join them is just digging the party a deeper hole. Regular voters weren’t voting Lib Dem because they liked the colour scheme.

    As for ‘real or synthetic,’ yes, it’s a question very close to voters’ hearts. With today’s politicians it can sometimes be so hard for your regular voter to tell. Why you’d expect sympathy from said voters on the Lib Dems being betrayed by the Tories, though, I don’t know – what goes around comes around.

  • @daft ha’p’orth

    Absolutely spot on. The idea that it was signing the pledge that was wrong (rather than breaking the pledge) is risible in the extreme. So, what’s the plan for the next election – don’t promise the voters anything? In that case, what’s the point of politicians and parties?

  • Our party should be explaining differences to Conservative/Coalition (and Labour) policies, and why we want to do something different.

    Farron’s rabble-rousing was, frankly, embaressing, as were Huhne’s antics. Play the ball, not the person.

  • The thing this is, the Coalition hasn’t actually delivered economic stability. Unless you think that zero growth and higher unemployment are signs of a stable economy.
    Personally, I think that there was a lot of Tory bashing at the conference because deep down the Party knows full well that it’s voters and possibly a good few members don’t really approve of the government the leadership has lumbered them with, so are making a big empty noise in an attempt to be two things at once. and to distance themselves from what increasingly looks like failed policies.

  • Don Lawrence 17th Oct '11 - 2:24pm

    Amazing. We are lose 792 councillors in May, and by October, the party Yes men are telling us that the guys and gals who tell it how it is will make the public blame us.

    Get real! The public are blaming us now. Blaming us in Scotland and the urban North like Manchester Withington because we are seen as the Tories little helpers, not becuase some have the courage to say things are bad but we are doing it becuase it had to be done. Blaming us in Windsor and Madenhead and the South East because you might as well have a real conservative as a pretend one.

  • Glenn – I’d take the current level of stability over what’s been delivered in the PIIGS. And indeed in the fiscal stimulus US.

    Don Lawrence – “blaming us” for what, in particular?

  • Nigel Quinton 17th Oct '11 - 6:12pm

    I really cannot believe what I am reading in this thread.

    That there are still,people defending our “strategy” of putting coalition ahead of policy when it has completely failed us as a party both electorally and in terms of our credibility as an independent force is quite beyond me. Even the leadership seemed at conference to have acknowledged they may have got it slightly wrong, even if they were not exactly shouting it from the roof tops.

    It was right to go into coalition and it was right to sign up to a strong fiscal policy in order to maintain a vestige of economic stability and crucially low interest rates.

    But – a quick resume of wrong decisions taken since May 2010’s step into government:

    1. Forgetting to think about party finances when negotiating the coalition agreement. The loss of “short money” has been disastrous for the running of the party and should never have been allowed to happen.

    2. Having achieved a form of words in the Coalition Agreement that allowed our MPs not to vote for an increase, the leadership then decided to back it after all. It was not the pledge that was wrong, it was the decision to increase fees when we had no need to that was wrong. The change in funding from Teaching Grant to Tuition Fee does not even save any government money until the next parliament, so the deficit cutting agenda was no defence.

    3. Allowing Lansley to publish a health white paper that required a complete back track on what was agreed in the Coalition Agreement.

    4. Deliberately following a policy of no public disagreement with the Tories, preferring to give the impression that we could forge policy jointly as if our age old differences were no longer an issue.

    The results of these mistakes are that despite our ministers actually doing some great work, and despite us stopping a lot of bad Tory policy, was far as many people are concerned we are simply propping up a Tory government. That may not be a fair representation of the facts, but it is what people think, and dominantly it is the people who voted for us that think that most strongly.

    We absolutely have to get back to being a party which has a distinctive view, even if that is uncomfortable for our coalition partners. Yes there is a danger the media will be harsh and put us on the spot along the lines of “well if you really think that how can you stay in government with the Tories?” but that is easily dealt with relative to the public perception that we are an irrelevance.

    And to the person above who found Tim Farron’s great speech embarrassing I must ask if you really belong in the Liberal Democrats at all?

  • Don Lawrence 18th Oct '11 - 5:44pm

    @Tabman “Don Lawrence – “blaming us” for what, in particular?”

    If you don’t know the answer to that, I suggest you get out campaigning a bit more and when you find an ex-LibDem or Probable, ask them yourself.

  • Daniel Henry 19th Oct '11 - 1:41pm

    @ David Orr
    Honest criticism is necessary, but given that we need to work with these people a calm and moderate tone is required. I’d rather we criticised with a moderate tone and therefore increased our influence to make more substantial change, rather than make shrill criticisms and thereby lose the power to wield real influence.

    @ Nigel
    We’re certainly in favour of more action and lib dem influence, definitely in favour of more substance, but being bitchy about our partners may hinder us in this aim.

    I personally think Farron’s speech was fine.
    He’s outside of government so is in a position to criticise, and he also gave Labour their fair share as well.
    Cable and Huhne probably should have resisted the temptation. Huhne’s attacks in particular always seem to come out wrong. I’d rather he kept relations amicable and let his influence and policy making do the talking.

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