Role reversal for the Liberal Democrats

Hopi Sen has blogged thoughtfully several times recently about the risk to Labour of slipping into focusing on the tactics without getting the strategy right. In Labour’s case that means, for example, an undue focus on how to next best shout – “those cuts are awful!” rather than working out how to deal with the public mostly blaming Labour for the need to cut in the first place. Tactical triumphs at PMQs only gets you so far; rebuilding a reputation for economic competence is what is needed to win – as William Hague found in his time as Conservative leader.

The Liberal Democrats face a similar tactics versus strategy dilemma, though of a slightly different sort. In the past the party has been much better at tactics than strategy but is now facing a reversal of that familiar position.

Previously the party pulled off individual campaigns and by-election victories but did not manage to alter the fundamental public perceptions of the party such as – “they’re never going to win” or the party’s low ratings in the “party with the best policies for issue X” stakes save for environment and education. Even the heydays of Vince Cable as Shadow Chancellor and Deputy Leader did little to lift the public’s overall perception of the party on economic matters.

Vince Cable and Paddy AshdownPaddy Ashdown pulled off one strategic success, abandoning equidistance, getting a decent package of constitutional reforms agreed by New Labour before the 1997 general election and fighting an election campaign in which the party wasn’t dogged by the “but who do you really prefer?” question. That success turned sour as he pursued his talks with Tony Blair too deeply and for too long and overall the party’s record was one of being much better at political tactics than strategy.

In coalition government that record has been flipped round. On strategy, a clear course has been set that is very different from the party’s past. The party is in ministerial office, demonstrating how hung Parliaments do not have to mean political and financial instability and (perhaps most controversially) with a very clear strategic messaging approach of loving the Tories in public. Whatever you think of the strategy, it’s a clear one and being thoroughly implemented.

But at the tactics the party is doing rather less well. Most notably, coming up in a few weeks will be a vote on higher education funding where the Parliamentary Party in the Commons will almost certainly split three ways – many ministers voting for a modified version of the Browne report, some ministers and MPs abstaining and other MPs voting against. There are many ways of describing that. “A masterpiece of Parliamentary tactics” is not one of them.

Some of the party’s tactical slip-ups earlier in the summer can fairly be put down to the problems from ministers and staff taking time to find their feet in government, the loss of Short Money with the resulting redundancies and so on. As Mark Thompson put it on Lib Dem Voice earlier in the month,

I suspected when the government was first formed back in May that the public, activists and back-bench MPs would take a good while to adjust to the reality of coalition politics. What I was not really prepared for however was for Lib Dem ministers to find it so difficult to find a way to communicate the realities of what is happening within the government.

They need to find a way and quickly, otherwise how can they possibly expect Lib Dem activists to be able to do so on the doorstep?

The day-to-day tactical street fighting nous that a successful party needs, and which was essential in opposition for the Liberal Democrats to get heard at all, has been on an extended holiday. Mark’s correct to highlight the role of ministers, but it also extends to the Special Advisers. Overall, they are a really talented group of people, with a long commitment to the party and numerous examples of being a candidate, agent or other campaigner behind them.  They are also, however, dominated by policy expertise and it is no coincidence that the party’s internal communications about the coalition’s work is better at providing policy answers than political ammunition.

As I put it in July:

The danger is that, rather like a good speech writer, the party may end up making many significant changes to government, improving what is being done, but whose good work is not noticed by the public as it is behind the scenes.

The challenge for the party – at all levels – is to be seen as more than that. That both requires, as people get to grips with their jobs in government, a stronger flow of information from the parts of the party in government and also the usual hard work at publicising the party’s work by local parties, helpers and supporters.

Strategy and policy are important, but they are not enough for a political party to thrive – and without a thriving party, all the strategy and policy is but abstract day-dreaming.

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10 Comments

  • Richard Huzzey 27th Oct '10 - 9:02am

    A superb post, Mark. It seems to me, though, that our hug-a-Tory strategy fundamentally muzzles any competent tactics of the kind you outline.

  • Mark – a thoughtful, insightful and honest article examining the conflict at the heart of the party.

    It has needed to be said since May and you have articulated it thoughtfully.

    The growing anger on LDV reflects your perfectly worded conclusion:

    Strategy and policy are important, but they are not enough for a political party to thrive – and without a thriving party, all the strategy and policy is but abstract day-dreaming.

  • Sorry, I didn’t read the article. I didn’t get past the bit about economic competence at the beginning.

    Firstly, the public are about evenly split about the cause of the crisis with half blaming the banks and the other half blaming labour. It doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong, but it certainly doesn’t mean that the consensus is that labour are economically incompetent.

    Secondly, several nobel prize winning economists have described the CSR as nuts (well they didn’t say nuts, but that was the general gist of things), which is hardly going to leave the Lib Dems and the Tories in a good position if/when we go into recession.

    Thirdly, the entire Lib Dem election campaign was based around describing the Tory spending cut plans as nuts. There is a serious credibility problem now with anything any Lib Dem ever says.

    The probablity of a recession in the next 4.5 years is high. The probability of mass unemployment is even higher. The Lib Dems are not going to be in a strong position to argue the next election on economic competence (even if you did inherit problems, the public will detest you even more if you keep blaming it on labour).

  • Bill le Breton 27th Oct '10 - 10:01am

    On the other hand I read it all Mark and very interesting it was.
    There was also a reference in the Today programme to the Deputy Prime Minister being responsible for a lot more work than was envisaged at the time the Government took office and therefore needing more back-up.
    Evidence from local government would suggest that the Chief Exec or in the case the Chief Sec to the Cabinet will want to ‘give him’ civil servants.
    He and his team will probably argue that he needs more policy support.
    What I think you are saying – and if so I agree – is he needs campaigners.
    Again, lessons from our experience in local government are that Lib Dems too easily adopt the managerial role rather than continuing the campaigner’s role that got them elected in the first case.
    What a country like ours always needs is campaigners – and never more so than now. This would also help connect with the grassroots.
    What our reps in Government have achieved in the first six months is to build a platform from which they could start to seize the national agenda.
    Eg: Memo to Prime Minister: David, just to let you know that this evening I’m starting a campaign for XXXX with a speech at YYYYY – sure you’ll agree that it’s important. NC.
    Such a campaign would of course have been planned, developed and resourced by his team of campaigners in parallel with the Party so that our people on the ground are ready that very evening to get out on the streets.
    We have nothing to fear but our deference.

  • You can’t have ‘tactics’ until you finally determine once and for all that Labour is NOT your friend, Never has been — never will be. Labour attacks you on some crack-brained ‘fairness’ basis, just because it wants to AS A TACTIC(and of course because it disdains you), and your almost automatic response is not to tell them to get stuffed, but to fight on the grounds Labour has chosen for you. How can that be a successful tactic ? Your tactics should be based upon ‘going to the mattresses’ against Labour, not cringing whenever one of their attack dogs barks loudly. Too many in your Party still think of themselves as long-lost cousins of Labour, waiting pantingly for that invitation to ‘come home’ ,and join the glorious progressive march. There is no glorious march and you can never go home again, even if there were. You will NEVER have a better chance to prove and display yourselves, than with Cameron at the helm in this Coalition. He actually appears to ‘like’ you. He’s pretty much your friend. Miliband — not so much. Tiyr ‘tactics’ should be based around that.

    We have nothing to fear but our deference. BleB.

    As per the above, Bill said much the same thing but he said it ‘nicer’.

  • David Allen 27th Oct '10 - 1:02pm

    You can’t have the right ‘tactics’ until you finally determine once and for all that Tory is NOT your friend, Never has been — never will be.

  • Surely the point is – as I think you more or less say Mark – that our problem has been that we have suddenly been dumped on with a new strategy, and of course tactics are going to take a while to catch up. But if that strategy has not got the support of a large part of the party (yes, at the time of the special conference at Birmingham we voted for the coalition with several riders, but we have moved on, and aspects of the CSR have confronted conscientious Lib Dems with moral dilemmas), then we are in deep doodoo. Until we make our way through or out of that, it doesn’t matter how technically good or sophisticated are our tactics, it won’t get us very far.

  • Actually, neither Tories nor Labour are our friend.
    We are not like either of them – and we don’t have to like either of them. (Sorry – probably too many “likes”). We just have to work with them.
    At the moment, the Tories are easier to work with than Labour. But neither of them would hesitate to throw us under the bus if it suited them. Labour just happen to have done it before (1997) and be doing it now. We’ve never been close enough to the Tories before for it to have come up as an issue.

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