The Independent View: How the Liberal Democrats can grab the headlines they need

Far more than the other major parties, the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats rest entirely on whether the party can grab the headlines. The Conservatives and Labour dominate British political life while the SNP play a key role in two Parliaments and the Greens receive climate-based coverage. The Lib Dems lack these outlets and have to string together by-election wins to get even the briefest spike in coverage. This struggle is what I believe is holding back the party. It is why the Liberal Democrats remain stuck around 10% in the polls even while the Tory vote collapses.

Many would say that this is an unavoidable consequence of the 2015 Collapse but I believe that this is something that can be changed. What the Lib Dems need is something else that other parties already have. The Liberal Democrats need representation among public figures to match the Conservatives and Labour.

What I mean is that the two biggest parties both have dozens of recognisable names. There are Journalists, Commentators, MPs and Cabinet Ministers who have all attained a form of celebrity status. They are household names, involved in projects across the media and attract press attention even when they are doing nothing. For example, when a newspaper posts an article about Alistair Campbell, Campbell is part of why people are reading. It is his brand, not just the Labour brand he was connected to, which is bringing in the viewers. When he makes appearances across radio, television and audio, Campbell is making people think about Labour.

The Liberal Democrats need figures like this. At the moment, the only attention the party gets is what it can generate by itself. It lacks passive representation in popular (and political) culture and it lacks recognisable names to draw people’s attention. Figures who used to fill this role like Paddy Ashdown, Nick Clegg (after 2015) and John Cleese are no longer involved and the party now struggles to get its message out. Anyone who doubts the power of public figures should look at the example of the Social Democratic Party which has no Parliamentary representation but it stays in the conversation because of notable figures like Rod Liddle.

Who could the Liberal Democrats bring in to solve this problem? Well, I am not sure who would be a good fit but there are several names who at least have the name recognition to help. Rory Stewart for instance. He is a co-host of the Rest is Politics, his London mayoral campaign was followed nationwide and he was interviewed about the tragic fall of Afghanistan. Just think of the exposure he would bring if his media appearances were as a Lib Dem member. That would be far better than the current system where Lib Dems only get to speak during segments devoted to the Lib Dems.

Sadly, Stewart was campaigning as an Independent against the Liberal Democrats. Just as Gina Miller is campaigning for True & Fair, Rachel Johnson joined ChangeUK and Nick Tyrone is supporting Labour. Public figures like these are who the Liberal Democrats need, but none are inside the Lib Dem tent. I believe this is something the party should try to change if it wants to grab the headlines and use that attention to spread the liberal message and progress further in 2024.

 

* The identity of this author is known to the editorial team

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24 Comments

  • Theo, it’s not just about style, it’s about substance as well.

  • Peter Watson 28th Oct '22 - 11:42am

    If you want celebrities, then the 2019 General Election gifted the Lib Dems a number of high-profile political figures as candidates. Where are they now?

    However, I think the priority should be having something distinctive to say rather than someone well-known to say it! At a national level, Ed Davey and senior Lib Dems (how many of them might people outside the party recognise?) seem only to have added to the background noise of whinging about Johnson, Truss, et al, and the state of the country, without standing out at all.

    A “rejoin” policy would at least be a reason for the media to take an interest in the party’s spokespeople by allowing them to propose a particular solution to the country’s problems, but the party seems to have no appetite for that despite it being consistent with the only post-2015 thing that people remember about the Lib Dems! The party should, though, avoid the mistake of 2019 when every response to every question on every topic began with Brexit and left no time to answer it!

    Universal (or Guaranteed) Basic Income could be another standout topic of conversation. Perhaps there are other radical ideas in the party’s arsenal that could raise the Lib Dem’s profile and USP, though it might require someone to find where the leadership has hidden them (perhaps the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard”! 🙂 ).

  • I fully agree.

    Challenge is how – perhaps something for next article? How did Paddy, Nick etc attain that status? How do we home grow people within the party with potential for this and/or bring existing figures with credibility and recognition into the tent?

  • Alex Macfie 28th Oct '22 - 1:18pm

    The SDP “stays in the conversation because of notable figures like Rod Liddle”. Really? Among the tiny minority who are fanatically interested in politics, perhaps. Among ordinary voters? I don’t think so. Ask any ordinary voter what they know about the SDP, they’ll probably do one of the following: ① give you a blank look or say “never heard of it”; ② confuse it with the Lib Dems, or ③ if their memory goes back that far have a vague recollection of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the 1980s and/or the post-merger political vehicle for David Owen. They almost certainly won’t be aware of its present incarnation unless it happens to be strong locally where they live.

  • I recall the party was criticised in 2019 by rivals and the media for using a Guardian quote about our excellent win in the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election, because it was from an article written by Jo Swinson. Superficially speaking it’s not best to suggest your own words come from independent journalists, and it was inevitable that some would complain about it. But for me it drew attention to the more significant failings of the media to give fair coverage to our successes. The press should have been filled with quotes about that amazing win, so why did it take an article by our leader for that to happen?

    Being cynical, it suits those who support the big parties to keep not just a two-party system in Parliament but have that reflected in the media. They will invite representatives of both sides to give their views on the price of fish, and in doing so create the kind of quasi-independent celebrity that will fly the flag for a party and their policies and give sympathetic takes on anything embarrassing. Meanwhile, those who don’t fit into either camp get attacked from both sides before they’ve had the chance to build a profile.

    Existing public figures, like Emma Kennedy, can do a good job of cheerleading for our party and values, but we need more of them. There’s also Floella Benjamin, but most people won’t even realise she’s LibDem.

  • Peter Davies 28th Oct '22 - 2:00pm

    People get an idea of what is normal from people they know (or think they know like celebrities). That circle still mainly includes real friends and family. Our problem is mainly that even if you live in a Lib Dem target seat, most of your friends and family (and people you follow on Twitter) live somewhere that is actively de-targeted and assume we are dead.

  • I’m not sure the examples of people you give really support the point.

    Rod Liddle is fairly well known, yes, but even though I was dimly aware that there was a continuity SDP I wasn’t aware he was in it. Since they got fewer votes and fewer votes per candidate than the MRLP in 2019 it doesn’t seem to be helping them much. (Or maybe the connection is well-known and that’s why they only got about 3500 votes nationally?)

    https://yougov.co.uk/ratings/politics/fame/politicians-political-figures/all might be worth a look for what “name recognition” is actually like for most politicians and political figures – bearing in mind that 10-15% of respondents will probably claim to have heard of entirely fictional MPs.

  • Alex Macfie 28th Oct '22 - 2:44pm

    Come to think of it, I’m not sure most people would know who Rod Liddle is either, Nick Tyrone? He’s that guy who made an embarassingly wrong prediction about the Lib Dem performance in the Chesham & Amersham by-election. To be fair, most of the political commentariat didn’t see our victory there comng, but that’s part of the point. He’s a Westminster bubble guy, who has limited understanding of campaigning politics, and again most people not in that bubble or the think-tank circuit will not have any idea who he is.
    As for Rachel Johnson, the only thing most people know about her is that she is the former PM’s sister. They may also know she was briefly in the Lib Dems. Change UK is dead. Miller is perhaps better known to many ordinary voters, but her political vehicle also has no future (is it even still around?).
    The Lib Dem party started coasting about the time Nick Clegg became leader. He was a career politician, not someone with any idea of campaigning politics. It wasn’t just the Coalition that did for him as leader.

    The trouble with teh OP’s analysis is that it comes from a Westminster bubble perspective. He name-drops parties and people who are well known among the political chatterati but would lead to blank looks from ordinary voters. Whatever the problem with the Lib Dems, it isn’t that we don’t have enough former SPADs among our spokespeoole.

  • I’m not sure that name recognition is itself important. It’s the ability to get booked onto talking heads slots on the relevant tv programmes, and it works along the same lines as the more prolific spokespeople for think tanks.

    As pointed out in the recent Tufton St expose, having someone who can appear on the news who will say something favourable about your policy before you talk about it makes life much easier for Ministers, and politicians from every side of the house.

    Whether they are from think tanks, former politicians, or media people who manage to carve out a living from being permanently available to have an opinion, they shape the public view of what current politicians do and say, with many paying minimal lip-service to any sense of party-political objectivity.

  • Peter Watson 28th Oct '22 - 2:59pm

    The 2019 General Election gifted the Lib Dems a number of high-profile political figures as candidates. Where are they now?

  • I agree with Fiona that name recognition isn’t really the main thing. It’s about either being able to speak (or write) in the media or being someone the media likes to speak about. Media representation is important.

    As for the SDP, I agree that they aren’t well known but they are much better known than most parties of that size.

    Freddie, your question is a really interesting one to think about. Thank you.

  • Anthony Acton 28th Oct '22 - 4:19pm

    Paddy Ashdown rebuilt the party after the disintegration of the Alliance in the late 1980s by concentrating on ONE basic policy. He chose education, and after a couple of years of this, the party was achieving “best for education” in the polls. That got Paddy a platform and the party some public profile. It doesn’t have to be education but it must be a policy which actually matters to the voters. And it needs to be presented in language people can all understand – the pupil premium was one of the party’s flagship policies in 2015, and a major success for the party in government, but we got little credit. “More money for schools helping poor kids” rather than “pupil premium” perhaps? There is just time to get the party’s strategy right before the next election.

  • Peter Watson 28th Oct '22 - 4:34pm

    @Anthony Acton “the pupil premium was one of the party’s flagship policies in 2015, and a major success for the party in government, but we got little credit”
    It was also in the Conservative 2010 manifesto (and Labour’s) so was not a distinctive Lib Dem policy so implementing it did not look like a Lib Dem win.

  • Peter Watson 28th Oct '22 - 4:41pm

    @Anthony Acton “Paddy Ashdown rebuilt the party after the disintegration of the Alliance in the late 1980s by concentrating on ONE basic policy”
    I was about to agree and make a point about “rejoin” and UBI but realised that my earlier post on this, which I thought had been permanently banished to the naughty stair, had finally appeared.
    I also apologise (with the same excuse!) for repeating my comment about Tory and Labour defectors who brought a notable public profile to the party but who appear to have disappeared.

  • brian Ellis 28th Oct '22 - 5:33pm

    This article and indeed the comments neglect to mention the role played by Charles Kennedy. He led the Party between Paddy and Nick and to ignore the contribution made during his leadership is a glaring error. He gave the party a public profile many folk could relate to. He led the party to increased representation at Westminster and around the Country. His stance on the Iraq war was brave and showed real leadership whilst others took an established route. This article also overlooks the fundamental requirement to undertake community politics in the real sense of the slogan. We can win in almost derlict areas and that is more often than not achieved by a committed local activists rather than celebrity’s .

  • Leekliberal 28th Oct '22 - 6:26pm

    There is massive buyers regret about Brexit. A significant majority of the electorate now favour the UK rejoining the EU. The Tories and Labour, for different reasons, are both in denial about this reality. There’s a huge opportunity for the Lib Dems to campaign vigorously for a less punishing relationship with the EU. Why do we hear nothing from our leader on this opportunity to carve out an issue which is ours and chimes with the electors!

  • High profile defectors to or from the party can easily disappear!
    Leekliberal: I remember the Chair of the local Young Liberals voicing the “one issue” theory in 1963 shortly after I joined. “It might be Join the Common Market but it doesn’t have to be” he said …
    Can it be combined with the sheer bloody hard work of Brian Ellis’s real community politics on the ground?

  • Helen Dudden 29th Oct '22 - 6:23am

    I agree with David Raw it’s substance.

  • Mick Taylor 29th Oct '22 - 6:37am

    If you have nothing to say, it doesn’t matter who says it.

  • David Garlick 29th Oct '22 - 9:43pm

    For decades now LD’s more Green than the Green Party who have little else to say. Delivered renewable energy in the coalition thanks to Ed fighting the Tory Naysayers. Delivered increases in the tax free allowance and the triple lock for pensions.
    Policy and substance most effective. Better if delivered by celbs but without the policies for Ceebs to endorse…

  • Having got its fingers burnt by coalition with the tories, libdems have distanced themselves from the “orange book” contingent. This is regrettable in my opinion. Given the direction of the tory party since 2015 it’s surprising that few of the 40% of tory voters who voted remain have not switches to libdems. Rory stewart said (on TRIP) that his polling nos reduced drastically when he looked into being libdem London mayoral candidate. Says it all really.

  • Alex Macfie 31st Oct '22 - 8:32am

    Re 2019 defectors. Phillip Lee and Antoinette Sandbach both remain active in their local Lib Dem parties. Chuka Umunna, Sam Gyima and Luciana Berger have stepped back from active politics, Chuka and Sam into high-profile business roles of the type for which explicit partisan statements would be arguably inappropriate. Luciana was still a Lib Dem member as of June 2021 but has been put off front-line politics by her recent experiences on the campaign trail (and who can blame her?). Angela Smith also appears to have bowed out of active politics. Heidi Allen (who did not stand again under her new party colours, for reasons similar to Luciana) also has a set of non-political public roles.

  • Alex Macfie 31st Oct '22 - 8:41am

    I can’t help thinking there’s a stray “not” in Russell’s 3rd sentence above. Without it, the statement would make much more sense in the context but would be wrong. I have long argues that it’s a myth that Lib Dems need to sound like Tories to win the Tory Remainer vote. The Chesham & Amersham by-election shows that we can win such people over with an effective campaign and without our spokespeople spouting stuff that could have been written by Mark Littlewood. Recent events have discredited so-called neo-liberal economics. The Thatcher revolution happened long ago, and as Thatcher herself said (admittedly about the SDP/Lib Alliance) you can’t make a soufflé rise twice.

    Lib Dem electoral success is nothing to do with high-profile political figures or think-tank talking points. Voters don’t think like that. We win by ground campaigning, and our successes in C&A, NS and T&H had nothing to do with any of the stuff that fascinates the political chatterati.

  • Alex Macfie 31st Oct '22 - 9:21am

    Sarah Woolaston is another 2019 defector who now has a non-political public role (in her case head of her local NHS Trust).

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