The Lib Dem narrative dilemma: forget about 2010, start looking forward to 2015

your vote matters lib dem leafletWe Lib Dems are past masters of the squeeze message. “The Tories can’t win here: vote Lib Dem to keep Labour out”; “Labour can’t win here: vote Lib Dem to keep the Tories out”.

But since 2010 we have become the victims of a just-as-vicious squeeze message. Labour says: “Lib Dems are propping up a toxic right-wing Tory government pushing through disgraceful policies (which we will quietly sign up to later — viz cutting child benefit for wealthier parents — once we’ve capitalised on public anger).” The Tories say: “Lib Dems are stopping us from pushing through a full-throated right-wing agenda (even though when we do pursue it — viz cutting the top-rate of tax — we antagonise a large part of the electorate).”

(They don’t tend to say the bits in brackets out loud, though the more honest of them will admit it’s fair comment.)

That squeeze message has had two main, negative impacts.

First, it’s hit the party’s popularity. Attacked by all sides, and with a national press enjoying kicking us with the relish they once devoted to ignoring us, our poll ratings have halved. Those voters previously sympathetic to our message, but by no means hard-core Lib Dems, have peeled off, mostly to Labour because we’re in coalition with the Tories (the reverse would have happened if we were in coalition with Labour).

Secondly, it’s confused our message. We’re all of us still getting used to the idea that a party can be in government and not always agree with everything that government does. Instead we’re in the fuzzy world of percentages (“I agree with 65% of it so I’ll swallow the other 35%”) and trade-offs (“I think that policy’s deluded but at least we’re getting this one through”).

Fuzziness is a very pragmatic response — the only response possible, I’d argue — to a situation in which no one party can claim majority support. But it doesn’t make for crystal clarity.

It means that on many big issues I’m genuinely confused what Lib Dem policy is. Are we as a party in favour of the ‘bedroom tax’, or against it? Would we aim to reduce net immigration, or be relaxed about it? Would we cut legal aid, or maintain it? Would we repeal ‘secret courts’, or continue with them?

I know what the Coalition Government view is on those issues. And I understand that Lib Dem MPs may have to vote to approve such policies in the name of fuzziness. But I’m not sure what the Lib Dem position is. And I pay quite close attention to these things; a lot closer, certainly, than most voters will.

On some issues, most notably ‘secret courts’, there is a party position which the leadership has ignored. On other issues, like the ‘bedroom tax’, there is a leadership position on which the party hasn’t been given a say (yet). The unsurprising result of Coalition fuzziness is a fuzziness in our message.

For sure we all know the on-message-in-volume-over-time mantra by now: “A stronger economy, a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life.” But that’s not (as Neil Stockley would be the first to point out) a narrative. It’s fine as a slogan and I’m not claiming I could better it. But I strongly suspect that if you blind-tested it with voters they would be unable to distinguish it from the Labour or Tory slogans.

And in lieu of this narrative — and as a defensive reaction against the pummelling we’ve taken in the past three years — there’s a tendency for our MPs and ministers to default to a litany of facts-and-figures.

We cleave to the front page of the 2010 manifesto and tell people we’re doing just what it said. Tax cuts for the low-paid! The pupil premium! A Green Investment Bank! And, erm, political reform mumble mumble.

And then we’re disappointed in the voters that they don’t appreciate our efforts on their behalf. The public, eh? Why can’t they remember lists like we do?

Sorry, but it just doesn’t work like that. Our narrative may still be overwhelmed by the ruthless squeeze message we’ve faced these past two years. But we need to quit believing in our opponents’ narrative quite so much, and start believing in ourselves again.

We need to stop fighting the 2010 election in the rear-view mirror and build our own narrative… the lessons we’ve learned by being in government, the growing up we’ve done as a party, the resilience we’ve shown, our commitment to fairness and the national interest, a buffer against Tory heartlessness and Labour soft-headedness… that shows why people should vote for us in 2015.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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53 Comments

  • Correct

  • Fionn T. Smith 12th Jun '13 - 10:21am

    I think there will be two main caveats that the party will need to deal with in the next election.

    Firstly, the student fees pledge will come back to haunt, and will be bandied around as a reason not to trust any Lib Dem ever again. Despite the multitude of counterexamples (and so many examples of Lab-Con broken promises), this will be a powerful message from the opposition because it brought such a visceral reaction in the first place – “remember the fees pledge” they will say.

    Secondly, and relatedly, this means Lib Dems must both recognise and deal with that claim head-on (which Click Negg tried to do with his much derided apology), whilst also clearly and loudly enunciating what policy successes the Lib Dem’s have had in government.

    This must be about more than just the increased tax threshold, though that is a fantastic place to start. LD’s need to also talk about what they stopped the Tories from doing, as well as what policies originated from the party that got through to the statute books.

    As ever, the next election will be a mixture between defending the performance of the past, and setting up a vision for the future. To fail to do the latter, as the author suggests, would be folly; to fail to do the former, however, would be negligent.

  • Robert Wootton 12th Jun '13 - 10:24am

    I have just published a Manifesto for the Liberal Democrat party on the mycouncillor website last night! Here is the link
    http://bobwootton.mycouncillor.org.uk/

    My mission statement as chair of Torridge and West Devon Liberal Democrats is to create the conditions for a landslide victory in a FPTP general election.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Jun '13 - 10:44am


    We’re all of us still getting used to the idea that a party can be in government and not always agree with everything that government does.

    We shouldn’t be. That’s how coalitions work, the possibility that we would find ourselves in a coalition has been with us since the turnaround in third party support in the 1974 general elections, we should have been well-prepared for it.
    We should have game-planned this, we should have known how to respond. The party is stuffed full of experts who could have helped out – people who have experienced this sort of thing in local government. Did the leadership make use of this great resource for advice once the general election of 2010 showed the situation we would be in? No. Instead it turned to ad-men whose advice has been a disaster.

    I remember how it was when the coalition was formed – we were advised it would look good for us if we seemed very pleased with ourselves about it, and we should “take ownership” of it, as if it was all our idea, and we were the dominant force in it. This was lining us up for what came next – a massive drop in our support as a Tory-dominated government did Tory things.

    The fact is that people didn’t look at Nick Clegg standing next to David Cameron at the despatch box and think “Oh wow, Liberal Democrat ministers, I hadn’t thought of voting LibDem in the past, but I will now”. They thought “Look at him, that’s all he wanted, power for himself, and he’d say one thing to us, and another thing to the Tories to get it”. That the ad-men couldn’t predict that’s what the response would be shows how out of touch they are. The over-optimistic and exaggerated accounts of what the Liberal Democrats are doing in government which keep being sent out from the party’s national office continues this disastrous ad-man’s approach. For an ad-man, the product he is selling always has to be super-duper wonderful, the best thing ever, never is it going to be a compromise with reality, something accepted because it is the best that could be achieved in difficult circumstances, but no more. But this ad-man’s approach does not work with us, it damages us more, it gives the impression we are fully in support of all the coalition is doing, that it is what we would do even if we were not in coalition.

    We have been urged to say “coalition, coalition” as if that will mightily impress people, but when people hear the word “coalition” they think of THIS government, and when they think of this government they think of what it is – the most right-wing government this country has experienced in 100 years. See how in media reports the word “coalition” is now often used where the word “government” would have been used in the past. If we carry on using it with pride in the way we have been urged to do by the ad-men and the party leadership, it comes across to our supporters and ex-supporters and once-might-have-been supporters as us being enthusiasts for the most right-wing government in 100 years.

    The reality is that we are a small part of a coalition where the much larger part is the Conservative Party which has moved very much further to the right than it was even in Margaret Thatcher’s time. Sorry, but I don’t think token liberal things, like gay marriage, which have no economic costs to big finance change that. It’s because the Conservative Party has shifted so far right in its recent years of opposition that the result of it being moderated by the coalition does not appear as such to most people. I think it would be a whole lot worse if it were a majority Conservative government, and that is actually what all those using the line “get rid if the LibDems, we don’t like coalitions, no-one voted for this government” are urging we should have right now. It is also why I think we need to withdraw from the coalition well before the next general election i.e. about now, to give the Tories the chance to show what they would be doing if we were not there in coalition with them. And to give us a chance to say what we would do on our own as well.

    In part we are caught on the hook of how coalition was always talked about before it happened. It was always put as us being in some sort of “kingmaker” role, being able to play one of the two big parties off against the other, with both eager to give in to all our demands in order to be “in government”. Because of that, people see we haven’t been able to force through much of what we ideally would want, and think bad of us for it. Because of that, people suppose that we had a choice, that we could equally well have formed a coalition with Labour, and so that what we have now is all down to us choosing it to be that way. We should have got ourselves off the hook at the start by making it clear that due to the distortions of the electoral there was only one viable coalition, and also by admitting our own weakness in that situation. Of course, admitting to weakness goes against all that ad-men are all about, but I think if we had done this early on, we would be in a much better situation now. Sometimes it works to be honest.

  • On the button Stephen. Great post.

  • You can’t just set a narrative for 2015 in isolation. It is framed by what we have done in 2010-14

  • Great piece. We have a good story to tell but we have to believe it ourselves before we can convince anyone else.

  • Stephen, this must be the best article I have seen from you. You have expressed the dilemma spot on.

    Tuition fees are a classic example: I could explain how the new system is a de facto graduate tax and that it protects poorer graduates much better than Labour’s system: in fact it means that the poorest get university tuition for free. However do I approve of the tuition fees system? Like hell I do! It will produce all sorts of problems in the long term, it is a (PFI like) wheeze for taking a huge amount of expenditure off the government books and may even turn out to be more expensive than a properly funded education system.

    When tuition fees get attacked how should I respond, when I partly want to defend the system as not so bad as it is made out to be but also feel that it is an unsustainable bureaucratic mess?

    Presumably the time will come (before the 2015 election I hope) when we can spell out what were the compromises that were made to accommodate the Tories and which were deemed unavoidable given budget restraints. Of course we cannot escape decisions made in government (Hywel), but at this stage we are not privy to how these decisions were made.

  • Geoffrey Payne 12th Jun '13 - 12:32pm

    Hywel is right. Like it or not we will spend a lot of time at the next general election talking about what we have done in government. The powers that be within the party have blocked motions to be debated at conference on issues like the bedroom tax because they do not want to risk being defeated.
    I am wondering what David Laws is going to write about Free Schools and Academies in the next manifesto. The policy offends the liberal principle of devolving power to local government and instead Michael “the man in Whitehall who knows best” goes round the country telling parents that whether they like it or not their school is going to be an academy.
    The Liberal Democrats voted against this by a 10 – 1 majority at the autumn 2010 conference. But it is a policy that has long been supported by Nick Clegg and David Laws and the Coalition gave them the opportunity to push the policy through.
    So will this be heralded as a Lib Dem success, or will the manifesto stick to the confernce motion policy? This will be an interesting test on who runs the party; it’s members or a small elite.

  • @Dave Page
    The trouble is that Labour or Conservatives “alone” couldn’t have got anything through parliament. Labour did the opposite U-turn by voting against the Browne report (they had promised student-haters that they wouldn’t have to pay taxes for students much longer), so the Tories would have had to ditch it without the Lib Dems. The reason why it is real suicide though is more long term -the universities will soon be turning out graduates who will really feel that they don’t owe the rest of society a thing, and who are not going to be receptive at all to the Lib Dem centre-left message.

  • Sean O'Curneen 12th Jun '13 - 1:19pm

    Matthew: you mention that the party did not take advice from the experts at local level who have had a lot of experience in coalitions. You then end your comment by suggesting that we should withdraw from the coalition well before the next general election. However, I suspect that most of those who have experience of governing in coalition at local level would strongly advise against precisely that. The electorate may not like the choices you make, and it may be that at the next election our party does badly. But then again it may not do so badly – do Lib Dems in coalition at local level always do badly? What is certain however is that voters dislike instability even more, and will severely punish the one who triggered it. Leaving the coalition early would create such instability. I think the last paragraph of Stephen’s article contains the key elements which might deliver a good result for the Lib Dems. The proof will be in the pudding of course.

  • Tom Nicholson 12th Jun '13 - 1:22pm

    Talking about our tax cut, the Green Investment Bank etc. is surely a good thing to do if it is tied into a narrative about how we have delivered what we promised and we have contributed to a fairer society.

    It seems to me though that a narrative can be created by fleshing out the “stronger economy, fairer society” slogan by drawing out what we did to achieve it and how the other 2 parties showed they were incapable of delivering one or the other. Looking forward we have to show how we’re the only party that can deliver on both fronts.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Jun '13 - 1:40pm

    The problem with tuition fees is that we made a pledge to vote AGAINST them. Such a pledge does not make sense if we are in opposition, as opposition parties routinely vote against whatever the government proposes. So it makes sense only in the context of being in government. Manifesto pledges are normally about what a party would vote FOR when in government. A pledge to vote against something in government can only really be interpreted as stating that this is an issue we would regard as non-negotiable in coalition. So this as the one issue where there is a specific pledge to vote against, it can only really be interpreted as a statement that this issue is the policy we would stick to above all others in coalition negotiations. That’s what makes it so hard to deal with, as it can’t so easily be explained as just one of those things thrown into the negotiations along with all our other positions. We appeared to be saying that this is the ONE issue that would be the absolute sticking point. There is no other issues, so far as I recall, which we similarly identified as a specific sticking point.

    I think we have to state that if we had been in power, we would have raised the taxes to pay for tuition fees and state what those tax rises would have been. We were told at the time of the general election that the manifesto was costed, so there must be something there that could be stated as balancing the tuition fees pledge, even if it’s a little hand-wavy. We must also make clear that however we would have paid for tuition fees, the Tories absolutely refused, feeling just as strongly that to back down and agree with us would be to break THEIR manifesto commitments. This would make clear the point that coalition does involve a negotiation of mutually incompatible policies. It would be much easier to use this line if we had used it at the start, rather than used the ad-man’s line about the coalition being all so wonderful and the fulfillment of our dreams. Every time Clegg says that, and he keeps on saying it, it was the centrepoint of his Autumn conference speech, for example, he kicks us, the party members, in our teeth. We NEED an admission that the coalition is not that wonderful, that compromise which means dropping many of our dreams is a necessary part of it, that with five times as many Tory MPs as LibDems ones, there’s inevitably going to be a lot of compromise, and therefore that this coalition is a compromise we accept as reality flowing from the people’s votes and the electoral system’s distortion, and NOT the fulfillment of our dreams. More of our fulfillment would come from more LibDem MPs and more LibDem MPs would come from more LibDem votes. So all I am asking here really is for our leader to push a line which comes down to “Vote Liberal Democrat”. Why doesn’t he?

    Clearly the response to any attack on us from Labour over tuition fees would be “OK, how would YOU have kept tuition fees down to the level they were in 2010 had you been re-elected?”.

    It should be noted that one way we could have kept to our pledge while not having to find so much money to do so would have been to agree to massive cuts in university places. So, again, if pushed on this, we should make this point. “Yes, we could have closed down half the UK’s universities and so kept to our pledge. Is that what YOU would have preferred us to do?”.

    Another way of meeting the pledge would simply be to borrow the money to pay for universities. Which is really what happened, the whole system is a fiddle to hide that reality. If it had been borrowed as straight government borrowing, it would have to be paid back. And who would pay it back and how? The next generation of high earners through taxation i.e. much the same people as will be paying back their tuition fees loan and in much the same manner and in much the same amounts.

    Most of the general public seem not to have got this point. They really do think that £9000 tuition fees means three times as much money going to universities as £3000 tuition fees. It does not (as a university lecturer, I wish it did, it might mean I get pay rise that keeps up with inflation). It is just raising through the tuition fees system what was formerly raised through taxation. It is what it costs to run the universities, however it is raised, it is still what they cost, unless you slash the number of university places. Government money does not come from shaking a money tree, it comes from taxation. I do not think it is beyond the wit of most people to get this point if carefully explained. So why can’t we carefully explain it in that way?

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Jun '13 - 1:58pm

    Sean O’Curneen

    Matthew: you mention that the party did not take advice from the experts at local level who have had a lot of experience in coalitions. You then end your comment by suggesting that we should withdraw from the coalition well before the next general election.

    Leaving the coalition early would create such instability.

    Yes, which might help get the point across just why we accepted going into coalition. We’ve been so widely attacked for that, and lost so many of our supporters, that a concrete demonstration of just why we had to do it might not be a bad thing. We withdraw from the coalition and the FTSE drops 500 points? Seems to me we can then say “Now do you understand just how much value our coalition support had to the country?”.

    The closer we get to the next general election, the less instability it will cause, since it just brings forward what has to happen anyway. I think however that withdrawal from direct participation in the government needs to be accompanied by some sort of supply and confidence agreement for the stability reasons you raise. I’ve argued in the past why this was not a sensible long-term option to take in 2010, but as a short-term option done with the deliberate aim of letting the parties set up shop in preparation for a general election that has to take place anyway, I think it works. Going into the general election while still in coalition doesn’t, because it leaves us unable to establish a distinct Liberal Democrat position which is far removed from that of the Conservative Party. If we go into the general election and it’s painted as “Coalition v. Labour” we are doomed, we will have become the National Liberals, our merger with the Conservative Party will be the next step.

  • Peter Watson 12th Jun '13 - 2:03pm

    I agree with what Stephen has written and most of the comments below: all seem to acknowledge the problems facing the party as we approach 2015 even if we disagree about the best path to take.
    I think it will be difficult to take credit for what did not happen; things that Lib Dems prevented the tories from doing. That would lack credibility and might require contradicting public statements made at the time or the leaking of confidential information, all of which might do more harm than good.
    Equally, distancing the party from things that it did allow and vote for might make Lib Dems appear unprincipled and unreliable. Fuzziness and compromise might be easier to explain when talking about the big economic policies that Lib Dems will justify as “clearing up after Labour”, but what about all of the other policy areas, especially the NHS and education reforms/damages.
    I suspect that the party will do neither of these things. In response to every question, Clegg, Laws, et al will answer by referring to Labour’s mess, the income tax threshold and the pupil premium, even when being asked if they want fries with that.

  • jenny barnes 12th Jun '13 - 2:41pm

    The assumption made in the article is that the LD leadership actually disagrees with the general ideology of the Tories. My perception is that the Orange Book crew, especially Clegg and Alexander, are entirely happy with the market led neo-liberalism that they are voting for in the coalition. By 2015 we will have had over 35 years of this failed ideology. Long enough, I think, to conclude that the evidence from the experiment is that it’s not the best way of organising an economy with human beings in it.

  • I think the basic problem is that our message (1) Actually hasn’t been delivered in any way to the voters because apart from the odd Focus leaflet don’t receive our messages at all from the mainstream media;
    (2) Has been drowned out by mass hostility from the right wing press. How else could you explain the fact that around 10% of our 2010 voters say they would now vote Tory (!);
    (3) Has suffered because we’ve been in government at a time when cuts were absolutely necessary. This government simply has not had the room to bribe people like Labour did while it was in power.

  • Sean O'Curneen 12th Jun '13 - 3:38pm

    Matthew: a campaign “Coalition vs Labour” would indeed be disastrous, but I doubt very much that will be the case. We never do that after coalitions at local level and nor does it happen in other countries where coalitions are more common. The parties govern together, then campaign as separate parties seeking to obtain the highest number of seats in parliament. Our MPs have looked into how coalitions work in other countries. So I am convinced that during the campaign the Lib Dems will be very much seen as a party fighting equally fiercely against Tories and Labour.

  • Gareth Wilson 12th Jun '13 - 6:50pm

    I often hear our MP’s saying ‘we’re the junior party in the coalition’. Why? Of course the Conservatives have many more MP’s but if we don’t vote there’s no majority. So in that sense it doesn’t matter how many MPs each party has.

    I’d like to see us being much more robust in our posture towards our coalition partners and vocally saying ‘this is a Conservative policy and we don’t like it’. Nick should be a real thorn in the side of the David Cameron. He’d get more grudging respect from his opponents. More Alex Salmond and less lap dog.

  • paul barker 12th Jun '13 - 7:23pm

    On the related question of where we are now I would like to point to todays latest “Leader Satisfaction” polling & its completely coincidental similarity to the results of The 2010 Election.
    con/cameron 34/37% lab/milliband 31/30% libdem 27/24%

    My interpretation is that deep down, voters havent really changed their minds. The 2015 campaign will start mostly where 2010 ended. Most voters put elections in 2 groups – Westminster & the others, most dont vote at all in the others & those that do vote are quite willing to waste their votes on men in monkey suits or UKIP. Most voters just dont believe Locals & Euros are important in the same way that Westminster is.

  • paul barker 12th Jun '13 - 7:27pm

    ps sorry the figures are all bunched up, not the way i wrote em.

  • Tony Dawson 12th Jun '13 - 9:12pm

    “Our narrative may still be overwhelmed by the ruthless squeeze message we’ve faced these past two years. But we need to quit believing in our opponents’ narrative quite so much, and start believing in ourselves again.”

    Successful Lib Dems (and some who’ve been less lucky these past few years) have never stopped believing. Just as they have refused to believe the myths peddled by the weavers of imperial invisible thread.

    If the same people responsible for 2010, 2011 and 2012 are still in charge in 2015, what could there possibly be for us to collectively look forward to?

  • Tony Dawson 12th Jun '13 - 9:19pm

    @paul barker:

    “I would like to point to todays latest “Leader Satisfaction” polling & its completely coincidental similarity to the results of The 2010 Election. con/cameron 34/37% lab/milliband 31/30% libdem 27/24%”

    Yes we know you like to point that out. Unfortunately ,there is no connection at all between these two sets of figures. The GDP of Bhutan probably correlates in the same way with the death rate of black faced sheep in three fields outside Kendal.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Jun '13 - 12:02am

    Sean O’Curneen

    Matthew: a campaign “Coalition vs Labour” would indeed be disastrous, but I doubt very much that will be the case

    You do? Then how come our national leaders are already preparing for such an election, already stating that the election will be all about what good things the coalition has done, and how bad Labour would be?

  • “…..a buffer against Tory heartlessness and Labour soft-headedness… that shows why people should vote for us in 2015” … RIGHT ON TRACK!

  • @Matthew Huntbach

    Certainly experience from Europe shows that coalition parties that are perceived as ashamed of their action are not going to get many votes, neither from those who like the current government nor those who hate it – both groups are better served by less ambiguous parties. But distinguishing the party from the Tories is important – to a certain extent they are going to do it themselves when (based on past form) they start banging on about cutting inheritance tax for million pound estates, equally important is to point out that Labour have had no real policies for the past few years and would have in practice been doing a lot of the same things, but are too cynical to admit it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Jun '13 - 11:04am

    Richard S

    Certainly experience from Europe shows that coalition parties that are perceived as ashamed of their action are not going to get many votes, neither from those who like the current government nor those who hate it – both groups are better served by less ambiguous parties.

    I don’t think the Liberal Democrats should be ashamed of their actions following the 2010 general election. That’s been my point all along – I’ve always strongly defended the formation of the coalition and what the party has been able to achieve through it. Since the coalition was formed I’ve sent a stream of letters to national media outlets defending the party against the simplistic “nah nah nah nah nah – you’ve betrayed your principles for power” LibDem bashing that has become commonplace since the coalition was formed. But I constantly find the sort of defence I would like to put up for our party its undermined by its leadership.

    Sorry, but the sort of salesman’s “It’s all wonderful” patter that we get continuously from Mr Clegg doesn’t work, and DOES come across as the party underneath being ashamed of its actions. People who are ashamed of what they have done go over the top in exaggerated defence of their position, and this is how it comes across. That is why I am always urging that we are much more honest about this being a compromise that was the best we could obtain from a situation which was far from our ideal. We had 57 MPs, the Tories had 306, and Labour did not have enough to make a Labour-LibDem coalition viable, therefore we were forced into a coalition where our bargaining strength was weak and so our ability to influence it limited. I don’t think it’s a matter of shame to admit that, and to state that we have done the best we could do under the circumstances, but we could have done a LOT more if we had more LibDem MPs. It IS however a matter of shame when right-wing economic policies are pushed through, which are far from what we said we were about in the general election, and our party leader defends all this with lines that suggest it’s all super-duper wonderful. People in this country can see for themselves that it ISN’T all super-duper wonderful. Mr Clegg would come across as less ashamed and more in charge if he could admit that – the Liberal Democrats are just one-sixth of the coalition, therefore its policies are not our ideal, therefore they aren’t super-duper wonderful – if there were more LibDems they’d be more towards our position and therefore better.

  • Stephen – an excellent article. Agree wholeheartedly.

    Matthew – completely disgaree, for so many reasons too tedious to list.

    I would add one point of my own – I think we need to stop apologising and start being more positive about our achievements and more negative about both Tories, Labour and UKIP (yes – I think we need to really start attacking them hard). Unfortunately apologising is essentially about wallowing in the past and frankly we’ve done enough. This is especially true over something like tuition fees. Other parties have broken promises – and in far easier economic circumstances and in government on their own. We seem to revel in apologising for not being able to implement 100% of our policies with less than 10% of MP’s.

    Linked to not apologising any more is to rubbish this ridiulous line that this is the most right wing government since Ghengis Khan. The Tories might be right wing but even Labour is now admitting it wouldn’t do much differently (actually I think they would have failed to do many good things the government is actually doing – like lowering taxes for lower and middle incomes by raising tax thresholds, or finally meeting our aid commitment of 0.7% GDP – a much overlooked achievement which Labour talked about for years and this government is actually delivering on)

  • Matthew – I take it back. i agree with your last post!

  • @Matthew Huntbach

    I tend to agree that Clegg isn’t right for that role. A recent article on how the political landscape might look after PR placed him in the libertarian party. I wouldn’t class him, or most of the leadership in that way – yes they are more right wing than a lot of the membership posting on LDV, but I would class them mostly as “managerial” politicians, who would probably stay in whichever party inherited a brand from FPTP politics, rather than people whose politics comes from strong libertarian convictions. Because the convictions aren’t so clear with Clegg it is harder for him to differentiate himself from the Tories, particularly when similar criticisms could be applied to Cameron by members of his party.

    The joke is of course that none of these “managerial” politicians has done much management outside politics and things like the sexual harrassment scandal tend to show them up as experiencing situations for the first time.

  • @Dave Page
    “new graduate tax”

    You’re essentially advocating lying to the electorate. Not uncommon for a politician admittedly, but even the most uninformed of graduates can tell the difference between a tax and fees (i.e. the regressivity of tuition fees versus the proportionality of a graduate tax, etc).

  • David Allen 13th Jun '13 - 1:58pm

    We have no clear narrative for 2015. That’s because we haven’t decided what to do in 2015.

    We could decide A: “Coalition with the Tories was justified. We fight on the Goverment’s record. We aim to continue the Coalition Government. Here are some priorities we intend to bring into that partnership over the next five years.” Then we would have a clear narrative.

    We could decide B: “We have had it up to here with the present Coalition with the Tories. We declare independence. We will say what was good about the Government’s record and what was bad. We will campaign for certain specific goals, and we will work with anyone who can work with us to achieve those goals”. Then we would have a clear narrative.

    To decide B, it is imperative that we pull out of Coalition, and hence that we elect a new leader following Clegg’s inevitable resignation in that event, well before 2014 / 2015. We cannot credibly decide B on the eve of election itself.

    If we do not decide B, therefore, we will gradually come to realise that we have decided A. Our leadership, I believe, know that already, and welcome the process of drift which they hope will take us there.

    We can’t create a narrative until we decide what we intend to do.

  • David Allen 13th Jun '13 - 6:12pm

    Matthew Huntbach:

    “The sort of salesman’s “It’s all wonderful” patter that we get continuously from Mr Clegg doesn’t work, and DOES come across as the party underneath being ashamed of its actions. People who are ashamed of what they have done go over the top in exaggerated defence of their position, and this is how it comes across. That is why I am always urging that we are much more honest about this being a compromise that was the best we could obtain from a situation which was far from our ideal.”

    Valid argument, if you want to continue defending the coalition deal. So, why does Clegg not buy this argument from you and use it?

    I think the answer is – Because to Clegg, it wasn’t an awkward compromise at all. It was his goal. He achieved what he wanted to achieve. He was quite happy with limited influence over the programme for government, because he was happy with most of the ideas the Tories came up with, including the ones like Lansley’s and Gove’s that weren’t included in the Coalition Agreement. If Clegg were now to turn around and say that it was an awkward compromise, it would deflect him from his next goal. Which is to renew the Coalition in 2015.

    You are right to say that the salesman’s patter comes over as shamefaced. That’s because Clegg and his friends have consistently tried to conceal their motives and goals from most of their own party, and of course that comes over as evasive and insincere.

    Would you agree? If not, do you have an alternative explanation as to why Clegg has not seen the sense in the arguments you have put?

  • Stuart Mitchell 13th Jun '13 - 7:14pm

    “We cleave to the front page of the 2010 manifesto and tell people we’re doing just what it said. Tax cuts for the low-paid! …And then we’re disappointed in the voters that they don’t appreciate our efforts on their behalf. The public, eh? Why can’t they remember lists like we do?”

    The Lib Dems haven’t come anywhere near fulfilling their manifesto promise of a tax cut for the low-paid. The manifesto promised a £10,000 income tax allowance “paid for in full by closing loopholes that unfairly benefit the wealthy and polluters”. What they have delivered instead is a £10,000 income tax allowance paid for by a VAT increase and cuts to tax credits. This isn’t even partial delivery. Partial delivery would have meant, say, an £8,500 allowance paid for by those extra taxes on the rich and polluters. A tax cut for the low paid financed by tax increases on the low paid represents zero delivery.

    If the public aren’t falling over themselves to give the Lib Dems credit for this, I don’t think that’s because they are ungrateful, or thick. On the contrary, it may show that the public aren’t as stupid as politicians like to think they are.

    But apart from over-inflating Lib Dem achievements, this article is excellent and hits the nail on the head. Trouble is, it’s three years too late. The way Lib Dems have conducted themselves in coalition over the past six months has been largely creditable. But the actions and endless left-bashing rhetoric of the previous two and half years won’t be forgotten by left-leaning voters such as myself in time for 2015.

  • Stuart Mitchell 13th Jun '13 - 7:18pm

    Julian Tisi: “I think we need to stop apologising… This is especially true over something like tuition fees. Other parties have broken promises…”

    Yes, but when an entire party makes a huge public show of signing big pledge cards weeks before an election, even the most cynical voter can be forgiven for feeling shafted when the pledge is ripped up a few months later. Tuition fees was not just another broken promise, and won’t be forgotten as readily as you hope.

  • David Wilkinson 13th Jun '13 - 8:25pm

    The article and the comments show what many members of the public are asking and my son asked me this morning, what is the purpose of the Liberal Democrats?.
    Clegg and Co have taken the party down a certain route and there is now no clear Liberal line on the issues that public faces and that they can identify with.
    Result we are tarred with the Tory mess and vast numbers of the public and our members have gone for ever.
    All Clegg can hope is another hung parliament, that’s if he survives as leader after the disaster in the Euros and locals in 2014.
    No real message of hope for the people, I asked him in Manchester after the riots what his message was and he had no idea then and its just got worse.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Jun '13 - 8:45pm

    I’ve got his message David: the Liberal Democrats are for building a stronger economy and a fairer society. Basically it’s a form of centrist liberalism that is distinctly different to left wing socialism and right wing conservatism or libertarianism.

  • Steve at 1:34pm either really hasn’t understood a single bit of how the new tuition funding system works or is trolling us. I’m honestly unsure as to which.

  • A more practical narrative might be “Forget about 2015, start looking forward to 2020.”

  • Peter Watson 14th Jun '13 - 12:51pm

    @Jen “Steve at 1:34pm either really hasn’t understood a single bit of how the new tuition funding system works or is trolling us. I’m honestly unsure as to which.”
    Which of his comments make you think that? Surely Steve is right to suggest that it is dishonest to claim that repayment of tuition fees and interest is the same as a graduate tax, and I don’t recall Lib Dems describing the scheme as such before 2010.
    And while Lib Dems claim that the new system is better and fairer than what it replaces, apparently the government’s own advisers suggest that an increase in interest rates for students on the older scheme could be justified by saying “You have a deal which is so much better than your younger siblings (they will incur up to £9,000 tuition fees and up to RPI+3% interest rates)” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2013/jun/13/raise-interest-rate-student-loans-secret-report)

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jun '13 - 1:30pm

    David Allen

    You are right to say that the salesman’s patter comes over as shamefaced. That’s because Clegg and his friends have consistently tried to conceal their motives and goals from most of their own party, and of course that comes over as evasive and insincere.

    Would you agree? If not, do you have an alternative explanation as to why Clegg has not seen the sense in the arguments you have put?

    I’m still not fully able to make up my mind on Clegg. Is he a devious plotter who planned all this in advance? Or is he actually a man of limited intelligence, no firm convictions, but easily led by those around him, and he’s surrounded by people pushing him that way? Actually, I’ve always tended to the latter explanation rather than the former. I’ve never heard anything from Clegg that makes me sit up and think “That’s an interesting idea” or “I hadn’t thought of it that way before”. Everything that ever comes from him always seems just so banal. I don’t think he’s someone that would have got anywhere if it were not for his posh background and nepotism pushing him through.

    But actually, the answer to your question, I think is that while it may seem obvious to us, it isn’t to him. He’s part of the Westminster Bubble political elite, he has pretty well made clear his contempt for ordinary party members – which is how the Westminster Bubble thinks, to them politics is all about themselves, and elections are won by what they do, with local effort being just a minor and rather embarrassing aspect of politics which perhaps could one day be dispensed with. In the Westminster Bubble, there is STILL this idea that all the Liberal Democrats have to do is look even more like shiny Westminster Bubble professional people and shed what remains of the beard-and-sandals stuff, and the votes will come flooding in. And there’s still far too many people active in the party who push this line, and very few who will come out vocally and put the other line.

    Take Julian Tisi. I don’t know the man, but he starts off by saying he completely disagrees with everything I say, then I write the same thing again, just putting a different emphasis on it, and he says he now fully agrees with me.

    I’ve said what I’ve been saying consistently since 2010, and in fact, on Nick Clegg since the leadership election when I just could not understand what people saw in him, and made that point here. I was accused of having some sort of personal vendetta against him, but I think if people look back at what I was saying then, they will see it has all worked out just as I suggested it would. We need people with real experience of real life in charge; posh boys who’ve never known anything but a comfortable posh life get things wrong because they don’t know and can’t understand what life is like for most people. The Liberal Democrats need to have a leadership composed of people who have come up through the ranks and know how our party works locally and why it has been a success that way. I’m sorry if my saying that makes people think I am prejudiced, but I am saying it because I believe it to be the truth, and I believe the Liberal Democrats to be collapsing as a viable political party because it has not considered these things.

    If there was real support for what I’m saying in the party, I’d be pleased, but I don’t see much evidence of it. When I post in LibDem Voice, I still feel like an outsider, saying things that aren’t accepted, and getting attacked for saying them. I wish I didn’t have to keep saying them, I wish there were plenty of others saying them, but there aren’t. Instead it seems there are people who might be feeling this way, but keep quiet and then resign from the party. Why? If all those who have resigned from the party had instead taken a strong stand against Clegg, we’d have been able to force change and win back our party.

  • Julian Tisi 14th Jun '13 - 1:39pm

    Stuart Mitchell: I’m not saying that we didn’t need to apologise or even that the whole handling of the issue was an utter farce – of course it was. But we’ve been punished heavily and have already apologised profusely. What more can we do – commit collective suicide? In any case, I believe that while the handling was awful, the new fees policy we agreed to is much, much better than it’s held out to be – it’s progressive, much more than the old system (even the IFS says so), the poor pay less, the rich pay more, no-one earning under roughly average salary pays anything, anyone earning more pays a fixed rate of their earnings above the (already high) limit – all in all it’s essentially a graduate tax in all but name. Considering the fact that neither Labour or Tories would have done much differently, the fact that university funding was unsustainable, the fact that Lib Dems didn’t win the election outright, it was I think a reasonable compromise in the circumstances.

    I know that this won’t satisfy everyone but it’s been explained till the cows come home. I know too that our opponents would love us to just commit collective suicide and go away. But we won’t and we shouldn’t. It’s time for us to stop apologising.

  • Julian Tisi 14th Jun '13 - 1:48pm

    Matthew: “Take Julian Tisi. I don’t know the man, but he starts off by saying he completely disagrees with everything I say, then I write the same thing again, just putting a different emphasis on it, and he says he now fully agrees with me.”

    Er…. I was trying to be nice. I disagreed with most of your posts, then I saw you your latest post (while I was writing mine – must have left it a while without refreshing the page!) and broadly agreed with it. So I thought I’d say so!

  • Peter Watson 14th Jun '13 - 2:32pm

    Matthew Huntbach “We need people with real experience of real life in charge; posh boys who’ve never known anything but a comfortable posh life get things wrong because they don’t know and can’t understand what life is like for most people.”
    I certainly agree with your first point, but (much against my instincts) am less convinced that it is the poshness per se of Clegg and others which gets in the way. My impression is that we have inherited a political class for whom the whole thing is a competition: it is less about conviction or passion, and more about winning the game. Perhaps the connection is that “posh” politicians can treat the political system as a debating society for grown-ups where the sole objective is to cleverly win an argument regardless of the topic or one’s own beliefs.

  • Anthony Hawkes 14th Jun '13 - 3:44pm

    “A more practical narrative might be “Forget about 2015, start looking forward to 2020.””

    Unfortunately I think David is probably right. It looks increasingly unrealistic to expect anything other than electoral disaster. Stephen is absolutely right about the need for a compelling narrative and others have make excellent points as well. However it is going to be be extremely hard to differentiate ourselves from ‘nasty’ Tories in the time we have left and with no one reporting what we say anyway. So yes, I really hope someone is planning for 2020 and composing a distinctive LibDem narrative. I just hope after the mauling of the last few years, we still believe in our message.

  • Just one quibble with the original post; the mantra of “A stronger economy, a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life.” is NOT fine as a slogan – it fails the ‘reversing test’ for political content. Would any party conceivably argue for the opposite “A weaker economy, an unfair society, enabling few to get on in life”? Clearly not which means it’s just sugar water devoid of any political content. Actually it’s probably worse than neutral since I suspect that voters hear it as banal BS and tune out of anything else we have to say – any reasonable person would conclude that it’s our best shot at summing up our thinking in a few words. And alarmingly, the reversed version is a lot closer to what the Coalition is actually delivering. A good slogan would signal what we are about – the verbal equivalent of a Matt cartoon.

    Matthew Huntbach (replying to David Allen at 1:30)

    Agreed! We have to ask about the core motivation of certain key players in the Party. Is it to propose to the electorate a transformative vision based on (a suggestion here) curtailing excessive accumulations of state and private power in order to empower ordinary people or is it for themselves personally to join the gilded elite in the Westminster Bubble? Sadly, I too am forced to conclude it’s the latter. From that flows an obvious (to them) conclusion; don’t rock the boat, don’t challenge power in any way and play by the rules of the Westminster hothouse to advance within it. This makes perfect sense as a personal strategy for those of limited talent and no firm convictions. I wonder if anyone consciously joined the Lib Dems because in a smaller pond it’s easier for a minnow to play the big fish or if this was the path of least resistance they later stumbled across.

    What I want, and what I believe a large part of the country wants, is for outsiders to come in and smash up the cosy sleaziness of Westminster, outsiders who dance to the tune of the country outside Westminster, outsiders with experience of real life and not just politics and PR. On present evidence those most likely to achieve this are nationalists and UKIP which would be a disaster. In contrast, the Lib Dem party organisation is in no way fit for purpose as currently constituted but for the current management that doesn’t seem to be a problem – it got them into the Bubble and might well deliver again.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jun '13 - 10:50pm

    Sean O’Curneen

    Matthew: a campaign “Coalition vs Labour” would indeed be disastrous, but I doubt very much that will be the case

    And, bang on cue here we have it. Who is this “we” the campaign talks about? It’s the five-sixths Conservative government. Here we have it, our party is praising the Tories and their right-wing economic policies, acting as cheerleaders in issuing extremely dubious claims about jobs supposedly created.

    It’s an example of absurd and damaging exaggeration as well, full of ad-man’s “isn’t it wonderful?” talk, Ordinary people will see it that way, People who are unemployed and finding it impossible to get a job, people who have been thrown out of their jobs by the cuts, people who have lost their jobs in the recession, will look at this and think “typical out-of-touch politicians, all they every do is twist and distort things, what complete nonsense this all is”.

  • Jonathan Hunt 14th Jun '13 - 11:02pm

    Going into coalition was the correct thing to do. Agreeing to five years of Tory austerity was not. We urgently need some form of escape from policies that have failed totally.

    Most of what Tony Benn would have called “the people at home” have sen our living standards fall continuously for the past decade. All of what little extra wealth has been createed has been taken by the top 2 per cent, or tax-cheating multi-nationals and unscrupulous UK-based firms.

    We pay higher taxes so they don’t have to. No Tory government would take action against the mega-rich. It was ever thus, and will continue to be so. There is a simple answer in a unilateral withholding tax. But no Tory woud agree.

    We have cut income tax for pooper people, but have raised taxes on consumption that forms a far higher proportion of their income. People are worse off than when came to power. Yet we expect them to love us for a few minor baubles we have had to fight hard to achieve.

    The sad truth is that we are going to go down with the Tories except in those seats where the local MP and party have worked very hard to convince their electorate we are the same people they chose in 2010. ,

    The only things that can save us is to bring down George Osborne and give Keynisan policies a chance. And to strongly oppose Prism and anyone who wants to spy on us.

  • LiberalFantasist. 15th Jun '13 - 12:06pm

    Good article. Shows we are working hard to find argumnts to justify our existence.

    Meanwhile in the real world….

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