The Liberal Democrat challenges for 2011: showing the difference Liberal Democrats make

Over the festive season we’re running a series of posts on the main Liberal Democrat challenges for 2011. You can find all the posts as they appear here.

When it comes to getting public support in return for making a positive impact on the coalition government, there are two requirements for the party. It has to have achievements that people know are down to the Liberal Democrats and also to have achievements which add up to more than a scattering of interesting details. Unless there is a clear thread running through them, the details will get lost in the non-political noise that takes up most people’s attention most of the time.

The party has been moving away from the initial approach of loving everything the government does in public, with more of the disagreements showing in public. Unintentionally, Ken Clarke is turning into a key ally on this with his sensible liberal approach to justice policy regularly putting into the public domain how it is Ken Clarke and the Liberal Democrats versus the bulk of the Conservative Party on many issues. Without the Lib Dems, policy in this area would look very different.

Displaying such disagreements without wrecking the necessary relations for a function coalition will be a major challenge in 2011. So too will be ensuring that the many individual good pieces of news add up to an overall story. As I wrote over the summer being good ministers is not enough:

It’s reassuring to hear at first hand that Liberal Democrat ministers outside of Cabinet are managing to plough a Liberal Democrat furrow in their own areas rather than simply being junior implementers of a Conservative Cabinet member’s policy.

Reassuringly too for those of us who have seen local councillors disappear into the bureaucracy and do a hard-working diligent job but forget what it is that makes them Liberal Democrat rather than just an apolitical competent administrator, there looks to be some consistent liberal themes across the decisions being made. In particular, issues about empowering individuals and decentralising power come up time and again.

The trickier question, however, is whether a collection of liberal victories scattered through government will add up to a convincing overall picture for the public of what Liberal Democrats have achieved in government. 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.

Tim FarronTwo ways the party can meet this challenge is by better internal communications and using members and supporters as a campaigning resource. Half the Liberal Democrat ministers, for example, have both not sent any emails out to party members generally on what they’ve been doing since May nor placed a guest post online on a Lib Dem blog. [CORRECTION: the half figure includes Whips along with departmental ministers and Whips are generally more restricted in what they talk about in public.]

It is possible to be a really good communicator with party members and use neither of those routes – but in reality those who are not using either of those routes are also not communicating much through other means.

That said, the volume of internal communication has picked up and with Tim Farron taking up the post of Party President on 1st January further improvements are also likely. Tim being in post will give the party a high profile, media friendly figure who can argue the party’s case rather than the government’s case and – by not being a minister – will have more freedom to emphasise differences rather than similarities between the coalition partners.

As for using members and supporters as a campaigning resource, that is for tomorrow’s challenge…

UPDATE: In a new year editorial, the Observer made a similar point about good ministerial work not winning public plaudits: “[Lib Dem ministers] have put in surprisingly impressive performances. The dilemma is that much of this work is invisible to all but the most avid Whitehall watchers and this allows their Conservative cabinet ministers to take the credit.”

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6 Comments

  • We know from the latest Telegraph reports that a lot of junior Lib Dem ministers don’t actually believe in many of the policies the government, of which they are part of, are coming up with. Far from communicating these differences in public, they seem happy to go along with them and only bitching when they think nobody can overhear them.

    Frankly this begs the question about what does being in government offer if you have to go against most personal and political principles you hold?

    Is the answer money or power?

  • crazy situation isn’t it, those who took us into it seem to not support it in private now

  • Poppie's mum 23rd Dec '10 - 3:48pm

    The Lib Dem challenge for 2011 is to start telling the truth to the public, on camera and in the press, rather than to giggly female undercover reporters.

    Telling the truth and then retracting it because it is embarrassing is the old politics, which Clegg spent so much time deriding pre-election.

    Stop behaving like Tory Stepford Wives, stop telling us that every last divisive and regressiveTory policy is ‘fair and progressive’ .

    Apologise for U turning and lying about the party’s cuts policy.
    Dump Clegg, Alexander and Laws [where ever he hides out these days] and people may actually see the Lib Dems as a viable party to vote for again.

    Can you pull it off ? I’m no gambler but I’d put money on more of the same, embarrassing stuff next year.

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