Three interesting reads for the weekend: on the Lib Dem mission, campaigning and Coalition

Here are three articles about the Lib Dems well worth a read this Bank Holiday weekend… Enjoy!

The Lib Dems don’t need a new leader. They need a point (Ian Birrell)

After two torrid years in office, a fundamental question hangs heavy over the Liberal Democrats: what is the point of them these days? The party has long been ill-defined, split between social democrats on the left and market liberals on the right. In many ways, their brilliance as they grew under successive leaders over the past four decades was this blurred brand, ensuring disgruntled voters of any persuasion could see their own views reflected back when looking at the party. …

Government is about choices, sharpening issues that remain blurred in opposition. This is a problem for both coalition members. But for the smaller partner, it is forcing to the surface deep fissures buried during its rise to power. Negativity is not enough; it should stand for something other than the prevention of another party’s policies. As they confront electoral devastation, the dwindling band of Liberal Democrats must ask themselves an awkward question: when they look into the soul of their party, can they see anything there?

In part this is the by-now-familiar schtick thrown at Lib Dems by non-Lib Dems. As I have blogged before when others have levelled similar you’re-all-things-to-all-men accusations I disagree: not so much because I think its untrue, but because I think the Lib Dems are by no means exceptional in this. Many Tory voters vote Tory mainly because they are anti-Labour; many Labour voters vote Labour mainly because they are anti-Tory; and many Lib Dem voters vote Lib Dem mainly because they are anti-Labour/Tory. Unfortunately this has more inevitably negative consequences for the Lib Dems in the world of Coalition politics than it does for either Labour or the Tories.

Why do the Lib Dems love leaflets so much? (Isobel Hardman)

Nothing gets Liberal Democrats more excited than a really nice bright orange leaflet, preferably about local recycling problems, or maybe even potholes. … The enthusiasm of local Lib Dems for sticking these leaflets through letterboxes on a weekly basis is astonishing and the other parties wouldn’t even be able to come close in replicating it. The other parties wouldn’t want to, though, as this kind of scattergun leafletting doesn’t work. Research by Experian suggests that the only people likely to actually read and appreciate leaflets about generic local issues are older single people. That’s quite a specific group. .. The party needs to devote some serious work to understanding who the voters are that it needs to target. Leaflets about the party’s local success on recycling are not going to swing it at the ballot box, especially if most of them are thrown, unread, into the recycling bin.

There’s little new in these criticisms, either. On one level it entirely misses the point of Lib Dem campaigning. As both Tories and Labour know to their cost, Lib Dem MPs are incredibly difficult to shift from office once they’ve barnacled themselves into a constituency. Regular local leaflets are one integral part of what makes them stick. And you only have to observe how the other two parties have copied our techniques to see how effective they judge them to be. However, Ms Hardman is right that leaflets in themselves are not sufficient; there are few Lib Dem constituencies (I hope) who imagine they are. Certainly both Labour and the Tories have been able to blunt Lib Dem attacks in the last two elections through shrewder use of targeted mailing/calling operations. This is why the party has made a major investment in the Connect database, though she’s right to to doubt if this is always being used as effectively as it can be. Partly that’s the difficulty inherent in changing to any new database, especially within such a devolved organisation as the Lib Dems. And partly it’s the result of the Lib Dems not being able to call on friends in business or the trade unions in the way the Tories and Labour can. Look at the pie chart on this page and you start to see quite how impressive has been the Lib Dem challenge to Tory/Labour hegemony.

Communiquetion Breakdown – it’s always the same (Tom Smith)

From the Liberal Democrats’ perspective there must be a number of excellent reasons to re-evaluate the nature of the Coalition and put forward something different. For one, this remains something of an experiment in British politics and one the Party has to learn all it can from for the future. … An innovative example that could be used is the Shanghai Communiqué between China and the USA of 40 years ago. The innovation came in that it clearly published not only areas of agreement but points of disagreement; the central clauses being a statement by each side of their fundamental beliefs and approach. Constructive ambiguity was employed to side-step issues of irreconcilable contention, allowing the focus to shift to the important issues of the day where consensus was possible.

The Coalition needs a similar communiqué. Such a document would concisely contain the differentiation strategies of both parties and lay the groundwork for effective co-existence in Government. It would need to underpin a new ethos in how to undertake coalition politics, addressing the perception that coalition is ruled by self-interested horse-trading by admitting as much; highlighting that the resulting programme for Government should be an equitable deal between two temporary allies rather than a messy compromise that pleases no one. A statement of principles could be followed by an outline of a few key areas of policy such as the economy where a more dialectical approach would be taken.

Tom Smith, director of Liberal Insight, has unearthed an interesting historical analogy for the Coalition Agreement: the Shanghai Communiqué. In one sense, he doesn’t need to convince me: it was over four months ago I said the Agreement was in urgent need of renewing. What I’m less clear on is how a Coalition Communiqué 2.0 would differ greatly from the Coalition Agreement 1.0. After all, on issues such as tuition fees, Trident, taxes and Europe, the original Agreement noted clearly the differences between the two parties and put forward compromises or explicit trade-offs (eg, mansion tax and marriage tax-breaks cancelled each other out). Some of these could probably have been better thought-through, most notably on fees. Nonetheless, Tom’s fundamental point — that the Coalition needs a re-statement of purpose which reflects where we are and respects the two parties’ different stances on a range of issues — must surely be right.

* 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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  • It’s worth remembering where we were at this stage of the last Parliament in 2007. Ming was leader, and we were being squeezed by a modernising “Liberal Conservative” David Cameron and a honeymooning new PM Gordon Brown. Our polling was in single figures and I’m sure our opponents said then there wasn’t any point in the Lib Dems either.

    At least this time: (i) we are getting some press (some of which is positive) and (ii) the Tories – who are either our main opponents or the main group we need to squeeze – are suffering too.

    And although we are still having to fight with one hand behind our back (it’s not easy to attack the Tories nationally when we are in Government with them), we know we will be free to take them full on at the next general election.

  • Ian’s analysis is (as Stephen points out) rather narrow minded. All parties are a rainbow of views and coalition. Whether modernising Blairities or as progressive Tories etcetera

    Coalition does not damage the LD’s; saying one thing and doing something else does (tuition fees, welfare reform, deficient reduction speed etc) and having a leader seen as a liability – think Iain Duncan Smith, Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown – although as LDV reported last week party members are catching up on that view as well

  • John Roffey 26th Aug '12 - 9:23am

    As a lapsed member, watching from the sidelines throughout most of the Party’s venture into government, I have seen a ruthless Tory Party, in the form of Cameron and Osborne, use the economic crisis to create a nation of such imbalance and injustice that many of the most eminent Liberals of the past must be turning in their graves.

    On Thursday I watched ‘Born Bankrupt’, a program by Jeff Randall on Sky News, which brought together a number of issues that have been highlighted in the news over the last couple of years – but lost in the melee of important issues that have been pressing for our attention.

    As the title suggests, the program focuses on the inheritance we are leaving our unborn children and grandchildren and only the most hard-hearted politico could watch the program without feeling a sense of deep shame. The prospects facing the unborn are indeed horrendous.

    Since few respected commentators do predict any serious improvement in our economic plight in the short or even medium-term, [mostly – quite the reverse] there is little likelihood of the Party gaining any credit for partaking in the Coalition, particularly now that it seems clear that Osborne’s strategy was misguided.

    There is little doubt that the next GE will be won by Labour – with a healthy majority. Without a major shift in strategy, it will be for the gods to decide if the Party will have another minor part to play in coalition. This has become less likely because of the declined reputation suffered over the last couple of years – without much hope of improvement before the next GE.

    Given that the usual approach to politics is unlikely to have any impact for more than a decade – there appears to be little to lose if the Party becomes Statesmanlike and builds a long-term strategy around minimising the threats to our unborn children – rather than seeking short-term advantage by the usual dishonest one-upmanship that modern politics has become.

    According to their website, ‘Born Bankrupt’ will be shown again on Sky News at 0330, 0530, 1530 & 2030 on Bank Holiday Monday – I will be very surprised if it does not leave a lasting impression on all Liberal Democrats watching.

  • “It’s worth remembering where we were at this stage of the last Parliament in 2007. Ming was leader, and we were being squeezed by a modernising “Liberal Conservative” David Cameron and a honeymooning new PM Gordon Brown. Our polling was in single figures ”

    That’s simply not true

    Our August & Sept 2007 polls varied from 12% to 20%. So far in 2012 they vary from 8-11%. And of course in the Autumn of 2007 we dumped our leader as people thought he was a liability!

  • Tony Dawson 26th Aug '12 - 2:36pm

    Hywel, trust you to come along and spoil things with an inconvenient truth.

    @hywel: “in the Autumn of 2007 we dumped our leader as people thought he was a liability!”

    The trouble with most palace coups is that whoever is notionally at the top, the palace is still run by (essentially) the same crew, before and after. 🙁

    The most important thing about the graph in Hywel’s link is that on 15th April 2010, our polling levels leapt across the board by about one third post debate Cleggmania, starting to drift downwards again five days later. The postal votes harvested in this period probably saved half a dozen Lib Dem seats. We owe Nick Clegg a substantial debt for that performance, salvaging a moderately poor result out of something which was heading to be rather worse.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Aug '12 - 6:03pm

    Ian Birrell

    The party has long been ill-defined, split between social democrats on the left and market liberals on the right.

    No it has not. There was no significant grouping of “market liberals” within the party until very recently. The tension between the Liberal Party and the SDP at the time of the merger was not between “social democrats on the left and market liberals on the right”. At that time what is now called “market Liberalism” was called “Thatcherism” and was seen as belonging very much to the Conservative Party. Opponent of the merger within the Liberal Party (of whom I was one) tended to be to the left in the party, and one of the reasons they were concerned about the SDP was they felt it was too right wing. Indeed, at that time the movement to spread obsession with free market policies was just begining to spread beyond the Conservative Party and some elements of the SDP were picking it up – which some from the Liberal Party opponents of merger cited as an aspect of concern.

    The issue came to a head with the “Dead Parrot” documement at the very launch of our party – a policy document supposely prepared by the leaders of the two merged parties. The people to whom the SDP leader (Robert MacLennan, as by then Davod Owen had left the SDP to start a new party of the same name) had delegated the task of writing his part had come under the influence of this free market obsession, which showed in their contribution. That so concerned many members of the Liberal Party, well beyond the few who were outight opponents of merger, that the anger about it almost scuppered the merger. The SDP leader was left in tears about it.

    Am I really the only person to remember all this? If not, how come people like Ian Birrell can get away with writing stuff which is just not true, in fact is the opposite of the truth?

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