Opinion: View from the sidelines

For many years I’ve been a quiet Lib Dem, helping out where I have time but not going to any major effort. Watching the last week to ten days has been very interesting for me.

First came the launch of the Lib Dem manifesto, better organised and easier to watch than the previous Labour or Conservative launches and full of policies that are have been honed and developed of a long cycle of policy refinement. The only thing missing was a serious commitment to investing (or find a way to invest) in the telecoms infrastructure but one omission (admittedly one close to my heart) I can live with.

Then Nick Clegg’s performance on TV (which I had to record and watch later because I was at a gig) polished, confident and striking (for me at least) the right balance of message and honesty. But as some pointed out why should we be suprised when in Sept 2008 the BBC ran this showing how much people agreed with Nick when given the chance to hear his message

On Friday the final piece of crazyness took off, the much vaunted social media explosion as the infamous Facebook group launched it assault on the consciousness, now with 125,000 plus members, 750 plus images and a growing number of interlopers from the other parties getting *hugs* and a serious answer to their questions its turned into the sort of thing you get at a fringe meeting at conference.

With the attacks today from the Daily Heil, the circle is complete and in the words of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” (although its possible, in the great green tradition of reduce, recycle, reuse, he borrowed the core of the speech from Nicholas Klein.)

The election is still two weeks away, so things might change as twice as much as they have done in the last week but for me I’m just going to sit here, keep prodding on facebook and twitter, get out and deliver a few leaflets (I so want Hazel Blears to loose), put up a poster and keep my fingers crossed (like everyone else).

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  • Paul McKeown 24th Apr '10 - 6:45pm


    I too have been a quiet Lib Dem for many years; I actually voted for Vince Cable in York in 1987, at which time I was a member. But since then I have just followed from the sidelines and been both quietly pleased at the clear progress that the party has been making over many years of hard work, whilst simultaneously frustrated by the Tories and Labour thieving Lib Dem successes with their rotten FPTP voting system.

    This time is different, though, as TV has provided our Lib Dem leader with a powerful platform to put Lib Dem ideas to millions of electors, who would not otherwise hear them at all. Not only is the message available to them, but it is harder to ignore, too, as they actually have to hear the Lib Dem message if they wish to hear what their traditional choice has to say. In the first of 3 debates, Nick Clegg received tower high approval ratings; in the second he put in a solid performance which will have consolidated the opinion of many in his favour.

    The economy is in a mess and traditional politics has been badly tainted by parliamentary scandal. People are looking for a change – and 49% say that they would vote for that change, in the form of the Lib Dems, if they only could believe that the Lib Dems could win. Elector registration is sky high, the number of young voters is particularly apparent. There has been a rush of new Lib Dem registrations.

    As it is, Lib Dem voting intention is at about 30% or so – and importantly postal votes is due to start soon, looking in many of these Lib Dem gains. However, the painful FPTP truth, is that this will be rewarded with perhaps 100 seats, obviously a significant breakthrough, but still paltry reward for the number of actual votes cast for the Lib Dems. Another five per cent, though, and the mold would be broken completely and beyond any possible redemption. But how to make that next breakthrough?

    Whenever I think about political issues, I always ask myself what Norman Tebbit would do. For any younger readers, who don’t know who he is, Tebbit can be seen as a sort of a Tory version of Peter Mandelson, but with bovver boots, always ready to fix the political problem of the day, simply by putting the boot into the opposition, and doing it hard and enough until the problem was sorted. Love him or loath him, you couldn’t ignore him. Importantly, Tebbit had an unerring instinct for the opinion of the common working man.

    If some fellow had been sent to Tebbit for his views on the current Tory prospectus, he would have simply planted his size 9’s into the poor unfortunate’s backside and told them not to darken his door until they came back with something better. Fox hunting? Inheritance tax? A paltry tax break for married people? Is that it?

    There has been some discussion in various places, trying to compare this election campaign with many in the past. For me, the best comparison is 1979. Britain’s economy had been in a mess in the 1970’s, people were worried. Thatcher stood on a platform of reforming the institutions that in her eyes had caused the problem, and, a promise to allow council house tenants to buy there property from local government. The idea sold like hotcakes amongst the working class up and down the country. She was successfully able to repeat this formula in further elections, by promising to privatise all sorts of state run companies, allowing the voter to make money by buying shares at the launch of the new privately run companies and quickly selling them to institutional investors.

    What is the lesson to this history? The formula was stick, stick, stick, but CARROT. CARROT sold the electors.

    Similarly now in 2010, the economy is in a mess, and painful retrenchment is due. However, neither Labour of Conservative have really come clean about the stick, nor is there much carrot either.

    However, the Lib Dems have costed proposals for dealing with the economic mess. They have one very attractive orange carrot, too, that would Norman Tebbit would certainly have approved of, if the Tories had thought of it first.

    Raising the threshold for the basic rate of income tax to £10,000 is that carrot. When I have explained that carefully to friends, the way their eyes flashed when they understood the consequences has been revealing. The idea is clearly attractive to people on low wages, they are taken out of tax, or they end up paying much less. Interestingly, the Paxman’s of this world, and the Tory and Labour attack dogs come out with the line that it saves those on quite large salaries £750 a year. I would not be defensive about that at all, if I were Nick Clegg. Thatcher certainly would not have been abashed. Next Thursday, I hope to see him promise the viewer on TV, £750 a year , if he should be part of any government in the next Parliament. An absolute guarantee to push the threshold to £10,000.

    Tory and Labour simply have no comparable carrot. Stick it to them.

    They will, of course, come back with all sorts of rubbish arguments as to why the Lib Dem figures are wrong. I’m sure our team will have Nick well prepared for that onslaught. And sell, sell, sell.

    Try explaining that one yourself to your Tory or Labour friends. Watch their eyes, when the idea finally sinks in. Pays for that new washing machine, and the tumble dryer, too. Norman Tebbit test. Passed. Box ticked.

    Perhaps Brown of Cameron will try to dismiss Nick as Santa Claus, but the answer is simple. Brown would pay for Christmas on the credit card, whilst Cameron would use his Santa suit to steal the house fittings.

    I firmly believe that if Nick Clegg can plant the idea credibly in the public’s mind, then the breakthrough would be guaranteed. Ordinary working class voters from both Tory and Labour heartlands would go for that. It is an easily tangible idea, not airy fairy, and of enormous benefit to the vast sway of the electorate.

    And the beautiful idea is that it works, even if a Lib Dem minority or majority were not formed. It can be explained both ways to the public on coalition formation in the Queen’s speech. The Tories can say that it is perfectly consonant with their ideals of low taxation, whilst Labour can say that it speaks directly to their principles of fairness for all.

    Good luck, Nick.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Apr '10 - 12:26am

    As it is, Lib Dem voting intention is at about 30% or so – and importantly postal votes is due to start soon, looking in many of these Lib Dem gains. However, the painful FPTP truth, is that this will be rewarded with perhaps 100 seats, obviously a significant breakthrough, but still paltry reward for the number of actual votes cast for the Lib Dems

    National commentators have been putting forward figures like this on the assumption there will be a uniform wing in all constituencies. Well, that’s just all part of how they just don’t get it. They think the only political acitvity that matters is what they see and what they do in their bubble. So of course they see politics as activity in Westminster and the national media leading to a nationwide swing as everyone everywhere thinks the same way as led by our lords and master.

    The LibDem success here has been due to solid organisational work at local level. It’s been due to ordinary people in the LibDems running local campaigns. The result of our pushing it as the election approached is seen by our poll figures rising before the TV debates. Nick Clegg’s creditable appearance in the TV debates has helped, of course. A lot of the gain, however, is from people who were already reasonably impressed by seeing our work at local level, but needed a trigger to push them to commit at national level.

    The bubble people just don’t get it because it doesn’t involve them. The idea of ordinary people actually going out and actively winning the votes of other ordinary people, without media dahlings and fancy City PR outfits and the like being involved, is just beyond their capacity to imagine, so they don’t know it’s happening even when it’s happening beneath their noses.

    But because that’s what’s really pushing it, it won’t be a uniform swing. It’ll be a big swing in those places where we’ve managed to get a good bunch of activists running a good local campaign. It’ll be a much smaller swing in those places where we haven’t been able to get much going.

    As a consequence of this uneven nature, it will result in substantially more gains than a national uniform swing would give. This is not really an amazing insight, because we already saw this in the 2005 general election. With a share of the vote not dissimilar to what we have had before, we gained many more seats. This was because there was a less of a big but not really committed national swing (as seen in 1974 and 1983) and more of a steady win of constituencies where we’d been building up with local campaigning for many years.

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