What should the Liberal Democrats focus on in the next year? (Stephen Tall)

That was the question House Magazine asked me for its Lib Dem Conference Special Edition, and here’s what I told them:

Forget Nick Clegg’s leadership. There is one issue and one issue alone that the Lib Dems need to focus on in the year ahead: the economy.

There are many reasons for the party’s dip in the polls since the heady heights of ‘Cleggmania’ – allying with the Tories, U-turning over tuition fees – but the single biggest reason for the Coalition Government’s fading fortunes is the continuing recession, coupled with the poor decisions George Osborne made in his March budget.

That is why the Lib Dems must now demonstrate to the British public that their concerns are our concerns. For that reason, Nick Clegg was right to recognise that reforming the House of Lords would appear to many to be a distraction given the Conservative and Labour parties’ decision to block its progress.

The economy also happens to be the issue on which Lib Dems and Tories are in greatest agreement. Now is the time for the Coalition to unite behind a radical and popular agenda of liberal reforms – in the banking sector and beyond – to create a more competitive and much, much fairer economy: a capitalist system that serves everyone, not just a privileged minority.

The prize for the Lib Dems is clear. Not just a political and economic recovery in time for the next election, but also the proof that Coalition Government – parties coming together in the national interest – can actually work.

* You can read Mark Pack’s take on What should the Liberal Democrats focus on in the next year? here.

* 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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  • To my mind, the important thing is not just to do, but we have to be seen to be doing.

    At the moment there is no mechanism by which we can communicate our side of the national “story”. While the Focus “brand” works at a local level, we need a national “sub-brand” to run alongside it to explain exactly what we are doing in government and how it is making a difference.

    Of course, until the economy gets better, I sadly think the electorate’s ears (and eyes) will be closed to our message.

  • John Carlisle 24th Sep '12 - 10:06am

    The NHS break-up must take poll position. Already in Sheffield we have Clinical Commissioning Group being formed and Serco, Virgin et al are hovering. They will use that most attractive lure, decreased costs, to get the business. The very thing that Branson accused the government of being fooled by after he lost his West Coast Rail bid. If we don’t make a big fuss now there will be too much momentum to save it.

  • Bill le Breton 24th Sep '12 - 10:07am

    RC, we learnt in local government that the most important thing in a ‘balanced’ council is to change the mechanics of the way decisions are made. I think we tried to do this at the start of Coaltion government. I am told there are proceedures for deciding matter where both parties do not disagree and that there are facilities for those objections to be raised when we do not have an office holder in a ministry. Issues of disagreement can be raised and then settled at a special cabinet committee that looks at these issues. Failure to agree here leads to the matter being taken to the two leaders.

    Would someone who knows or better who operates this system like to clarify?

    A second lesson was to keep taking issues of disagreement back to the ‘local’ party for discussion (so the wider party knew the background) and into the community to explain the nature of the issue and build support for our ‘line’. This open approach leaves everyone aware of what we win (and therfore own) and what we are still campaigning for.

    It is a very effective process, but it isn’t being used. Either there is too much agreement initially, or we are not using the resolution channel or we are not reporting the use of that mechanism. Certainly we are not using the party @out of doors’ in the way we should.

    This takes the control of the timetable for decision making away from the civil services and places it in the hands of Party members. It keeps a light shining on the process.

    Two examples: we should have listened to Gove and not shared a platform. We should have consulted with the party on his ideas and asked the party to consult in their communities with all stakeholders. Published our findings, linked these to the proposals and set out a negotiating lines with frequent reports back on progress.

    The suspicion is that the leadership does not want this involvement of people who it fears might not share their ideas.

    The second example would be to use this integrated campaigning technique on the Autumn Statement – it would give us great campaigning themes for now until the Statement is given in early December and strengthen the negotiating position of our leaders.

  • @RC :

    “To my mind, the important thing is not just to do, but we have to be seen to be doing.

    At the moment there is no mechanism by which we can communicate our side of the national “story”. ”

    That is the problem. Our Party top brass have no obvious strategy to prevent people thinking, even when Lib Dems generate/ get a success:

    “That was a good thing the government did….so I shall vote Conservative next time (even when it’s against a Lib Dem!)” 🙁

  • Richard Dean 24th Sep '12 - 10:40am


    Is there some way that local associations can be effective in attracting jobs to an area? Such action would surely go down well with voters – more effective that delivering leaflets.

  • Geoffrey Payne 25th Sep '12 - 12:37am

    I do not understand this extraordinary blind spot LDV has with foreign affairs. What do you think of what looks like the likely Israeli attack on Iran? I hope it doesn’t happen but if it does it will be an amazing transformational event in politics for every country that is involved, and that will include us.

  • Geoffrey We need to focus on one or two other areas – both of which have strong economic dimensions. First, the environmental, primarily global climate change, but also natural resource and species extinction / biodiversity crisis. Secondly, the distribution of wealth / power in society. Thinking radically, we need to bring in your international aspect, because without continuing conflict reduction and resolution, all our other efforts may come to naught.

    Reading Stephen’s piece, he refers to a radical agenda of liberal reforms, and he also mentions that the economy is the issue where Tories and Lib Dems are most in agreement. I think this demonstrates the different uses to which the term radical can be directed! For many of us in the Lib Dem mainstream and on the left, we need to leave the privatisation and deregulation agenda behind us. Practical results, and such research as the Resolution Foundation’s recent work, show fairly conclusively that the underlying approach of the Tories produces more inequality, not less. In that context, can I say I was very disappointed that the self congratulatory elements of the economic motion were passed by Conference.

    The problem with the coalition now, is that it makes it much more difficult to change economic path, recognising many of the realities staring us in the face. Up till now, the Lib Dems, in addition to its other roles, had a freewheeling role to tell truth to power. I do not accept that, by at various times, declining, or ending political alliances, it means not taking politics seriously.

    We were not ready for power in 2010, we didn’t have the firepower, and we had an unbalanced mandate, where our leaders took one version of economic and associated reality, and a great number of our supporters another. The longer this goes on, the more pain we will feel – we can already see a renewed downward trend in our poll ratings (if slight at present), showing itself with more polls in 4th behind UKIP. The more we take this so-called “liberal reform” approach to economics, public services etc, the less we will able to argue our traditional cases of international agreement as a route to conflict reduction, freedom from poverty and gross inequality, a greener world etc, and I am afraid, the more we sound like Thatcherite Tories.

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