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Clegg and Cable – could it be like Owen and Steel all over again?

September 26th, 2009 Posted in UK Politics by

owen-and-steelThe good news is that the shambolic party conference has not impacted on us in the polls (yet) – the you gov poll in tomorrow’s Telegraph has the LibDems on 20% (+3%), the Tories are down two points on 39% and Labour down one on 26%.

But my worry was not so much that we’d crash because of a few bad headlines, but that our communications infrastructure may not be robust enough to withstand the rigours of a General Election campaign.

Vince Cable’s high profile and popularity should be a great asset at the next election. However, it also raises some difficulties. The Liberal Democrats now have, to some extent, a dual leadership – not wholly dissimilar to that of the two Davids in 1987. The parallel is not a happy one.

By common acceptance, the Alliance campaign in 1987 was the worst of the three parties – and a fair chance of coming second in vote share at the outset was comprehensivley squandered in a confusing tangle of contradictory  messages coming from the mouths of Owen and Steel. With the two men on a punishing schedule – and often at different ends of the country – any differences of nuance were ruthlessly exposed by the media as evidence of fundamental cracks in the SDP-Liberal Alliance.

A similar risk surely applies to the Nick and Vince show in 2010. Of course, the Owen-Steel relationship was characterised by a personal animosity that doesn’t apply in the Clegg-Cable case. But cordiality does not firefproof you against blunders.

Both Nick and Vince have an endearing tendency to say what they think. These are not tedious, automaton politicians who parrot a script. And therein lies the danger. One can imagine it now – Nick is in Manchester expounding, say, the need for savage spending cuts, while Vince is in Cornwall saying that cuts certainly need not to be savage, but will have to be serious. In the heat of an election campaign, a small distintion in emphasis or the choice of slightly different adjectives will be all the press pack need to start running stories of LibDem chaos and confusion.

Modern communications technology (they didn’t have mobile phones or the internet in the dark days of the late 80s), should help mitigate this risk. On the other hand, the very nature of today’s relentless rolling news media means exponentially greater opportunities for gaffes.

One thing’s for sure – we’ll need much better co-ordination of messages than was evident in Bournemouth. Three or four weeks of such confusion would dash any realistic hope of gaining support as the election campaign progressed.

UPDATE 9pm, 26th September: Perhaps conference mayhem is what the public want to see! ICM have the Tories on 40% (-3%), Labour on 26% (+-0)% and LibDems on 23% (+4%). If Labour’s conference is a funeral and the Tories get into a lather about Lisbon, maybe these numbers will hold up next month.

4 Responses to “Clegg and Cable – could it be like Owen and Steel all over again?”

  1. Angela Harbutt Says:

    Well its better that we learn now that we dont have the skills in place and sort it – than realise in 4 months time. Danny Alexander will know that he was – to put it politely – out of his depth. A decent professional in now and all is not lost.

  2. Matthew Huntbach Says:

    You have completely missed the main problem with the Steel-Owen leadership. It wasn’t that they were saying different things, it was that Steel wouldn’t stand up for his own party, and the media were massively biased in favour of Owen anyway. So Steel was seen as some very weak person, who would always give in to Owen, and the press played on this because it went along with what they wanted and it had good comical elements to it. The reality was that Owen’s position within the Alliance was far, far weaker than the press supposed, but it took the Monster Raving Loony Party to get them to finally see that.

  3. Mark Littlewood Says:

    @Matthew – I invite you to read some of the books about the 1987 election. You may be right about the weaknesses in the Alliance in general. But you are, with respect, utterly wrong about the problems in the election campaign itself.

    You also seem to be confusing “the press” with the satirical TV show, Spitting Image. But never mind.

  4. Charlie Says:

    Politics is about perception and as M Twain said
    1. A man who has reputation for getting up at dawn can afford to get up at midday.
    2. A lie is half way around the World before truth has got it’s boots on.
    There is also the Yiddish saying – Half a truth is a whole lie.
    We need to deal with the World as it is, not as we would like. If a party cannot manage the way it presents itself to the World ( Manners maketh may – the manner in which one presents oneself to the World is the way one is judged)it is not fit to manage the country.Churchill said for every minute of speach it took 60 minutes to prepare.
    The LDs need to realise that it is suffciently large to be taken seriously and every word and action will be judged.