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Lib Dems: time to tell the voters what we are “for” not what we are “against”

November 10th, 2011 Posted in Liberal Democrats by

As a follow up to my last post – and following some off-line discussions with fellow Liberal Democrats – I think I should expand on why “upping our game”,  as defined in that annoying  Independent piece , is not enough. We don’t need some faceless aides stating the bleeding obvious. We need a plan.

Just to be clear, and at the risk of repeating myself,  I am not against Lib Dem MPs reminding interviewers/viewers which party they belong to (well one or two perhaps!) that is year one, level one comms basics… I would have thought that every MP had been told that on day one. And if they weren’t then I want to know why.

What concerns me it why Nick’s aides have come to the conclusion that this is the answer to our woes – (and even more bemused why any aide thought it was a good idea to then brief the papers that is what they were doing). Our problems are a damn sight more fundamental than that. There is little point in mentioning “Liberal Democrat” in every interview, if no one really knows what the hell that means. And that is the problem – we don’t know who we are – and the voters certainly don’t.

Our problem of course is founded in the fact that we have been the party of opposition for too many years with varying messages about what Liberal Democrat means according to what part of the country you live in. In some parts of the country we are “mini-Labour”  or “Labour-lite” in others we are “nice Tories”. We have consistently defined ourselves by what we are notrather than what we are. The “stay local” strategy was expedient at the time – but a catastrophe when it comes to presenting a national identity people can relate to.

The easy crutch of being “the party of protest” – that aided, or inspired, our incoherent/confusing message – has gone. We need to face up to the fact  that we have lost that swathe of voters who lent us their “protest vote” and are unlikely to come back in anywhere near the numbers needed if we are to avoid serious losses at the next general election.

We need to find that new block of voters that buy into who we are today. So now we need to start defining who we are and , crucially, what centre-ground constituency of voters support what we stand for.  We have about three years at most to get our act together. That means the party has to grow up. We must find areas that we can collectively agree on that defines what being “liberal” means – identify our voting constituency – and demand discipline from our candidates and leading lights  in sticking to the message.

On some obvious issues we are pretty united …civil liberties , international trade, immigration etc .. on others we are frankly all over the shop and not just amongst ourselves. At best we send out horribly mixed messages to the voters.

My answer is to seize the centre ground of people who are fed up with Whitehall, big government and big business that seems to have privileged access to big government. Every part of our country is run by “the big boys”. As stated before here and here I think we should be the party of the small and the local. That means striving to get decision making down to the smallest level possible.  And let’s not be half-hearted/self-interested in this. “Localism” should not stop at council level – why not down to the level of the individual where ever practical? We claim to “trust” people – state that we believe people are capable of coping with complex voting systems etc when it suits us – but appear incapable of resisting paternalistic/nannying statements and “big government led solutions” at every twist and turn.  We either trust people or we don’t – which is it?

Why not be the party that really fights for SMEs (small and medium sized businesses) ie. cutting red tape, exempting SMEs from much of the employment law that stops so many of them from taking on new staff, and simplifying tax law that only benefits those with battalions of accountants to seek out the loopholes. All this can be done during this parliamentary term if we get our finger out. Let’s be the party that cuts national taxes so that local councils can raise and spend more money in a way that local people really want and that are accountable to the local electorate; the party that is really committed to a bonfire of the quangos – so far we have been lame on this and again we can reignite this during this parliamentary term; let’s be the party that stops the cycle of big government lobbying groups lobbying big government  on policy which it then takes up because of “lobbying pressure”; a party that promises to get of the way wherever it is possible, a party that is honest with voters about viable levels of spending, a party that promises to actually do less, but do it better. That sounds to me like “the party of the people” that really does “trust in people”.

Whether you agree with the small and local strategy or not – I hope that many of you – especially those of you who know about communications – will agree  that only when we have worked out what we actually stand for – not what we are against – and start to back that up with consistent policy ideas – will the term “Liberal Democrat” having any meaning.


6 Responses to “Lib Dems: time to tell the voters what we are “for” not what we are “against””

  1. T. C. R. MacDonnell Says:

    As I understood it, the four pledges we made at the election were our standard to the nation. It seems stranger to me that these four pledges are so rarely mentioned than that Liberal Democrats have a semi-fluid identity.

    The trouble with us Lib Dems is that our biggest strength is our biggest weakeness: we give everyone in our party the oppertunity to democratically contribute. This means we get a lot of informed, practical policy suggestions from experts within their sectors, and a lot of popularist, under-qualified knee-jerk reactions from moralists and protesters. In short, we have one of the same problems as Occupy: that because our members are a democratic coallition of interests, our collective identity depends largely on the projections of the individual and our platform may not conform to this projection as other identities get in the way.

    I wouldn’t give much weight to this kind of navel-gazing over “what we stand for” or what we don’t stand for: we already know we’re of a spectrum of ideologies who place weight on liberty and/or freedom. Far better to construct a coherient policy platform built on common interests within the party, and that means either compromising or convincing one another of the advantages of particular policies. Our leadership seems excellent at doing precisely that: it’s our grassroots who get in a tizzle about it and end up contridicting the leadership whenever a policy gets past that they don’t like.

    This puts a check on the leadership, but it doesn’t half confuse the electoriate who have no understanding of our party constitution, which seems bizarre in comparison to the better-known and more cohesive Hobbesian Tories or the Extra-Votes-for-Vested-Interests Labour. We should nail the policies we all agree on to the mast, and if the electorate agree then we can count on their vote.

  2. Angela Harbutt Says:

    TCR – I do kind of hear where you are coming from – and you make some excellent points – like tying the leaderships hands and our grassroots (in which I include myself) getting into a tizzie when they disagree with certain policy…..(eg we say we believe in “localism” but then a significant faction try to stop parents setting up their own schools (how “local” can you get?)

    My problem with your suggestion is however that if we form policy without a grounded ethos behind our policies we end up with policies that completely contradict one another and (as you imply) leave us looking like Occupy rather than a party than has a coherent message.

    If we are of a “spectrum of ideolgies that place weight on liberty and/or freedom” ( i don’t know what that means but it sure sounds good) then lets give up being a political party and become a pressure group.

    And I am not even sure that we would be terribly good at that… we may well collectively agree with our “socially liberal policy ” on drugs (grounded in liberty/freedom) (all good)… but people have a right to scratch their heads and wonder why we then seek to impose effective prohibition on smoking tobacco in private establishments or indeed square Willie Rennies position (Scots Lib Dems) that we should impose prohibition on alcohol for the poor (he who agrees with minimum pricing) – all this mind whilst we pontificate that we “trust the people” to have enough common sense to switch to a more complicated voting system.
    Can you at least see how this looks to the outsider?

    I know that asking basic questions like “what do we stand for” sounds wanky and arguing that we need to identify a new voting base sounds prescriptive .. but if we want to be in power (and maybe some people prefer the more comfortable ground of sniping from the sidelines) that is what we have to do. I think , anyway.

  3. T. C. R. MacDonnell Says:

    I think any successful attempts to woo voters are to be encouraged, and I can’t think of a constituency I’d like the support of more than small-medium business owners. The thing I’m driving at is that a part of being a liberal is to give the grassroots their say, and a part of being a democrat is to count on members to acknowledge the risk they pose to the leadership (and hence the collective interest) when they rebel. Of course, as we know, that trust can be misplaced.

    The party constitution I admire is that of the Tories, who toe the British constitutional line through their whole party: the leader is their leviathan, but he is accountable. As we have seen over the past few weeks on Europe, Cameron’s members are no less likely to remain loyal to their leadership even after he has explained why a referendum isn’t a good idea. The Tories have a more solid identity because their interests are more uniform, but the majority can really hammer individuals in the party (like Ken Clarke) into supporting measures they dispise.

    In other words, this problem is not only limited to the Lib Dems, and nor is there one solution. Our party’s solution (to give everyone equal say) does confuse the public, yes, but it also gives individual Lib Dems a real investment in their party and enables the best grassroots policy platform in the country: so much of what we put in our manifesto comes from ordinary members putting their hands up.

    But to maintain the support of the electoriate, we do need to make a postured unified front or risk electorial ire, as the Tories did last week when their ranks broke. Do we maintain the Liberal Democrat party constitution as it stands, or do we reform it for the sake of greater electorial appeal? I suppose if you believe that the Lib Dems need to be in power to be an effective party, it’s an appealing idea: I would love nothing more than to see a Lib Dem PM. But our party could do pretty well swinging between the Tories and Labour in a continual coallition: never out of power, never operating outside of the national interest, ever-tinkering towards a fairer and more efficient country. Given the outcome of our prefered voting reforms would result in more coallitions, I don’t think acting as a liberal anchor in the centre of parliament would be a bad destiny.

    If we argue in favour of party uniformity, I think we betray ourselves. If we want to know what we stand for, all we have to do is look at our membership cards:

    “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

    And that’s where the real Lib Dem split lies: on the definition of what it means to be “free”, “open”, or “equal”.

  4. Angela Says:

    TCR – thanks for your very thoughtful response.

    As you put it, my issue, I guess, is that giving some 2000 specially selected people at conference the vote on policy when Lib Dem membership is inifinitely larger (it was 60,000 – no idea how far south that has gone since) – well it’s hardly democratic. It can’t really be said to be giving members equal say. That actually only happens when we are voting for our leader.

    If we really do want to “give the grassroots their say” we should modernise our party decision-making process – so that many more party members are enfranchised. That would be do-able if say – we asked our party leaders to put forward policies and the entire membership were allowed to vote on whether they supported it or note. The process of policy decision-making might take longer – but it would be “fairer” than what we have today where only a small elite (voting members at conference)get to determine policy…

    I am very uncomfortable myself with a party that argues for political reform elsewhere within the system – but ignores its own internal failings.

  5. T. C. R. MacDonnell Says:

    I hadn’t concidered the gap between members at conference and those outside of it. Democracy is more than just giving people a vote, and a part of that is debating the issues. Were the party to open polls online with articles summarising the pro and con arguements for each motion, I daresay more people would be engaged by the system, but it might be optimistic to expect what the Lib Dems stand for to become any clearer from the electorate.

  6. Ed Joyce Says:

    We need to be careful about basing ‘what we are for’ on being liberal and democratic. The Democrat in our name comes from the merger with the SDP. The Liberal party was democratic in its own right and the party conference existed in the 70s in a similar form to today. The party consists of supporters of social liberals, economic liberals, classical liberals and libertarians of the left. We need to pay some attention to how these groups can coexist harmoniously.