Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Liberal Democrat Fightback: Communication and Action

Since the turn of the year (or, more accurately, since Cameron's Euro non-veto) there has been an increasingly clear Liberal Democratic voice emerging from within Government. The mechanics of a coalition budget have also helped the yellow side of the government in being able to lay out its stall. Differentiating us, our policies and our priorities from our Conservative partners. Not least, of course, our commitment to raising the Income Tax Personal Allowance to £10,000 (and beyond?) by the end of this parliament.

Whilst the economic imperative for coalition government remains, there seems to be more willingness to put through our distinctive point of view. This can only be a good thing as the parties put together a programme for the remainder of this parliament and prepare to fight the 2015 election.

This increasing communication from within the Government and Parliament has been mirrored by a concerted and sustained attempt to increase the quality and quantity of information given to members. As far as I can tell, this is being orchestrated by new Chief Executive Tim Gordon and Internal Communications Manager Helen Duffett

Weekly e-mail briefings, more frequent and focused missives from ministers, webinars and tele-conferences are all being used to increase communication between the members and headquarters. Danny Alexander held an online question and answer session on the day after then budget and this week, Jo Swinson has e-mailed with the Local Election Broadcast while Nick Clegg has e-mailed today on the green economy, of which more later.

It's not been entirely straightforward - the recent debacle over proposed extension of police surveillance powers is a case in point. But it's also an example of the new communications strategy being implemented as a two-way street. Bloggers and various prominent/vocal/tech-savvy members had a teleconference with some of Nick Clegg's advisers. I wasn't on that call but I think it's fair to say they were left in no doubt of the views of the grassroots membership. The cause has since been taken up by both Tim Farron, who responded brilliantly to a letter signed by 150+ party members and Jullian Huppert, to whom Nick Clegg has suggested he is happy to defer on these matters.

On that matter, we will have to wait and see what transpires, but there does seem to be signs of a change from the approach taken over tuition fees and the NHS reforms - although neither of those quite united the party in the way Civil Liberties can.

Standing for Liberties and against an extension of the powers given to the Police and Secret Services is one of the key areas in which Lib Dems can differentiate themselves from the more authoritarian parts of the Tory party - and can do so within the terms of the Coalition Agreement. Standing for Liberties within Government could be one of the things that sets us apart from both Labour and Conservative at the next election. I believe if we can point to categorical success in this area there are voters to be gained.

Indeed, thoughts must be turning to that election and what the Liberal Democrat manifesto will be. But for the first time, the party will be getting judged on its record. Not just on one or two issues but on 5 years as a party of government.

Coming back to today's e-mail from Nick Clegg, which was sent on the back of Nick Clegg's speech about the continued importance of environmentalism in straited times - as well as his announcement that fuel companies will be obliged to adviser clients annually of the tariffs which would be cheapest for them - I saw the germs of a narrative which could be exploited over the coming years.

In it, he speaks of the importance of living not just within our economic means but within our environmental means. "That the economic and environmental mantras are the same - waste not, want not." Later, he says:
"We have to stop treating the environment like an afterthought. Instead we will show that consumer interests, business interests and green interests are the same. That is why the environment will be at the heart of everything Liberal Democrats do in government,  why I will be making more speeches on further green issues in coming months and why we will fight to make this the greenest government ever."
I don't think it can be an accident that things highlighted - the importance of economic discipline aligned with business and green interests - are things over which three of the four Lib Dem Secretaries (excluding Nick himself) have responsibility: Danny Alexander as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Vince Cable at Business, Innovation and Skills and Ed Davey, Chris Huhne's successor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Whilst there are lots of Lib Dem policies being implemented elsewhere - the pupil premium and equal marriage for example - being able to point to Liberal Democrat Secretaries implementing Liberal Democratic policies could be an important part of our strategy. Of course, it would be great to have a Secretary in one of the big spending departments but we must work with the hand we currently hold... least until any cabinet reshuffle.

It may have taken a couple of years but it finally seems as if the party hierarchy is finally developing a distinctive narrative and working to communicate this to members and beyond. For two years, we've been the butt of many a bitter left-wing comics joke, and suffered a backlash in opinion polls (although not always in actual polls). It's time we started to turn the tide, it's time we started to point to positive successes by identifiable ministers. It's time to lay the groundwork for a positive pitch in 2015 as a real party of government.

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Paul Brownsey said...

As someone who voted LibDem last time, I shall find it hard to forgive the LibDem deceit over tuition fees - not just the breaking of the promise but the subsequent falsehood, parroted on all sides by the party, that the promise had been only a manifesto promise whose implementation was conditional on the LibDems winning a majority. The promise in question was no such thing. It was given independently of the manifesto and was an unconditional promise to vote *against* tuition fees.

I might be more disposed to vote LibDem again if they would frankly admit that this line was false.

Paul Brownsey

oneexwidow said...

Hi Paul, Thanks for the comment.

There are plenty members within the party who would agree with you, not least many of our former PPCs.

My view was rather more pragmatic (I blogged about the aftermath here: ) but remains, briefly:

1. Was unwise to sign pledge prior to election, especially with a Hung Parliament a greater prospect than for a long time.

2. Having made such a big play of the issue, it should have been pushed harder in the coalition negotiations.

3. Some contrition as well as rationalisation and justification would have been better in the public presentation of the issue.


Raybeard said...

As someone who always votes in ALL elections - local and European as well, of course, as General, but who wavers between Lib Dem and Green, I have a very real fear that after the next election the former may well be back to those bad old days of the 1970s, which I remember so well, when they had just half a dozen MPs.
However, as a General Election may well be some time away, I do think there could still be time for the anti-Lib Dem tide to turn and for Clegg or a successor to be seen once more as a respected voice of value and integrity. At least one can only HOPE that will happen.