Friday, May 4, 2012

The LibDem local election campaign was not LibDem, local or a campaign

NB I wrote this post a month ago, but decided not to publish it before the local elections, to avoid undermining candidates.

What are the LibDems campaigning for in the local elections?

The party website highlights the following key points...
  • A £3.5bn tax cut for working people
  • Biggest single ever uplift in tax threshold
  • 21 million people getting an extra £220 tax cut
Are these three different things or different facets of the same thing? Not sure. Either way, they're not a campaign.

OK, maybe the party website is still trying to promote the Budget rather than looking ahead to the local elections.

So let's turn to Andrew Stunell MP, Communities Minister and Chair of the Liberal Democrats Local Election Campaign Team.

Andrew tells us that the Liberal Democrat local election campaign has already launched. Oh well.

According to Andrew, the big messages are:

1. Your local record of service
"all year round, not just at election time. Lib Dem councillors across the country work hard for local people. We listen to our communities and try to give them a voice in decisions made that affect them. In power we work to protect the services people most value, and to protect the most vulnerable in society."
2. Putting more money back in the pockets of hardworking people
"On the local front, this year every single Lib Dem-run council has frozen their council tax bills... Nationally, from this Friday, Liberal Democrats will deliver another £130 income tax cut to every basic rate taxpayer. That's 25 million people getting a tax cut and 1 million people lifted out of paying Income Tax altogether thanks to us. ... The second year of record rises to Pensions, with pensioners set to benefit from a rise of £5.30 a week this year, on top of the £4.50 rise last year."
3. Making the rich pay

Including increased capital gains tax, an annual banker’s levy, VAT on private jets, caps on tax reliefs and an extra £900m to tackle tax evasion.

4. The Pupil Premium

An extra £1.25bn, targeted at the most disadvantaged pupils.

5. Encouraging employment
"We’re creating jobs, and supporting young people in the difficult path back into work by driving a record expansion of apprenticeships to over half a million, and the Youth Contract, announced yesterday, designed to get over 400,000 young people earning or learning."
6. Giving power to communities
"... we’re giving real power and control back to local areas, particularly over planning... Planning is set to become a bottom-up community-driven process, not the top-down imposition it’s been for far too long."

What's wrong with that?

(i) It's not a campaign

So this, all of this, is about actions that have already been taken or that are already underway. There's no sense of actually campaigning to do something.

Maybe that's not entirely fair: More of this kind of thing is implicitly the pitch. But it's very implicit.

And, again to be fair, there is an invitation:
"Lib Dems across the country should be getting out on the doorstep and canvassing their communities to see what they want in their local plan. What kind of development do they want to see and where? It’s a huge campaigning opportunity for the party, and is just the kind of 'community politics' we’ve championed for decades."
But asking people on the doorstop what they want is not much use in this election if you're not explicitly proposing to do it. Or proposing anything.

This is not a campaign.

(ii) It's not about local issues

The first message is effectively "Fill in your local stuff here". The rest of the messages are entirely about things the Government has done: the Budget, the Pupil Premium, the Youth Contract, the Localism Act. There's nothing about what councils want to do in relation to social housing, energy efficiency, energy generation, recycling, transport, education, health, fire, police...

To be fair, it's often been remarked that maybe the concept of a "national" local campaign doesn't make sense. The whole point of localism is that different areas need different things, and it shouldn't be up to a central authority to dictate what those things are. Far from being a single national campaign, this is 184 separate local campaigns. In which case, a key point to get across is exactly what it is that makes Liberal Democrat councils distinctive. And that's the third big failing.

(iii) There's no Liberal Democrat narrative

Let's look at the overarching message for these elections: effectively We've done good stuff.

In relation to "your local record of service", I'm unconvinced that Liberal Democrat councillors are automatically harder working or wiser than other councillors; and I'm sure all candidates say they care about protecting the vulnerable. But I do think that giving people "a voice in decisions made that affect them" is a distinctive aspect of Liberal Democrat philosophy.

And nationally, I happen to agree that it is good stuff, although even that is being questioned by respected organisations such the IFS. And let's leave aside for the moment the desperate need for an explicit liberal narrative linking all this good stuff together.

But shouting about good stuff that's happened can trigger people to recall the bad stuff (the voters' cost-benefit calculation). They will be prompted by Labour to remember...
  • tuition fees (not just breaking a promise but breaking a promise to end broken promises);
  • the new sickness benefit tests and the Welfare Reform Bill (appearing to penalise the vulnerable)
  • the Health and Social Care Bill (appearing to muck up the NHS)
  • the alleged Granny Tax, Pasty Tax, and Tory tax cuts for the richest
So how does the "campaign" deal with these claims? It doesn't. And, after all, you wouldn't expect politicians to emphasise opponents' talking points. But Tories have a powerful narrative that explains these actions (Cutting a bloated state and encouraging private enterprise). Liberal Democrats at best would be offering a response along the lines of It's not as bad as it would be if we weren't in Government and There are some good things in these measures and The bad things aren't as bad as Labour says. There's no powerful counter-narrative.

As an aside, I'd also question how likely it is that on-the-ground activists will be passionately motivated to celebrate the good stuff, when memories are still raw about...
  • the dismal AV campaign (ending chances of electoral reform for a generation);
  • the ludicrously poorly thought-out and explained Welfare Reform Bill;
  • the universally acknowledged turd-fest that was the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill;
  • and now the way in which the leadership seemed cluelessly oblivious to how the Government's surveillance proposals ran completely counter to fundamental Liberal Democrat principles.

(iv) It's counter to the key narrative of the Coalition

More even than not being a campaign, not being about local councils and not having a Liberal Democrat narrative, though, the message being pumped out now by every LibDem politician, activist, website and leaflet is essentially: Unless you're rich, we're giving you more money.

What the arsing hell does this You've never had it so good complacency do to the core justification for being in the Coalition in the first place? The key narrative is that Liberal Democrats accepted the offer of coalition so as to sort out the national economic crisis. Nowhere, NOWHERE, in any of this local messaging is it clearly explained why giving people more money helps this core mission of the Coalition.

I can imagine a number of ways in which this is the case, but I'll be damned if I can find it given equal prominence with all the "putting more money back in the pockets of hardworking people" messages.

So, to sum up...

(i) It's not a campaign.

(ii) It's not about local issues.

(iii) It doesn't have a LibDem narrative.

(iv) It serves to undermine the rationale for LibDems being in government in the first place.
Please feel free to tell me it's actually a brilliant LibDem local election campaign.

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