Thursday, July 19, 2012

Time to think

Image: Gabba Gabba Hey!
In my previous post, I draw attention to the immense (and potentially insuperable) situational challenges the Lib Dems are facing. In this blog I haven't been simply sitting on the sidelines carping about Lib Dem strategy. I've tried to be balanced in my reflections. I've balanced criticisms with acknowledgements of the limited room for manoeuvre and I've tried to do my best to devise some practical suggestions for improving narrative, strategy and the explanations that lie just one step removed from the soundbites.

Perhaps they're not very good suggestions. I don't know. But I think I've largely failed to get through to fellow Lib Dems: Over the last few years I've been getting gratifying numbers of readers, but very few links or responses on other blogs.

It's time for me to reflect on whether there might be better ways to engage social democratic liberals across parties. I have to think about whether I can do better than I'm doing, to bumble on, to try more oblique approaches, or to just stop.

Is the Lib Dem "core vote" circling the plughole?

Stephen Tall's article "Do the Lib Dems have a core vote, and can we grow it?" has stimulated a very interesting discussion on LDV.
Image: Nicoze

Stephen identifies three reasons why the Liberal Democrats have historically lacked a "core vote":

"1) liberalism tends towards rational scepticism which rarely equates to core votes, which tend to be any or all of the following: class-based / ideological / tribal;

2) liberalism, at least in the UK, is generally centrist in terms of the key issue for most voters, the economy. As a result, our party’s ‘Venn diagram’ overlap with the Conservatives/Labour means liberal voters are less oppositional by nature, and more likely to move between us and one of our two opponents;

3) liberalism’s disdain for vested interests means it’s harder to coalesce an interest group. We don’t do favours for trade unions or big business: that’s fundamental to who we are. But it means we don’t have powerful lobbies campaigning on our behalf — still less the news media — persuading the public their future will be rosier under the Lib Dems."

The article and the subsequent comments are perceptive, and well worth reading. Some excellent points are made, on all sides of the arguments. It's also worth reading Simon Titley's 2008 article arguing that "The Lib Dem vote is like a bath with the taps left on and the plug left out."

I would venture that three groups of voters who have traditionally come out strongly for the Lib Dems can no longer be taken for granted:

1. With the advent of the Coalition, many of those in England who used to vote Lib Dem as a protest against the prevailing Lab-Con duopoly might well switch to smaller parties - Greens or UKIP, one supposes - or not vote.

2. Lib Dem strengths in the so-called "Celtic fringe" are likely to be severely disrupted by the presence of Lib Dems in a Tory-led coalition, by the SNP having a majority in Scotland, and by long-term adjustments in Welsh politics as a consequence of the growing importance of the Welsh Assembly.

3. Young, independent-minded, largely middle-class graduates who do not have strong political affiliations (and so assess the arguments of the parties on merit) will be much less likely to vote Lib Dem, as a consequence of (i) perceived broken trust; (ii) NHS changes; (iii) austerity measures; and (iv) a possible return to "We need to keep X out" thinking, because of the Coalition and the rejection of AV.
Image: Vaidotas Mišeikis
Furthermore, at the next general election Labour might well be revitalised by being back in its comfort zone of opposition to public service cuts. The Conservatives might well be revitalised by being back in their comfort zone of enforcing economic discipline. If the economy is seen to be recovering well, the Conservatives will be the likely beneficiaries. If austerity is seen to be causing unemployment, stagnation and plummeting public services, Labour will likely benefit. There are no obvious scenarios in which the Lib Dems can expect credit for their role in fostering economic recovery or protecting public services.

So commentators who predict a "perfect storm" for the Liberal Democrats at the next general election are, in my view, on the money.

Moreover, the signs are not looking good that Lib Dem strategists know what to do about this. I'm not convinced that suddenly acquiring a "core vote" is plausible; I doubt that focusing all energies on retaining current seats would work either; there are no indications that lessons have been learned from 2005, 2010, or the AV campaign; some seem to think it's just a matter of crafting a compelling enough message in a couple of years time to motivate voters who tend to liberalism or to attract or persuade other voters; current policy development lacks drive; narratives are confused; and not much seems to be happening to improve rebuttal, persuasion and projection.

And if strategists are playing a subtle, behind-the-scenes game that I wouldn't be able to see, the outcome measures look poor: the public continues to see Clegg as compromised; the Lib Dems are repeatedly out-manoeuvred by Labour and the Conservatives in the Commons; leading commentators rarely have good things to say about the Lib Dems these days; and British political culture remains inimical to liberal, pluralist politics [1, 2]

I'm a natural optimist (How could I be otherwise, being a long-time member of the Lib Dems?!) and I think the Lib Dems have the best agenda for the country and a talented leader. But the situation is not looking good.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What's wrong with Nick Clegg?

Image: Marie Jenkins
Nick Clegg came to Exeter on Friday. In a room normally used for training Flybe cabin crew, he faced questions from a public audience for an hour. And then he mingled in a room full of LibDem activists.

This summer he's doing similar events all over the country: The "Feel the Hatred" Tour, some wags have dubbed it.

All credit to him. No stage management. No specially-selected audience (there were a couple of Labour councillors at the Exeter event). No speeches. No vetting of questions. Just him on the receiving end of a sceptical public.

  • Why we are giving so much in foreign aid when care costs for the elderly are under pressure?
  • Why is the dole so cushy when we're desperate to recruit a sous-chef?
  • Why do you want to deport me when my local area is desperate for my dentistry skills?
  • The Lib Dems were running Exeter City Council a few years ago. Now they're down to just 5 councillors. Doesn't that tell you something?
  • What next for Lords Reform?
  • Why not channel money from "quantitative easing" to over-stretched workers rather than to greedy bankers?
  • Why is the council supporting my tenants when they refuse to leave my house at the end of their tenancy?
  • Isn't it a problem that you and Cameron are so similar in looks and background?
  • Are you going to waste the next three years, like Labour wasted its first three years?
  • Why is it fair that, because I work, I don't get a carers allowance for my child who's got Downs Syndrome?
  • If you give tourism a boost by lowering VAT where there's matched funding, the Government will end up with a net profit. Why don't you do that?
  • I'm working hard towards my GCSEs. Are they now going to be seen as worthless thanks to Michael Gove?
Clegg engaged thoughtfully, put issues in the wider context of the problems faced by many people, addressed questions directly, gave a good account of what was being done and why, and offered to follow up personal circumstances when relevant.

Then he mingled with local Lib Dems: the ex-councillors who lost their elections thanks to the Government's austerity; the activists whose local organising is being undermined by loss of trust over tuition fees and the NHS; and the many quiet but committed members who are uncomfortable about political communications failures, climate change, free schools, internet snooping, welfare changes, economic stagnation, threats to Lords reform, and so on.

And again, Clegg did a great job of acknowledging concerns, providing a fuller context, and indicating sensible strategies.

I'm biased, but I think public and members alike were generally impressed with his answers, his engaging manner, his grasp of detail and arguments, and his passion to tackle unfairness, disadvantage and unaccountable power.

I sense that people don't quite warm to him like they did Charles Kennedy; he's not got Ming Campbell's gravitas; and he's not at the same level of Paddy Ashdown in terms of rhetoric and steeliness.

But, almost more than any contemporary politician, he has Tony Blair's exceptional linguistic ability to set out the arguments clearly and persuasively. He is operating, though, in a political culture that appears to pathologically despise error, inconsistency, compromise, inaction or long-term solutions.

My view, then, is that Nick Clegg's problem is not personal, and not even that much about policy. The challenge for him is twofold: (i) to avoid the continuing tactical errors that reduce his standing in the eyes of the commentators; and (ii) to develop the 2015 narrative (see also here). Unless Clegg gets better advisors quickly, journalists' predictions of Lib Dem wipe-out are likely to come true.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Top blog posts 2012 Q2

Following the example of Alex Marsh (one of my new favourite blogs, by the way: do check it out), I've identified the five posts published on HopingForMoreThanSlogans between April and June that recorded the most hits:
  1. Exeter Elections, May 2012 - the results (4 May)
  2. What do Liberal Democrats want? (14 May)
  3. Hunt and BSkyB: What is Labour up to? And what is Cameron hiding? (2 June)
  4. Exeter Elections, May 2012 - the issues (17 April)
  5. Sack Paxman (27 June)
It turns out that number 1 in this list is also the all-time most read post on the blog. Meanwhile number 2 is one of the blog posts of which I'm most proud. So it's great that it's being read.

And I must also include a special mention for "Reflections on The Prestige": Despite being published a year ago, this post racked up a large number of hits when Christopher Nolan's intriguing film was shown on television last month.

April saw my 100th post on the blog. Because of the Exeter local elections, May's pageviews hit an all-time high (3651). June saw my 10,000th tweet.

There were 535 unique visitors during the first quarter of 2012; and 1947 unique visitors during the second quarter.

Thanks for reading.

Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Ed Yourdon