Sunday, 25 September 2011

A conference of missed opportunities

In my review of last week’s Liberal Democrat conference, I drew attention to the positivity of the party, the belief that Liberal Democrats can and are making a positive difference at the heart of government and the determination of minsters to distinguish themselves from their Conservative partners

All that is true as anyone attending conference could testify. But there was another key characteristic of conference that has not been sufficiently explored: this was a conference of missed opportunities.

Let’s start with Nick Clegg’s speech, which was well-delivered and equally well-received by most delegates in the hall. The big surprise was that there was no big surprise. While not disagreeing with most of the substance of his speech (there was, indeed, much praiseworthy within it), Clegg essentially said everything I thought he would: the predictable defence of the coalition and his party’s role within it, a reiteration of his commitment to “social mobility” and “fairness”, a few half-hearted asides at the Conservatives and some encouraging words for activists. “You've shown – immense strength” he told us. Well, that’s nice. But it lacked both the humility and conviction of Tim Farron’s address as the leader spurned the chance to demonstrate some overdue modesty or a real understanding of members’ concerns and fears. He also failed to move beyond the oft-repeated call to keep on keeping on: “it’s not easy but it is right” he explained. I don’t disagree with the truth of that, but I would have hoped Nick Clegg would have been able to adopt a more pragmatic attitude than “let’s take this on the chin, we know we’re right – just keep telling people how much we’re doing in government”. It’s a tired line and Clegg’s inability to say anything remotely new in regards appealing to the public was positively depressing.

Unlike the party president, Clegg didn’t refer to Scotland or address directly the problem of regaining the faith of the electorate: another missed opportunity to gain credibility. On policy, Clegg also failed to promote any meaningful strategies for promoting social mobility (especially for those of us who are not children) while turning down the option of laying down an alternative economic vision (something that would have been timely given the IMF’s intervention days earlier and the increased likelihood of a double-dip recession). I’m not necessarily talking about a radical u-turn or a “plan B”, but a new liberal take on the current government strategy - an amendment if you like - that can reassure both markets and voters. A series of jokes at the Conservatives’ expense from Lib Dem ministers does not disguise the fact that, at least as far as economic policy is concerned, our leadership have simply acted as the front men for George Osborne. The economy is the issue that matters most, and the issue on which we are singularly failing to be distinctive.

Cable attempted to suggest a different approach in his speech, during which he drew parallels between the Social Democratic economic theories of Roy Jenkins and the route he has chartered. But even he failed to provide any detail or substantial alternative ideas and no-one else seemed willing or able to challenge the Osborne wisdom of cutting our way out of economic downturn as quickly as possible.

Charles Kennedy picked up on another missed opportunity: to identify key aims, run with them and win the necessary battles. We are fighting on too many fronts, Kennedy told The Independent; what we need to do is “pick a few important fights and win some of them”. Clegg’s chief weakness isn’t on policy, but his inability to define clearly achievable goals. Conference represented an opportunity to “pick our fights” and set our agenda, but the chance was never grasped.

What Clegg needs to do is identify what his and his party's chief priorities are in government for the next three and a half years - preferably priorities shared by the general public - and do everything he can to deliver on them. His conference speech made many references to Lib Dem successes, including ending child detention. The problem is that the average voter doesn't wake up in the morning and think "Yippee! Thank God for that Nick Clegg - without him we'd still have child detention". Of course it's important to deliver on this and other issues we passionately believe in, such as Lords reform, but if the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg are to regain their credibility in the eyes of the electorate they have to identify areas of public concern they can both act on and use as a basis for a distinctive new message. At the moment the leadership's core strategy consists of asking activists to remind the public how grateful they should be now we've safeguarded chequebooks and made wheel clamping illegal, while labouring under the false belief that voters will reward us when they finally understand the significance of our role in government.

Mark Pack has touched on something I have long been critical of: the party’s incapability to communicate what it is for. “The party was much better at saying what it was not and what it was against” he explains, and turns his attention to the many and often mixed messages sent out by the party during conference. There is little sense of cohesion and no clear theme or “common message” – and far too many inconsistencies, he claims.

Pack picks up on the party’s lack of economic ideas with a criticism of the party’s failure to promote its achievements on banking reform. Why are we so keen to promote lesser “achievements” over more radical and far-reaching successes?

The message is a simple one, says Pack: “there isn’t a message. That’s a problem.” It is, and it’s something I’ve been concerned about for some time. Identity is ultimately connected to the message. So why doesn’t the leadership grasp this reality; why have we allowed another conference to go by without seizing the opportunity to formulate a positive and truly distinctive characteristic that encapsulates who we are?

One thing we’re good at is telling the public what we’re not. There was a time it worked for us, especially during by-election campaigns in the 1990s. It’s now time to change tactics. Minister after minister taking to the platform and telling the converted that we’re not Tories isn’t a promising long-term strategy. Neither is the mysterious silence on economic issues.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats will be holding their conference in Dunfermline on 8th October. The agenda contains many opportunities for the party to express its distinctively liberal policy philosophies, but the key challenge for the party is to portray itself as politically relevant. This won’t come from a few unreported conference motions, but through Willie Rennie deciding what his message is, determining key priorities, picking his fights carefully (and winning them) and effectively communicating what we are for as a liberal party in Scotland. Hopefully he will be better equipped to seize the opportunities to forge the fresh, intellectually liberal “message” Mark Pack rightly identifies as so necessary to progress than Nick Clegg, who appears so convinced of his own “rightness” that he has closed his eyes to potential openings.

For further photographs from Conference, please see the Photographic Review of Conference on my facebook page:

Photographic Review of Conference (Part 1)
Photographic Review of Conference (Part 2)


Allan Heron said...

I think Mark Pack's analysis is spot on - we've hoovered up votes on campaigning which is usually focused on someone else's decisions whether at local or national level. It's dead easy to do and doesn't present any problems while you're not actually having to exercise any decision making on your own account.

That's at the root of our political problems today. Agreeing to sign that infernal student pledge was a great idea - but only whilst you didn't have a hope in hell in getting into power in any shape, manner or form. Except that a hung parliament with the Liberal Democrats being, at worse, a significant influence on what happened with the possibility of being part of a coalition agreemnent. So which tactical genius decided that was a good idea? That was Nick Clegg personally as the decision to sign was made by him.

The same thinking applies to the dreaded Party Election Broadcast broken promises. Absolutely woeful and another tactical disaster. Not only do we come across as liars but as sanctimonious ones at that.

I've never had a problem in principle with the coalition. What I have had is a major difficulty with the strategic and tactical decision made before, during and after the election. Just about every single one has been dreadful - at best, designed to get us through the day but with little thought about next week, next month or next year. As leader, Nick Clegg has to take the blame for this and it's a more than critical entry in the negative side of any consideration of his performance in that role.

Given that track record, the question has to be to ask if Clegg recognises the role these decisions have played in getting us to where we are. And whether he has what it takes to make the right decisions between now and the next General Election (and recognising the other electoral contests in between). I've seen nothing to indicate that he has the faintest idea about how to tackle this.

At the recent meeting in Glasgow, he identified (correctly) that it would be a mistake to go into the final months of the coalition so obsessed with individual party concerns as to make it appear moribund. A justifiable concern and one that should have been given some consideration when making the coaltion agreement (add that to my list of moans!). But given the situation we are in, it's not one that I have any faith that he can provide any direction in other than what appears to be his current mantra of "grit your teeth and bear it".

That won't do and if that is the best that he can come up with then he'd best serve the Liberal Democrats by standing aside as leader to let someone else lead the party into the next General Election. No reason he can't continue as Deputy Prime Minister until then either.

GHmltn said...

As we have discussed before some good first principles thinking through of our core philosophy then a blank sheet approach to our analysis and good positive solutions for a very changed and very difficult set of circumstances we face as we progress into the 21st century are vital - and will do us the power of good.

We need to be clear about who we are, what we are about and what happens if anyone votes for us. And out of clarity comes the communication and campaigning.

T. C. R. MacDonnell said...

Mr. Page, I think that you are right to highlight Mr. Kennedy's strategy for picking and winning issues publically. But what was the mannifesto's four pledges, if not precisely that? The issue to highlight is the lower/middle income tax cuts.

Mr. Heron, I think it's unfair to blame Mr. Clegg for the student fee's pledge. He was, after all, in favour of removing the policy from the Lib Dem mannifesto altogether and was overruled by the party.

That's where I think the Lib Dem's weakness of message lies: with the democratic apperatus of the party. Mr. Clegg isn't able to take a clear stance on a few issues which are contentious within the party in case it alienates one half of his base or the other. We're a broad church, with a lot of outspoken ideologues of all stripes. I think the highlight of the conference was the voting down of the NHS rebellion, which at least demonstrated that the party was on board with its leadership's decision to support Tory policies in the national interest, which to me demonstrates the seriousness of our party's commitment to wise government.

We're in uncharted waters for the party: we've got to demonstrate that coallitions aren't automatically unstable, that we're willing to use our power of determination responsibly, and that the Lib Dems have right-minded policies on hundreds of platforms other parties neglect for the sake of the central leadership's ideological vainity. In that sense, I believe the democratic nature of our party gives us a distinct advantage when it comes to policy making, but getting that across to voters used to dealing with leviathans is quite hard to do. Making that point is imperitive to a broader comprehension of what our party does.

Andrew said...

If the quality of manifestos and the pledges within them were responsible for the public perceptions of parties, then the Lib Dems would not have been reduced to 5 seats in the Scottish Parliament. There is a wider identity problem that few seem able to adequately address.

Andrew said...

And as far as unchartered waters go, well - we've experienced eight years of Labour-Lib Dem coalition in Scotland as well as a shorter time in a similarly aligned coalition in Wales. It seems strange that the media, and many within our own party, don't wish to learn from these experiences. Coalition is not new; it has been a major feature of devolved government and has already been shown not to be "unstable".

Allan Heron said...

I think it's perfectly fair to blame Clegg for the decision to sign the student fee pledge - after all, it was a decision taken by him.

The whole question of whether any candidates should sign this was referred to him for a decision. He foolishly said yes.

I'm well aware that he was never personally in favour of the abolitiion of tuition fees, but that's not really the point here. He dug a hole for the party and jumped straight in. A more tactically aware leader would have recognised the pitfalls - indeed, the pitfalls that meant the issue was being referred to him at all.