Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday 11 October 2009

Surely the Lib Dems should be doing better than this?

I don't hold much stock with opinion polls during conference season. The focus on each of the three big parties in turn causes distortions in the responses. I think it will be another week or two before the dust settles and we can see where the three parties stand.

However I am going to stick my neck out here and say that when that dust does settle, the Lib Dems are likely to be roughly where we were before, around the high teens perhaps pushing 20%. Labour will be around the mid - high 20s and the Conservatives will be in the 40s. I will be happy to be proved wrong on this by the way and if we are consistently polling in the early - mid 20s I will be delighted, I just don't get the feeling it's likely.

So if that is the case then it looks like with a bit of a following wind and decent coverage in the run up to an election which always gives us another 2 or 3 points in the run up to polling day we could well find ourselves in terms of percentage of vote share, roughly where we were in 2005 (around 22% or so). The number of seats we get might of course be a bit down depending on regional variations.

If all this does pan out like this then the biggest question I think my party will have to answer is how the hell did we allow the best opportunity for electoral advance in a political generation to slip through our fingers? Let's have a run-down of the situation we are in and some of the major political events that have happened in the last couple of years:

  1. We are in the worst financial crisis in most people's living memory. The government and the Conservatives did not see it coming. Vince Cable did predict a fair bit of what has happened and was ahead of the curve for much of the crisis. Most importantly he is widely trusted and respected on this issue across the country. Non political people I know say how he "always talks sense" on the economy. The Lib Dems should be reaping huge political rewards for this.
  2. The government is desperately unpopular. They are tired, clapped out and bereft of ideas. It is clear that the electorate has had enough of them. At the same time, I do not detect any huge groundswell of enthusiasm for the Conservative party. At best what I sense is people feeling that "this lot" have had their chance and blown it, and it's time to give "the other lot" a shot. It definitely does not feel like 1997 when not only were Major's Tories widely despised but Tony Blair was widely admired and there was great enthusiasm for him and the new dawn he appeared to herald. We barely seem to feature in this. Voters appear to be switching in large numbers straight from Labour to the Tories.
  3. Politics is in crisis. Politicians have never been less trusted. They appear to be a remote political class talking an excluding language that many people cannot really understand. They got themselves into a position through cowardice whereby there was a nudge-nudge culture regarding expenses where many MPs effectively topped up their salaries to what they thought as a "decent level" through administrative sleight of hand and lax rules. There has been an explosion of public anger about this and there is a general feeling that the way MPs are elected is at least partly to blame with 70% of seats being safe and not changing hands leading MPs to be less accountable to their electors. The Lib Dems, although not exactly squeaky clean have been much, much better than Labour or the Tories. There has been no flipping, no London Lib Dem MPs claimed a second home allowance and frankly the infractions committed by our MPs pale almost into insignificance compared to the other big two. On top of this, we are the party who have been arguing for the sort of reform that would have made MPs much, much more accountable for decades. We should be being listened to now as experts in this area and making the political weather regarding the reform agenda. Instead we appear to have ceded the ground to the Conservatives who talk a very good game but are really not offering anything substantial in this area. The existing electoral system favours them too much.

As a member of the party who is well aware of the great talent we have within our parliamentary ranks and more widely it is intensely frustrating to watch as what really should be our moment start to slip through our fingers.

We of course do not deserve all of this to fall into our laps. We have to fight, tooth and nail for it. I have seen plenty of evidence that we have the wherewithal to do this, but all the battles seem short term and tactical rather than adding up to a grand strategy. A good example is Nick Clegg's 100 days idea from the early summer. What happened to that? He announced it, the other parties ignored him and it disappeared. At the very least he could have insisted that Lib Dem MPs stay on over the summer and hammer out a plan or something. Instead Nick slipped off on holiday like the other party leaders.

I intend to write about this more over the next few weeks with some concrete ideas on what we can do, however I am interested to hear what Lib Dems and others think about this.

Do you agree that this is the best chance we have had in decades and what should we be doing?


Anonymous said...

I agree, I think its the best opportunity the party has had for years. Although I don't have any numbers to correlate this it seems the lib dems are increasingly the party of choice for students and young people because they can see what we stand for.

I know this is the same old story but we are fighting an entrenched 2 party system, which is supported by big business including the media who have no interest in changing the status quo. Look at how quickly the issue of parliamentary reform disappeared off the radar.

I think the main thing that we can do is come out with the 3 or 4 issues that set us apart from the other parties and hammer the issues home as much as possible. Those issues I think should be:

Reform of Parliament stemming from MP expenses€, i think that we still underestimate how angry people are about this.

Economy - Vince Cable being the one who can steer us through the recession. George Osborne is a weak link for the tories.

Income Tax level at £10k pushing home that the tories cuts will punish the less well-off.

Environment - most convincing policies for a greener and sustainable economy. I wonder whether the parties should publish their carbon footprint during the election campaign!

I for one would also like to see a more positive message about immigration, which blames the system and not the people. This would help party workers whose areas hold some BNP support.

We need to keep hammering these issues home locally and nationally from now until the election, and when the 'formal' campaign starts we will benefit from the balanced media reporting.

I hope this doesn't sound too naive, this will be my first general election as a party member and I am excited about the progress the party can make.

Iain Roberts said...

Over the summer, most of our MPs were hard at work in their constituencies. I don't think they'd have been too impressed if Nick had ordered them to hole up in Westminster instead of knocking on doors, delivering leaflets, holding surgeries and all the rest of it.

It's easy to say that the Lib Dems should be doing better (or, for that matter, that Labour or the Tories should be doing better). Identifying would could have been done differently that would have made a big difference is tougher.

(William Le Breton and Mark Littlewood have both given it a go elsewhere).

Duncan Stott said...

It is simply because the established political system is against us.

We have a sixth of the budget of Labour and the Tories.

The unfair election system means that people's votes for us don't count.

We have no allies in the media.

We get a fraction of the airtime/column inches... even during conference season, we don't get our fair share. Clegg's speech was way down the pecking order compared to Brown/Cameron's.

And there is a persistant ethos that we are 'irrelevant', constantly re-enforced by our foes.

Given all this, it is a real achievement to be doing as well as we are.

Our record is excellent, far better than our rivals', and we can't afford to let it slip. And of course we shouldn't be complacent.

But until we see some major changes in the way politics is done in this country, we can't expect to make any sudden breakthrough.

Kalvis Jansons said...

It is all very depressing for the LibDems, and I too had hoped for them to make more of this one big chance.

It often seems like the LibDems aim for second best.

David Chiverton said...

From the outside it seems the Lib-Dems aren't 'on message'. What bloggers and sympathetic commentators see as intellectually stimulating debate comes across as muddled thinking. The party does need a stronger message for public consumption. The £10k tax policy is a damn good one, but it is only a start. The Lib-Dems should start highlighting the obvious link between the size of the state and it's intrusive, grasping nature.

Ian Eiloart said...

You're right, it's the best opportunity we've had in ages. However, FPP means that we can't fight this or any other election on a national basis, until we're the official opposition.

We need to carry on doing what we've been doing for the past few decades. Building local support everywhere we can, taking seats where we can, and squeezing the third party where we're first or second.

Gareth Allen said...

Speaking as an independent, my perception is that you don't have enough clear blue water between you and the two larger parties.

I saw Nick Clegg speak in York a couple of weeks ago and, whilst I was as impressed as the 200 or so other people in the room, I fear that the great British public don't see the difference.

Rachel's point about differentiation is a good one - you need to show that you are somehow "other" in a way that is meaningful to people beyond the politically alert 5-10%.

Lady Schwarz said...

I'm not a Lib Dem but I agree that's this is the best chance for Lib Dems.

I think the problem for you is firstly that Tories have covered such a big political area, that they've taken the wind out of your sails. Lib Dems really need to create a narrative that is different from the Tories. As the Tories are saying we're offering that to and a vote for us isn't a wasted vote. That's a really damaging message.

Secondly, Clegg really needs to fight more for air time and bite back, he seems a really nice man but that's not going to cut it against Cameron.

Jack Stephens said...

We are suffering, I fear, from Bubble Syndrome. As Liberal Democrat members, all of whom are presumably very up-to-date on political developments (you even describe yourself as a "political obsessive" in your profile!) it is very easy for us to list a large number of specific policy areas in which the LDs have been very much ahead of the curve and have shown ourselves to have the necessary dynamic vision to provide real change in this country. However (and it is a big however) most people in the UK don't give a toss, about us or about politics in general. Politicians are seen as greedy and remote, public policy is seen as irrelevant and inevitably incompetent, there is no inspiration or sense of public participation in our political process. The expenses scandal was the icing on the cake; it is all very well for us to protest that the LDs "weren't as bad as the others" but it should be obvious to everyone that by the 4th day or so the prevailing emotion amongst the British people was hysterical disgust, not rational comparative analysis or forensic attention to detail. The mood was blanket anti-politics, of whatever colour. This much was apparent even when knocking up for honest local council candidates in the June elections. They hated the concept of politics itself. It is easy to blame the Telegraph for this but really the expenses scandal reinforced (supposedly) what British people largely already believed - that politicians are not working for them. In these circumstances we cannot expect people to grant us their time and recognise that we are "better"; the two-party system (at least in structure) that Britain has nurtures and bleeds apathy and hopelessness. Which is why the issue of electoral reform is so crucial. You ask why we are not doing better - the wonder is that we are doing so well in a system that has no room for a third party. The complaints of some of the above commenters have some merit: we have no friends in the media and the electoral system is set against us and in favour of entrenched decay, but the problem is more fundemental - there is no culture of democratic participation in the UK. We can be as wonderful and progressive as we like, but politics itself is seen by the public as their enemy, and they want nothing to do with it. I feel this is a peculiarly British problem at the moment; campaigning recently for the Yes To Lisbon campaign in Ireland I was struck by how almost everyone I spoke to was interested and informed about politics and policy, talking about politicians as if they were people they knew personally, and how little stigma there was attached to political discourse. People cared and felt they had a say, which is curious considering that Irish parties arguably stand for far less, ideologically speaking, even that our parties. It was inspiring, and gave me a meaningul insight into what is wrong in the UK.

What is the answer? More difficult question. Constitutional revolution, for a start, but how are we to get ourselves into a position to bring that about? Revolution in any form is just not very British, and political apathy is to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy. I do believe, however, that this is the underlying cause of our apparent stagnation and lack of success at the polls, in spite of all of our significant good points. Any lamentations on that subject should be seen through such a filter; all of our problems are systemic, so fighting issue-by-issue is like banging our heads repeatedly against a brick wall.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

You say "Voters appear to be switching in large numbers straight from Labour to the Tories". Yes, that is what people do and have done for years despite it not fitting with the notion that there is a political spectrum for them to move across and that demands they should encounter and choose the Liberal Democrats before passing on further. This false notion has, I suspect, been influential in Lib Dem thinking about positioning and so contributed to missing what I agree has been a good chance for progress.

It has been said for years and you are really saying again that: -

1. the British people think with the Lib Dems but vote with the others, and

2. good, fresh perhaps a touch radical policies introduced by the Lib Dems once they eventually gain support amongst the public are stolen and hence implemented by the others.

As said in comment upon your previous post about electoral reform, some 75 per cent. of the electorate habitually do not choose Lib Dems when given the chance and very likely will not take the chance if and when electoral reform makes the outcome more proportionate than now. It does, therefore, sound such a pusillanimous message when it is said that if only the system were different, things would be so much better for the Lib Dems. That is no sort of recommendation upon which to base casting one's vote nor will it change the numbered points made above.

Clegg et al (as all before him aside from one fleeting but memorable David Steel moment) behave as an opposition (sectional and self-limited) and never as a government in waiting. There are sound reasons for this and big dangers in the alternative - but I think it helps explain why they are seen as a perpetual "also ran" opposition and others are preferred when thoughts of government loom.

Lon Won said...

Jack Stephens - You make some points here that really ring true.

Two questions spring out: Firstly, I wonder why Irish voters might be more engaged than British voters? And secondly, do we need to break out of Bubble Syndrome, or focus on electoral reform?

dazmando said...

Clegg need to be on TV more and more than Vince.

We have some great ideas on immigration like exit controls and boarder police etc. by we need to say people think we are soft on immigration.

We need to highlight that we have great ideas on cutting down crime. we have a good record on this in lib dem councils compared to the torys. We are good at prevention and detection and rehabilitation.

and the 10k we should highlight how this helps people get of benefits as it gives a better alternative to living of the state. these points really matter to people. lets tell them

dazmando said...

And another thing. we need to tell the public that we actually did come of best on the expenses.

Tell people that the torys are going to win so vote for use to get rdi of your doggy tory if there expenses were out of order. As there going to win anyway no harm in voting for us.

Tell labour that its time to change there vote to us for a fairer tax system. god its so obvious it hurts

Kasch Wilder said...
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Kasch Wilder said...
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Neil said...

Lib Dem poll levels go up several points during the general election period because the broadcast media have to give us equal billing and more people get to hear out policies, etc and realise just how good we are. If the print media could ever get out of its fixation with the 2 party system and reported on us with as much bias as they do Labour and the TOries, then I believe that our poll ratings would go up and up.
What the "low" levels tell us to do is to go out there and spread our message so that at the election, we win more votes and more seats than ever before!

Voter said...

It is hard to be sure what will persuade the populace to change behaviour. Alix Mortimer had a post about doing the hard research to find out how to win.

Appearances can be deceiving. To illustrate this, consider watching a formula 1 race. You might think that cars are near to crashing but they are driven close to the limit.

How can the Lib Dems ask others to take them seriously when they seem half-hearted and just content to muddle through?

Why not try to win the argument, with reference to facts and logic?

Instead we are given complaints that the media do not take them seriously.

Simon Fawthrop said...

You say this is your best opportunity for a breakthrough but is it? Libs and Lib Dems have been saying this for as long as I can remember and failing for the same reason, you don’t stand for anything in the eyes of the wider public.
In the early to late 60’s and early 70's Wilson and Heath were very much the same and bringing us close to bankruptcy. No breakthrough. Why? From what I remember because you had no underlying philosophy (not even classic liberal even then) that captured the imagination and drove your policies. (I'll return to this later)
In '79 there was no love for Thatcher, and Callaghan was liked but Labour generally despised because of the Unions. No breakthrough, though.
Mid to late 80's. Labour’s "suicide note", Thatcher and Tories despised. No breakthrough. You couldn't even capture the working man’s left vote even though you attracted some powerful Labour people and became LibDems. (Big mistake, we don’t understand European style social democracy in this country and you have done sod-all to explain it (more later))
By this time you have clearly set you stall as being anti Tory left, and not much different from Labour. Confusion in the eyes of the electorate as they don’t understand what makes you different to Labour – your both on the discredited left.
'92 - Tories despised, Kinnock despised. No breakthrough. Mainly I believe because Tory voters had nowhere to go as you have made it clear you are lefties who will tax them just as highly as Labour.
’97. Too late. Tony convinced Tories that a left of centre party could be trusted and attracted disaffected swing voters who had voted Tory in the past.
Now we are in a similar position, no love for Tories but Labour and left of centre politics discredited, again. As I see it a large number of people will hold their noses and vote Tory rather than for you - Vote LibDem, get Labour is the message that comes across.
But the real problem is that there is no base philosophy that drives your policies, so you lack consistency. What's worse, if I want to know how you will think on the latest subject I just need to open the bedroom window and see which way the wind is blowing. Harsh? That is how you come across because you try to be all things to all men and people detect that.
Think about it – when Labour speak they are seen as coming from looking after the working class (or were) and all their policies and announcement are couched in these terms, even if they just looking after themselves. When the Tories speak they are seen as looking after the middle class and big business, despite what Cameron says. When you guys speak you are seen as just trying to be heard for the sake of being heard.
You make it worse by always banging on about the electoral system like some child wailing “its not fair”. You may have a point but the public just see that as a way of you feathering you own nests and they don’t believe your true intentions. What’s more, as you are seen as a left of centre party your voting reform is looked at as just an excuse to shaft the Tories and ensure they never get in to power, so you will never get Tory protest vote - Vote LibDem, get Labour.
IMHO you need to start to declare your philosophy and what motivates you at every opportunity, because I don’t know what it is and I take more than a passing interest in politics and always have done. Is it Social Democracy? If so what does it mean? If it is you should start all your policies, statements and general discussions by saying how this shapes you policies. If it isn’t what is it?
Stop feeling sorry for yourselves and blaming FTP and the MSM and make yourselves truly different, if you can.

(PS I read your post on Sunday while on holiday in Italy and thought about on the drive back, hence the delay and long winded nature of it!)

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

A bit harsh, The Great Simpleton, to say "no base philosophy" when there is a very well developed political theory of Liberalism. Still I agree the Lib Dems do not make much if anything of what Liberalism means and how it informs their policies. Given the unrelenting and heavy attacks on freedom under this rotten government, there is a big opportunity to provide some contrary leadership.

Where you said "Confusion in the eyes of the electorate as they don’t understand what makes you different to Labour – your both on the discredited left" it put me in mind of Richmal Crompton's "Just William" who explained political parties thus (as near as I can recall):-

The Conservatives want to leave things as they are. Labour want to change things. The Liberals also want to change things, but not by so much as anyone would notice.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

Now Dr. Death is saying Clegg should commit to joining the next government, should parliament be hung, and be honest about this with voters.

Simon Fawthrop said...

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

A bit harsh, The Great Simpleton, to say "no base philosophy" when there is a very well developed political theory of Liberalism.

But is there? I take more than a passing interest in politics and I don't know what form this Liberalism takes. It certainly doesn't take the form of classic liberalism, otherwise bloggers like Charlotte Gore, and to a certain extent our host, wouldn't be at constant loggerheads with the party.

It also doesn't help the cause when I see a LibDem MP incapable of applying any sort of political theory to how she approaches what should be a straight forward case if the party really are liberals: (H/T Bishop Hill).

Chris said...

I think Jack and the Great Simpleton have got at two sides of the truth. Jack's depiction of the political mood is depressing but right - and banging on about how we "weren't as bad as the others" on expenses only reminds voters of how much they are disgusted with all politicians at the moment. We either need to shut up about it and move on or else be seen to be pushing a lot harder for parliamentary reform (rather than putting up shiny ideas and then going on holiday).

And the Great Simpleton is bang on with how we are perceived. We can't spend all our time crying over the fact that we have nice internal debates and thoughtful policies and yet get ignored. It's a media driven age and we need a proper media strategy if we're going to get anywhere, and that means an easily digestible message and a clear identity. Tony Blair worked that out back in 1996. Why have we still not managed it?