Is it time to dust off the John Cleese election campaign strategy?

by Stephen Tall on April 6, 2010

It’s one of the most famous party election broadcasts of all time – John Cleese’s classic 1987 appeal to the British public to reject the extremism of left and right as represented by ‘Loony Labour’ councils and Mrs Thatcher’s Tories, and opt for the reasonable party of the centre, the SDP/Liberal Alliance.

For those who’ve never had the chance to enjoy it, please scroll to the bottom of this post, and re-live it in all its glory. (And wonder at the fact that party election broadcasts used to be 10 minutes long – yes, that’s right, 20 years ago political parties were foolish enough to believe the public actually had an attention span).

What’s most striking about the Cleese message is the deliberate emphasis on the Alliance as a moderating force in British politics. An honest broker in whom the British people could place their trust to ensure neither Labour nor Tory narrow-mindedness could wreak wilful destruction. Cleese commits the Alliance to breaking up the cosy rules of British politics that have so well suited the Labour/Tory duopoly for so many years.

Breaking the cosy rules of two-party politics

It’s two decades since this broadcast, but the themes are starkly familiar.

For example, there’s the Alliance pledge to halt petty partisan tribalism by agreeing to work with the other parties where we agree with them.

Well, Vince Cable early on called for a ‘government of national unity’ to help the nation through its worst recession in 60 years. More recently, Nick Clegg urged the formation of a cross-party Council of Financial Stability to agree the timetable and scale of deficit reduction.

Example two from the Cleese broadcast: the Lib Dems are the only party not beholden to special interests.

Spool forward two decades, and Labour still is in hock to the unions, desperately reliant on Unite, Unison and the GMB to finance its general election campaign. And does anyone really believe the Tories – the party of non-dom peers and candidates like Lord Ashcroft and Zac Goldsmith – will stand up to their “pinstriped Scargill” friends in the City?

Yet Nick Clegg has pledged to take tough action on those banks which break promises to lend money to businesses and householders, while Vince Cable has made it plain how the Lib Dems would intervene to make unions and businesses sit down and talk. It’s a lot easier to arrive at the correct solution if you’re not worried whether it will affect your party’s cash flow.

Not everything has stayed the same in the last quarter of a century, of course. Both Labour and the Tories have tacked further to the centre (not least because of the desire to pick up those voters who were attracted to the Alliance).

But the fundamental point remains: Labour and the Tories are complacently content for politics to stay the same, to see-saw between red and blue. It’s an argument the Lib Dems have freshened up in the past week, with the launch of the party’s subversive Labservatives campaign, a Web 2.0 successor to the Cleese broadcast.

A moderate square for the radical circle

It’s an interesting campaigning dilemma for the Lib Dems. In many ways, we’re party which has the most radical manifesto: a Lib Dem government would re-cast the taxation system, and re-mould the political system. Yet our natural voter base, and the party’s general disposition, is moderate, incremental, pragmatic.

Is this such a bad thing? Not really. The only way in which you can attract support for a radical manifesto is to win trust that your programme will work and is better. It’s at least in part why the party adopted community politics: prove to people you can fix the drains, repair the roads, run the council … and they might just trust you to run the country, too.

Well, it’s just the same at national level. At this election, the Lib Dems have the opportunity to position ourselves squarely in the centre of the key debate which will determine most people’s votes: the economy.

Don’t trust Labour to target government waste? Don’t trust the Tories to cut public spending wisely? Well, the Lib Dems are the party you can trust – and Vince Cable is the guy you can trust – to act as a moderating influence on the extremist tribal dogma of the other two parties. And by doing so, we can make the argument that only the Lib Dems have the vision to transform politics for the better.


(Also available on YouTube here).