Three interesting reads for the weekend: on the Lib Dem mission, campaigning and Coalition

by Stephen Tall on August 25, 2012

Here are three articles about the Lib Dems well worth a read this Bank Holiday weekend… Enjoy!

The Lib Dems don’t need a new leader. They need a point (Ian Birrell)

After two torrid years in office, a fundamental question hangs heavy over the Liberal Democrats: what is the point of them these days? The party has long been ill-defined, split between social democrats on the left and market liberals on the right. In many ways, their brilliance as they grew under successive leaders over the past four decades was this blurred brand, ensuring disgruntled voters of any persuasion could see their own views reflected back when looking at the party. …

Government is about choices, sharpening issues that remain blurred in opposition. This is a problem for both coalition members. But for the smaller partner, it is forcing to the surface deep fissures buried during its rise to power. Negativity is not enough; it should stand for something other than the prevention of another party’s policies. As they confront electoral devastation, the dwindling band of Liberal Democrats must ask themselves an awkward question: when they look into the soul of their party, can they see anything there?

In part this is the by-now-familiar schtick thrown at Lib Dems by non-Lib Dems. As I have blogged before when others have levelled similar you’re-all-things-to-all-men accusations I disagree: not so much because I think its untrue, but because I think the Lib Dems are by no means exceptional in this. Many Tory voters vote Tory mainly because they are anti-Labour; many Labour voters vote Labour mainly because they are anti-Tory; and many Lib Dem voters vote Lib Dem mainly because they are anti-Labour/Tory. Unfortunately this has more inevitably negative consequences for the Lib Dems in the world of Coalition politics than it does for either Labour or the Tories.

Why do the Lib Dems love leaflets so much? (Isobel Hardman)

Nothing gets Liberal Democrats more excited than a really nice bright orange leaflet, preferably about local recycling problems, or maybe even potholes. … The enthusiasm of local Lib Dems for sticking these leaflets through letterboxes on a weekly basis is astonishing and the other parties wouldn’t even be able to come close in replicating it. The other parties wouldn’t want to, though, as this kind of scattergun leafletting doesn’t work. Research by Experian suggests that the only people likely to actually read and appreciate leaflets about generic local issues are older single people. That’s quite a specific group. .. The party needs to devote some serious work to understanding who the voters are that it needs to target. Leaflets about the party’s local success on recycling are not going to swing it at the ballot box, especially if most of them are thrown, unread, into the recycling bin.

There’s little new in these criticisms, either. On one level it entirely misses the point of Lib Dem campaigning. As both Tories and Labour know to their cost, Lib Dem MPs are incredibly difficult to shift from office once they’ve barnacled themselves into a constituency. Regular local leaflets are one integral part of what makes them stick. And you only have to observe how the other two parties have copied our techniques to see how effective they judge them to be. However, Ms Hardman is right that leaflets in themselves are not sufficient; there are few Lib Dem constituencies (I hope) who imagine they are. Certainly both Labour and the Tories have been able to blunt Lib Dem attacks in the last two elections through shrewder use of targeted mailing/calling operations. This is why the party has made a major investment in the Connect database, though she’s right to to doubt if this is always being used as effectively as it can be. Partly that’s the difficulty inherent in changing to any new database, especially within such a devolved organisation as the Lib Dems. And partly it’s the result of the Lib Dems not being able to call on friends in business or the trade unions in the way the Tories and Labour can. Look at the pie chart on this page and you start to see quite how impressive has been the Lib Dem challenge to Tory/Labour hegemony.

Communiquetion Breakdown – it’s always the same (Tom Smith)

From the Liberal Democrats’ perspective there must be a number of excellent reasons to re-evaluate the nature of the Coalition and put forward something different. For one, this remains something of an experiment in British politics and one the Party has to learn all it can from for the future. … An innovative example that could be used is the Shanghai Communiqué between China and the USA of 40 years ago. The innovation came in that it clearly published not only areas of agreement but points of disagreement; the central clauses being a statement by each side of their fundamental beliefs and approach. Constructive ambiguity was employed to side-step issues of irreconcilable contention, allowing the focus to shift to the important issues of the day where consensus was possible.

The Coalition needs a similar communiqué. Such a document would concisely contain the differentiation strategies of both parties and lay the groundwork for effective co-existence in Government. It would need to underpin a new ethos in how to undertake coalition politics, addressing the perception that coalition is ruled by self-interested horse-trading by admitting as much; highlighting that the resulting programme for Government should be an equitable deal between two temporary allies rather than a messy compromise that pleases no one. A statement of principles could be followed by an outline of a few key areas of policy such as the economy where a more dialectical approach would be taken.

Tom Smith, director of Liberal Insight, has unearthed an interesting historical analogy for the Coalition Agreement: the Shanghai Communiqué. In one sense, he doesn’t need to convince me: it was over four months ago I said the Agreement was in urgent need of renewing. What I’m less clear on is how a Coalition Communiqué 2.0 would differ greatly from the Coalition Agreement 1.0. After all, on issues such as tuition fees, Trident, taxes and Europe, the original Agreement noted clearly the differences between the two parties and put forward compromises or explicit trade-offs (eg, mansion tax and marriage tax-breaks cancelled each other out). Some of these could probably have been better thought-through, most notably on fees. Nonetheless, Tom’s fundamental point — that the Coalition needs a re-statement of purpose which reflects where we are and respects the two parties’ different stances on a range of issues — must surely be right.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.