Two thoughts on Clegg’s Manchester speech (2 of 2): edging towards the right narrative

by Stephen Tall on June 23, 2013

Two parts of Nick Clegg’s Manchester speech particularly caught my eye. The first — how not to repeat our mistake on tuition fees — I’ve blogged about here. Here’s the second:

Governing has carried a cost. We have taken a hit; Our opponents try to use the fact we are in government nationally against us locally. And I cannot stress enough how proud and grateful I am for the grace and determination with which you have absorbed all of that.

But I also know that if we try and turn back the clock… Hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition… Seeking to airbrush out the difficult decisions we have had to take… We condemn our party to the worst possible fate: Irrelevance; impotence; slow decline.

Imagine yourself on the doorstep – two different conversations.

The first:

Hello, I’m from the Liberal Democrats, for which I am truly sorry…
No, I’d rather not talk about the things we’ve done in national government if you don’t mind…
Around here we’ve been terribly nice, would it be possible to just stick to that?

The second:

I’m from the Liberal Democrat Party.
When the country needed it, we stepped up to our responsibilities…
Entering into Coalition with our opponents for the sake of the national interest.
We have taken some difficult decisions, but by doing so the country’s battered economy is on the mend.
Well over a million jobs have been created…
As well as record numbers of apprenticeships…
And we have managed to cut taxes for the vast majority of British taxpayers.
Here in this neighbourhood we have also protected vital services that matter to you.
Vote for us again and you will get more of the same.

That’s the conversation that will inspire people to support us. We will not be rewarded for hiding our achievements and beliefs. And our biggest error would be to come this far only to head into retreat.

Three years ago, at our Special Conference, we came together and agreed to take this leap. Everything since – every knock, every bruise – has been a down-payment. And losing our nerve now would undermine our credibility; It would confuse the people we are asking to vote for us; It would be a gift to our opponents; And it is the surest way to lose support. And, more than that, it would be to squander a huge opportunity too.

Talking to one of our MPs recently, he told me of the encouraging local election results in his patch: the party had more than held its own. He then contrasted it with a near-by MP in whose patch the local election results had been disappointing.

The difference, he said, was simple: he’d not spent the last three years attacking his own party. Yes, he’d rebelled. But he’d also praised the good the party was doing, too.

His colleague, meanwhile, had ensured he was known in his patch as a serial rebel, an independent voice quite distinct from the Lib Dems. In effect he’d adopted a doorstep patter based on the first conversation Nick quoted. As a strategy to retain his seat, this MP told me, it was probably quite effective. But as a way of building the party in his area it had, not surprisingly, back-fired.

I wrote recently of the need for the party to develop its narrative of our time in government. Nick’s second conversation edges towards it, while still being weighed down by the kind of tractor production statistics which doomed Gordon Brown. It’s fine to acknowledge we have made mistakes — that’s how you learn and grow — but the emphasis on our determination to step up and act in the national interest and ensure this government would be fairer than if the Tories had been left to their own devices is moving us closer towards the kind of narrative that might re-connect us with the public.

* 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.