Friday, 11 March 2011
It's not the unpopularity; its the 'fingers-in-the-ears-la-la-la-not-listening' that's getting to me.
For years we’ve been complaining that no one ever pays us enough attention, so I’m not going to grumble about the fact 10000 people are going to Sheffield this weekend to shout at the Lib Dem delegates. At least we’re being talked about, discussed, debated - in short, we’re firmly on the agenda. In many ways we’ve never had it so good. And I say that with no sense of irony.
A few commentators have made similar points and as usual I enjoyed reading Julian Astle’s point of view in the Telegraph.
However there is one area where I do disagree with him. Julian makes the point that more often than not the most effective politicians have got the most things done when they forget about being popular and well liked and just get on with the job regardless. He cites Tony Blair post Iraq war and Mrs. T. from about 1984 onwards. Regardless of whether you approved of what they did, this was when their actions had the biggest effects. And they still went on to win another general election
His argument therefore goes that having accepted unpopularity very early on, having taken over in the midst of a financial crisis, Nick Clegg has got the ‘need for popularity’ out of his system early, and can now crack on with doing the important stuff more effectively.
However, I think this analysis fails to take into account three problem areas for us as Lib Dems.
1. While both Mrs. Thatcher and Tony Blair both went on to win general elections after becoming very unpopular personally, they were faced with very weak political opposition; in 87, Labour was barely off the blocks in reforming itself into what became new Labour, and in 2005, the Tories were still in disarray after the Ian Duncan Smith era and his relatively last minute replacement with Michael Howard. As soon as viable political alternatives presented themselves, the opposition gained enormously in popularity – and regicide of the leaders (Major for Thatcher, Brown for Blair) commenced. Labour under Miliband are already seen as a viable political alternative (see Today’s polls). History shows Nick can’t afford to stay unpopular for too long.
2. Most of the brave, right and proper things that we are doing - taking 800 000 people out of tax altogether, the pupil premium, restoring the pension links to earnings, an extra tax on the banks – are not ‘difficult’ and unpopular actions, they are hugely popular policies. The issue is – we get no credit for them, as the narrative of ‘Lib Dem break their promises’ is still the one that dominates - especially tuition fees. How do we regain popularity if enacting wildly popular Lib Dem policies in so many areas gets us nowhere?
3. As Caron demonstrates on her blog, we’re not ignoring the protestors – in Scotland last week, senior party members tried to engage with them. The issue is that they wouldn’t engage with us. And however unfair we think this may be – if we can’t connect and debate, we won’t change anyone’s minds.
How do we solve this conundrum? Well, of course we need to continue doing the right things policy wise we are already doing – both for the sake of the country, and for our own sanity. And without falling out with our coalition partners we really need to put down markers about what we have inspired, what we’re willing to go along with, and areas of policy we disagree with (Nick’s headline in the Independent is a good start).
But over and above that we need some attention grabbing activity that gets people to start re engaging with the party. Left field creative policy making that really makes people think and that they actively want to engage with. That’s what I’ll be looking to come out of Sheffield.
Just seen this Tweet from Armando Iannucci.
“Tomorrow, Lib Dems vote whether to back changes to NHS. Let's see if they're upright and principled or a clump of twats”.
Well: at least he’s willing to give us a hearing…..
Posted by Richard Morris at 17:50