Daily Archives: 15 January 2006

Telling stories

I’ve more or less given up on my attempt to blog the Meeting the Challenge paper – I found it too rigid a structure around which to frame my thoughts. But I did get stirred up by the plenary session at yesterday’s conference about narrative (more about which you can read here).

In short, I found this session a frustrating waste of time. A lot of the contributions were of value, but the discussion, as set out by Lord Rennard in the first five minutes, about about the party’s core messages which are not, as I understand it, the same thing as a narrative. Unfortunately there was no-one on the panel to give a countervailing view.

To be fair, I think the narrative idea causes a lot of confusion and I’m not sure I understand it myself 100%. But one thing I am clear about: there is no such thing as having “no narrative”. It is not an optional bolt-on to make you more electable. If as a party you choose not to think about crafting your narrative your opponents and the media will craft it for you.

For all our talk about being the “real alternative” in the last election (a slogan), our actual narrative in 2005 was this (or an approximation of it):

The Lib Dems are set to make gains in this election, largely due to Labour’s unpopularity because of the Iraq War and tuition fees. They hope to “decapitate” the Conservative Party by using tactical voting to get the desirable scalps of senior Tory politicians. They are the most high tax of the main parties, and will introduce a 50p income tax rate on incomes over £100,000. They oppose council tax and want to replace it with local form of income tax, which is criticised by their opponents for hurting middle income families.

Their leader is a nice man, a “fully paid up member of the human race”. But there are concerns that he is not up for the job. His wife is about to have a baby.

You might want to argue about the specifics of this, but my point is this: our narrative was a mixture of our message, our opponent’s message about us and media speculation. Talk of “decapitation”, “high taxes” and Charles’ personal problems were rather unhelpful for us, at least as far as some groups were concerned. Other bits were useful.

My very important point is this: we do not own our narrative, all we can do is influence it. Wanting to narrow the debate down to what our messages should be is to miss the point. And if we are on the subject of narratives, we should also be talking about ways we might want to shape our opponent’s narratives.

Secondly, to a certain extent now is the worst possible time to be talking about narrative as a large chunk of it will be crafted by the leadership campaign. The story of our leader will be part of the story of the party, and whatever else we want to say must be shaped with that in mind.

Ming’s story for example is that of the elder statesman. This is both a positive and negative thing. Andrew Rawnsley today veers towards the positive, and ekes out the other important point about Ming: he has a humble background and has pulled himself up with his bootstraps. There is a lot there that looks like a good antidote to the Cameron effect. But there is also the question of his age – already a major theme in his current media profile – which could seriously undermine him.

Simon’s story is that of an energetic inner city politician, a religious man with a social conscience, but with a reputation for chaos and for being a little dated. To me, there is very little in that that works in opposition to Cameron. He lacks the statesmanlike qualities of Ming and perversely, despite being 10 year’s Campbell’s junior, comes across as rather more old fashioned. On that basis, I think he would be a poor choice, but that isn’t to say we can’t find ways of countering if minus points in other ways. We do however, need to be thinking about it.

Leaving aside my personal opposition to him, Mark’s narrative is that of the professional marketing man with a photogenic family who wants to drive the party forward into the 21st century. And he is the loyalty candidate who stood behind Charles while others plotted against him. However, as far as the media is concerned he is a bit of an unknown quantity, and that perception shows signs of changing. His launch has been less than slick, contradicting his professional reputation. And his claims to be the loyalty candidate look less and less credible as it emerges that he cannot rely on more than a couple of MPs willing to actually support him and tempers calm as the party slowly begins to adjust to the post-Kennedy era. Indeed, I would say that of the four candidates, he is the one who most lacks a narrative, and that is undermining him quite severely.

Chris’ narrative by contrast is currently shaped not by reputation but a lack of it. Thus far it has been summed up in three words “dark green horse“. In many respects this very much works to his advantage because it means that his narrative will be shaped by the election itself. He has already been very successful at making the green agenda his own and has intellectual respectability. If he can demonstrate his political skills over the next few weeks, then he will have real momentum. While Campbell is the perfect “anti-Cameron”, Huhne is the perfect “conviction Cameron” – someone with a similar agenda to Cameron but with a track record that suggests he actually means it. That is a very tempting prospect and one reason why I am supporting (the other being that I happen to like what he’s actually saying!).

The point of this article is to make one very simple point: talking about narrative as if we have a blank slate to start and are in isolation to everything else with is futile. Our first step must be to identify, as clearly and honestly as possible, what the various narratives (our party, our opponents, the state of the nation) actually are, and then look at how we would want to change them. Our tools most certainly are our policies, our slogans and our messages, but this shouldn’t be our starting point.

Nick Cohen – a terribly confused chap

Nick’s going off on one about the eeevil liberal media again and their Galloway fellating ways.

I’ve said this before and since he shows no sign of shutting up, I’m sure I’ll say it again, but who are all these people writing nice pieces about George Galloway? Sure, there is Tariq Ali and John Pilger but a) they hardly represent mainstream media and b) they are hardly liberal.

This goes to the heart of Cohen’s confusion. In the same column he goes on to praise Evan Harris’ criticisms of Iqbal Sacranie. Cohen’s conclusion: that Iqbal Sacranie is entitled to free speech but shouldn’t begrudge it of the rest of us, is classic liberalism. You won’t find many socialists throughout history exhorting the same idea. Cohen’s problem is that he always thought he was a socialist and yet one morning realised he wasn’t. Rather than have an epitheny however, he simply went into denial and has been taking it out on us poor liberals ever since.

What he’s actually turned into however, is anyone’s guess.

Always the bridesmaid?

Interesting to see The Times writing about secret talks between Gordon Brown and Vince Cable. The two are old compatriots, so it is hardly surprising.

What’s good news is that this is the first story in a while to imply a secret plot to form a coalition with Labour. Over the past six months, every paper going appears to have been implying a secret plot to form a coalition with the Conservatives, so it’s nice to see a bit of balance.

What’s bad news is that it suggests we are always a bridesmaid, never a bride. I’ve said before that I think that for strategic reasons, a Grand Coalition between Labour and the Conservatives is more likely than a Lib Dem partnership with either, and the media need to start realising that rather than simply seeing us as a “get out of jail free card” for either party in the likely event that the next parliament will be hung.

We may have looked as if we were performing ritual hari kiri over the past month, but we aren’t totally suicidal.

Generational Theft?

I spoke at a breakout session at yesterday’s Meeting the Challenge conference called “Generational Theft?” and organised by Liberator (or more precisely Simon Titley). I thought I’d put my own thoughts on how the debate went here, if for nothing else than to help Simon with his official report.

The other speakers were Ed Vickers and Simon Bryceson. Given that they clearly knew far more about what they were talking about than me, I was flattered to have been asked to be on the platform, but I like to think I may have made some contribution in terms of bringing the discussion onto campaign strategy and policy ideas. And since I don’t know the names of all the contributors, and they might object to me quoting them here in what was a frank discussion, I shall adopt Chatham House rules. Continue reading Generational Theft?

How to spot when a journalist doesn’t know what he’s talking about

Shock! Horror! Could this be true?

But it was Mark Oaten who made arguably the greatest impact with an appeal to rank-and-file party members dismayed at the treatment of Mr Kennedy. The home affairs spokesman said MPs had “let down” ordinary Liberal Democrats and should apologise for their show of disunity.

Strange, that was the complete opposite of the impression I got. But then, Francis Eliot goes on…

Another senior Lib Dem MP, Mike Hancock,

You don’t really need to read any more. Apart from age, in what way is Mike Hancock a senior Lib Dem MP?

Hancock it transpires is a Hughes supporter. But Oaten is depending on him for getting nominated.

The hustings – brief thoughts

  • Ming: good content, below par delivery. This election is Ming’s to lose. We know that when he is good he is very, very good, but it has been disappointing that he has been so tepid so far. Someone in his team needs to read him the riot act.
  • Simon: if I didn’t have strong reservations about Simon’s positioning and his chaotic and autocratic style which I observed first hand while we were both on the Federal Executive, this speech would have really tempted me. It will have tempted ordinary members as well. I said last week that the media were underestimating Simon and thus far I have been proven right (crucially, the punters would seem to agree).
  • Chris: a very awkward style to start with that relaxed as he went on. Content was the strongest of the four by far. He needs to come across as more relaxed and more jovial.
  • Mark: I can’t deny that his decision to ditch the podium was a good move. Fortunately however, he then went on to hide behind the podium again half way through (like his inability to decide whether he was in favour or opposed to the Lib Dems’ policy on the 50p income tax rate, it could be that this was a deliberate tactic on his part, designed to play well to both the anti- and pro-podium factions yet satisfying neither). Thus we found ourselves in the bizarre position of him making the best first half speech and the worst second half speech of the four. Utterly content free which a number of people commented on.

Most people I spoke to seemed to be either Ming or Chris supporters, with support growing for Chris. Whatever happens I think both camps have a lot of regard for each other. Simon didn’t seem to have much of an entourage to speak of, while Oaten was surrounded by acolytes, with Lembit minding him the whole time. The body language of the Oaten camp did look very much like it was under siege however.

Clearly my suggestion that he might pull was wide of the mark, and I can’t see him pulling out now. I am totally unclear however what he hopes to achieve. At least two Oaten supporters I spoke to today were predicting that their man would now come fourth, but were sticking to him out of loyalty to Lembit. This begs the question: why on earth didn’t Lembit stand in the first place? They could yet swap and turn this shower around. That would really upset the apple cart.

Lembit: you were banging on about taking risks all day on Saturday. Isn’t it time you put your money where your mouth is? There is nothing to be gained by flogging this dead horse.

And no, that most certainly isn’t an endorsement! 🙂