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 Â£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.