Taking risks is about more than stunts

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I get the impression that Guy Aitchison is getting frustrated with me. While conceding that the Lib Dems need to take more risks, I keep dismissing suggestions that we should do things like David Marquand’s idea about self-organising elections to the Lords (my response here) and Mark Littlewood’s idea about fielding a candidate in Buckingham (my response here). I’m really not trying to be difficult, so I will try to lay out what sort of “risky strategy” we should be taking.

I DON’T think it should involve electoral stunts like these. The problem is that people are bored of electoral, parliamentary politics which focuses on procedures and systems – what’s so radical about giving them more of the same? These are high cost, low gain proposals.

I sketched out the direction I’d like the party to take at the Campaigning After Rennard fringe on Saturday. I also wrote a discursive piece along similar lines for the Community Politics Today pamphlet published by ALDC a couple of years ago. I see the party having a key role to play in mobilising people to campaign for things such making the case for carbon reductions, campaigning for civil liberties and fighting against public services cuts, in areas where they are completely moribund as well as in their target seats. Fundamentally, it should follow the energy and enable campaigning rather than co-ordinating things from the centre. We’re talking about a MoveOn, MyBO, 38degrees type model here, but ideally one in which the leader played a central role – not in the sense of bossing people about and insisting that it’s his/her way or the high way – but in the sense of mucking in, encouraging and listening.

I was pleased to hear Steve Webb make some remarkably similar points at the Social Liberal Forum/Compass fringe meeting last night. Clegg should have gone to climate camp. He should have placed a central role when #welovethenhs flared up.

Fundamentally, he should have followed the advice of that notorious political chancer Mohatma Gandhi “There goes my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” Gandhi is making an astute anti-intuitive point here. If you want to build a movement, which Gandhi most certainly did, and not merely be the big fish in a goldfish bowl, you have to meet them in the middle.

This is, it has to be said, a somewhat different tack to that adopted by Clegg this week. He’s spent a whole week trying to convince the world what a tough leader he is and how good he is at bringing unruly childlike activists into line. Leaving aside the question of whether this is really the best way to motivate your activist base, he’s ended up looking shallow and weak. Despite the press team’s best attempts to spin the Fresh Start debate as a collossal victory for Clegg (this is what we call being straight with people apparently), he has ended up looking foolish.

Either way, it is about a lot more than little clever-clever tactical maneauvres. We’ve been doing them for decades now and they only get us so far.

9 thoughts on “Taking risks is about more than stunts

  1. I definitely agree with your broader point (if not all the specifics).

    I am not so sure MoveOn is a good model, and I’m nervous of politicians trying to lead things like this, I’d prefer far more community (in the ever broadening sense that the Internet is creating) based action, supported and enabled by politicians where needed, but not controlled by them.

    A large part of liberalism is about empowering people and communities which goes against the general thrust of most modern politics which is about doing things for people, or cajoling them into doing what government thinks they should do.

    When I read the original pamphlet espousing community politics I was struck by how different it is from the pavement politics I saw. I remember it also mentioned that the aim was not to get Liberals elected and might even work against that aim – very different to today’s pavement politics and general political atmosphere.

  2. I know this isn’t the main thing you’re discussing here, but I’ve never been sure about the notion that the leader should never say anything until the shadow cabinet and FPC have thrashed it to death on an email list. If he gets something into the papers and they protest, that’s just an open debate, isn’t it? Isn’t that was we/he wants? There’s no point in having a leader if we’re going to make him go around tugging his forlock to the sacred FPC. They’ve got the powers to stop him if they really want to, we’ve got the powers to stop him if we really want to, he’s got the press operation if he wants to shake us all up a bit. To be honest that strikes me as the ingredients for a productive and evenly matched debate.

  3. Good thinking/writing, James.
    One of the reasons that I left the LibDems was the decline of genuine community politics in favour of pure electoral opportunism, across most of the Party.
    Any Party that wants to go places – be it the LibDems, the Greens, or whoever – must not make the historic mistake that is now terminal for Labour: selling out, and playing ‘safe’. This is why Cameron’s makeover of the Tories will not profit them for long: because all it involves is New Labour squared. (My experience in the Norwich North byelection was that the Tories / Chloe Smith were so obsessed with playing safe that they never ever said anything at all of interest, which could not be said of any other candidate. The only chance they took, interestingly, was signing my ‘Clean Campaign Pledge’. And they mostly used that to try to stop anyone drawing attention to the appalling record of the last Tory government, claiming that to do so was ‘dirty politics’, as Cameron of course had nothing to do with Major, Lamont et al…)
    Politics IS risk. And taking real risks means doing MORE than stunts.

  4. I’m not sure why you’re against “stunts” – a word usually used derogatorily, but which means “A feat displaying unusual strength, skill, or daring.
    Something done to attract attention or publicity.”

    Putting aside the merits or otherwise your advice to Nick, you’re not advocating a high risk strategy. It’s all prettty mundane, to be honest.

    Contesting Buckingham would not flippant or trivial or cynical. Neither need it be enormously expensive (£20K would probably be sufficient, for £50K, a really good campaign could be run).

    I honestly think that – for this outlay – there would be a genuine chance of a constitutional reformer winning the seat (I probably favour an Independent with LD-backing). The associated publicity would raise awareness of constitutional reform enormously – and far more so than other activities Unlock Democracy/ERS etc might engage in.

    Taking on the effective chairman of our parliamentary democracy would be a brave, bold and galvanising move.

  5. I honestly think that – for this outlay – there would be a genuine chance of a constitutional reformer winning the seat

    And I honestly think that there wouldn’t.

    One thing that I’ve noticed, for example, is that people seem to be under the impression that no-one has ever contested a seat with a sitting speaker before. Six candidates stood against Michael Martin in 2005, including the SNP. Martin only ended up with 53% of the vote. Yet it garnered almost no publicity for the SNP or Scottish Independence. As someone who was scouring the Scottish press on a daily basis at the time, the only thing I remember is Martin’s whiter-than-white rosette.

    Betty Boothroyd was up against a “Labour” candidate who got nearly a quarter of the vote in 1997, but it was hardly front page news (indeed I didn’t even know that until 5 minutes ago).

    All I can really see this achieving is a split in the anti-Farage vote. In other words it would help UKIP get their first MP. I don’t see why the party should spend £20k to do that.

    I’m not against stunts per se, it’s just that they aren’t the same thing as a strategy and I get extremely weary of people who get the two confused.

  6. There are enormous differences with the Boothroyd and Martin situations.

    Sleaze/expenses/Westminster malaise is a big story and a defining feature of modern British politics. Secondly, Buckingham is the ideal location to highlight associated issues.

    There was nothing “stand out” about the Speaker last time. Nothing Michael Martin had done made his seat more relevant to the cause of Scottish independence than any other. Similarly – Boothroyd in 2001 didn’t really symbolise anything. There certainly wasn’t the same general, but visceral, hostility to the system that exists now.

    Bercow’s expenses record is poor. Farage’s position on constitutional change is hopeless. In my mind, it’s almost unconscionable to leave the voters of Buckingham to this ghastly Hobson’s choice.

    Additionally, Bercow’s psephological position is much shakier. Both Betty and Martin were in rock solid Labour seats. They were seen as Labour people and – by and large – Labour voters just voted for them almost as if they were on the Labour ticket.

    It is not at all clear this is true of Tory voters in Buckingham (and is presumably why Farage is thought to have a reasonable chance). Moreover, if Farage and Bercow split the Tory vote down the middle, a third candidate who can unite the Liberal and Labour vote (and perhaps pick up a handful of soft Tories) could come through the middle to win.

    Finally, it’s not at all obvious to me that a reformer candidate would be splitting the ant-Farage vote, any more than they’d be splitting the anti-Bercow vote. In any event, I’m not sure I prefer Bercow over Farage anyway.

  7. I’m not sure I prefer Bercow over Farage anyway.

    That’s the crux of the matter I suspect.

    I’m quite sure I do prefer Bercow over Farage, both in terms of personal distaste (Farage has, if anything, a worse record on expenses than Bercow if that is your sole test) and in terms of the strategic interests of the party.

  8. I would also proffer you the example of the Haltemprice and Howden by-election, which elicited almost no media attention despite David Davis’ high profile resignation. I find it hard to believe that something similar would gain attention amidst the usual general election hullaballoo.

  9. I’m certain…genuinely certain….that if Kelvin Mackenzie had run in Hatelemprice, then the media attention would have been immensely higher. Especially if a liberal had then run to make it a three way race.

    Given the by-election descended into questions of whether Miss Whiplash or the National Front would hold their deposits, it just didn’t have as much media traction as it might have (beyond questions of whether David Davis was a latetr day Reggie Perrin). In Farage, Bercow faces a relatively serious challenge. that changes the dynamic enormously.

    I’m not pretending this will be THE story of the election. Of course not. But it could be an interesting and meaningful event – possibly a bit like Tatton in 1997.

    It’s also a good opportunity given the lack of obvious activities that constitutional reformers can take elsewhere (scratch this argument if there’s a referendum on election day, of course).

    And we’re talking about c.£20K. Trivial money really. (the party spent a total of £300K on fighting Henley, Crewe and Norwich ffs). You don’t need to gain acres and acres of media attention for that to be a worthwhile investment.

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