Tag Archives: meeting-the-challenge

Connecting with Clegg

I attended a speech by Nick Clegg in the Commons this evening to a nascent group of thrusting young politicos. Mostly I tended to agree with him: the party is to focussed on the minutiae of policy and not enough on how it presents itself; the party does have to develop distinctive ‘surprising’ positions on topical issues; we do need to have another look at how we run conferences; the party’s shameless pitch for the grey vote was both scandalous and dreadfully ineffective. Much of what he said has already been covered by the likes of Duncan Borrowman, Chris Keating and Rob Fenwick so I won’t repeat it here.

My big concern was that the party has been debating all of this since 2005 – we set up the Meeting the Challenge process, held a big one-day conference on it, passed a policy paper on the subject (pdf)… yet we are still asking the questions and not answering them. Like a lot else, Nick didn’t have answer for why this is either.

What he did say, and I agree with him up to the point, is that part of the problem is the party’s love of committees and internal democracy, which has got in the way. I agree that the party’s practice of having setting up a working group which has a year-long, genial deliberative discussion on the subject and then puts its findings up for approval by party conference lacks the urgency and the flexibility that we need in a lot of areas. The party simply doesn’t need the level of policy that it passes year after year and could put much of the space on the conference agenda to better use. The problem I have with what he had to say however was that to an extent he was encroaching onto the ‘blame the party’ territory that frontbenchers are prone to make in the party from time to time, most famously Charles Kennedy himself when he attacked the party for passing “specific and controversial policies on the basis of a brief, desultory debate in a largely empty hall“. To be clear, when I challenged on this, he did row back and accept the front bench has a responsibility to be pro-active, but with almost the same breath suggested that people like me were the problem because, and I’m paraphrasing here “if someone came out and made a big announcement like this, you’d be the first person to complain about it on your blog”. My answer to that is: try me.

Last year, when the leadership sought to get the party to drop the 50p rate, I not only agreed with the substance of the proposal, I supported the fact that the front bench took such an assertive lead on the issue. I wasn’t at Harrogate, and remain sceptical about Ming’s “wait-and-see” approach to Trident, but I am completely unfazed by the fact that the leadership so aggressively promoted its stance. This is what leaders do. Caricaturing this as “engineering Clause 4 moments” in the way that Liberator does is simply daft. Personally, I’m much less worried about what our elected politicians and elected leader does than what our unelected party bureaucracy gets up to. We suffer from too little leadership from the front, not too much. And I write that as someone who last week was saying leadership was a necessary evil.

None of that is to say that Lib Dem party democracy is a bad thing: indeed, the tax and Trident debates show what a valuable forum conference can be. I happen to think that Nick over-egged the pudding by suggesting that the Tories have made all the running on making their conferences more relevant to the public. A one week flash in the pan, maybe, but does anyone take “Dragon’s Den” style sessions with Ann Widdecombe seriously? I think the public knows when it is being patronised.

The trick for the party is to integrate campaigning and policy development better. We don’t need detailed policy to convey our principles. So long as the latter remains firmly under the control of the party, we should be less afraid at opening up our development of the former. I lobbied, and failed, to convince the party that the Meeting the Challenge exercise ought to borrow heavily from Labour’s experiences with the Big Conversation. Despite our much-vaunted democratic constitution, Lib Dem local parties generally take less of an active role in policy development than their Labour or Conservative counterparts (plug). I wanted to see us using the exercise to get local parties feeding into a national consultation via their focus leaflets and surveys. It could have been a fantastic opportunity for us to communicate our core values, while at the same time opening the door for people to join. We will have similar opportunities in the future and should take them. But such a system needs the membership, campaigns and policy departments working in unison. They require the Parliamentary Party to commit to going around the country encouraging it. We already have the core infrastructure for such an initiative, but it needs leadership to make it happen.

If Nick, or Ming for that matter, have better ideas, let’s see them. Using the excuse that nasty people like me might criticise them on our largely unread blogs is simply not good enough. My suspicion is that it is not me, or even the dreaded Federal Conference Committee that are preventing the party from the sort of radical rebranding exercise that it needs, but a lack of self-confidence which is stifling imagination.

I enjoyed conference shocker!

People who know me may have noticed that by halfway through autumn conferences in the last few years I have become very sullen and withdrawn, wandering around the halls of the conference centre muttering darkly under my breath.

The truth is, in recent years I’ve come to loathe party conferences. They’ve increasingly become worryingly close to the Tory version for my taste, with policy “debates” reduced to Nuremberg-style rallies (the fact that the person speaking at the front usuall has the charisma of a wet fish appears to have escaped people’s notice). The policies themselves have tended to be dire: over-interventionist, full of lazy sloganeering and squarely aimed at the lowest common denominator. By the end of the conference week I had normally lost the will to live.

But not this time. In fact, I really enjoyed myself. This is probably in part due to ego, as I enjoyed the extra attention borne from writing chapters in two pamphlets (Liberalism – something to shout about edited by Graham Watson MEP/Liberator and Community Politics Today/ALDC) that were doing the rounds, writing the Taking Power local party’s guide and speaking in two fringe meetings. But it is also to do with the fact that for the first time in ages I’ve been able to detect tangible evidence of neural activity going on in the upper echelons of the party.

Ed Davey’s plans for revamping our campaigns and communications was better than I was expecting, despite having heard some very good rumours beforehand. The tax paper, while not perfect, has respectable underpinnings and is taking the party – at last – in the right direction in terms of economic policy. Notwithstanding Alex “crass, boorish and more a bruiser than blogger” Wilcock’s mean comments (some of which are very much spot on), as a first attempt at moving away from the party’s usual sloganeering, it isn’t bad. The important thing is to keep padding it out and to keep revisiting it.

In short, the party is moving in the right direction. Still plenty to be irritated about but that’s a far cry from two years ago when I very much thought we were going backwards. Even Ming’s speech outclassed anything that his predeccessor delivered in his 6 years, although he’s still got a long way to go to beat Paddy. Can I suggest borrowing the latter’s trick of using his conference piece as a think piece to challenge the party rather than slavishly following the “Labour – bad, Tories – worse, Lib Dems – yay!” formula that simply flatters the prejudices of its audience?

The only real cloud on the horizon for me was the party’s strategy to involve more women and people from under-represented groups. Apart from Simon’s dreadful diversity motion, which I was the speaker to oppose (although I understand that one of the other speakers got a speech on the basis that they said they would speak against and then didn’t – some very dirty tricks there as it unbalanced the debate), the announcement of a £200,000 “leaders fund” was worse than I was expecting.

Let me be clear about something. This £200,000 is for supporting candidates who have already been selected. Not a penny of it will go on outreach work to attract new people. Not a penny of it will go on training people interested in becoming candidates. Not a penny of it will go on mentoring, coaching or support. Somehow, individuals at the top of the party have convinced themselves that the main problem the party faces is giving selected candidates in target seats sufficient support. It is the single most arse-backwards policy I have ever come across and the party will – I promise you – pay the price.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the existence of this fund won’t help to convince people that if they get selected they will get sufficient support, or that that support isn’t needed. But in order for us to truly ensure that our candidates better reflect Britain we have to go out there and find hundreds of new people who up until now have not been putting themselves forward. And that costs money.

So be it. All in all, I’ve come away from the conference feeling enthused and inspired, to the point that in the areas where I’m less happy, I can at least see there is a point in spending time doing something about it.

Duncan Brack on Equality

I’m surprised this article on Equality by Vice Chair of the Meeting the Challenge working group Duncan Brack hasn’t provoked any discernable debate so far. No doubt everyone has had other distractions this week. I certainly don’t have time to deal with it in depth right now.

It is laying down the gauntlet to quite a serious ideological debate however. Brack’s argument is that inequality lies at the heart of the problems we face with health, quality of life and crime issues, while other commentators such as Andy Mayer are quite contemptuous of such notions.

I’m not saying I agree with every word that Brack has written – I certainly don’t share his warm feelings towards the egalitarianism of income tax – but I do think it is a serious challenge to the classical liberals within the party that they need to answer.

Renewing Liberal Britain

A couple of weeks ago I critiqued Jeremy Hargreaves’ take on what the Lib Dems’ narrative should be. But it isn’t good enough simply to criticise; far too few people are taking part in this crucial debate and so I thought it was time to try and work out some tentative ideas of my own.

So, here goes. My proposed narrative would be “Renewing Liberal Britain.” To use the archetypes spelled out in Neil Stockley’s article, this would seek to combine the “Great Island Nation” with the “Enemy Within”. The premise is that most of what makes Britain great can be summed up as liberal values: tolerance, democracy, liberty, questioning authority, sang froid (if you’ll pardon my French), entrepreneurship, concern for the individual and the underdog and an instinctive dislike of the mob. Those values are embraced by politicians from other parties who seek power (Blair, Cameron…) and dumped, just as quickly, by the same people, once they get in power.

In short, I’m proposing embrace and develop a liberal form of patriotism, one which doesn’t wrap itself in the Union Jack in the way that Gordon Brown has been doing of late. A deliberate, unapologetic and calculated exposition of how what one might call “drawbridge down” values aren’t simply more rational, but go to the heart of the British identity.

These values are under threat like never before. New Labour, having successfully co-opted them in 1997 with their themes of “Cool Britannia” and “things can only get better” have done more to undermine them than anyone else. David Cameron is now adopting the same 1997 approach, despite the fact that his party has always been the historical opponents of liberal Britain. Why should we believe that the self-appointed heir to Blair would behave any differently to Blair if he ever gained power? The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, are liberal Britain’s traditional champions.

Where does that leave the individual? The individual is at the heart of British identity. As Adam Smith liked to say, we are a nation of shopkeepers. The fight for individual rights and human dignity is the story behind the Magna Carta, the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, the Free Trade Movement and the creation of the Welfare State. But we’ve drifted. Britain has reached a point where there needs to be a new constitutional settlement. To be frank, Parliamentary Sovereignty has let us down and we need something a little more substantial to guarantee our rights and freedoms.

Anyway, it isn’t there yet and I clearly need to develop things further, but what do you think? Comments in the usual place, please.

I bet you think this blog is about you

Deputy Chair of the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee Jeremy Hargreaves has made this contribution to the Meeting the Challenge website. Here, he outlines his proposed “narrative”:

It’s About You: putting you in control of your own life (and actively equipping you to be so), and making our shared institutions accountable to you.

I think he’s halfway there, which is a slightly nicer way of putting “he’s very, very wrong.” It isn’t that I’m opposed to a people centred politics, I just think that put like that it sounds very harsh, very consumerist and, frankly, very much like the Pre-Cameron Conservatives.

The most crucial criticism of this is that it isn’t all about you. It’s about your friends, your family, your community/ies. It’s about everyone you’ve ever cared for. It’s about your unborn children and grandchildren, nephews and neices. It’s about that poor starving African you’ve never met who you thought buying a wristband would help.

The point is, humans are by their very nature social creatures. If you want to be me going all Darwinian, there may be a bit of enlightened self-interest at play here, but what it basically boils down to is that no person is an island, and we should be wary of sounding as if we think that.

That isn’t to say the individual isn’t important. Of course we want to empower the individual. But that is because we have an optimistic view of human nature. Liberals believe that if you give people the means, broadly speaking they will be good citizens. Socialists believe it has to be done for them collectively while Conservatives don’t believe in good citizens in the first place. If liberalism didn’t contain within it that fundamental belief in human nature, it would be a dead philosophy.

In short, we should be individualist. But we should be championing an individualism that leads to strong communities and a more global conscience, not an individualism for its own sake.

I think it is important to reflect on Neil Stockley’s narrative archetypes:

  • The Politics of Hope
  • The Aspiring Individual
  • The Politics of Fear
  • The Enemy Within

Clearly, Jeremy has placed his flag squarely on “The Aspiring Individual” one. But that only tells us half the story. As Neil points out, Thatcher was keen on this, but she was also playing “The Enemy Within” card.

Ironically, I think we should consider doing the same. I hasten to add however that our “enemy” is very different from Thatcher’s! The “rot” we want to stop is mindless bureaucracy, centralisation, an anti-democratic culture (much of which the legacy of Thatcher herself of course). The reason we want to stop this rot is that it is destroying our ability to make meaningful choices about our own quality of life. Fundamentally, it is destroying our ability to care, leading to a rise in anti-social behaviour, lack of democratic participation and general engagement with society. It isn’t just about the right to choose school X or hospital Y, which is how the “choice agenda” is generally framed.

I’m not there myself yet: I still haven’t worked out how to distill this down to a few phrases. But we can’t afford to go into the general election sounding like rampant individualists. To quote a certain Mr Cameron: “we’re all in this together”.

Feedback please!

I’ve been in blogging overdrive recently (a phenomenon known as procrastination I believe), but I do have a number of articles up here that I’m genuinely interesting in hearing people’s feedback on, but that readers may have missed:

Missives gratefully received!

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.

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?

Lynne Featherstone’s crime screed

Lynne Featherstone MP has written an article on crime for the Meeting the Challenge website.

Lots and lots to digest there. Early thoughts are that it is a shame she saw fit not to mention anything about drugs and prohibition, particularly given that she started the article with the maxim that “when it’s a choice between reducing the number of future crimes and punishing people now we should take the tough choice and say – stopping future crimes takes priority.” I’d have been interested to see how that squares with drug laws which appear to make criminals out of desperate people.

She also talks a bit about my personal hobby horse “fear of crime”:

we should be willing to tackle fear of crime head-on. Far too often fear of crime is treated as if it isn’t really a proper problem to acknowledge – “oh the problem isn’t actual crime, it’s just people’s whipped up fears …” etc. But fear is real, it affects people, it hurts lives and it hinders freedom. So we need to tackle it as a serious problem in its own right.

No-one questions that the fear is real. What is questioned is whether a lot of that fear is rational.

The causes are a mix – actual crime levels, media coverage of crime, fear of strangers and so on. More and more people don’t know those around them so more and more people are strangers. Grotty or dark environments, the lack of reassuring safe official faces, and many more causes all add up to a greater fear of crime.

There’s an undertone for some people, especially older ones, of the good old days having gone and the world around them being different. This is more than just about crime, it’s about people feeling unsettled by the changes in the modern world and part of the nostalgia is for the good old-crime free days (that actually never were).

Indeed. We should be tackling this head on.

What all this boils down to is not so much crime but quality of life. Miserable, lonely people have a much greater fear of crime than happy, gregarious people. The point is, it isn’t nasty criminals making people frightened to go out at night but a lack of community spirit. And the more we talk up those nasty criminals, the tougher it is to create that community spirit.

Some examples of other actions – improving lighting, installing CCTV and clearing up areas of graffiti and grime are now common parts of the crime-fighting agenda, making people feel safer in these areas.

Does CCTV make people feel safe at night? It doesn’t make me feel safe. It makes me think I’m in danger of being mugged and I’m not at all confident that a bloke in a balaclava is going to be identified from a few pixels on a TV screen. More people in this country are convinced that crime it at an all time high than ever, despite it being the lowest in decades. Is it a coincidence that that irrational fear has coincided with the explosion of CCTV? We’re the most monitored countries in the world.

But why not do more and tackle more of the other causes of fear? Crime statistics will always be prey to the temptation of instant headline seeking, but why not invest them with more independent authority by taking them clearly away from the Home Secretary and the Home Office? But also look at the range of statistics published – where the basis of a statistic changes, we should do more to try to rework older figures on the same basis. Otherwise changing the way crimes are counted far too often leads to a false impression of increase. Yes – such recalculations will involve some estimates, but far better to give a realistic estimate as to what the actual change has been.

Seriously for a second. Do you really believe that making crime statistics independent of government is going to stop the Daily Mail one bit from playing its fun and games?

Sentences too should feature – it’s a common opinion finding that people greatly under-estimate how long jail sentences really are on average (because it’s the short sentences that generate the controversy and get the coverage). So why not have annual statistics published alongside the crime figures for average sentence length and so on?

Nice idea, but again, what is it going to achieve? Who’s going to report this when it doesn’t suit their agenda to do so?

Generally, I am a fan of the British Crime Survey over recorded crime statistics as the latter are far too vulnerable to under-reporting, miss-reporting and changing definitions. Perhaps we need to do more though than just address some of the criticisms of the BCS – such as extending the range of crimes it covers – for if it really is a better basis for making decisions (as I believe it is), do we not needed to massively expand its size so that statistics are available reliably for much smaller geographic areas? At the moment we have the BCS as the best indicator of crime at a national level – but when you get down to police forces and councils looking at their patch, they have to fall back on recorded crime. In addition to expanding the scope of the BCS, local crime-fighting partnerships should be monitoring fear of crime and have targets for it, alongside the more traditional approach of looking at crime figures.

It’s nice to see a Lib Dem spokesperson on Home Affairs support the BCS – I’ll happily quote this the next time I see a “CRIME OUTRAGE?!?!?!?!?” Lib Dem tabloid. And that brings me to my final point. This article is full of ideas about what the government should be doing, but as a political party we have a responsibility to make a change as well.

It is 2 days before Christmas. The solemn Lib Dem prediction of a “Christmas Crisis” fuelled by liberalisation of the licensing laws has proven to be completely wrong. Let’s make 2006 the year we stopped playing games with crime policy.