Sort of an exclusive here as I think I may be the first to write up my account of the interview with Ming that the finalists for the Blog of the Year held on Sunday morning. Jonathan Calder actually beat me to it by about 12 hours but at the time of writing hadn’t given his full account. Either way it’s another opportunity to shamelessly use “EXCLUSIVE” in another blog title and we all know how much you crazy kids love your exclusives.
Okay. By dint of where I had seated myself, I found myself asking Ming the first question, which was about what the party’s narrative is. He both avoided answering my question and accidentally answering my question at the same time. Let me explain.
He failed to answer my question in that his pat answer was that it is being developed by the manifesto team and that Steve Webb is developing it. He went on to list a number of policy areas – particularly the environment – that we would be developing thematically. I have to say that my heard sank at this point. If we are to have a narrative – and I hear no-one suggesting that we shouldn’t – then we should have had it nailed down 12 months ago. As it stands, Ming seemed to be suggesting it would be unveiled along with the manifesto a few short weeks before the election (whenever that is).
But then, almost in spite of himself, he began to answer the question – at least partially. Throughout the interview he kept talking about how it is now “one-against-two” to contrast with the last few general elections which were “two-against-one”. What he went on to explain was that in the past, the Lib Dems and Labour teamed up against the Conservatives; now the Lib Dems are fighting against the “conservative consensus” of Labour and the Conservatives. This is partly because that Labour has become more conservative, but it is also because of the expected tightness of the next election which means that the Lib Dems are now being attacked in both directions.
The fact is, this is a narrative. It isn’t one that I think particularly resonates with the general public, but it does hit the right notes as far as activists are concerned. It makes it quite clear that we are sticking with equidistance. I expect to hear more of this in the speech.
It’s also – I think – possible to tweak to make it more appealing from a voter perspective. The fact is, in many cases we are the only serious alternative to a conservative consensus. We are the only party which is serious about decentralisation and giving away power and meaty policy which spells out how. For the Tories and Labour localism and renewing democracy remain little more than stock phrases. For such a message to resonate however, we need to have a much less managerialist approach to policy during the next election. If we end up with just another long list of policy bites which promise a change in spending here, the scrapping of a policy there, we’ll be stuck with the same sort of dispiriting campaign that we had in 2005.
(As an aside, sadly the feedback I’ve had from the “secret” candidate training sessions on Saturday was that this is not only precisely what the party mandarins have planned but that they’ve been conducting expensive polling that “proves” this is the case. A lot of internal polling I’ve seen in the past has been concerned with proving a point rather than genuine research – polls that prove that no-one is interested in electoral reform compared with crime, health and education for example as opposed to exploratory polls to see how we might better make the case for electoral reform. I have no doubt that a policy bite approach is useful for shoring up support in marginal seats, but it does nothing to reach out to our larger potential supporter base. It leaves us vulnerable to attack if the opposition parties run an effective air war against us if we aren’t taking to the skies at the same time. And you can’t run an effective air war if your “ammo” is ten disparate policy commitments).
Interestingly, Ming pointed out that the then-elections chief Lord Razzall was in constant talks with Labour regarding our targeting strategy and how we might both target the Conservatives. Although I’m not surprised, I have to say it is the first I’ve heard of this. It feels a little uncomfortable to learn that we were in strategic discussions with the war-mongers, but then the Tories were wannabe war-mongers and were running under the most rightwing manifesto in recent memory (written by David Cameron, lest we forget). Either way, if our strategy was to work with Labour to maximise the marginal Lib-Con seats that we won, it was a pretty poor one. Most of our significant gains were against Labour. I’m sure Labour supporters in places such as, say, Manchester Withington, will be delighted to learn that their defeat was pre-arranged with their own party).
Richard Flowers, demonstrating sub-Victorian parental values, kept the Millennium Elephant in a bag throughout the interview (I can EXCLUSIVELY reveal!). While the nominee himself was left to sulk, Daddy Richard asked Ming what we can do to engage with the 40% of the electorate that now doesn’t vote. This was an issue that Ming warmed to, pointing out that there are now more people on the internet in the UK than UK voters, and that the next election could be decided by as few as 800,000 – 1,000,000 voters (I have news for Ming – if the Tories got exactly the right votes in exactly the right places they’d need much less to swing it). I did sense a degree of hypocrisy though in a Lib Dem leader attacking the other parties for focussing on swing voters in marginal seats at the expense of everyone else: what have we been doing for the past decade-and-a-half if not that?
Accepted, our standard response to this is that we would change the electoral system that forces us into this position, but we should at least acknowledge that we are contributing to this disconnect ourselves. If we don’t, then it’s just words.
The two mediums Ming highlighted as tools for reengaging with the disenfranchised I don’t think are that effective. Political blogs like this for example tend to be read by other political bloggers, journalists and political obsessives. My extreme tracking site meter suggests that just 941 unique visitors read this blog on an average month and I could probably list at least 10% of them by name. I’m under no illusions about this blog’s power to engage with the disconnected. I’m rather more impressed by the potential of Facebook and MySpace in this respect.
His other example is literary festivals, which are growing in popularity and at which political meetings tend to be filled to the rafters. This is positive, but it doesn’t get us even close to the NEETs.
One thing the party might want to look at is to start going to places on the internet where there is a lot of activity. We probably won’t get very far by getting Ming on Britney Spears’ discussion forums, but there are issue-based campaigns out there which seem to genuinely reach out beyond the relatively well connected. As I’ve written before, one of those areas is first time buyers, who appear to be virtually fetching the torches and pitchforks as I type. But what have we as a party to say to them? At the moment, the only thing we seem to be saying is that under a Liberal Democrat government we guarantee to raise house prices by another Â£15,000.
Paul Walter would not, I’m sure, have trouble with my description of him as the loyalest of the shortlisted Lib Dem bloggers, so it is to his credit that he asked what Ming believes he has done wrong in his 18 months as leader. His answer is that he failed to recognise the extent to which the party leader gets engaged with the administration of the party, something which he is now planning to take a step backward from. Sensibly, I feel, he is appointing the manifesto chief Steve Webb to chair the Federal Policy Committee in his stead. I would demur somewhat with his insistence that the party’s press operation is the best its ever been (it might be, but that didn’t stop us from disappearing over the summer from the headlines during which time we launched 5 policy papers).
Alex Wilcock asked why Ming thought it was that despite the fact that internally the party is broadly with the direction he’s taking it doesn’t seem to be coming across to the public, and what he plans to do about it. Ming’s response was to make the very fair point that if you look at Ashdown and Kennedy at the same point in their respective leaderships, both of them we performing as poorly as he is currently in the opinion polls. The problem for Ming is that, since it is now one-against-two, he doesn’t have the luxury that they had to simply give it time. He went on to say that he wanted to avoided the situation under Kennedy and Ashdown whereby the party came across as a one-man-band and so he is keen to share the spotlight with our young “bright and sassy” intake. Much as I agree with him that we have a talented group of MPs these days, I’m not sure this is wise – or even practical. Stephen Tall’s chart of “media tarts” shows that according to Nexis Lexis, Nick Clegg is our next highest profile frontbencher after Ming with around a quarter of the leader’s press. After Nick, our next highest profile “bright young thing” is Sarah Teather with around a tenth of his coverage. So if there is a deliberate strategy to get them to share the spotlight, it isn’t working. And what have we to show for it?
This also rather conflicts with his later claim that if there were more people of his age sitting around the cabinet table, we would have been less likely to go into war. Not if they were all called John Prescott they wouldn’t. I’m not convinced that supineness is linked to age, but if it is, surely he ought to be kicking these young whippersnappers out of his front bench (in one case of course, he has, while the ability of Lembit Opik to demonstrate his maturity earned him a promotion).
Sensing a kill, Alex used this talk about sharing the limelight to ask Ming why he chose to announce policy on an EU referendum a week before conference instead of waiting for conference itself to take a considered view. Jonathan Calder followed this up by asking what point there is on having a referendum on membership of the EU when it was so ineffective in 1975.
I feel the need here to defend Ming, to some extent, on both counts. I’ve always been on the view that the party’s internal democracy (which I strongly defend) should not mean that the party leader should make Trappist vows of silence on topical issues of importance. Politics simply does not work like that; you have to trust – to some extent – the “guys in the room”. Furthermore, while I also disagree with Ming that a referendum on the treaty would be wholly sui generis to a referendum on EU membership, I disagree with Jonathan’s views here also.
My follow up to this – if he had not at this point ran out of time – would have been to observe that Ming appears to get it broadly right in terms of handling the feral beast of the media on the second attempt. I’d have liked to ask him why it is he feels that we have had these blunders – specifically the wobble over Ming’s speech at Harrogate, the delay in informing Gordon Brown that the party would not allow Lib Dem MPs to enter government and this latest EU debacle – and what will he be doing in future to avoid these. Instead, that question will have to hang (unless Ming – who admitted in the interview that his office pays close attention to these blogs – cares to answer it in the space below).
Overall this was a positive event, albeit one that was over before it got started. Ming expressed an interest in doing it more often and I feel we should take him at his word. A few months ago I suggested a similar meeting with his most outspoken critics such as Laurence Boyce and Nich Starling and I would repeat that suggestion here. Overall, Ming came across well as listening, engaged with the issues and generous in spirit. The more people we can convince of this over the next few months the better.