Meeting the Challenge 3: Political Challenges

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The handout says:

In addition there are specific political challenges that must be faced up to:

  • Trust: public participation in party politics is at an all-time low, even if interest in political issues remains high. The public largely feels that it is not listened to and that ‘politicians are all the same.’
  • New Political Climate: both the Tories and Labour are likely to have new leaders in time for the next General Election.
  • Greater scrutiny: the Liberal Democrats were scrutinised more than ever before in 2005 and this is set to increase for the following General Election.
  • Political narrative: the Liberal Democrats need to develop a better account of our analysis of the UK and its challenge as well as coherently explain how our policies relate to each other and add up overall.

What opportunities and threats will the Liberal Democrats face over the next 5-10 years?

The full paper can be found at the website here.

On trust…

Trust has been a buzzword in politics over the past couple of years but I think it is slightly misleading. Firstly, people have never trusted politicians, nor should they. I could wax here at length about how most politicians are trustworthy, honest sorts (I’d rather trust my wallet with the most lunatic Tory MP than a randomly selected person in the street), but the fact is they have control over people’s lives and that will by definition create suspicion and cynicism.

What is important isn’t trust, but accountability and representation. Accountability was a word that the David Cameron-penned Tory manifesto this year made a bit deal about, yet it was remarkably thin, both in general and in particular on this specific point. Bizarrely, the Lib Dem manifesto was absolutely chock full of accountability measures, and yet it was deemed that we should keep absolutely mum about the issue, except in the case of Iraq (when we didn’t go any further than question Blair’s judgement rather than suggest, as we should have done, that the system was at least partially to blame), during the campaign itself.

The Lib Dems have deliberately downplayed constitutional reform in recent years. In 2001 this was understandable as there had been a lot of it in the previous parliamentary term. But in 2005 it gave us the foundation for a real political narrative, in which we could have explained how politics has swung too far into the hands of professional politicos and away from the general public, and that we thought it was time to reverse this trend.

Whatever else changes over the next few years, I can’t see that disillusion with our political system will have gone way. We do however need to get away from the perception of self-interest and an obsession with specific systems. Rather, what we need is a package of measures that embrace direct democracy even to the point of allowing people the freedom to decide on measures that a Lib Dem government would not approve of. Citizens’ initiatives, citizens’ assemblies and juries, etc.

On the political climate…

I’m inclined to be optimistic about this to an extent. Gordon Brown has been elevated to impossible heights by a Labour party and commentariat that is simply sick of Blair – when he is PM reality will rapidly sink in. Cameron, too, is being hyped to the point of absurdity.

There are two real challenges we must face however. Firstly, we are closer to a no overall control situation in the Commons than we have been since the mid-90s, and the Terrorism Bill vote last week was just a taste of things to come. Unlike the mid-90s however, this isn’t a result of the pendulum being in the middle, poised to swing away from the government in power. Rather, we are in a real three-party situation. That means that no overall control is a real possibility in 2009, which it would only have been in 1997 if Labour’s swing had been minimal.

That means that the Lib Dems will have to spend the next four years weathering speculation about who they should do deals with, swings to the left/right, etc. In fact, this has already started, with people like Jackie Ashley and Andrew Grice in theguardian and Indy respectively confidently predicting that a secret deal is being hatched by the Lib Dem and Tory front benches. I don’t believe such speculation has any basis of truth, but I am aware that four years of it will be problematic.

Kennedy has actually taken the right line, that being that we wouldn’t prop up a government of either party. But that leaves us with another uncomfortable problem, that being the possibility that a weak minority government might go to the polls early. Whenever we have been in this situation in the past we have been wiped out, so any Lib Dem strategy being cooked up now needs to address the possibility of surviving a general election in both 2009 and 2011. It won’t be easy.

The other problem is the Lib Dem’s stated objective to replace the Tories as the official opposition, and then to go on to replace Labour as the government at some later date. Sorry folks. I don’t want to rain on our parade, but it ain’t gonna happen. If, this year, our decapitation strategy had worked, we had 10 more MPs in place now and at least 5 front bench scalps, we’d be in prime position now. But we aren’t, and even if we took every single seat we are in second place to Labour in the next General Election, we would still be behind the Tories.

What is a realistic position would be to be the second party in terms of popular vote. It sounds like a big ask, but we could overtake Labour in percentage terms with just a 7% swing. All it takes is the political momentum. But let’s be clear; it still won’t put us in second place in the Commons – indeed, achieving this goal would be a pretty fatal blow to our electoral system.

On scrutiny and narratives…

There isn’t much you can say about scrutiny in a response to a policy paper, other than: don’t fuck up. But I do think that greater scrutiny has been useful over recent years.

It has been our opponents, not the party within, that has highlighted how the party can at times be horribly inconsistent and that the desire to be all things to all people is ultimately fruitless. The question is however, will the party learn from this or will it simply assume that the solution is slicker media relations and an even greater adherence to policy-by-opinion-poll?

The solution is to have a ‘narrative’ but that means being prepared to junk anything that doesn’t fit into that irreducible core. Do we, for example, spend the next four years being shouty about smoking in pubs and complaining about irresponsibility whenever the government does somthing vaguely liberal, or do we respond to that in a constructive light? The key here is principle: if we support the principle behind a piece of legislation we should be far less vociferous in our opposition. Yet compare our opposition to the Terrorism Bill with our opposition to the Licensing Act: would the proverbial man from Mars really think that the former was a point of principle while the latter was a concern about practicalities? It’s easy to talk about having a narrative, but it will inevitably be coloured by our actions.

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