A solution to the Lib Dems problems: Start telling the truth

Vince Cable

Image by The CBI via Flickr

The Lib Dems have many problems and what we can do about them is a big debate.  But there are things we can learn from some of our oldest problems which may help. One of our oldest problems has been that we have had a senior member of the party who has been very well liked in the country but this has not been translated into votes. Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy, Ming Cambell, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have all been very well liked by the public but we have not been able to improve on our 1983 General Election result.

Vince Cable has been a consistently well liked politician and despite a difficult time last Christmas and his extremely gloomy speech to conference he still commands a +72% approval rating in the party. So what is it about Cable that attracts such positive feelings?

The Daily Mail reported Cable’s conference speech as ‘Business Secretary reveals ‘brutal truth’ about risk of double-dip recession’ which sums it up: he told the truth. And he has consistently told the truth about many different areas over the years. This is not dissimilar to the other well liked politicians in our party at their time. Clegg’s issue is that people have formed an impression that he has lied, something which killed off Tony Blair despite what many see as his exceptional political skill.

It might seem obvious that telling the truth is synonymous with good approval ratings, and as politics is about winning approval of the public, it is even more peculiar that politicians don’t always tell the truth. Now I know that most politicians will say that they do tell the truth and that they try their best and it is difficult given the circumstances etc. But we cannot deny that many politicians lie – and worst of all, lie to themselves so they can’t see it. Just look at Liam Fox. He is a lair and he lied to everyone in the country, yet he calls it a mistake. It was a mistake, but more commonly known as a big fat lie that would have gone on and on unless he has been found out. It is only a mistake because he was found out, not because it has now been helpfully pointed out to him (which he seems very annoyed about).

Some may not agree with this, so let’s just go over what a lie is so we are clear. Lying is about a deliberate intent to deceive either through commission (saying something knowlingly untrue) or omission (not saying something). Fox’s lie was an omission and the truth is that lies beget other lies and so he was then compelled to tell more lies through commission as he tried to cover it up. This is not dissimilar to our own David Laws. I know that both Fox and Laws may not have profited from their omissions, but they are lies nonetheless. And I won’t go into the issue with Tony Blair’s lies, which seem to be bigger and bigger as more information comes out. I am not surprised that politicians are the least trusted of all professions.

Which is where Nick Clegg recently said something worth listening to

The truth is the best antidote to people’s anger and suspicion, so we have got to get the truth out there

While he was talking about Hillsborough, it has much bigger implications. The Lib Dems have a trust issue at the moment for reasons we are all familiar with. If we want to build trust with the public again, we need to start telling the truth. And I don’t mean truth in the way politicians tell the truth, I mean real truth. Vince Cable is good at it and the press are often surprised when he does interviews but this is why he is seen as different to the rest of the party – he sets himself out as different by the content of his information which comes across as authentic. It only makes the headlines when a politician tells the ‘truth’ because the others don’t.

The reality is that most people lie and politicians are no exception. Once in office it may be even harder to tell the truth because they want to give a certain impression and things need to be ‘managed’. We have had some good members of our party who have been good at telling the truth and Cable has shown you can do it in Government too – no matter how hard this may be. According to Sam Harris,  who wrote lying, (read review here) the benefits of telling the truth far outweigh the cost of lies, to yourself, to others, and to society. He cites research which suggests that all forms of lying – including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others – are associated with poorer-quality relationships. If there is one thing the Lib Dems need right now – it is a better relationship with the public, particularly for Nick Clegg.

To tell the truth we need to know the truth. This means seeing the mistakes we have made, the problems we have caused, the difficulties we face as well as that which we have achieved. It means saying how we feel, our confusion, our doubts as well as disagreeing with what we don’t like in Government. So when Lib Dem ministers are asked for their opinion, they do the party no favours by pretending not to notice flaws in our work in Government, especially when those who do not vote Lib Dem are bound to notice these same flaws. So maybe Cable’s speech to Conference was gloomy and depressing, but it was honest, and we could do with more honesty in politics. And he is seen in a better light by the population and the party than all those who had to prepare facts which presented a certain view, which must say something.

And for anyone who wants to see why we end up lying to ourselves and don’t even realise we are doing it – read Mistakes were made (but not by me).

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5 Responses to A solution to the Lib Dems problems: Start telling the truth

  1. shodanalexm says:

    Absolutely spot on. The failure to accept flaws or errors that a patently clear and the willingness to swear black is white if it is felt to be politically expedient to do so are, I’m sure, a big part of the reason that politicians are held in such low regard. It leaves the audience thinking “either you’re an idiot because you can’t see it or you think we’re idiots and won’t see it” – and that can’t be a healthy place to try to hold a conversation.

    • Hi Alex, thanks for the comments and I really like the way you put it – that can’t be a healthy place to try to hold a conversation – I like that and very much agree with it. Honesty will win out at the end of the day no matter how hard this seems to be at the time.

  2. neilmonnery says:

    It is something you and I discussed at conference and something I fully believe in. At some point people can see through BS and just want it told straight. If things are bad then you know what – tell us and we can prepare. If things are good then shower us with tax breaks etc…

    It is the main reason I can’t stand Labour at the moment (and I’ve always leaned Lab over Con when push comes to shove away from the LDs) they are burying their heads in the sand and not facing up to the realities of the situation we are in.

    We need to treat the electorate as grown-ups and as such be straight with them.

    • Hi Neil, thanks for the comments and I absolutely agree. In fact one of my principles of solution focused politics is treat people like they are worth doing business with which is pretty much what you said. Why does it seem so hard for people to do this? I think it must be fear they will be ridiculed or voted out or something?

  3. Pingback: Top of the Blogs: The Lib Dem Golden Dozen #244

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