Have we all been complicit in collective naiveté? Lib Dems have underestimated Tory politicking and missed the real political narrative
5 January 2012 5 Comments
As 2012 starts, the Lib Dems start on the defensive! Nick Clegg gives a defensive speech as if to get in their first, but looking at what he has said lays some fundamental miscalculations by all in the Lib Dem party. We need to get wise and we need to do it fast. The political narrative on which we are working from is missing a vital story strand that gives the Tories a distinct advantage and we have been scarily ignorant to it.
I am not prone to catastrophe thinking but we can’t ignore that what Clegg calls the ‘challenges’ we face. 14% in the polls is only not bad because we have been lower and we all hope that come the General Election in 2015 this will be higher. I think it will only get higher if we make it higher so we need to be thinking about how to do that. So I will be writing a few posts at the start of this year in an attempt to look at this. I am starting with some fundamentals – the political narrative by which the Lib Dems are basing the work we are doing in Government.
Back in May 2010 the political narrative was forming and it went like this:
There has been a financial crash, people don’t trust Labour with the economy, people are not sure about the Conservatives and more people voted for the Lib Dems. The result of the election was inconclusive resulting in a Coalition between the Tories and Lib Dems. They had to form a Government quickly, which meant sacrifices on both sides, for the national interest. Come the next General Election people will see that all decisions have been in the national interest, even if this has been hard on the Lib Dems. People will see that the Lib Dems have acted in the national interest and the country is in a better state than when they came to power. The Lib Dems have shown they are a grown up, responsible party. The Government was better with the Lib Dems in, than without, and so more people will want to vote for the Lib Dems.
Using this narrative we have made some very tough decisions, some of which have been disastrous for the party, but the majority in the party have seen these decisions as necessary and have supported those at the top – because we have believed the narrative. Clegg repeats this narrative time and time again. However, while this may be the dominant story there are sub-plots to this narrative that we have not taken into consideration and we have ended up being surprised as a result. By not acknowledging the sub plots we are damaging our chances of attracting the new voters we set out to in the first place.
This dominant political narrative led Clegg and the Lib Dems to ‘own’ Government decisions, even when they weren’t ours and we didn’t like them. It led us not to criticise the Tories even when we should have. It led us to take responsibility of decisions that were impossible to square with our views e.g. tuition fees. And more recently it led Clegg not to criticise Cameron for using the ‘veto’ at the EU summit (thankfully only to be booted up the backside by others in the party leading to a change in stance). So what are we missing if the narrative tells us people should be rewarding us for our brave and courageous decisions in the national interest?
The answer is Tory politicking, which they are very good at and pay a lot of money for, but which the formation of the Coalition has allowed them to stealthily continue an acknowledged sub plot of their own narrative. For the Tories the Lib Dems have always been a threat, slowly chipping away at their more centrist voters – the voters who give them majorities in General Elections. Cameron sought to actively destroy the Lib Dems as a result, through love-bombing. Since the formation of the Coalition people have forgotten that it is a stated intention of the Tory party to destroy the Lib Dems, but we should not be fooled, their tactics have changed, the intention remains.
The best way for the Tories to continue their plan has been to undermine the Lib Dems. It started with the formation of the Coalition. It was the Lib Dems who threw away their fiscal policy and changed track completely (on all major issues there was no compromise from the Tories). It was the Lib Dems who secured an abstention on a tuition fees rise, only to be given the brief to implement the rise – how could they not have voted for something they proposed? It was the Lib Dems who were ruthlessly attacked by the Tories in the AV referendum. It was the Lib Dems who were not consulted on the use of the ‘veto’ in the EU summit and potentially lied to following it making Clegg look a right idiot by defending Cameron straight after it (then to change his stance).
So how will it be that we will attract new people to the party if we are constantly undermined? How can we defend ourselves against this undermining if we don’t even acknowledge that it exists? We need to start by adding this narrative to our dominant story:
The Lib Dems have been a growing threat to a Tory Government. The Tories set about undermining the Lib Dems while in opposition to reduce this threat. Now in Coalition the Tories continue to undermine the Lib Dems in an attempt to extinguish the threat. The result could be such a reduction in support for the Lib Dems that a Tory majority is likely.
Using this narrative we can see that things make more sense. Clegg admits that we were ‘stuffed’ over the tuition fees issue but fails to see how we were stuffed by the Tories on the issue. The Lib Dems did not see the full extent of the threat from the Tories running up to the AV referendum and were surprised by the attacks. We need to wake up to the fact that the Tories are a calculating political machine who only want to rule on their own. When they say they would like to rule with the Lib Dems, it is an attempt to make the Lib Dems insignificant (if they are sympathetic to Lib Dem causes then why would they need them in Government?).
So a plea to all party members, supporters and ministers: We are under a stealth attack from the Tories, be prepared. We should check every major decision against this narrative, we should think about how else it could be done and think about who benefits that a decision is made in this way. We should think about how else we are being undermined and seek ways to counter it. This means not only defensive politicking, but also attacking. Come 3 years time we will be staring at a General Election and we can’t wait until then to change people’s minds.