Tony Blair, ‘master of the dark arts’, has a point the Lib Dems could learn from

For all the pomp and circumstance that occurred around Tony Blair’s return to making the headlines, an awful lot of newspaper coverage has been given to not a lot. However, he did say some things which the Lib Dems could indeed learn from.

Ask yourself this question: If 0 is the Lib Dems have no friends in the mainstream media and the worst possible light is portrayed about the party and people within it every time something is printed about them (if they are lucky enough to get anything printed about them in the first place), and 10 is the Lib Dems have as many friends in the media as possible and the party and people within it are shown in a favourable light; what number would you currently scale the situation today?

Of course we would have differences such as the Daily Mail may get a 0 and the Independent may get a 6, but overall my guess would be somewhere near 3. At the general election it was perhaps somewhere closer to 6 or 7 at times but not so right now. I have tried to scan the papers since I started this blog for positive news stories about the Lib Dems and I have found it increasingly difficult to find stories in the last 6 months. Many will argue that we shouldn’t focus on the mainstream media as more people don’t read papers than do. I think that they are important opinion formers and perhaps more importantly opinion embedders and obviously so did/does Tony Blair.

Tony Blair said that it was revolutionary for Labour to be given a fair hearing by the Sun when he became leader of the Labour Party and he sought to make sure that Labour’s case was given a fair hearing by the media.

‘My minimum objective was to try stop them tearing us to pieces. My maximum objective was to try get their support’ – Tony Blair

If we forget his politics and his record for a second and think about what he set out to do, this is a very reasonable thing for a leader of any party to want. The fact that the party went on to win 3 general elections, and one of those was following the Iraq war, says a lot. What would the Lib Dems give right now to be given a fair hearing by the mainstream media? I don’t believe in compromising principles for favours but I do believe we deserve a fairer hearing than we are currently getting. I don’t expect the Daily Mail will ever give us a fair hearing but I do think the Guardian should; both seem to be a mouthpiece of hate for the party right now.

“Personally my advice to any political leader today would be: you have got to have a very, very strong media operation.’ –Tony Blair

Perhaps we need to think about our media operation? Perhaps we need to think about the opinion formers and embedders. Would Clegg be hated as much if his case were given a fair hearing in the media? If we were to rank the papers in terms of Lib Dem voters the Daily Mail and the Sun are top of the list, but we are not going to start our recovery by pandering to them. We need to regain our appeal and we need mouthpieces to express our case. The Independent is pretty much the only paper to give the Lib Dems a reasonable hearing of late but we need to expand our appeal from the smallest of papers. We need to find some friends in the papers, we need to get party members to write in the mainstream papers (like Vince did in the Sun), we need to have a fair hearing. To do this we could perhaps learn a thing or two from Mr Blair – we just need to stay true to who we are in the process.

The Lib Dems lack of motivation: Finding the desire and the reasons to help the party

A lack of motivation is a serious problem. Once it has gone you end up with people being less willing to do the necessary things that will result in a successful election. Some people do less in the local party. Some give up doing anything at all. Some leave the party and some even join a different party. There is plenty of evidence that the Lib Dems are lacking motivation. We had less people knocking on doors since the general election, less people standing as councillors, and more people leaving the party. A lack of motivation makes the original problem worse. For the party to regroup and rebuild it will surely have to start with gaining some motivation.

An observable result of social rejection is a significant reduction in motivation. While the studies to demonstrate the link have focused on individual behaviour we can also see this in politics on a larger scale. The Lib Dems have been rejected in elections since the general election and this has been hard for many local activists. Many who have been councillors are no longer even campaigning. The rejection at the ballot box and in the constant opinion polls has had a significant impact on our collective sense of self worth.

Of course this is also due to the decisions that have been made by the party in government. When decisions that are made go against certain values, beliefs, or prior agreements this is obviously going to make people start to question these decisions and their position in relation to these decisions. When we seem to be promoting things that the party would be fighting against if we were in opposition, then our motivation to assist the party is seriously depleted.

Motivation can be seen as 1) the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way and 2) the general desire or willingness of someone to do something. So the national decisions have given people a reason not to help the party out and the social rejection has given people less desire to help out. Without reason and desire we have people who don’t want to do anything for the party.

If the party want to start being more successful in elections then members and helpers need to gain motivation (desire) before the party gains social acceptance, which can be a very difficult thing to do. This will be easier if members are given positive reasons from the national scene. Yes we have a list of achievements and in isolation these are excellent but in the context of the national picture these don’t always look like reasons to get excited by. Some solid performances from our MPs with some progress on core Lib Dem issues will help. A big fight against something important will also help. But the most important thing is for members to start helping, perhaps before the desire to do so, as this is more likely to lead to more social acceptance and then motivation may follow. That first step is the hardest.

In Praise of the Independent: Finding strengths in Nick Clegg

The Independent write At last, a politician fluent in European in which they offer some praise for Nick Clegg which is worth reading:

But the Deputy Prime Minister had one of his finest hours when he went to Berlin to speak on Europe and then presented the same case – for the benefits of the European Union and why Britain had to play a full part in it… Nick Clegg has the knowledge, the experience and the vocabulary to speak not just with conviction and sympathy, but in a way that can be readily understood. This makes him almost unique: a senior British politician capable of making a compelling case for Europe. As Tory Eurosceptics sense the wind in their sails, he should do this more often. Nick Clegg may just have found his role.

In Praise of the Daily Telegraph: Finding strengths in Vince Cable

The Daily Telegraph write Leave Business Secretary Vince Cable alone – he’s the moral centre of this Coalition in which they give some praise for Vince Cable which is worth reading:

I believe that any serious and objective consideration of Mr Cable’s record in office shows that he has been a formidable Cabinet minister, an important ally of enterprise, and, above all, one of the most loyal and supportive members of this Government… Mr Cable deserves the bulk of the praise for the recent small surge of inward investment into Britain, though characteristically he has not tried to grab all the credit… Mr Cable is a new type of politician… Mr Cable has managed to stay loyal to the Coalition without surrendering his identity… Mr Cable is now in that very interesting place: he is the moral centre of gravity for the Coalition and of British public life. If Nick Clegg, as widely expected, steps down as Lib Dem leader before the general election, Mr Cable – should he decide to run – is highly likely to replace him. His best years may lie ahead.

The non-existent Lib Dem message: What people will remember and forget about the Lib Dems in government

Come 2015 the question will not be what have the Lib Dems achieved in government, it will be what will people have remembered they did in government and will this be enough to make people vote for the party? The party fight an unfair battle with no media mouthpiece on their side and one response has been to keep our heads down and wait until ‘people are listening to us again’. This is a dangerous strategy that will fail.

Remembering is not the negative of forgetting, remembering is a form of forgetting – Milan Kundera

When Kundera wrote these words he did not realise that they would go on to become psychological fact. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel laureate, has recently given a talk on the subject at TED in which he talks about the experiencing self and the remembering self. Many experiments have been conducted to conclude that there is a difference. What people experience at the time is not the same thing as what they remember but what they remember dictates how they feel about the experience. This is important for the Lib Dems for a number of reasons.

What people will remember of the Lib Dems in government will be more important that what they experienced during the time in government and that their remembering of what happened is influenced by many factors outside of their own experience. It is the reason why Labour continually misreport and print lies because they know that these tactics affect how people remember their experience. You hear Labour politicians talk about the pain people have experienced because of government policies but they were doing this even before a single cut had been made. This is a tactic to get people to believe something that is not true but when they come to remember they will be influenced by the rhetoric. Remembering is therefore not the opposite of forgetting, it is a form of forgetting; what people remember will not be an accurate and reasonable recall of events, it will be a haphazard, inaccurate recall based on limited information and large amount of feeling.

When it comes to influencing how someone will remember something Labour has an advantage to getting their message out, which is support through other institutions such as newspapers and unions who amplify the message. If you have read the Guardian since the general election you will know that it is a very depressing read because of how bleak the journalists seem to think this country is right now and how this is as a result of government policies. It is no wonder Clegg’s approval rating is so low.

The Lib Dems were slow to counter inaccurate information which meant that such inaccuracies can embed which then become part of the memory. Nick Clegg last year talked about no one listening to politicians at the moment but he believed they would again in the future and so the party could talk to people then. This will be too late. How people remember will have formed. This is the reason why the political narrative is so important because it influences how people remember. If we have a plot to link events over time, it is much easier to recall what happened than the reality, which is not so logical. Labour’s message is simple: this government made the wrong choices and so cannot be trusted with the narrative for the Lib Dems being that they sold their principles to go with the Tories, changed their opinion to gain ministerial seats, let people down and continue to let the Tories do nasty things. The Tory message is simple: they made the right decisions to fix Labour’s mess. Their narrative for the Lib Dems will be that they had to make us change our minds, they tried to work with us for the good of the country but the Lib Dems have held us back doing what is necessary. A different message to different target audiences, and we need to speak to both.

So when it comes to 2015, it won’t matter so much what we have done as it will what people can remember what we have done. When we champion our achievements people don’t hear it now because it does not chime with their remembering of what has happened, which makes us liars in their eyes. When we come to champion what we have done in government in 2015 our message needs to land on fertile soil. To do this we need a strong, clear message. We need to keep plugging this message at every moment we get. We need to find an angle that people will listen to. If we don’t we will end up where Kundera predicted:

We die without knowing what we have lived – Milan Kundera

Lib Dems on 10% in Poll of Polls: Inaccurate by 2% which more accurate sums show

Much is made of the polls and in many ways they are important as they are a barometer to how the public are feeling about the party at the time. We can dismiss them as irrelevant or inaccurate but the reality is that if they were higher we would be using them as evidence we were doing the right thing so the reverse must also be true; just look at how UKIP are using the polls, this is not dissimilar to how Clegg portrayed it when we beat Labour in the local elections a few years ago. One of the issues with polls is the discrepancy between polling companies which shows a 5% difference in Lib Dem support. Many people then look at the poll of polls to get an average and UKpollingreport keeps a running score on its site. This is currently 10% and he has recently come out to defend this despite the party securing higher in both local elections. But there has got to be a question around the methodology to create the average which shows a depressed Lib Dem score.

“on average Liberal Democrat support has been seven points higher in local elections than what they were polling at the time. Over the same period, polls have been largely accurate in predicting Liberal Democrat support at general elections, with the exception of 2010” UKPollingReport

This is more or less true for the general election results where we see that in 2001 the poll of polls was 1.3% lower than the result, in 2005 the poll of polls was 0.2% above the result and in 2010 it was 3.3% higher. However, in Scotland the polls in 2001 were 6.1% lower than the result and in 2005 5% lower. In local elections the poll of polls have indeed been lower but in the last 10 years the gap has been closer to 5% than 7% as UKPollingReport states (even if you look at his own chart):

So let’s assume that the poll of polls is more or less accurate for a general election result and 5% lower than for local elections, the poll of polls often reports the Lib Dems on 9-10%, even on UKPollingReport’s site (today it is 10% but it often moves to 9%) when according to the election result it should be reading 11-12%. Now this may be insignificant and may even be a change in pattern now we are in government but maybe the poll of polls is depressing the Lib Dem vote?

We have had more polls in the first 2 years of this government than we have ever had in a whole term. YouGov have been particularly prolific and often report a lower score for the Lib Dems than other polling companies. However, because they release a poll nearly every day when you come to make the average this actually decreases the Lib Dem average. However, it is not an average of the polls, it is an average of the results which includes the same result many times over. An average of the polls would be to take the same number of polls by different polling companies over the same period and make an average. If you do this, and I have (using the results from the UKPollingReport site), what you find is that the Lib Dem poll of polls is 11-12%. In fact there is another poll of polls run by Electoral Calculus which is more accurate than the UKPollingReport one, which shows exactly this result.

Not that this is anything to get excited about as it is still 10% lower than we are used to in recent years but maybe it’s a straw we can try and grasp at?

In Praise of The Sun: Finding strengths in Vince Cable

In ‘The Heroes and Villains of Westminster‘ in The Sun they consider Vince Cable this weeks hero and have some very positive words to say about him which are worth reading:

Take a bow, Vince Cable. For the blunt-speaking Business Secretary has secured a fantastic deal that has saved Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port factory in Cheshire from closure. The decision by General Motors means £125 million of new investment and 700 extra jobs on top of the 2,100-strong workforce. And it all happened after Mr Cable jumped on a plane to Detroit in March to urge GM bosses to back the UK over Germany. Looks like it was well worth him going the extra mile. As his colleagues snipe over firms that are “not working hard enough”, this Cabinet minister has quietly got on with his job and boosted business for Britain.

Rethinking long term Lib Dem political strategy: Towards returning the Lib Dems to the largest party in the UK

“The dark does not destroy the light, it defines it” (Brene Brown) in the same way that the political right does not destroy the political left (or vice versa), they define each other. The Tories and Labour are inextricably linked to each other through a symbiotic relationship. Some people vote Labour not because they like Labour but because the hate the Tories. The problem for the Lib Dems is that we were defined not by left and right but by not being Labour or Tory. Now we are in Coalition with the Tories we are no longer defined by not being Tory and hence we have lost a significant part of our definition. While we are in Coalition with the Tories the risk is that the lack of definition erodes the party identity to a critical point.

There is an assumption that the centre ground of British politics is where parties need to be to pick up the majority of votes and win elections. In terms of the left and right spectrum the current assumption would look like this:

But in actual fact the reality is that such a chart would look more like this:

When the results are generalised/averaged it looks like the majority of voters are in the centre because of the 2 peaks but the reality is that people are more divided than the generalisations appear. So Labour occupying the Left collect the majority on the extreme left, left and some in the centre while the Tories collect the majority on the extreme right, right and some in the centre. Historically, without the battle for centrist voters elections would be a dead heat. Tony Blair was very good at fighting for the centrist votes and paid little attention to his leftwing voters who ended up being very upset with him. David Cameron has emulated this approach and we see him in all kinds of trouble with his rightwing voters. Now we have the rise of other parties we see how the SNP has out flanked Labour to the left and UKIP out flanked the Tories to the right.

The Lib Dems were very upset that the General Election 2010 result was only 23% of the votes when the campaign had gone better than expected. If you assume most voters are centrist, such as in the first chart, then you will think there are more votes to be had in the centre but it may be that 23%ish is as high as the centrist voting block goes? Labour and the Tories can fight in the centre because they have the leftwing and rightwing parts of the party to anchor them. The Lib Dems have leftwing and rightwing factions and have the potential to not see eye to eye more than the factions in Labour and the Tories. This is because in the Lib Dems the factions span the left/right spectrum whereas the Labour and Tory factions span the left/extreme left or right/extreme right so still share a common framework of understanding.

Clegg has made it his mission to place the Lib Dems in the centre ground of British politics whereas Ming Campbell openly stated the party was a centre-left party while policy under Charles Kennedy placed the party as centre-left. Tony Blair has recently advised the Labour party on the fact that the Lib Dems have vacated the leftwing positions they took up in 2001 and 2005 to seek to collect these votes for Labour today. We can see the move Clegg has made in his comments that the Lib Dems are not a dumping ground for disaffected leftwing Labour voters, which makes some sense in the fact that we define ourselves as not being Labour (left) or Tory (right) but limits our electoral success in the fact that there are fewer people to target and the centre ground is a much harder place to fight in.

You could argue that the Alliance rode high in the polls in the early ’80s by sticking to the centre ground and indeed we were the highest polling party at one point. The context was that Labour had moved leftwards under Michael Foot and the Tories had moved rightwards under Margaret Thatcher leaving the centre ground unoccupied. However, many people who started saying they were going to vote for the Alliance were part of the left and right block of voters rather than the centre – the illusion was that they were all centrist voters. The result was Labour and the Tories moving towards the centre who regained their left and right voters.

John Bercow has recently said “It’s that people feel partly that the parties are still quite similar, and that perhaps there isn’t a huge choice, and partly they feel, well I said what I wanted and I voted accordingly but I haven’t got what I wanted or what I voted for two years ago” blaming low voter turnout on the fact that all 3 parties are fighting in the centre and so there is little definition of the parties. What many people wanted when they voted Lib Dem in 2010 was neither Labour nor Tory so the only way to have achieved that would have been to create a supply and demand agreement rather than go into a Coalition. Going in to the Coalition shocked many members and supporters because we were defined by not being Tory (or Labour) and the effect is still current.

Additionally, what has defined the Lib Dems in recent years in addition to not being Tory or Labour has been our Liberal stance which was well defined when Labour were displaying their authoritarian ideology. Now Labour are not in power, and we are governing with another party who wants to be perceived as liberal, there is less authoritarianism to define our Liberalism. So we have been hit with the double whammy of a lack of definition on the liberal front and the left/right spectrum leaving people to ask the question on the doorstep – what do you stand for? If we want to start winning back voters we need some definition. We need some darkness; some authoritarianism to demonstrate our liberalism.

We have never squared the circle of the Lib Dems being left/right economically. Our end game is the introduction of proportional representation and the creation of coalition governments as standard practice. This means we don’t necessarily need to define our left/right status and can work with either party in this new regime. As this is our end game (until we get it upon which things change) PR should be necessary in all Coalition negotiations/agreements. However, the chance of gaining PR has eluded the party for 100 years and while I hope we will get it in the next 100 years it might still be a long shot. A different strategy could be the one Labour performed on the Liberal party at the beginning of the 1900s and take over from Labour as a main party.

Vote share by party from 1820 – 2010:

Labour wrestled the voters away from the Liberal Party who were disillusioned with the party, who many felt had were not representing them. The Lib Dems today need to do the same – wrestle the disillusioned voters away from Labour and/or the Tories. The problem is that in the centre there is plenty of choice (or many would say no choice as all parties say the same thing) and even if you gain all the centrist voters this is not enough for the Lib Dems to win an election. We need to start wrestling the left and/or right voters away from their traditional bases.

To unseat the Liberal Party as a main party Labour placed themselves firmly to the left, created a firm voting base to work from, and moved from the left to the centre squeezing the Liberals into a small 3rd party. We have struggled in the centre ground ever since. In more recent days the Lib Dems made good progress placing themselves to the left of Labour and gained control of councils all over the UK, particularly at the expense of Labour in the North. We pushed Labour into 3rd place a couple of times in local elections because we were to their left not because we were in the centre. Now we are in the centre we are losing the councils back to Labour. These are not centrist voters; these are leftwing voters choosing a leftwing party.

Labour did serious damage to themselves in the 13 years of being in government with many traditional voters deserting the party. We seem to believe that if we prove to people we are a better alternative than what is already there then people will vote for us, but this is only half the equation, people have to be disillusioned with their current party to want to change. There was, and still is, appetite for a party that is not Labour on the left, but we no longer occupy this space and so we are no longer a viable alternative for these voters – they have turned either back to Labour or ‘Others’ such as Respect. While Labour fight on the centre they leave their left flank vulnerable, just as the Tories are vulnerable to UKIP on the right. It took Labour less than 50 years to overtake the Liberals and there are many in Labour who are openly saying that the Lib Dems would be cleaning up in elections right now if they weren’t in Coalition.

A mistake we have made, or certainly the leadership has made, is that we think we are playing the same game as Labour or the Tories. We are a much smaller party and people treat us differently. The rules for us are different. If we stand in the middle we can hope to get perhaps 25%. If they stand in the middle they can hope to get up to 40%. We could get 40% if they moved to the extremes but this is not going to happen. As a smaller party we need to be more responsive to the political climate.

Perhaps we need to think about our end game and the strategy we are running. FPTP will change but how long will it take to bring in PR? How long will it take to make Britain a more Liberal place given the current system? How important do we think it is to make Britain a more Liberal place? Perhaps we would have more chance of fulfilling our aims by targeting the left block of voters, wrestling them away from Labour and making Labour the 3rd party. We won’t do this by staying in the centre, there just aren’t the votes there and every time we enter coalition we lose significant elements of our definition, hampering our progress.

Making sense of the differences in results across the country in the local elections

Winning elections is hard work and those in the Lib Dems know better than most how hard it is and as a party we are often faced with confusion about why we lost when we should have won. The recent local election results have produced generally very poor results with some exceptions in some areas and while some people put this down to the fact that we have a sitting MP in that area, this is misleading so it is worth looking at this in more detail to learn the lessons for all local parties.

It is true that in some areas where we have sitting MPs we had some good results in the local elections such as in Cheltenham where we picked up an extra councillor where we have Martin Horwood as the Lib Dem MP, or in Eastleigh where we picked up an extra 2 councillors where we have Chris Huhne as the Lib Dem MP. However, we lost 18 councillors in Cardiff where we have Jenny Willott as an MP and we lost 3 councillors in Cambridge where we have Julian Huppert as the MP, so the results are not uniform. So how do we make sense of the results?

The national picture is the same across all areas but how this is interpreted by each individual or community is very different. We see the Lib Dem vote holding up better in areas we were fighting the Tories than in areas we were fighting Labour. A Labour area will interpret the national picture in a much bleaker way than perhaps a Tory area and so we see a more damning result against the Lib Dems in these areas as we are in Government. Whereas in Tory areas the Lib Dems were not punished at the polls in the same way, in fact some areas even rewarded us. So we can start to see that the national picture is filtered by the regional picture.

We also see that in some areas the vote held up better than in other areas in similar regional climates i.e. Lib Dem v Labour areas or Lib Dem v Tory areas. I don’t have any firm stats on this anecdotal evidence but some are saying that where there were more conversations with local people, through conversations on the doorstep or via telephone, the vote held up better than in areas that ran a predominantly paper campaign. The research from the Get Out the Vote would certainly back this up which suggests that paper produces a minimal, or even negligible, improvement in voting while face to face canvassing produces an 8% increase in votes. So we can start to see that the regional picture is also filtered by the local picture.

This results in a way of understanding election results like this:

So we can see that in Cardiff, while we may have a sitting MP and had run the council, the regional and the local influences on the voters had a significant impact on the result than in say Eastleigh. Feeding in the differences in the different levels allows us to see the different influences on the voter. Clearly there will be additional influences such as friends and family in the local dimension or colleagues and local media in the regional dimension, but understanding the results through this will give a more accurate reason as to why some areas will have done well while others have not. It seems that having an MP is a bonus, or at least can be, if the local MP can help influence the regional and local dimensions. Sometimes they can if they are popular, work hard, and have a good team who communicate with the local people. But sometimes they don’t such as Lembit Opik who lost a fairly solid Lib Dem seat in the last election.

It will be better to compare similar regional and local areas than it will be to the compare against the generalisations of the national picture.

In Praise of the Daily Mail: Finding strengths in the Lib Dems

The Daily Mail write A prisoner of the Lib Dems? I’m afraid I take that with a very generous pinch of salt, Mr Cameron in which they have some praise for the Lib Dems which is worth reading:

For their part, the Lib Dems undeniably inserted some proposals in the speech which a Tory-only government would not have included, of which the time-consuming and potentially divisive reform of the House of Lords is the most obvious. Proposals to extend ‘flexi-time’ and corral giant supermarket chains into dealing fairly with their suppliers also have an unmistakable Liberal Democrat feel to them.

We CAN argue about whether this or that measure is Conservative or Lib Dem, but the overall picture is surely clear. As has invariably been the case throughout the Coalition’s two-year existence, the Lib Dems, though representing only one sixth of the Government in terms of MPs, get their way over a very much larger proportion of Government measures.

No less importantly, they exercise their power by what policies they keep out as well as by what they get in. They have vetoed reform to human rights law, as Mr Cameron rightly says, as well as plans to repatriate powers from Europe, which the Conservatives had promised to do in their election manifesto.

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