The Lib Dems need a big idea and it should be a transformation of society

This is an article that was printed in the April edition of the Liberator magazine that I wrote such a long time ago I forgot all about it!

In the UK it is culturally rude to ask how much someone earns, but it may be a more important question than we have previously realised. So how much do you earn? Does it afford you the things that you want to afford such as pay the bills, feed the family, go on holiday, or live in an area you want to live in? How do you feel about how much you earn and what are the effects of this on you and your family? Perhaps these questions seem a little strange but they are questions which give us a window in to the society we currently live in and the problems that we face as a result.

‘The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone’ is a book that has caused a great deal of excitement and controversy in equal measure and the idea that societies with less income inequality have better outcomes for their citizens is an important one for all political parties. The responses have been typical with many in the Labour Party pushing for greater state involvement to reduce inequality while many in the Tory Party deny the idea; there was a quick response from the political right with ‘The Spirit Level Delusion: Fact-checking the Left’s New Theory of Everything’. But for the Lib Dems this is possibly an even bigger issue.

To Support the Spirit Level or Not?

The Social Liberal Forum was set up fairly quickly following The Spirit Level’s publication and endorses the ideas held within the book. They have had a growing influence within the party with senior Lib Dems attended the SLF’s first conference. Others in the party have felt that the influence of these ideas has come at the expense of other ideas and so more economically minded members have sought to form a new grouping. A united party agrees on the direction and vision of the party and internal groupings can bring valued ideas and policies to achieve this. However, internal groupings also have the potential for schisms and splits and so this is an important issue for the Lib Dems.

Due to the debates relating to the effects of income inequality the Joseph Rowntree Foundation commissioned an independent review by Karen Rowlingson of the University of Birmingham. She acknowledges that this is a highly complex area both theoretically and methodologically and there is still some disagreement among academics on many related issues, but the main conclusion is that there is some evidence that income inequality has negative effects and there is hardly any evidence that it has positive effects. The report states that the evidence suggests that there is a correlation between income inequality and health and social problems while there is very little evidence that income inequality promotes growth or that individual incomes at the top provide incentives to work.

The report has some interesting conclusions but one which is perhaps the most interesting is this: That “the most plausible explanation for income inequality’s apparent effect on health and social problems is ‘status anxiety’. This suggests that income inequality is harmful because it places people in a hierarchy that increases status competition and causes stress, which leads to poor health and other negative outcomes”.

Status Anxiety and the State of our Society

Status anxiety is an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser. The philosopher Alain De Botton claims that chronic anxiety about status is an inevitable side effect of any democratic egalitarian society. He suggests that the causes of status anxiety are lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery, and dependence. So if we go back to our original questions about how you feel about how much you earn, this will depend upon what you can afford and how this compares to other people. The closer you are to the bottom of the income scale, the more you are considered a failure or a loser within society: Think of how you (or others) view different people in society – people like teachers earn an average wage and are seen as hard workers, the Tesco shelf-stacker is a low earner and the job is seen more negatively, while people not in work and in receipt of jobseekers allowance are often derided. So what is the effect of this?

We have all had feelings of being judged, ridiculed, humiliated and shamed. The experiences that create these feelings vary from person to person but we all know what they feel like and the effects they have on us. The research by Brene Brown in the USA has found a common theme among all of us. We all have feelings of not being good enough, this may be that we don’t feel rich enough, safe enough, attractive enough, intelligent enough, perfect enough, extraordinary enough, whatever it is for us personally. The sad thing is that these experiences are all too common, just look in our schools, workplaces, families and friends. Just look at the most watched TV shows: X-factor, Big Brother, and other reality TV shows which shame people through humiliation, ridicule and judgement. A sad reflection of our society which breeds a need to be better than others, to be seen to be better and if we are not then we can put someone else down to make us look better. Nowhere is this seen more acutely than in Parliament. Ministers have been brought to tears following a debate in the commons. Politicians have given up or potential politicians have not wanted to go into politics for fear of being shamed by other politicians or the press.

These experiences leave us feeling disconnected from the world and we search for ways to deal with these feelings and perhaps it is telling that we are the most obese, in debt, medicated and intoxicated population our country has ever seen. And what is the pattern the further down the socio-economic grouping you go? The worse it gets.

The anxiety created by how you think others perceive you is really only the beginning of the problem. It lays the foundation for more difficult emotions. An example could be weight: Today society values people who are thin and so many people are trying to get thin. If someone who is overweight is called something derogatory, it can create devastating feelings of shame. The anxiety of being overweight, or more accurately how you are perceived by others, lays the foundation for feelings of shame when those anxieties are proved to be accurate. For someone who is at the bottom of society’s ladder i.e. not seen as a success in life, the number of potential shaming experiences is significantly greater than for someone who is seen as successful.

This phenomenon actually creates a barrier to social mobility as it does not give an incentive for people to move up the social ladder without certain emotional safeguards. There is a feeling of safety when with people who experience/have experienced similar things to you, as the anxiety of how you are perceived is reduced. But move up the social ladder and the anxiety is increased. Just think of a time you were in a social situation that you are not familiar with, there is a level of anxiety that is not there when in your usual social group. Ask someone from a disadvantaged area about going to University and see what they say about how they would feel being there. Moving up the social ladder creates more opportunities to be ridiculed, humiliated and shamed, which is what we all try to avoid in different ways.

So if status anxiety is a significant factor in creating health and social problems then surely the Lib Dem position to inequality should be to address the cause of the anxiety. If there was no status anxiety then perhaps there would be no health and social inequality in our society? Even if this were not true, would it not be a good thing for us to work towards a change in our society to one where fear is better managed, people have less shaming experiences, and people feel supported in doing what they want?

We Need to Move Away from ‘Self-Esteem’

A major factor in the creation of this fear and anxiety is the focus on self-esteem. Higher self-esteem is associated with less anxiety, and with greater happiness and life satisfaction and so we have given it prominence in our schooling of children and working with communities – particularly disadvantaged communities where the last government spent a lot on improving areas, which included working with communities to improve self esteem. However, the work of Kristin Neff, a US researcher, has shown that it is also associated with the need to feel superior to others in order to feel okay about oneself; a distorted self-view, self-centeredness, and a lack of concern for others; a maintenance of an unrealistically high view of ourselves in comparison to others. This has a particularly devastating effect when we face failure; and a dismissal of negative feedback, trivialisation of failures, and less accountability for their own harmful actions.

The whole concept of self-esteem is intrinsically linked to status anxiety and these negative aspects associated with it lay the foundations for greater social problems than they do creating community. Community politics should not be just about politics in the community, but about politics building community. Without such a focus on competition between people, a culture of envy of those with more, within a society of fear of being shamed, status anxiety would not be such a problem and would not cause the health and social inequality that we see today. There are many ways of doing this such as switching from a focus of self-esteem to one of self-compassion in education, which has the same benefits but none of the negative effects. It means supporting communities and networks, not just families. It means a change in the way Government is run, the way our institutions are run, they way they are regulated. It means educating differently, and it means a more caring, understanding society.

Seven out of 10 people believe the gap between those at the top and everyone else is too wide and bad for ordinary people (The Independent) and so tackling this would be a popular move. But it would not necessarily do anything for the underlying problems when it comes to health and social inequalities. While there has been a focus to improve public services and regenerate poorer areas, it has not resulted in an improvement in health and social inequalities. We should also focus on reforming that which potentially causes so much damage: status anxiety and shaming experiences. The focus on the personal and cultural as well as the structural will mean a different set of policies which will be very different to what is on offer from politics today. This would do more for social mobility than all the Coalition’s plans put together. Changing society may be a big idea, but it is one people join political parties for, not to tinker around the edges of the current system.

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.

Mr Clegg: Who are you making policy for, exactly?

I believe that party politics should work like this: people come together who share values and ideals. They formulate policy based on these values. These policies are implemented when in power. Compromises are always necessary and so these can be made providing they are based in the values of the members of the party. In practice this means that the leadership of the party will be persuading and arguing with whomever necessary to get these ideas into law. But what we have is the opposite: A leadership, who goes into government, speaks to whoever, comes out and then tries to convince and argue with the party that what is being implemented is the right thing or necessary. It is like the Government is devoid of the Lib Dem party that makes up a large part of the Government.

Take tuition fees. Clegg argued it was right and necessary despite it being the opposite of party policy. Take the Health and Social Care Bill. Clegg argued it was reasonable and necessary at the time despite it being against the party values. Take Cameron’s EU veto. Clegg came out to say why it was necessary the following day despite it being against the party values. Take the recent proposal to extend the intrusive powers of the state. Clegg came out the following day to say why this was reasonable and necessary, despite it being opposite of party policy and values. In all these instances, Clegg has the process the wrong way round. He is in Government facing the party trying to convince us that what the government is going to do it right. What he should be doing is standing in the party facing the Government convincing them that our policy is right. He has it the wrong way round. It is a telling sign that he has had to be kicked into line by the party on these issues.

In all these cases and in many more we have a bizarre situation where we, as a party, seemingly propose policy that is not popular in our own party or with the public. So I ask who are we making policy for, exactly? We should not forget that politics is about popularity, if not for the majority of the public, then at the very least for the minority of those who support your party.

I don’t believe that it is a problem of values within Clegg. I have heard him as an MEP, shadow minister, in the leadership debates, in the election and I have spoken to him and he says all the things I would expect of a man of liberal persuasion. I think the problem lies with how he views his role in Government.

It must be difficult being in his position with so many people coming to you telling you what you should do. Senior civil servants coming with their pet projects, deeply held views and ideas which have been formed over many years under many different ministers. These people know how to handle new ministers. It must be difficult having senior military personnel telling you what they need. Senior secret service or intelligence community members coming with ideas they feel they need to protect the public. I can see how this position could mean you start to form a view that is different from those you may have had when talking within the political party. I can see how it could come about that you feel the need to go back to your party to tell them we need to do something different. But it is when in Government that it is more important to stand firm in where you came from. To say no to the establishment. To tell them what they need to do. This is what it means to be in power or it is not power, it is a nominal role.

So how do you stand firm? First thing is your mindset. We have to see ourselves as outsiders in Government or we start to believe the opinion of the establishment. Secondly you have to feel you have a right to tell the engines of Government to do things differently, even in the face of their well argued cases to continue what they were doing before or in their attempts to gain more control. Thirdly, you need a strong team of advisors who also have this mindset. This team need to not get caught up in the trappings of power and they need to have a strong affinity to the values of the party. This team should be made up of a variety of people who represent all sections of the party and there need to be people who disagree with you.

I think the party would love to hear Clegg come back to the party and say he has been fighting with the ‘powers that be’ to get our policy implemented, rather than coming to conference telling us how hard it is doing things we don’t agree with. We need less of the excuses for bad policy and more argument for why it is bad and why we don’t agree with it. Something Richard Morris stated so eloquently in the recent row between the party and Clegg over extending snooping powers.

Now people don’t even want to stand for the Lib Dems in elections! What we need to do to reverse this worrying trend

How many signs do we need that things aren’t right? With reports for the second year in a row of a reduction in the number of candidates standing for the Lib Dems as local councillors we have another piece of information which is perhaps more worrying than the reduction in poll ratings. So perhaps we need to consider this very carefully and what we need to do to start to reverse this trend.

Back in 2011 the Guardian ran a piece which stated that the Lib Dems were fielding the fewest number of candidates for the local elections than they had since 1999, which was 4.6% fewer than compared with the 2007 data. Fast forward a year and now in 2012 the Independent is running a story that the party is fielding fewer candidates than in recent memory. However, I haven’t been able to find matching data to make a true comparison so it may or may not be factually correct. Despite this, the sentiment is probably correct as the article states there is anecdotal evidence that some candidates are standing as independents, and this is certainly happening in my area.

This is more worrying than the poll ratings for a number of reasons. This is not least because it says that those who understand the party the most, those who believe in the values of the party, those who realise that compromise is necessary more than most are the ones who are disillusioned and that this is having a practical impact on the ground. If we are to go back to basic principles of politics we can make an assessment of where we are now. To be successful in politics we need to do the following:

  • To gain power
  • To keep power
  • To increase the number of people who vote for you
  • To increase the number of positions of power
  • For people to perceive the use of power as positive for the country and its citizens
  • For history to perceive the use of power as positive for the country and its citizens

We have no ability to influence the last point, for more on this see here. So if we take the facts we are looking at a reduction in poll ratings:

Poor performances in by elections e.g. March 2011 Barnsley 4.18% and March 2012 Bradford 4.59% (I acknowledge we got 31.9% in Oldham and Saddleworth in Jan 2011 but we still didn’t win), reductions in members and now reductions in people standing as councillors. Assessed by the criteria for success in politics you could say we aren’t doing very well. I would also go as far as saying that the public (or at least those who have voted for us) do not perceive the Lib Dems as using their power in a positive way for the country and its citizens.

What this Coalition is not doing for the Lib Dems is demonstrating our values. What the Coalition is doing for the Tories is demonstrating their values. People are not going to vote Lib Dem for making compromises, small changes to Tory legislation, or being pragmatic in difficult circumstances.

People don’t vote for what you do, they vote for why you do it.

There is no ‘why’ for the Lib Dems right now, not in the eyes of the public anyway. It is even hard for us to explain some things to people. I was knocking on doors today and a student answered the door and said he wouldn’t vote Lib Dem again. I could have got into a discussion about the policy, but then the government policy isn’t the Lib Dem policy (which is the opposite) so we as a party don’t believe in the policy we implemented but stating party policy then seems ridiculous having just been responsible for implementing a policy. The Coalition at times is making us look ridiculous and if there is one thing that will lose you votes faster than anything else it is being made to look ridiculous.

Out of all this we can make at least one assumption, which is that what we are doing isn’t working and as Albert Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So the question we have to answer is this: What can we do which will demonstrate our values? What we have been trying hasn’t worked. Differentiation isn’t working.

Clegg could show some leadership in the cabinet reshuffle later this year by changing how we operate. We are currently spread very thinly over the government departments, hence our inability to demonstrate categorically our influence to the public. How about concentrating ourselves over fewer departments or even taking over 2 departments completely? We need to show who we are. I for one know that what we are not, are excuses for bad policies and bad politics, but this is how we are perceived. It needs to change if we want people to stand for us in local elections, join the party or vote for us.

Independent research backs competition in the NHS

Following the passing of the Health and Social Care Bill the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) have released their findings relating to competition in the NHS. As an independent research body there should be some weight to their opinions and it is generally positive in relation to competition within the NHS for the following reasons:

  • Hospitals located in areas where patients had more choice had greater improvements in clinical quality and greater reductions in lengths of stay post policy than hospitals located in less competitive areas. Additionally, the hospitals in competitive markets increased their quality without increasing total operating costs or shedding staff.
  • While around half the acute hospitals in England were involved in a merger between 1997 and 2003, recent studies have shown that these did not make improvements with one possible reason being that mergers reduce the potential for competition in a local market.
  • Another study of management in the NHS shows that better management is associated with better outcomes in NHS hospitals and that management tends to be better where hospitals compete with each other.

So while there has been a lot of debate about the future of the NHS and in the extreme the end of the NHS, perhaps we should bear this research in mind as the ESRC conclude:

there is no evidence from recent studies of the UK that allowing patients more choice and exposing poorly performing hospitals to the threat of their patients choosing another provider is going to lead to the whole-scale destruction of the NHS and large equity issues. On the contrary, the evidence we have suggests that it has the power to improve outcomes for patients.

A solution to the perception of the Lib Dems as a new nasty party: Time to get back to basics

It wasn’t long ago that Clegg claimed that we needed to own everything this government did. We couldn’t be in it and not own all the decisions because we wouldn’t get the credit for the things that worked but we would get blamed for the things which didn’t anyway. While this was a long time ago this hasn’t changed with Clegg asking Lib Dem ministers, MPs and Lords to vote for Coalition policies no matter how they fit with Lib Dem values. We are still owning everything and it is damaging the party.

You might say that we have differentiation now, which is true, but this seems to me to be Lib Dem politicians explaining how we are different to the public, but still owning all decisions the government makes. So we have tuition fees the Welfare Reform Bill, Health and Social Care Bill amongst others and we have owned the all while complaining about them in public. I understand why Clegg believed this was a necessary strategy but I wasn’t convinced. I even less convinced now and believe it is time to do something different.

Firstly, owning everything in government is clearly not working. In fact we could say that it is the opposite of working. We are owning decisions and Bills which no one in the party agrees with. This is a major reason why people are leaving or disillusioned with the party.

Secondly, there doesn’t seem to be any decision this government has made which will benefit the Lib Dems that we wouldn’t have owned anyway. What we are proud of in government are the policies which we have promoted for years. What we are ashamed of are the policies we have fought for years to only now support them on their way to the statue book.

Thirdly, what we had to offer when we came into government was our party, the values and the policies which stemmed from them and this should have been enough. Our views are not always mainstream but what we had was good enough. There is no benefit in owning anything extra and no one is giving us credit for doing so.

We might have seen Clegg calling the Health and Social Care Bill a Tory bill this conference so perhaps this is his admission that we do actually have to start differentiating what is what in government from now on. If we had called it a Tory Bill from the start perhaps our politicians would have been more sceptical earlier in the process? Perhaps we need to start calling other Bills Tory Bills. Everyone knows this is the case so let’s call a spade a spade.

We should own Lib Dem Bills rather than us having to argue that some ideas are ours. Watch how the Tories will ‘own’ the green agenda, the raising of the income tax threshold or the pensions rise. Watch how they will benefit from having us in Coalition with them. Differentiation needs to be wider than saying we are not Tories, it needs to show we are not Tories.

If Clegg wants to start changing public opinion about him and the party then he needs to start being more of a pain in the backside in government. Call a bad idea a bad idea and say we won’t support it. Call a Tory idea a Tory idea, even if it is a popular one. Our values are our values, even when they are not popular. Be proud of what is a real Lib Dem achievement and people might start listening again.

Labour’s new strategy to attract Lib Dem voters and what we should do about it

Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the United Kingd...

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Tony Blair seems to have made a bit of a return to British politics recently to give his opinion on how to steal the Lib Dem vote. He believes that the Lib Dem position is hopeless having run to the left of Labour in three successive elections, only to go into coalition with the Tories in 2010, they will be clobbered next time. He believes that Labour’s task is to ensure those Lib Dem voters who feel betrayed come Labour’s way and stay there.

Blair’s proposed method starts with a repeated insistence that this is nothing but a “Tory government”. Labour should constantly be reminding Lib Dems that they were once against tuition fees and for Europe – yet now sit in a government that has tripled the former and is hostile to the latter. Every day, runs the Blair advice, Labour should be asking Lib Dems: “What on earth are you doing in this government with these Tories?” The aim will be to put asunder the alliance of Liberals and Social Democrats that created the Lib Dems in the first place. (The Guardian)

Apparently Clegg has ordered Lib Dems to repeat the same line in all media appearances – “We’re doing the right thing” – so that we might win respect from voters. The question is whether this is enough to defend our votes and I suspect it is not. Being defensive usually results in people feeling they are not being listened to. Labour’s strategy is to exploit those who are disillusioned with the Lib Dems for being in Coalition with the Tories, and no matter how much you might think this is a ridiculous position to take, this is a reality we have to deal with. Blair is right in the fact that there are many things we can be attacked for so our question is what strategy can we take which will make people feel they are being listened to. Saying we are doing the right thing in the face of people saying we are not is not going to make people feel listened to.

There are a number of things we could do to make people feel listened to and the first is always the messenger. It does not matter what the message is if the messenger is not accepted. We have started to hear calls from inside and outside the party that Clegg is not the messenger and if this is the case then the party has 2 options – to accept this as the truth and that a) it can’t be changed and so get a new leader or b) ask what we can do to change it. As there aren’t many calls to get rid of Clegg right now I assume it is the latter. Which brings us onto the next point to get people to feel listened to which is to start accepting the criticism. Then make assurances of what we would do if Governing on our own (obvious I know but I don’t hear Lib Dem ministers saying this).

Repairing relationships is hard and it takes time to build up trust and trust is built up once people feel you will do what they think you will do. When asked why people don’t know what the Lib Dem message is Blair’s point is the same a Clegg’s – that subsequent leaders have said different things. The difference between Blair and Clegg’s points is that Blair sees it as a bad thing for the Lib Dems while Clegg sees it as a good thing to have moved the Lib Dems in the last few years. I suspect it won’t be a good thing anytime soon, people like to know where they stand and moving positions makes people feel uneasy (I realise that out movement may be more public perception than reality but that is what we are dealing with).

So we are under attack from the Tories and Labour and we need more than defensiveness. Perhaps we should get better at negative campaigning as the rule of thumb for this is that you should never use negative campaign tactics unless you have to because you simply cannot win by presenting positive information about yourself. These are legitimate negative campaigning techniques:

  • Highlighting someone talking one way and voting another
  • Highlighting someone not paying taxes
  • Highlighting someone accepting campaign contributions from special interests
  • Highlighting someone’s voting record as an elected official

Black and Ethnic Minority voting results: The good and bad news for the Lib Dems

Recently the results of the biggest comprehensive study into the voting habits of ethnic minorities ever undertaken in Britain were released. While statistics are difficult to make definite conclusions, it does make for some interesting reading for the Lib Dems for a number of reasons.

The 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Survey (EMBES) was directed by Professor Anthony Heath, Professor of Sociology at the University of Oxford. The headline results, which you may have read, were:

  • 16% of ethnic minorities voted for the Conservative party at the last election compared to 37% of the wider population.
  • 68% of ethnic minorities voted Labour compared to 31% of the wider population.
  • Those of a Black Caribbean heritage feel the British political system has not treated them fairly the most.

But dig a little deeper and we find some interesting results for the Lib Dems. Overall we performed poorly in attracting BME voters as we gained only 14% of their vote compared to 23% for the wider population and generally we are performing worse than the Tories in attracting BME voters. However, we out performed on the votes from people with Pakistani origin gaining 25% of their vote:

The fact that we are performing worse than the Tories may be explained by looking at the attitudes of BME voters.

On the tax cuts versus spending question we find that every ethnic minority group is less supportive of greater government spending than the white British group. In this respect they appear to be less ‘left-wing’ than the majority, which contrasts strangely with their greater support for Labour but may suggest that those who do not have an affiliation to Labour are more inclined to vote Tory than Lib Dem given our position going in to the General Election. In further items covering different aspects of the left/right dimension there was either no significant difference between the majority and the minority, or the majority was more left-wing than the minority.

If we look at answers to the question of what is the most important issue facing Britain today we see that there are some differences between the majority and minority:

They are far more concerned about unemployment than the majority suggesting where to focus our campaigning efforts to attract this vote. Other things which are important to attract this vote would be improving opportunities for minorities and tackling oppression and discrimination:

It is also of interest to look at those who voted for the Lib Dems in terms of religion. We did best with those with no religion, what they classified as ‘Other’ and Muslims:

So there are some positive aspects to this study for the Lib Dems in terms of the fact that we have had a good result from the Muslim / Pakistani voters  but there is a lot of work to do to start attracting a wider share of the vote from BME voters. Labour has a large proportion of their vote despite the fact that ideologically they probably do not fit well with them. There are opportunities here to start taking the votes from Labour if we can get our message to BME voters that we think unemployment is a big issue and we are doing something about it, that we think that cutting spending is necessary and right and that we are addressing the barriers to opportunities for minorities.

New research: Hospital mergers do not work

English: NHS logo

There has been a policy of making efficiency savings for a very long time now, particularly in the NHS. As part of this we have had hospital closures and services being moved and hospital mergers arguing that this will bring improvements for patients. Recent research has been published which shows that mergers do not do what they intended to do. Something we should take into consideration when we talk about our health policy and particularly when it comes to local campaigning.

Can governments do it better? Merger mania and hospital outcomes in the English NHS examined the merged hospitals up to four years after the date from which it was agreed and looked at a large range of measures of performance, including staff activity, financial performance, waiting times and data collected by the department to assess the performance of trusts.

The researchers’ findings (reported here in the Guardian) showed that hospitals that merged recorded larger deficits after merger than before, and the length of time patients had to wait for elective treatment also rose. In addition, there were few indications of improvements in clinical quality and no increase in the productivity of staff. While hospital admissions fell by about 10% four years after hospitals merged, staff numbers fell in proportion. So for each staff member employed, there was no increase in activity.

The Lib Dems have long campaigned on the need for good quality local services and this is as good a message as ever. Large scale reorganisation does not always do what you think it will and mergers have shown that it certainly does not improve services for patients. I don’t know how many times it takes to learn what we already know. When it comes to public services, it is how the service is delivered on the ground that matters most. Good managers, with good staff, provide a good service.

University Union applauds the Lib Dems

Following the news today that the government has abandoned plans to reform the university system that would have made it easier for private colleges to set up new universities, Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the UCU, the college lecturers’ union, has come out to praise the Government:

The government should be applauded for appearing to listen to the experts in the case. We will continue to expose the dangers of allowing those whose first priority is to their shareholders a greater hold on our higher education system.

While she was praising the Government, it was the Lib Dems who were opposed to this move and it looks like they have made a difference on this decision.


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