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.

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.

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.

Mr Lammy and the right wing Labour Party show their true colours are Tory blue when it comes down to it

David Lammy just goes to show that there are many in the Labour party who are about as far right wing as many in the Tory party. Him linking the riots to smacking children are not only ridiculous but dangerous and give him another chance to bash social workers as they make the poor working class live ‘in fear of social services turning up on their doorstep‘. The BB2 documentary ‘Protecting Our Children‘ (on last night) demonstrates the issues when it comes to marks on children.

I’m not sure how simple he wants the law to be but it is about as simple as it gets at the moment – you are not allowed to smack your children and leave a mark. There is no evidence that smacking improves behaviour in children. No evidence that smacking instils a sense of discipline or moral decision making in children. No evidence that it is an effective parenting technique.

It comes down to a matter of values. He has made a link between being a champion for the working class and a champion for physical chastisement like they are interlinked. They are not. Most working class people do not smack their children and do not feel the need to. Most working class children did not riot in last summer. If you want to be champion for working class parents then we need to ensure that there are sufficient supports in the community.

Where they may not be able to afford the same access to services or resources that middle class parents are able to, a champion for the poor would advocate for effective services and resources in working class areas. Surestart was a good example of providing this. Adequate parenting courses for those who feel they need it, or are mandated to attend by statutory services. Adequate relationship support for those who need it. Adequate advice centres and health services. Most parents who attend a good parenting course sing the praises of them and see the folly in smacking once they have learnt new skills and techniques. This would be an advocate for the working class parent.

So when Mr Lammy goes on about this, and he speaks for many in his party and the Tory party, he is speaking from an ideological viewpoint and not an evidence based one. I believe that all children should feel worthy of love and belonging and that parents should be supported to achieve this where there is the need. Children who do feel and sense of love and belonging are more likely to act as My Lammy wishes than children who are smacked which only undermines the sense of worthiness of love and belonging. He has undermined and not championed the working class in his views.

Is the Coalition changing the Lib Dems? Polling data shows people more confused by the Lib Dems

Is something strange going on? Nick Clegg and many others have called Ken Clarke a Lib Dem. Now Ken Clarke is calling Nick Clegg a One Nation Tory. The Tory conference didn’t ridicule the Lib Dems and Labour conference wanted to rule out a Coalition with the Lib Dems. With so many people having an opinion of the Lib Dems having now gone into Coalition, there maybe signs that the party itself is changing?

For Labour, the Lib Dems have been a left leaning political party that should really be a wing of the Labour Party. For many in the country the Lib Dems were an independent centre-left party. Labour and many on the political left have been confused by the Coalition with the Tories. If we look historically at the leanings of Lib Dem support we see that in recent years there was a tendency for the Lib Dems to favour Labour:

But you can also see that in 1983, 1987 and 1992 the Lib Dems favoured the Tories so it has not always been the case that the Lib Dems have been a left leaning political party, more of a centrist party. So have things changed back to a pre 1997 state? PoliticalBetting report that

there’s been a big change in the views of Lib Dems supporters. Back in August the split was 45%-27% in favour of the Tories/Dave. In the overnight poll that’s moved to 53%-18%.

So a hardening of the support for the Tories over Labour by Lib Dems? This could be explained by the positioning of the other parties – The closer Labour or the Tories are to the centre ground the more support for them by the Lib Dems. So when Labour moved to the left we saw people move to the centre:

When Labour moved to the centre people went with them:

So with Labour moving to the left surely this means people should be more attracted to the Lib Dems? Apparently not as we are constantly reminded everyday by opinion polls. So maybe Labour’s taunts are true – that we have moved to the right leaving people to move to Labour? If this were the case then our support would be going to Labour. In fact what has happened is that Lib Dem support has deserted in all directions:

YouGov are showing that 35% of Lib Dem voters have moved to Labour and 17% to the Tories and 11% to other parties. If this was all about political posturing then the picture would be very different. If we had moved to the right then why would 11% move to the Tories, even while we are in Government with them? Surely it can’t just be about political posturing? And this is where we need to look elsewhere to see the bigger picture

At the General Election people did not know what the Labour party stood for and people were more sure about the Lib Dems. Now we see a reversal of this trend with people saying they know what the Labour party stands for more now and the Lib Dems less. It is interesting that the Labour party vote is higher than the vote for Ed Miliband, maybe a sign they have more trust in the party and what it stands for than him? Whereas for the Lib Dems people are saying they don’t know what the Lib Dems stand for, or Clegg for that matter. The Tories have remined fairly consistent in this area and so have their poll ratings – so it maybe an important indicator?

So as attitudes in the Lib Dems change towards the Labour party, potentially due to changing in political posturing, this is being seen as a change in what the party stands for, and this is damaging. If we want to regain voters, we need to show what we stand for and that this is consistent. We need to stop talking about left/right/centre and more about values. We need to focus on a small number of topics and get the message out. We need to show people that we are consistent and we need to accept that we have not been consistent over the years.

New opinion polls ask some interesting questions for Lib Dem strategy

Opinion polls throw up more questions than they answer but sometimes the questions are very interesting. It is interesting questions where progress is made as shown by the head of Google who says that he runs his company on questions not answers. So the recent MORI results have shown up some interesting questions too about the baseline support of the main Parties, which is lower than is usually reported, and who then go on to vote for the Party. It asks whether those people who are not inclined to vote for any particular party can be persuaded to vote for the Lib Dems?

The recent Opinion  Poll from Ipsos-MORI shows the Lib Dems on 15%, consistent with the ICM poll (which has them on 17% after weighting and 15% before) but not with any others. But when people were asked who they are inclined to vote for the results were very different:

The surprise is not the Lib Dems, as there has been talk of the baseline support for the Lib Dems being about 10% for a while. It is the low levels of support for Labour and the Tories which is surprising. Usually reported of being somewhere around 30% each it has been a reason cited for the difficulty in the Lib Dems breaking through, electorally. They went on to ask who they would vote for if there were a General Election tomorrow which again showed different results:

While the Lib Dems only pick up 1%, Labour nearly double their voting intentions and the Tories get more than double. With such small sample sizes it is difficult to tell if this has any meaning and I would like to see a larger sample used to see if this is significant or not. I just found it surprising that the scores were so different than previously believed. Does it mean that there has been a change in the mindset of the public around who they are most inclined to support? Does it mean that they are reverting to ‘type’ when it comes to voting? even if they are no longer inclined to vote for that Party? Does it mean they are more susceptible to persuasion to another Party? If so then what would it take to persuade them to the Lib Dems? particularly as the Lib Dems are seen as a centrist Party more similar to the profile of the country than the other Parties.

If Google run their company on questions, then maybe the Lib Dems need to stop giving people answers and start asking some questions? Maybe it would help?

What if the Lib Dem Party was wrong and Clegg and the Tories were right? Academy schools could be a solution to poor education

The Academy schools programme has been a contentious issue for the Lib Dems. While the idea was introduced by an ex-Lib Dem turned Labour politician and now trumpeted by Tories, it has generally be opposed by most in the Lib Dems. Conference voted against the Academies policy, yet the Coalition Government went ahead with it and Nick Clegg argued for it. But the recent results suggest that maybe those in support of the Academies policy have a very good point?

There are some in the Lib Dems who are extremely opposed to the Academy plans

The coalition government is engaged in nothing less than a war on children, on young people and on education itself.

They suggest that the dismantling of the comprehensive system marks the death of an egalitarian ideal and that the Party has gone against the Lib Dem vision for ‘a good local school in every community’, funded centrally and administered locally.  Yet there are some who are in favour. It has been a battle between those who are supportive of the policy and those who are opposed which culminated in Conference voting against the policy while Clegg argued for it.

The evidence for Academies has always been a bone of contention with caveats and reasons attached to opposing arguments. However, in 2010 there were some good results in Academy schools. Now, in 2011 there have again been some good improvements. In fact we can compare the results against how the schools performed from when they were last under the Local Education Authority:

These results are only for the Harris Academies but it does show that improvements can be made where little improvement had been made previously. In fact there have been reports that Academies don’t just raise standards for the pupils that attend them, but also for surrounding schools, even as they lose pupils to the new academies. So there is an ever increasing body of evidence that perhaps this is a policy which does improve the achievements of the pupils who attend the schools (and potentially, and for some reason, of children in surrounding schools).

There are many things I don’t like about the policy and I have generally been against it. However, when I look at the results it does show a compelling story that change can happen, and happen quickly. If the end result is for children to have better qualifications, which will enable them to have more opportunities later in life, then these are the kind of results I would look for. Yet, the full effect of an ever increasing number of Academy schools will be unknown until it happens and there are some genuine concerns. However, results such as these do provide some promise. There is evidence elsewhere too that in areas of significant deprivation that Academies can significantly improve the children’s life chances.

While the Liberal may argue that this is a policy which is the death of an egalitarian ideal, perhaps we need to think whether we were ever close to that ideal anyway? For many in poorly performing schools, where most are then disadvantaged for the rest of their lives because of it, it seems strange to champion a system that wasn’t working; for them at least. Perhaps we need to drop the ideal and start with practicalities and the evidence? The issue the Lib Dems will find is that distancing themselves from a policy they have introduced, which then goes on to show some good results, will not be credited to the Party come election time. Clegg can say he championed the idea, but there are too many in the country now who don’t see Clegg as a Lib Dem.

So the ‘Lib Dems’ need a credible alternative that convinces people that their policy will improve education. Going back to the old system will no longer seem credible, perhaps we should look at the Academies programme and take the bits that work i.e. drive standards of education up, and address the concerns with it. Then add other bits that work to improve education, particularly in disadvantaged areas, and there are such ideas here or here.

Example of positive changes the Government is making to Public Services (which will help families)

For anyone in the Party it is important to know what this Government is doing which can be considered to be good so we can at least explain it to people who will have missed it. Unfortunately much of what is done well will be missed. So this is an example that shows how this Government’s changes will help families; a very topical issue at present but has not had any air time from Government politicians.

Following the car crash that was the Ed Balls Government Department (see here for why it was such a car crash) this Government is looking closely at Child Protection amongst many other things and Prof Munro, who is very well respected, has some positive things to say about the recent changes which are worth highlighting:

the Government has already started to relax some of the rules and bureaucratic reporting requirements relating to the performance framework and ICT. In relation to performance, the Government has already revoked the designations of Local Area Agreement (LAA) targets meaning that local areas no longer have to report on their performance to central Government and are free to drop or amend them if they so wish. It has also been announced that the National Indicator Set of performance measures will be replaced with a single comprehensive list of data required by central Government, giving local areas far more freedom over the management of their own performance. This provides local authorities with the flexibility to move away from previously prescribed specifications in order to adapt their systems to suit local needs…

[the previous] government funding streams and funding restrictions have prevented local areas from redesigning services, have created unnecessary duplication and have prevented services from focusing on family needs. This has led the Coalition Government to introduce community budgets to enable local areas to overcome this complexity by allowing services to pool resources and share the savings. It is recognised that local areas may need to invest in service redesign before being able to realise savings in future years. This approach fits well with that taken by this review, of creating space for  innovation, working collaboratively across services to create a joined up approach dedicated to tackling family problems and investing in service redesign to meet the specific needs of children, young people and families. From April 2011 there are 16 community budget areas piloting this approach and the review team has been working with a number of them on flexibilities relating to assessment and timescales.

 For anyone who has worked in the public sector will know how infuriating it was to have to be treated like children under New Labour’s technocratic management system which has resulted in a complete failure, in that it has changed the purpose of the services. So these changes will result in better services without the need for massive reform.

After the riots – A liberal response

While the riots shook England and took the police and the politicians by surprise we now need to look at a response. We know what the Tories’ response is/will be and Labour under Miliband is characteristically going to undertake an ‘inquiry’. So what is the Liberal response? If Liberalism hides for fear of not sounding tough enough or does not have a response which people can understand then we will be doing ourselves and the country a disservice, not to mention looking irrelevant.

The political right has begun to defend its position by attacking Liberalism

Liberalism works well for people with the cultural resources and family support to enjoy freedom. But freedom in the inner city can mean purposelessness and unpunished transgression.

And Brian Paddick looking to gain votes in the coming London Mayoral election is sounding ‘tough’ by saying he would have responded with “robust” action and plastic bullets which is does not necessarily sound traditionally liberal. But then we get Simon Hughes suggesting that long-term solutions lie in supporting communities by offering opportunities and redistributing wealth, not slashing help from the state and cutting taxes for the rich.  Which is sounding more traditionally liberal but it doesn’t leave the Liberal response looking wholly integrated.

The Tory response is that the line between right/wrong and good/bad is a fixed line with people being on one side or the other. However, Philip Zimbardo, who has researched this line for decades (and has been an advisor to the Obama Administration), talks about the line between good/bad and right/wrong being one which is movable and permeable and where people can be seduced across this line; in either direction. The political right have a fixed view and will defend their view. However, their view is simplistic and not born out of experience but is designed to give an impression that they have no excuses to the behaviour. But understanding is not excusing and understanding is part of the Liberal response.

Zimbardo was the man who famously conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment and his research would suggest that what happened in the UK was that there has been a climate where the line of what is right and wrong has begun to be questioned by some in society (banking crisis, banking bonuses, phone hacking, politicians’ expenses, potentially inequality, poverty, a sense of unfairness etc.). Once the riots began a belief was formed that they would not get caught or there would be few, if any, recriminations, and so people became seduced over this line to act in a manner they do not ordinarily do. So we have seen some seemingly ridiculous comments from the looters such as ‘I am taking my taxes back’ – from a 16 year old girl stealing from a shop, or ‘I will probably only get told off by my mum’ – a young person talking about what he thought would happen, which make a lot more sense given the work of Zimbardo.

So a Liberal response will understand this line is movable and permeable and respond to it. So tough policing is part of the Liberal response as it is needed to ensure that people know that there are consequences. However, the feeling of unfairness due to the inequalities in society is also part of the Liberal response so that people feel they know this line is firmer than it feels at present; so Simon Hughes response is equally important and correct. Ed Miliband has begun to say some positive things about this too:

I am not saying that inequality caused the looting because that is far too simplistic, but I do say that giving people a sense that they have a stake in society, and that we are one society and not two parallel worlds, is really, really important.

In other words that people understand that the line between right and wrong, good and bad is there and they believe in it. I am guessing that an ‘inquiry’ is only going to show exactly what has been shown so many times when this issue has been looked at before by many people. What we need is a clearer picture of what we need to do.

Zimbardo has begun to work on what he calls ordinary heroes. He says that situations have the power to do 3 things:

  • It can inflame the hostile imagination in those who become perpetrators of evil
  • It can inspire the heroic imagination in others of us
  • It can render most people passive bystanders and guilty of the evil of inaction

He suggests that people follow the advice ‘don’t get involved and mind your own business’ but argues that humanity is everyone’s business. He has been working with ‘troubled’ young people on developing that they can do heroic things in any given situation i.e. do the right thing. That once an opportunity arises such as the rioting/looting, that they choose a different option to not do it and to try and stop others from doing it. We saw in Birmingham how there were many who stopped people from rioting and taking revenge on the deaths of the 3 men – what he would call a heroic act. We saw others who did heroic things. A Liberal response should develop this sense in the nation and should praise ordinary heroic acts.

For a start sending some people to prison for short term prison sentences is not going to make people feel that the line between right/wrong or good/bad is any different to before they went in. It is more likely to give them a sense of greater unfairness as Clegg argued in the TV debates in 2010. It would be much tougher for them to get a longer community sentence where they have to be part of the clean-up, the work to repair the damage, meeting and helping the victims, and helping to improve the communities they live in. The idea would be for them to feel more connected to their communities and that they helped build it. This is a direct clash with the Tory approach but we should not be shy of advocating it – Liberalism is more relevant today because of the riots and we need to make sure people know why.

While many politicians talk of ‘responsibility’ and then say this is down to parenting, a Liberal response should incorporate the idea that as a Government, we can encourage a nation, families, schools, young people and children to develop their sense of doing the right thing in a situation. Zimbardo has a program that he uses with the young people he works with and this could be used with those who are convicted of crimes associated with the rioting/looting. Such work can be rolled out to schools and community groups.

And most importantly what Zimbardo talks about is the use of power: That power used to harm people, or perceived to harm people, causes the extreme behaviour in ordinary people. The perception that power is not being used appropriately in some communities is also where the Liberal response should be – which is Simon Hughes point but he does not make this explicit. However, it also includes a better system to keep those exercising the power in check, which is what the Lib Dems are all about – a better system.

You can see Zimbardo give a talk at TEDtalks on his work below which is worth watch for those who do not know his work and his charity with work with young people is here.

Liberalism is very relevant to this debate and has some distinctive answers which the Tories and Labour will not dare speak. We should be brave enough to advocate for it.


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