The golden rule of governing: How the Lib Dems have repeatedly broken it and what they need to do to start building support again

Politics is littered with lessons and the Lib Dems are finding that what made them successful in opposition is not what will make them successful in government. They need to start learning some lessons fast. So what lessons can they learn from 3 Labour leaders in 3 different countries about the golden rule of governing?

Tony Blair won an unprecedented 3 consecutive election victories for the UK Labour Party in 1997, 2001 and 2005 and in the first half of his premiership enjoyed healthy opinion poll ratings. The Australian Labor Party, under Kevin Rudd, won one of the most sweeping victories in Australian election history in 2007 and during their first two years in office, Kevin Rudd and his government set records for popularity in opinion polls.

Many consider Tony Blair to be a master politician yet he was forced to stand down by his own party to be replaced by Gordon Brown. Kevin Rudd and his party were buoyed by their landslide win in 2007 yet within 3 years he found himself forced to step down as leader and was replaced by Julia Gillard. So what went wrong and could it have been avoided?

For Tony Blair many feel he never recovered from the decision to go to war with Iraq. No one supported Saddam Hussein, yet the decision to go to war without UN sanction shocked many, not only in the nation but around the world. As the war progressed, people became shocked and surprised at both the information that was used to take us into the war and what was happening in the war.

For Kevin Rudd many feel he made a mistake in how he handled the issue of tax reform where the Australian Government made an announcement to impose a 40 per cent tax on Australian miner’s profits. The tax announcement was described as “shocking” (Tom Albanese, CEO for Rio Tinto), a “shocking idea” (The Australian), and “a surprise attack on us” (Andrew Forrest, CEO of Fortescue Metals). It resulted in the mining industry spending millions in adverts against the tax which affected public opinion of the government and the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

Of course these were not the only reasons as to why they were forced out by their own party as they were indicative of their premierships. The United States diplomatic cables leaks reveal that the former US ambassador to Australia described Rudd as a ‘control freak’ and considered Rudd’s mistakes to have arisen from his propensity to make ‘snap announcements without consulting other countries or within the Australian government’. Tony Blair took bolder and bolder decisions as his tenure progressed resulting in allegations of cash for honours and the lowest opinion poll ratings for a Prime Minister since polls began.

The tale of these two men provide a good example of the golden rule while in government: The no shocks and no surprises rule. There are many examples of this rule being broken on many levels such as Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate or Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax. But the tale of a third leader of a Labour Party shows how to make this rule work.

Helen Clark won the leadership of the New Zealand Labour Party and kept it for a record 15 years and then led her party to three victories in general elections. She consulted widely, people knew what she was going to do and when and as a result is the most successful politician in New Zealand ever.

[and] that’s Clark’s modus operandi. Take a bit here. And do a bit there. Move cautiously. Flag what you are doing before you do it. No shocks. No surprises. And if something does go wrong, fix it. And quickly. All of which makes the Labour-Alliance coalition a difficult government to attack. (see here)

A surprise can be seen as an unexpected occurrence, appearance, or statement while a shock is a sudden disturbance of the mind, emotions, or sensibilities. Clark managed to avoid these for much of her premiership which resulted in few confrontations with any stakeholders involved in keeping her staying Prime Minister.

This golden rule goes some way to explaining why the Tory vote is holding up in opinion polls while the Lib Dem one has not. While the decisions that have been made have been unpopular, and in many ways have been Tory policies, they do not surprise Tory voters as these decisions were discussed before the election or are within their political philosophy. Where they may come unstuck are NHS reforms, which have shocked even some in the Tory party.

Now the Lib Dems have shed a dramatic amount of support which has worried many in the party. But it is not necessarily the shedding of support which worries party members and voters but the decisions that have been made in the Lib Dem name. This can be seen through the golden rule where the Lib Dems have already broken this on several occasions:

  • Entering coalition with the conservatives has surprised many on the left of the political spectrum
  • Nick Clegg changing his mind on the economy shocked many
  • The Lib Dems voting for a tripling of the tuition fees for university has been a shock to everyone

Entering the coalition is one which would not have been too damaging as people understood the political situation and many believed it would benefit the party. However, taken with the change in stance on the economy, created shocks which began to effect the poll ratings more dramatically. And then we have tuition fees. We have to acknowledge that these decisions have been devastating for the party and have made people question what the party is for and whether they want to vote for them again.

If the Lib Dems want to survive in government they need to stick to the golden rule: No Shocks and No Surprises. We need more consultation and more dialogue; more predictable Lib Dem decisions that fit in Lib Dem philosophy; more announcements of what is going to happen, announcements of when it is going to happen, and announcements that it has happened. The Guardian highlights this point and it is a lesson worth learning. Only by sticking to the golden rule will the party build back the support that it has shed by breaking the golden rule of governing.

Increasing Party Membership: building on the issues of why people join

There is much talk at present about Party membership as Labour have claimed many have joined from the Lib Dems while the Lib Dems claim their membership has increased. The fact that Ed Miliband’s campaign to attract Lib Dem members has attracted so few new members is interesting for a number of reasons but it does raise the question of what we can do to recruit more to the party.

Political party activists frequently cite the chiming of their values with a particular political party as a reason for becoming a member of that party. The Lib Dems need to be more specific about what these are to attract more. Fairness and civil liberties were something which people got at the last election. We need more about our values and less about specific policies (2005 & 2010 campaigns focused on a small number of specific policies).

For some, a specific issue led them to join a certain party. This motivation is more pronounced amongst younger participants and the tuition fees issue is one which will hurt the party as a result, but it a lesson to ensure we choose our specific issues with careful consideration. We have a number of other issues which are still distinctive e.g. nuclear, constitutional reform.

For political party activists, family background and heritage are also considered to play a prominent role in motivating people to become involved. Labour and the Conservatives have a huge advantage here due to their history and the part they have played in shaping the country over the last 100 years.

Importantly, political party activists primarily join political parties because of ‘national’ reasons, rather than a desire to change the local community. This is largely because of their desire for greater power and influence in society, and the perceived ability to shape and determine national policy and debate. It is here that the Lib Dems offer a greater attraction than Labour or the Conservatives yet little is heard from Lib Dem spokespeople about this, which may attract some potential members. The Lib Dems have an opportunity now they are in government to show members do have a voice over policy (tuition fees aside).

Other reasons people join political parties are in order to give a specific group a wider ‘voice’. While BME activists also talk of how party membership is partly about being a fully integrated member of UK society. Many see party membership as a form of active citizenship.

When discussing membership whether to people on the street, our friends or in the media it would be a good idea to use these issues as encouragement to people who may then go on to join the party.

The Big Society is growing into something else (but the Tories other plan will kill it)

Cameron’s Big Society took a good idea and it was then grown into something very strange. It is now supposed to thread through all of the government’s policies. However, what seems to have escaped his attention is that the 2 main themes of this government are incompatible and the other will undermine his Big Idea.

Cameron knows that there is a wealth of experience, knowledge and skills out there which are not being tapped into. He knows that there are many people who want to get involved in making their communities better. He knows that the current government system can get in the way of this. So he wanted a system that tapped into this. One that could listen more. One that gave people more of what they wanted if they were prepared to lead the way.

It is a big idea for a civil society – hence big society. The problem is that this has now grown into a distinction between the Big Society not Big Government i.e. Labour. Well a Big Society may need a Big Government if that is the people’s will and have so many ideas it needs a Big Government to realise those ideas. So this message confuses an essential concept of the Big Society. What he means is Big Society not Big Bureaucracy, which is different.

It has also grown into Cameron preaching to people about what they should be doing with their spare time and that they need to step up. The point of the Big Society is that there are incentives for people to do more in their communities and that the Big Society Government will change to enable them to do more of this. Telling people what to do is the opposite of the whole point of a bottom up approach. This is a continuation of the paternalistic tendencies of the Tories to tell people what is good for them. It also stigmatises those who may not be able to give more to their communities at a particular time for whatever reason. They either have power in their community or they don’t. A change in the relationship between state and citizen requires a change in thinking and if there was a change then it would not need someone telling people what to do.

And then there are the spending cuts. There was an attempt by the Treasury to ask people how to save money, but it is not about saving money, this is about cutting money. The Big Society is a bottom up approach to developing society. It is about letting people have more power and more say. The spending cuts will show people they don’t have power and don’t have a say where the axe falls. Many people will feel powerless and powerless people act powerless. How many powerless people will feel like using this new power to improve their communities? The two are incompatible and the spending cuts undermine the bottom up efforts and will dampen any enthusiasm to take up the offer of having more power. Which will probably result in Cameron preaching to people about what they should be doing.

In Praise of the Guardian: finding strengths in Ken Clarke

Finding strengths is important in the change process so lessons can be learnt from what is working well. Here the Guardian has a piece on the Tories but makes an interesting point about making the country more liberal:

Lib Dem members of the cabinet privately joke that the most liberal member of the coalition is not a member of their party. It is Ken Clarke. The justice secretary pleases them while enraging the authoritarian right of his own party with proposals to reform penal policy which, if implemented, will fashion the most liberal approach to justice in about two decades.

The interesting this with the praise being given to Ken Clarke is not what he says, as these ideas have been said by Lib Dems for years, but for the fact of his allegiances. As I have already written about in ‘Lessons from the Tipping Point’ the messenger is sometimes more important than the message.

The Big Society is a Liberal Idea the Lib Dems should capitalise on

What is the Big Society exactly? In an age of austerity and a government dominated by deficit reduction, is this just another way to go further on cuts state reduction? Certainly, the Liberal Democrats have not gone along with the idea of the Big Society with Julia Goldsworthy saying is was ‘patronising nonsense’. Some Labour members have seemed almost offended by the idea such as here or here and the Tories have not exactly embraced the Big Society.

So if social democrats and liberals don’t see this as a good idea and the Conservatives are not exactly fully on board, why does polling suggest that people do indeed want this idea despite its poorly communicated ideals?

Over the years people have started to become disillusioned with the current relationship between them and the state. We have seen how the state has got more and more in the way of doing simple things when it should have been an enabler. In education, business,   or more generally how the state has tried to provide for its citizens has been what the citizens have seen as the problem.

The Liberal Democrats see the answer to this as reinventing the state not necessarily reducing it as

The liberal endorses an individual’s autonomy unless there is a greater public interest in interfering with that autonomy. And any such interference – whether by legal instrument, the coercion of state power, the intrusion of the press, or the imposition of a value system – should only go as far as is required and should always be open to question and challenge.

- Jack of Kent

There is a feeling that the state interfered too much, hence the Your Freedom project.  But there has been, and remains, too little in how we can question and challenge what the state is doing. The liberal answer would be to build a system that allows for greater individual and community autonomy which also allows for open questioning and challenge. So it is interesting to hear David Cameron’s own words:

You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.

The Big Society is about a huge culture change… It’s about liberation –the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street.

I would argue that this fits into the Liberal tradition and is what the Liberal Democrats have advocated for. Cameron’s problem is that he is in the Conservative party. The risk to his idea is that they will reduce the state too much which will mean it will not be able to enable the people to fulfil their ideas or provide the environment for them to grow. While it seems generally agreed that a smaller state is needed, it is not that we need a smaller state per se, it is that we need a change in the spirit of government which changes the relationship between citizen and government; and it just happens that for this to work the state would need to be smaller.

There are a number of arguments to come in this change, one being to keep the old relationship between citizen and state only become more responsive to citizens’ needs or to change it. Then there is the argument of how to create this change of relationship. The problem is that this is not linear and so we are seeing a confusing picture of the need to have a new settlement and of how to create it at the same time.

Adil Abrar has excellently sketched out his thoughts on this suggesting that we are in the valley of nobody knows at the moment where

The solutions aren’t clear. We’re devising them on the fly. We’re in a valley, everything looks pretty shitty, and we’re going to make huge mistakes, but the answers will come

And it is here that the Liberal tradition has much to offer being a great reforming tradition which can fill this valley of nobody knows.  The Liberal Democrats state in their ‘The Power to be Different’ Policy Paper

At the core of liberal democracy is a belief that individuals should have the greatest possible control over their own lives… We want people and communities to wield real political power on their own behalf, and this means putting people in a position where they can make decisions about services that affect them. We believe that it is the duty of the Government to give people this power.

So it is the Liberal Democrats who should pick up the idea and communicate it effectively, champion those with good initiatives, and offer solutions to the unknown. As the Guardian states

It’s happening already, with dedicated local people – trusted and respected in the community – achieving unbelievably positive social outcomes… If David Cameron can implement policies that will enable more people from all backgrounds to be beneficiaries and deliverers of the big society, Cameronism will truly be an innovative radical approach, not just old-fashioned paternalism.

Nick Clegg has already stated that the Big Society fits with the Liberal Democrats’ idea of society but it would be a great shame for the Lib Dems if the Conservatives to take credit for a liberal idea. Or if indeed the Labour Party take up this idea and run with it as has been suggested by the Guardian. Despite the negativity, hostility and ridicule the Big Society has received it has a great opportunity to be a reform people genuinely believe in and one the Lib Dems have been believed in for a long time. The increase in the vote of the Liberal Democrats over the years fits well with the increase in the number of people who want a change in the relationship between government and its agencies with the citizens. People have been urging a change to a more collaborative relationship for a long time and some states have been looking at how to create this change such as in New Zealand or the USA. As it has been put by some academics

The new generation of public administration will need a different spirit… one that fosters mutual effort. This movement from a ‘they’ spirit’ to a ‘we’ spirit is perhaps the most important mission of public administration in our era.

The Big Society is the Conservatives way of responding to this. However, while the Tories run with the idea there is a risk that the whole idea will be seen as a mask for a way to create an ideologically smaller state, which misses the big idea of the Big Society. If this idea, in whatever form, is not taken up by those who can genuinely reform the relationship between state and citizen then it will be dropped and we miss a great Liberal opportunity.

Tory, Labour, Lib Dems: who really wants power in the hands of the people?

Politicians of all colours speak of giving more power back to the people and people taking more responsibility in society. Yet little power is given away by central government or local government to the people. There have been some equally positive and negative signs by the coalition government to date and it is unsure how things will pan out in the future. Not that long ago Tony Blair was advocating a similar change in the power relationship between the government and the people.

The quest for productive partnership by citizens, state administrators, politicians, and other social players such as the media and academia is the holy grail of the next big step in politics. So what did the manifestos say about partnership and collaboration?

The Conservative Party starts well with David Cameron saying “Collective strength will overpower our problems. So my invitation today is this: join us, to form a new kind of government for Britain”. But the only real mention of any partnership was on page 24:

“We will give councils and businesses the power to form their own business-led local enterprise partnerships” which says nothing about moving power back to the people.

The Labour Party  mentioned a few times about forming partnerships but nothing about one with citizens:

A renewed partnership between business and government p.1:5

we will work in partnership with the private sector p.1:7

We will consult on putting the Compact Commission – which sets guidelines for effective partnership working between government and the third sector in Britain p.7:5

The Lib Dems had very little but at least it was focused in the right direction; that is government agencies working with citizens to create the service.

“encouraging local authorities to provide youth services in partnership with young people and the voluntary sector”

This is exactly what is needed not only in youth services but in all services. So it is worth noting that the section in the Conservative Party manifesto on the Big Society was an interesting one. A seemingly half baked idea with many strands thrown in which don’t seem to make up a consistent narrative of the exercise. However, there were some encouraging signs:

  • Fund the training of an army of independent community organisers to help people establish and run neighbourhood groups
  • Launch an annual Big Society Day to celebrate the work of neighbourhood groups and encourage more people to take part in social action
  • Lead by example, transforming the civil service  into a ‘civic service’ by encouraging civil servants to volunteer and participate in social action projects
  • Empower communities to come together to address local issues; including enabling parents to open new schools, letting neighbours take over local amenities like parks and libraries that are under threat, giving the public greater control of the planning system, and enabling residents to hold the police to account in neighbourhood beat meetings;
  • Use the latest insights from behavioural economics to encourage people to donate more time and money to charity

Some good ideas which were highlighted by Vigoda and written about in my previous posts. However, none of this is possible due to the rest of the manifesto restricting power to the same power structures.

Until and unless the bureaucratic power structures are changed giving the power to the people means nothing. There is a growing activity in the third sector which is perhaps the most positive signal in the direction of partnership and collaboration with citizens. There is also a rapidly growing academic interest and practical ventures in the area, which will lead to promising potential of reciprocal linkage and collaboration between Government and citizens.

This idea is yet to be fully taken on by any party. But it is this idea which represents a real power shift to the people.

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