The golden rule of governing: How the Lib Dems have repeatedly broken it and what they need to do to start building support again
28 March 2011 2 Comments
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.