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.

In Praise of the Independent: Finding strengths in Nick Clegg

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

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

Why the budget shows good politics for the Lib Dems: breaking Westminster rules and sticking to the political golden rules worked

The Lib Dems tried to call the budget a ‘robin hood’ budget. If you said that to a member of the public today they would probably laugh in your face for the public perception is the exact opposite, whether this is true or not. But what has happened following the budget shows why the rules of Westminster do not work for the Lib Dems while sticking to the golden rule of politics does.

For all the complaints about New Labour and the spin machine, modern politics is still very much about spin. The Lib Dems attempt at calling the budget a ‘robin hood’ budget was the party trying to use the tried and tested methods of the larger political parties to gain air time in the press and gain credit within it. The fact that the public see this budget as a millionaires budget shows how our political spin machine just doesn’t work.

However, we should also ask why it is that the Lib Dems have not only stayed out of the firing line in the fall out from this budget but gained some praise. The Guardian reported the budget was a ‘victory for the Lib Dems’ and that they were ‘wiser than they were in the early days‘ while the Daily Mail reported that this ‘Conservative Prime Minister and his Conservative Chancellor produced a Lib Dem Budget’.

Some of the more contentious issues such as the so called granny tax, pasty tax and charity tax have resulted in the support of the Independent and not only the Guardian but also Polly Toynbee of all people. In other budgets it could well have been the Lib Dems who were in the firing line, so perhaps we should ask why this is not the case.

There have been many complaints that there were too many leaks and that this was the fault of the Lib Dems. It has annoyed Tory ministers and MPs. This is not how to run a government they complain. But these Westminster rules on how to run a government have not done us many favours and by doing something different this time, it did. The Lib Dems set out their stall early: further and faster on raising the income tax threshold, a tycoon tax, a mansion tax. This message was repeated and repeated and the necessary arguments within the party were had before budget day e.g. lowering the 50p tax rate. When budget day came everyone knew what was a Lib Dem measure and what wasn’t.

The so called charity tax pretty much stemmed from the Lib Dem proposal for a tycoon tax (a minimum amount of tax) and so as we had argued for this it was not a shock to potential Lib Dem voters. However, it was a shock to Tory supporters who didn’t see it coming. People knew the raise in tax threshold needed to be paid for and the hard choices were easier to understand for Lib Dem supporters than Tory ones. By leaking information, making our case known, and repeating this might not be seen as normal procedure for a government, but it delivered more of what the party wanted and there was less bad press towards the party as a result.

There is a golden rule in politics: no shocks and no surprises. By doing this, the party made sure there were no shocks and no surprises for Lib Dem voters. The Tories didn’t stick by this rule though and look how much trouble they are in. We have broken this rule too many times in this parliament and so we should understand it better than they do. If we want to survive this Coalition, we need to show people that we are true to what we say we are and make sure there are as few shocks and surprises as possible. It may not have been a good budget but it was good politics from the Lib Dems.

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.

In Praise of The Independent: Finding strengths in the Lib Dems

The Independent write Lords reform is a fight that Nick Clegg will never win which is not a very flattering portrayal of the Lib Dem’s move to reform the House of Lords but there is a small section of praise for the Lib Dems which is worth highlighting:

It’s a common complaint among Conservative MPs that the Liberal Democrats wield 50 per cent of the influence in government when they have only 16 per cent of its MPs. And it’s true that the Liberal Democrats have punched above their weight in the Coalition.

In Praise of the Independent: Finding strengths in Chris Huhne

The Independent have been giving Chris Huhne some praise since he resigned which can be seen here:

In The end of the road? Even Huhne’s rivals aren’t writing him off:

Mr Huhne was regarded as an effective minister. Politicians and officials admired his “nerves of steel”, ability to “compartmentalise” and carry on as normal when the threat of prosecution hung over him since last May.

In Huhne is the missing green giant:

Huhne was so keen on the leader’s strategy that he differentiated himself from George Osborne in cabinet meetings. This earned useful headlines for a party whose presence in the Tory-led government is often forgotten.

In Praise of The Independent: Finding strengths in Nick Clegg

The Independent write Clegg can reap rewards from his canny tax plans in which there is significant praise for Nick Clegg which is worth reading:

Another politician showing more boldness since the turn of the year is Nick Clegg. He ruffled Tory feathers this week by taking the unusual step of making public the Lib Dems’ demands for the March Budget. His call for the speeding up of plans to raise personal tax allowance to £10,000 a year is also a “win-win” move.

The long-planned address was well-timed, coming a day after the negative growth figures. Without breaking ranks with the Tories on deficit reduction, there was a hint of Keynesian economics to contrast with the fiscal conservatism of Cameron-Osborne.

More far-sighted Tories acknowledge the Deputy Prime Minister is playing a clever game on tax. If he wins speedier tax cuts, it would be a boost for the Lib Dem brand. If Mr Osborne rejects the idea, and the higher taxes on the rich needed to pay for it, then the Tories’ Achilles heel – that they are the party for the rich – will be more exposed.

Mr Clegg’s clever speech worked on yet another level. His proposed tax cuts for the “squeezed middle” invaded the territory occupied by Ed Miliband – and highlighted the gulf between opposition and Government.

Who are Lib Dem voters? How do they compare to Tory voters? What should we do to attract more votes? Some simple answers

Ever had to convince someone recently that the Lib Dems have not sold out, stand for nothing, and are making a positive difference to the country? As Clegg says, it’s not easy. A recent poll by the The Independent (YouGov) showed an overwhelming majority of those polled thought companies should value people over profits and it seems 2012 maybe the year this is played out by all parties and the Lib Dems should be in a good position to be in tune with the public mood.

The poll had some interesting results for the Lib Dems. Looking at a comparison of Tory and Lib Dem voters the difference in views was (unsurprisingly?) stark.

Conservative supporters are almost evenly split on whether the rich-poor gap is bad for ordinary people. 78% of Lib Dem voters believe it is bad and only 14% do not. Amongst the general public 70% people believe the gap between those at the top and everyone else is too wide and bad for ordinary people while 20% think we should not worry about the gap too much or reduce rewards for successful people.

Almost half of Tory voters say employee rights lead to fewer jobs and a weaker economy. 19% of Liberal Democrat supporters agree.

46% of Tory supporters think businesses would be more successful if they involved their workforce, 74% of Lib Dem voters do.

Despite the left/right debate within the Lib Dems, Liberal Democrat voters are significantly more progressive than the average person – and on some issues are more progressive than Labour voters.

Another recent poll showed that Tory activists oppose the Coalition’s plans, backed by Mr Cameron, to change the law to allow gay people to marry by 55% to 36.

While nationally 44% believe that past government intervention has usually ended in tears and that the state should keep out of the way. 31% thinks the economy would benefit if the Government intervened more.

Last year Nick Clegg said that one of the reasons people are confused about what the Lib Dems stand for is because previous leaders have said different things (left, progressive, centre). Polls such as these are an indication that we are who we are and despite the leaders project to place us where they think the most votes are, the truth is we are centre on some issues and we are not in others. We champion some popular issues and some not so popular ones. We should not be shy from supporting what we really stand for.

We need to be bold to show who we are. Decriminalisation of drugs or futher? Assisted dying or further? A wealth tax to replace the 50p rate or further? We are bold, we just hide behind ourselves. As our polls are so low, the economic situation has been set, and people are confused as to who we are, surely this is a good time to come out with the boldest policies we have ever advocated.

 

In Praise of the Independent: Finding strengths in Nick Clegg

The Independent writes Are the Lib Dems and Labour testing out their own Coalition? in which they outline some strengths in Clegg’s recent performance which is worth highlighting:

Clegg seeks more distinctiveness in the formation of those policies. He could have made the clear and well-argued speech he delivered to Demos earlier this week at any point in his career, as the purest liberal to lead his party since its formation. At times, Clegg’s form of liberalism coincides with Cameron’s modern version of Thatcherism, but his focus on redistribution, social mobility, Europe, and radical constitutional reform shows that, contrary to a widespread perception a year ago, Clegg is not a Conservative.

Bashing the Daily Mail will kill off the Lib Dems: We need a smarter strategy on difficult papers

It is very popular in the Lib Dems to bash the right wing media, particularly the Daily Mail. At conference we heard most ministers having a go at the Daily Mail and Nick Clegg particularly had some strong mocking words reserved for the paper. This seems a funny strategy considering the Daily Mail is the paper with the second largest Lib Dem readership, second only to the Sun. In fact the majority of Lib Dem voters read a right wing paper, so perhaps we should be looking at winning over more voters, not turning them away. So how do we do this?

Firstly for those who missed my post on Lib Dem readership here is a table showing the papers and how many Lib Dem readers they had in 2010:

In terms of strategy we can see it like this: There needs to be a seven fold increase in Guardian readers, or a 10 fold increase in Independent readers to make the same impact as 1% in Sun or Daily Mail readers. If we think our core vote is in the liberal papers and tailor our message to them, we will be in big trouble. A much better strategy would be to get a message which appeals to both. Perhaps this is impossible. But no one ever made any progress without some damn hard work which probably seemed impossible at the time.

Clearly there are many things the Lib Dems stand for that the Daily Mail are not going to like. It might also make us feel good to bash the Daily Mail. I certainly find the paper very difficult to read but there are not enough people out there willing to vote on the basis they hate a newspaper. They are more likely to pick it up and read it, even if they didn’t buy it or don’t like it.

However, there are messages that will appeal to the Daily Mail that are still grounded in Lib Dem values.  We need to resist the baiting by the paper and right wing pundits and see opportunities. If we listen carefully we even hear them telling us how to tailor our message:

If the LibDems want to strike a pro-enterprise rather than anti-rich tone, then they need to get to grips with the nightmare of burdensome anti-business rules. They could even position themselves as the champions of small business in contrast to the Conservatives, who are often characterised as supporters of big business interests… In their own interests, not to mention those of the nation, the Liberal Democrats need to applaud and encourage economic success, not be seen to be hellbent on deterring it.

Who in the Lib Dems would disagree with being a party to support small business, supporting those who employ local people, supporting local communities and the country? Who in the party would disagree with opposing big business interests which serve shareholders rather than local people and communities? Who in the party wouldn’t want the Daily Mail to praise the Lib Dems for taking a stand on these issues? I doubt the Guardian or the Independent would disagree with such a position either.

When this government and opposition will live or die by the economic positions they take in the coming years, can we afford to have any paper suggesting that we are not doing what is needed to get this country back on its feet economically? Particularly one with such a large Lib Dem readership?

I am sure there are also other messages which would play well to the Daily Mail, and maybe they are even giving us good advice, it’s just no one in the party is reading it? Unfortunately, people who vote for the party are. We may not like the Daily Mail for the prejudice and hypocrisy that is found within it. But in a world of political strategy, this just means we need to be even more creative in our message.

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