Lib Dems a push over in Government? Civil liberties at risk, party reputation in tatters, time to take a stand?

For all the talk of politicians being out of touch Mark Field, a Tory MP, has summed up the public mood better than anyone I have read since the formation of the Coalition by saying: “my instinct is that the nation feels a sense of resignation that the coalition is the best option we have” and it is probably equally true that Lib Dem members felt a sense of resignation that the Coalition was the best option they had. The public may wish there was a credible alternative as do Lib Dem members. The thing that is so depressing for so many people is that the Lib Dems used to be that credible alternative. For some many people they no longer look like an alternative but an addition or even annex to the Labservatives. For all the talk of differentiation, what we need is something more meaningful.

My problem with differentiation is that if it can be timed then it doesn’t seem very authentic. If we can disagree at times when we need to (because of political reasons), rather than when we should do (because of political belief), then we are not being true to our core values and principles. This is an inauthentic position to take and we inadvertently become part of the Labservatives in our desire to show that Coalition can work.

Tony Benn tells a good story and he says that there are two positions to take: That of a weathervane and that of a signpost. A weathervane points in the direction of the wind at that moment in time while a signpost points in the same direction no matter what the weather is like. For someone who wants to know what direction they should take a signpost is infinitely more useful. The problem is that taking the weathervane position is seductive.

For example, take this week and the so called pastygate. We saw the leader of the Tories and Labour rushing to the nearest Greggs for a photo op and to tell the journalists how much they love eating pasties. While this was utterly ridiculous and equally unbelievable it says a lot about the state of politics and whether they are being signposts or weathervanes. Cameron has always been known for his PR-isation of the ‘modern’ Tory party as he sought to manage the message, control the narrative, transform the image. In other words, be something you are not, pointing in the direction of the prevailing political wind at the time in the hope you will pick up as many votes as you go along. Miliband seems to be pretty much the same except looks more awkward telling people how much he loves going to Greggs.

What people loved about the Lib Dems was that they were the go-to-guys for a sensible comment knowing it would be based on sound values and principles. Foreign affairs they came to Ming Cambell. The economy they came to Vince Cable. For an honest conversation they came to Charles Kennedy. The Coalition has neutered our USP. I don’t think that the Lib Dems are being weathervanes in Government as I don’t see them pandering to the public/media fad of the moment but what people may see is something worse. Are the Lib Dems being blown over in the wind? Something that blows over in the wind is more useless than a weathervane; at least a weathervane as a purpose. Are they too often making deadly compromises in the name of making the Coalition work or showing they are a grown up party capable of government?

There are plenty of opportunities for the Lib Dems to demonstrate to the public that we believe in something, not some of the time, but all of the time. Not because we need to show people we are not the Tory party but because we are a different party all of the time. We need to be prepared to let the Coalition not work. Our values and principles are more important that the principle that the Coalition works. I would rather be part of a party that gets 5% of the vote and be proud of what we stood for than a party that gets 5% of the vote because we blew over in the wind and let things we don’t believe pass.

Perhaps this is the next test?

MINISTERS are reportedly preparing a major expansion of the government’s powers to monitor the email exchanges and website visits of every person in the UK.

If such a move comes to pass we will truly have blown over. Time to show we are a signpost in the storm.

Worrying signs Lib Dem Ministers thinking is being corrupted – They should not forget their roots

It has taken a while for George Osborne’s autumn statement to be been felt throughout the party and the potential consequences. We have always campaigned on being an independent party and we have fought to show we are independent from the Tories only to blow this out of the water by effectively saying that we have the same fiscal policy as the Tories. The worrying this about this is not that there may be no alternative when it comes to managing the country’s finances, it is that we are starting to look and sound similar to the Tories. It is starting to look like they are getting dangerously close to one another and forgetting where they came from.

Stephen Tall summed up the questions following Osborne’s autumn statement and the subsequent Danny Alexander interview as this:

When Danny Alexander was asked on Newsnight on Tuesday if the Liberal Democrats would go into the next election promising nearly £30bn more austerity, he replied: “I’m afraid so.” So where does this leave the party? Have we now signed-up by default to fighting the next election on a platform of more cuts until 2017? If so, does this in effect commit the Coalition parties to fighting on a united programme?

There is something deeply concerning for the Lib Dems if we are to fight the next election on a united front in relation to the economy with the Tories. An independent party without an independent policy on the economy when it will be the most important issue? How has it come about that that has even been suggested? Many in the party have been calling this proposal foolish but we should look at this a little more closely as there is more to it than meets the eye.

The Lib Dems have spent years building up our independent voice and influencing other parties policies. Clegg’s meeting with the Governor of the Bank of England in May 2010 changed that and we ended up those at the top of the party supporting the Tory economic policy despite having campaigned against it. Why Clegg changed his mind is open to debate for many.

As time has gone on those at the top of the Lib Dem party have had to implement the policies they campaigned against but came to believe were necessary. The months and months of hard work, explaining, convincing, and campaigning all lead to one place – certainty. Key actors feel a strong personal sense of responsibility and emotional attachment to a project/policy and end up being crucial to its implementation. Alexander has been part of the Treasury for a while now and is therefore surrounded by people (civil servants and other politicians) who are concerned about the same issues, have the same information and have to come up with a plan to get out of the problems we have. They agreed on how to do it so the only debate comes with the detail but they are still all on the same page. It makes perfect sense for him to end up suggesting that the Tories and the Lib Dems should have the same economic policy. The problem is that as someone from a different party he needs to have some mechanism to protect himself from this merging of ideas and ideals.

This leads to a bigger problem. Some of the most disastrous political projects of the last 20 years have been due to the civil service. An unelected body of individuals divorced from the reality of the projects they are tasked to oversee and are often prone to influence from lobbyists – no matter how inappropriate the project. For a classic example of this see the millions and millions of pounds wasted on top of the child deaths as a result of a policy they were told was not going to work in the first place, only to go on a 20 year project to implement them anyway because they had been persuaded by the IT lobby it was a good idea. It wasn’t and we are now having to break this up.  But when in Government you are surrounded by these people who convince new Ministers certain things are a good idea. That is why they become out of touch with the public.

In a Coalition, the two parties are collaborating and ideas will converge eventually. We are living in dire economic times and politicians are getting their advice from those who are considered to be in the know. The problem is that no one is in the know. Mervyn King has got things wrong on so many occasions it is a surprise anyone is still listening to him, but they are and he managed to convince Clegg the Lib Dems should change our fully costed and carefully put together economic plan. What the civil service wants are people who are good at managing the brief well and not causing too much trouble in how things run. This is known as a technocrat and as Ministers listen to civil servants a result is that they end up acting and sounding like technocrats.

Technocrats are experts who are a highly skilled elite group. They may be able to manage things well in the eyes of civil servants and the markets, but they are divorced from the realities of people in the country. Some people may respect a technocrat and even feel the country is in safe hands. But no one will vote for a technocrat. They have no emotional tie to them. Acting and sounding like one is a very bad move.

Have a listen to Danny Alexander explaining the 2011 Budget ‘priorities’ and it just feels like a technocrat explaining why they have done what they have done. Values are almost an add on, and in many ways retrospective as it was something agreed they had to implement. It doesn’t leave you with a sense that he believes in fairness, or liberalism, or social justice. It leaves you with a sense that he is a Government Minister. You could almost imagine George Osborne saying the same thing – he even uses the word fairness when talking about the measures being taken.

Have a listen to other Lib Dem ministers and see what you think. Lib Dem ministers need to find a buffer for the problems faced with being in Government – namely staying true to who we are. They should not surround themselves with civil servants and other government ministers for longer than necessary. They should not make friends with them either, no matter how tempting this may be, it is dangerous when in a position of such power. They should continually ask how it fits with the values of the Lib Dems and where it doesn’t fit be prepared to say so. They should keep in mind that power corrupts and ask themselves if their thinking is being corrupted. Most importantly, they should be coming back to the party and asking them what we should be doing in the future in the knowledge that their thinking has been tainted by the position they have been in – not making commitments that are not theirs to make. No one knows what the economy will be like in 2015 and we certainly should not be fighting on the same platform as the Tories. If this coalition has taught us anything, it is surely that throwing ourselves in with the Tories has not been a move that will gain us votes. Perhaps the next thing this Coalition will teach us is that Lib Dem politicians are also prone to being influenced by the positions they hold. The difference between a Lib Dem Minister and others is that they should know how to mitigate this effect, not pander to it.

The Lib Dems need a change of strategy: A new way of understanding the fight in British politics

The Lib Dems have a problem: Communicating what the party stands for. This is vital now we are in Government yet this question enters people’s minds. Equally, the problem for the Lib Dems is where our votes are going to come from. We hear a lot about Labour and the Tories taking voters from the Lib Dems by either attacking us or love bombing us leaving us with fewer and fewer voters.We hear about Left/Right politics which pushes the Lib Dems out and people worry about a meltdown. But what if we can find a way which represents the fight between the 3 main Parties? This would tell us where our voters have gone and where they are going to come from. It would allow us to target our strategy much more effectively.

As I wrote on Monday the Lib Dems need more positive reasons to vote for them now they are in government. With the negative/protest votes gone we are back to what the Party stands for i.e. values. We vote for something if we think that it resonates with our values. People are not always sure why it resonates and it doesn’t matter, we just know if something is ‘right’ to us. There are some values which are distinct to certain Parties and others which Parties share. The Tories can lay claim to Faith, Flag & Family being from the traditional conservative ideology. However, in attempts to widen their appeal Labour have tried to get in on these values too. The Lib Dems have not.

Where there are shared values between Parties a debate starts out about how best to represent that value in policy. This often splits the vote between those who agree with the value. If there is only one Party representing that value, it doesn’t much matter what the policy is, people would vote for it on principle. People don’t vote for what you do, they vote for why you do it.

Within each Party you have different wings representing the composite and sometimes competing values that make up what the Party stands for. Different wings of different Parties are more closely aligned sometimes than within their own Party – see Right wing of Tory Party and Liberal wing, political reform wing of Labour and traditional wing etc. So we can represent how all this plays out quite simply using the Parties value base as a foundation:

The base value is not strictly centre in the Party for a reason. The Lib Dems has more socialist tendencies than the Tories, parts of the Tories are more Liberal than Labour etc. Now if we then start to map the values of the Parties onto this foundation we can start to see how the Parties represent the values of the British public more easily:

This shows that the centre ground of British politics is indeed crowded as choice and free markets are respresented by all Parties. Focusing on these aspects is unlikely yo bring more votes as these are pretty much mainstream beliefs and the public know all parties speak the same language when it comes to this. However, the further from the centre you go the more interesting it gets. We can see some clear values represented by the Lib Dems such as human rights and civil liberties. We can see some more common ground with Labour on political reform (but it is weak in Labour so is more in Lib Dem territory) and social democracy (which split between Labour and the Lib Dems) and we can see some common ground with the Tories on localism and countryside issues. It is at the margin, away from the centre where you attract more votes.

However, we can also put in there the different wings of the Parties which show who we can work with in Parliament and who may be potential partners in building the Party:

We can see the Co-operative Party being close to us (as I wrote here) as well as the Tory Reform Group, which Ken Clarke is the Chair and many Lib Dems see him in a positive light. This diagram shows us the fight between the Parties in a much more useful way. David Cameron is trying to move his Party onto Liberal territory by focusing on the environment, localism, community and market liberalism. Ed Miliband is trying to move into Liberal territory by focusing on political reform, fairness, social justice, and community/mutualism.

Using this model to understand the interaction of the parties we can see that for the Lib Dems to reach out to a wider voter base they need to work hard at attracting those on the soft Labour & Tory vote which resonates with our own values. We need to hear more about the countryside, more about deregulation and enterprise to attract those on the soft right. More about social justice, mutualism, and appropriate use of state power to attract those on the soft left. All this is already debate in the party but we are perceived as being squeezed into a small value base of Liberal, civil liberties, Europe, and political reform which only attracts so many.

The Lib Dem response should be to love bomb the Tory Reform Group on the right, those who like Ken Clarke, are pro-Europe, are pro markets, pro restorative justice, pro civil liberties. We should highlight that many Tories have come to the Lib Dems because we are the home of their values. And we should love bomb the Co-operative Party on the left. Those who think community is important, working together, being involved and having a voice. Ed Balls won’t join the Lib Dems but those who think mutualism is a good idea will start to wonder why they are voting Labour if the Lib Dems better represent their values.

We need clearer, simpler messages focusing on these values to start attracting back those who once voted for the party and those who really should.

New opinion polls showing some very worrying developments: The Lib Dems no where to be seen in the eyes of the less well off

The question for any political party should always be why should a person vote for us? The answer can be in the positive or the negative and the Lib Dems have often picked up a fair few negative reasons such as ‘they are not Labour or the Tories’. Now they are in government the reasons to vote Lib Dem have started to change and the Party needs more positive reasons. We need to start looking at these reasons and having more robust answers to the concerns of the people who may vote for the Party otherwise there will no reason to vote Lib Dem.

YouGov conducted a poll on the values people want to see in a political party which was commented on here by Mark Pack. but looking more closely at the data we can see some distinct difficulties for the Lib Dems in terms of values that will seriously hinder the positive reasons people would vote for the Lib Dems and therefore our electoral chances at any election now we have fewer negative reasons to vote for us.

If we take the values in order of importance to the general public and then look at which Parties are fighting it out to best represent those values we can see how the Lib Dems are seen in the minds of the public:

This gives some pleasing reading in that it shows we are fighting it out with the Tories for the most important value of being economically competent and with Labour on the second most important value of fairness. However, we are distinctly absent from large parts of traditional Tory territory such as family values and patriotism. While this may not be seen as a bad thing as we cannot be all things to all people, looking at the data relating to social class we see a more worrying picture:

We see that for people in the lower social classes see that Labour or the Tories better represent their values. While the Lib Dems may have a better spread of appeal across the classes what this shows is that while the Tories are seen to represent the more affluent, they are actually reflecting the values of the less well off more so than the Lib Dems, widening their appeal.

The Lib Dems need some answers for areas they have traditionally be too afraid to give for fear of turning people off. If people do not know what we stand for in relation to family values or patriotism then we will be seen as irrelevant. It is not that the Party does not have an answer to these areas, it is that we stay away from them.

The Lib Dems are in a different phase of development than Labour or the Tories as a political party. They have an established voter base, a wide appeal to a wide audience, and there is a good knowledge of what the Parties represent. The Lib Dems are a developing Party which has yet to give the public the range of responses it has developed. We need to keep up the education of the UK of what the Lib Dems are about. The Coalition is a good place to do this but we can’t act like Labour or the Tories as their position is different to ours, they are looking to consolidate their gains and maintain their power bases. We are looking to expand ours. We need to expand our reach to people of what the Party represents and attract individuals, groups and communities who share our beliefs. We are building our own coalition called the Lib Dems. Labour and the Tories did this a long time ago and it often meant taking from the Liberals. It is our time to reclaim our coalition.

Solution Focused Politics makes the news but fails to be recognised

One principle of social focused work is that we are already doing everything we need to be doing to solve the problems we have, we just need to do more of what is working and less of what is not. This principle should be a principle of politics too, but unfortunately it is not.

While it seems to have taken the Guardian a few years to cotton on to the fact that there are wider applications to what is being tried in adult social care, their recent article shows that solution focused politics is happening and is working in many areas.

Their analysis is that “we can’t afford [public services], it is frequently self-defeating and it doesn’t fit the way we live other aspects of our lives” and that “we could end up carrying on with more of the same (just with less money), rather than recognising that it was “more of the same” that got us here in the first place”. A call to do something different.

Their focus is on personal budgets which puts people more in control of the funding that supports the services they require. The results were originally promising but have later found to be better than expected (see the addendum of the SCIE report).  For information on personal budgets see here. However, the Guardian goes on to suggest this could be used to transform public services.

What this article is essentially pointing out though is that solution focused thinking, which resulted in this policy, works. They state “at the heart of this agenda is the notion of people not as passive recipients of pre-purchased services nor or of “consumers” taking their “custom” elsewhere – but of citizens, helping to co-design their own support and their own solutions”. This could be taken out of any solution focused handbook and shows the values of solution focused work (solution focused thinking has been around social care for a while – see previous post).

However, what the article fails to outline the approach and how this led to the policy in the first place. I assume this is because it is not known as solution focused thinking is not big in the political world. The issue is that these seemingly good ideas cannot just be rolled out to other areas as other areas are very different and the good idea then becomes a bad one.

But what can be rolled out is the thinking behind the policy: Treat people as worth doing business with, who have their own strengths, skills, abilities and resources, and that people have their own solutions. This meets people in their model of the world, transforms them from being a passive service user or choosy customer of services to being active service stakeholders, while it starts with the end in mind and focuses on what is working.

This site argues for the use of such thinking being used in other areas of the political process as well as using other solution focused techniques and methods with the stakeholders of the services to create the services they want in the way they want them – as they did in social care and personal budgets. Unfortunately the idea has not reached the mass media so the news becomes personal budgets and not the thinking which created it, which kind of misses the point and the potential for the fundamental change that the article wishes for.

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