Mr Clegg: Who are you making policy for, exactly?

I believe that party politics should work like this: people come together who share values and ideals. They formulate policy based on these values. These policies are implemented when in power. Compromises are always necessary and so these can be made providing they are based in the values of the members of the party. In practice this means that the leadership of the party will be persuading and arguing with whomever necessary to get these ideas into law. But what we have is the opposite: A leadership, who goes into government, speaks to whoever, comes out and then tries to convince and argue with the party that what is being implemented is the right thing or necessary. It is like the Government is devoid of the Lib Dem party that makes up a large part of the Government.

Take tuition fees. Clegg argued it was right and necessary despite it being the opposite of party policy. Take the Health and Social Care Bill. Clegg argued it was reasonable and necessary at the time despite it being against the party values. Take Cameron’s EU veto. Clegg came out to say why it was necessary the following day despite it being against the party values. Take the recent proposal to extend the intrusive powers of the state. Clegg came out the following day to say why this was reasonable and necessary, despite it being opposite of party policy and values. In all these instances, Clegg has the process the wrong way round. He is in Government facing the party trying to convince us that what the government is going to do it right. What he should be doing is standing in the party facing the Government convincing them that our policy is right. He has it the wrong way round. It is a telling sign that he has had to be kicked into line by the party on these issues.

In all these cases and in many more we have a bizarre situation where we, as a party, seemingly propose policy that is not popular in our own party or with the public. So I ask who are we making policy for, exactly? We should not forget that politics is about popularity, if not for the majority of the public, then at the very least for the minority of those who support your party.

I don’t believe that it is a problem of values within Clegg. I have heard him as an MEP, shadow minister, in the leadership debates, in the election and I have spoken to him and he says all the things I would expect of a man of liberal persuasion. I think the problem lies with how he views his role in Government.

It must be difficult being in his position with so many people coming to you telling you what you should do. Senior civil servants coming with their pet projects, deeply held views and ideas which have been formed over many years under many different ministers. These people know how to handle new ministers. It must be difficult having senior military personnel telling you what they need. Senior secret service or intelligence community members coming with ideas they feel they need to protect the public. I can see how this position could mean you start to form a view that is different from those you may have had when talking within the political party. I can see how it could come about that you feel the need to go back to your party to tell them we need to do something different. But it is when in Government that it is more important to stand firm in where you came from. To say no to the establishment. To tell them what they need to do. This is what it means to be in power or it is not power, it is a nominal role.

So how do you stand firm? First thing is your mindset. We have to see ourselves as outsiders in Government or we start to believe the opinion of the establishment. Secondly you have to feel you have a right to tell the engines of Government to do things differently, even in the face of their well argued cases to continue what they were doing before or in their attempts to gain more control. Thirdly, you need a strong team of advisors who also have this mindset. This team need to not get caught up in the trappings of power and they need to have a strong affinity to the values of the party. This team should be made up of a variety of people who represent all sections of the party and there need to be people who disagree with you.

I think the party would love to hear Clegg come back to the party and say he has been fighting with the ‘powers that be’ to get our policy implemented, rather than coming to conference telling us how hard it is doing things we don’t agree with. We need less of the excuses for bad policy and more argument for why it is bad and why we don’t agree with it. Something Richard Morris stated so eloquently in the recent row between the party and Clegg over extending snooping powers.

Polls show mistrust in Lib Dem talent: Changes needed in Lib Dem mindset to gain electoral success

YouGov shows that the public do not believe that the Lib Dems are led by people of ‘real’ ability. This is a worry as the Lib Dems’ short and medium term future depends on the perceived success or failure of our role in the Coalition Government. So does our success in the Coalition Government depend on the perceived talent of the Lib Dems? Are there things which the Lib Dems could do which would improve the perception that they have talent?

This research from Harvard University may give us reason to worry

Chia-Jung Tsay and Mahzarin Banaji presented more than 100 professionally trained musicians with two profiles of two professional musicians, and a sample musical clip to listen to from each musician. The participants were then asked questions about how talented and successful they perceived the performer to be, and how willing they might be to hire this person. In fact, both clips were the same musical excerpt, and the profiles differed only in their mention of whether the musician had natural or learned talent. The results ultimately showed two effects: “We found even in experts and ostensibly professionally trained musicians, most of them could not tell that the recordings were the same. And on average, people seemed to prefer the ‘naturally’ talented individual, even when they said they believed hard work was more important than natural talent.”

While it may suggest that people may trust people more with perceived natural talent it does offer the Lib Dems a unique opportunity to show that they are indeed a different kind of political party. The research by Carol Dweck shows how this can be achieved. She distinguishes between two types of beliefs about human capabilities and traits. The first is what she calls a fixed mindset: those who see their capabilities as unchangeable and assume that how capable you are is largely determined by a natural talent which cannot be developed. The second belief is a growth mindset: those who view their capabilities as a potential which can be developed. Her research has shown the following differences:

A fixed mindset culture encourages internal competition, defensiveness and an emphasis on judging people. We don’t need to go far before we see this as the norm in political culture and the Lib Dems have fallen into the trap of this mindset too often. If we continue down this road then we will not learn the lessons we need to learn to improve our performance, the Government or the poll ratings.

A growth mindset culture encourages cooperation, openness and an emphasis on learning. By developing a growth mindset culture we will improve where we are now and we will be seen as different by the public. The Lib Dems campaigned on being different only to then begin to sound very much like the Tories or Labour because we fight and bicker in the same manner as they do. Nick Clegg often berates Labour and dismisses complaints. An open, plural politics is not based on berating other parties, it is based on learning from their mistakes, being open to why people want to vote for them and showing we care about their concerns. This can only be achieved with a growth mindset otherwise we preach to the converted – as we did in the AV referendum.

To develop a growth mindset we need to start seeing that criticism of the Lib Dems offers us lessons. We need to show that we are listening and taking action to improve. We need to show that we believe that we can learn and grow as a Political Party and that our ministers are able to do the same.

Feedback can be motivating or demotivating and the way we receive feedback influences how we think about our capabilities. Negative feedback can threaten people’s sense of competence and the relationship you have with them. Positive feedback supports people’s sense of competence, is motivating and supports relationships and performance. However, a fixed mindset will become defensive in the face of negative feedback which will not win over any voters and we will not learn from what they are saying. While a growth mindset will allow for us to listen to what the public are saying and learn and adapt showing our growing capability in Government.

The importance of this cannot be understated. The Labour Party were kicked out in part because the public believed they had run out of ideas i.e. closed with a fixed mindset. If we want to improve our perception in the public’s eye, if we want to improve our performance, and if we want to work better in Government (something we have not done for 60 years) then having a growth mindset will produce success and provide us with a strong political narrative come 2015:

We entered government for the good of the country. We made coalition work. We have done some things well and made many improvements. We have learnt from our mistakes and have shown we are capable of listening to the people and delivering strong and necessary reforms.

Increasing Voter Membership: building on what people think is an ideal political party

If you were going to form a political party, what would you want it to look like? Recent research by Opinion Leader has asked political activists (political party activists, issue-based activists and community activists) what their ideal party would look like producing some interesting results. If we are to attract more people to the Lib Dems maybe this information will help us formulate our arguments or give us ideas on making changes to the party.

Political party activists

When they think about the ‘ideal party’, party political activists primarily talk about having more direct influence. They want greater influence on their leaders and the policies that they adopt.

Openness is also key, in terms of being more open to change on policy and allowing people to progress through the party ranks. In particular, BME participants speak very strongly about an ideal party being one that is free of prejudice.

Issue-based activists

Issue-based activists feel that an ‘ideal party’ would place great importance on local issues and concerns. This could only be achieved though listening to people on an ongoing basis, and not just during election campaigns.

Issue-based activists place a lot of importance on the values an ‘ideal party’ would embody; in particular, honesty and trustworthiness are frequently cited.

Community activists

Community activists say an ‘ideal party’ would have members who displayed integrity at all times. Indeed, a lot of emphasis is placed generally by community activists on the character traits ‘ideal party’ members should have.

For community activists, an ‘ideal party’ would be “thoroughly democratic”, where the word “democratic” is perceived to be about openness. As such, it is strongly felt that an ideal party would be open to influence, different ideas and change where necessary. Indeed, an ideal party needs to continually listen and engage with the local community, and be interested in local matters.

Increasing Party Membership: Building on alternative motivations why people join

A pie chart showing the percentage of councill...

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We are told party membership is in decline and a healthy party is a healthy membership and so this decline means all parties are in trouble. Party members struggle to cite positive aspects of being a member of the party and so it will be even harder for non members to find reasons to join; but we all joined for a reason(s). If we know what these reasons are then we may be able to reiterate these reasons to people more often, individually, regionally or nationally, and many more people may start to think about joining.

One of the main reasons people say that they joined is to have the power to influence the direction of the party, and as result, the direction of politics as a whole. We believe that being part of a political party we are in possession of greater power and influence than those who are not party members. As the Lib Dems have a one member one vote party system, this should be promoted as a greater say for potential members in the direction of the party.

Party members do talk about the benefit of coming together with like-minded people. The benefits of this tend to be thought of in terms of campaigning, but also in terms of bonding with others through social events. Interestingly, this social life aspect has been very pronounced in Somerset, a key Lib Dem area. Promoting this as a benefit for those who join may encourage others to join.

In some areas having access to information on local developments and decisions are seen as a benefit to membership. For BME members, information on national policies are often considered to be positive features.  Furthermore, political party activists think that there are clear benefits of having access to key decision-makers (councillors and MPs), in terms of access to privileged information.

For some BME members having access to training and resources for personal development is an important and key benefit from their membership. For example, some BME activists see parties as offering an attractive ‘career ladder’.

Anyone with an active interest in politics is a potential party member and there are many who have not yet joined. We need to focus our communication with them on the benefits and reasons to join the Lib Dems and it may give enough of a motivation for them to join up.

Problem focused politics: Child protection as an example

The wisdom that ‘understanding the problem is the first step to solving it’ is very influential. Understanding a problem often leads to feeling more confident about doing something about it and so politicians like to understand problems to assist in their responsibilities. As a result, politics on the whole is a problem focused endeavour that has been dominated by politicians believing they understand people and their problems, the problems of society and their causes. By understanding such problems they argue they have the answers to society’s, and people’s, problems.

The Labour Government spent 13 years running the country and stated at the outset that ‘what counts is what works’ and over 13 years undertook thousands of reviews. These reviews sought to understand the problem and then give solutions. After 13 years of reviews of a government with a value of social justice we have a country where inequality is now higher than at any point since consistent records began, in 1979. Clearly, understanding the problem did not lead to an effective solution and if what counts is what works then understanding the problem doesn’t count. To take a particular situation to illustrate why these reviews may not aid an improvement of the situation, there is no greater example than that of government intervention in families for child protection purposes.

On 25 February 2000, Victoria Adjo Climbie was murdered by her guardians in Hackney, London. The horrific way in which she was murdered and the catastrophic failures of all organisations involved which should have prevented her death, led to the most expensive enquiry into a child death in British history (£3.8m). The result was wide ranging reforms of how children are safeguarded, including new initiatives, legislation, a countrywide database of all children in England and Wales and a new government office. So did this expensive analysis of the problems, and the resulting expensive new measures in safeguarding children make England and Wales a safer place for children?

On 3 August 2007, Peter Connelly was murdered by his carers in Hackney, London, in the same borough that Victoria Climbie had been murdered. Again many organisations were involved, all designed to safeguard children and again catastrophic failures were observed in all organisations which should have prevented his death.

The scale of the problem is bigger than most believe with on average, every week in England and Wales, one to two children are killed at the hands of another person (Home Office). Unicef believe them to be twice this. In the attempt to improve child protection services much was changed on the basis of how the problem was seen. However, the result on the front line was greater time spent on the computer and more time filling in paperwork.

Lord Laming himself states that since 1948 there have been around 70 public inquiries into major cases of child abuse (Victoria Climbie Inquiry Report p.5). So why did the government think there was anything left to learn from looking at our worst cases? Why did they think that another review would give us more insight into how to prevent child deaths? Indeed, many of these reviews conclude in a similar manner. And as if to reinforce the problem focused approach, Lord Laming was invited back to review Peter Connelly’s death, effectively for him to review his own previous recommendations, which had not worked. Obviously, he was going to say that they were not followed properly. So when Lord Laming’s recommendations did not manage to stop what it was intended to people began to question whether he was the right man for the job in the first place and out came all the concerns that didn’t seem to concern the government at the time. Lord Laming was the head of Hertfordshire in 1990 when it made serious mistakes in a child abuse case. The Local Government Ombudsman made a finding of “maladministration with injustice” of his authority, the strongest criticism open to him.

Setting up a review and then following the recommendations is all well-intentioned, however, this particular situation illustrates how a problem focused approach failed to make any improvements to the system it set out to. The influence of the accepted wisdom of a need to understand problems to fix them pervades our political process. We took someone who understood the problems in child protection and then asked him to make far reaching recommendations for the whole of England and Wales based on England’s worst case scenario. After reforms based on these, we see we are no further forward, in fact those who work in it say it has got worse. This could be said of many areas with massive investment in the NHS but productivity down, a bloated national curriculum which constraints teachers and restricts teaching, or more police officers who then spend more time in the office.

While a problem-focused approach is the mainstay of our political process, the results can be a life and death situation and so those in government have a need to get it right. However, the problem-focused approach is not even under question. Responsibility will be given to councils for not implementing procedures properly, individuals for not following policy appropriately or criticism of the authors of the reviews. However, if the inquiry into Victoria Climbie’s death were to be repeated by someone other than Lord Laming, they would be asked to answer the same questions, and national policy would still have been based on one case and our worst case at that. And so goes our political process and politicians wonder why there is no improvement.  It is because there needs to be a different approach and this is where applying a solution focused approach to politics has something to offer.


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