Changes to Clegg’s inner circle needed for success

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of th...

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There has been talk for a long time about the divide between the ruling elite in the Lib Dems and the grassroots. There have been mistakes taken by those at the top of the Lib Dems, in direct contrast to Party policy. There has been a growing unease by many in the Party which has sprung new factions in the Party to rebalance the dynamic (see here or here). Others have been faced with similar challenges, some have failed while others have succeeded, and there are lessons there for the Lib Dems.

According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Abraham Lincoln was one of the rare presidents who understood the importance of surrounding himself with people willing to disagree with him. Lincoln created a cabinet that included four of his political opponents, three of whom had run against him for the Republican nomination in 1860 and who felt humiliated, shaken, and angry to have lost to a relatively unknown backwoods lawyer. Although all shared Lincoln’s goal of preserving the Union and ending slavery, this ‘team of rivals’ (as Goodwin calls them) disagreed with one another furiously on how to do it. This way Lincoln avoided the illusion that he had group consensus on every decision. He was able to consider alternatives and eventually enlist the respect and support of his erstwhile competitors.

Since Clegg made his mistakes in the previous year by going against Party policy and wishes, he has sought to rectify them by standing up for what the Party believe in. He has perhaps not taken all the opportunities which are open to him either as a result. However, he could learn a lot from Lincoln to improve his situation and that of the Lib Dems.

There are many in the Party who do not agree with him yet he surrounds himself with those who do: Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, David Laws. While there is some disagreement between them they are very much on the same page. There are others in the Party who he could use to enhance his decision making, policy production, and strategy which would benefit him and the Party. There are 2 previous leaders who have been on the sidelines who would offer the leadership a great deal: Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell. Bringing others in who may not necessarily agree with him may offer him some valuable advice.

Doubt is not the enemy of justice; overconfidence is – Elliott Aronson

And Clegg often comes across as extremely confident in his statements, which is no bad thing, until it is the wrong decision and then we get a situation like the one we had with the tuition fees debacle. For there to be justice to the Party and those who voted for them, there needs to be multiple voices who represent these in the inner circle. Maybe this would be a good lesson for the Lib Dem leadership?

Lessons from successful politicians: The hidden secrets of Lloyd George

David Lloyd George practised as a solicitor in...

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There have been many pages written about David Lloyd George and a search on the internet will bring up pages of very similar information. Many will know him for his success and personality, or even his position in the Liberal Party and his part in its decline. However, he is considered to be one of the most successful politicians the UK has ever had. But what isn’t so obvious is how he achieved this success and this is something we can all learn from.

Lloyd George was chosen by a majority of the governing coalition to replace Asquith as prime minister and is attributed to the UK’s part in winning the First World War. He is also very much associated with reforms that benefited the majority of society such as the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 and the National Health Insurance Act of 1911, which did much to aid the poorest in society.

Many look at why Lloyd George produced his success and conclude that this was due to his flouting of established conventions and his irresistible combination of charm, energy and ruthless determination. However, this attributes much of his success to his personal characteristics, which undermines a larger and more important part of how he achieved success.

Lloyd George also had a huge capacity to forge partnerships and energise the process of government. Until the collapse of his coalition, he got big things done. With Asquith, he launched the welfare state and emasculated the peerage. With Bonar Law, Arthur Balfour and Douglas Haig, he won the war. With President Wilson, he negotiated a peace settlement. Lloyd George became a government man adept at compromise, constantly looking for coalitions and combinations to co-opt the very Conservatives and monopolists he condemned in public.

Lloyd George played the politics game but to be successful in politics you have to build support outside of your natural base. As Clement Attlee showed forming coalitions, formal or informal are crucial, and being able to collaborate with others is a key leadership attribute and one anyone can learn and something Lloyd George demonstrated well but often gets forgotten in the annals of history.

How the Lib Dems can produce a killer political slogan

Political slogans that people can remember are priceless in a campaign. Some researchers in the US believe that candidates with the best, most memorable ad slogans usually win.  So how can the Lib Dems improve their slogans?

Orwell once said “From time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase into the dustbin, where it belongs.” And history is littered with appallingly bad slogans such as

  • I’m not a witch, I’m you!
  • Immigration Is a Problem.  Just Ask an Indian.
  • Don’t Stop, Keep Going On!
  • Are You Thinking What We Are Thinking?

The Lib Dems 2010 General Election slogan of “Change that works for you. Building a fairer Britain” may have seemed like an appeal to both Labour and Conservative camps but it ended up being unusually long with an uncomfortable pause and many thought it was unlikely to win the party any new friends.

What makes a good slogan is language and context. Get both of these right and you get a killer slogan. Some that have captured the context right have been “Don’t Swap Horses in Midstream” (Abraham Lincoln, 1864) and “I propose a New Deal” (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932). However, the chief marketing officer of Epsilon says that one of the problems in modern politics is that campaign political strategists often write the line rather than creative people with a flair for writing. Those who have used creative talents have benefitted such as “Britain Deserves Better” (Labour, 1997) or “Labour Isn’t Working” (Conservative, 1979).

The problem for most people trying to come up with slogan is that creativity is hard, the context continually changes and the slogans end up using political language resulting in it sounding unbelievable. So the best slogans often end up being accidental, such as “It’s the economy, stupid”, an impromptu exhortation scrawled by James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, in 1992; or the unofficial Lib Dem slogan, given by Gordon Brown “I agree with Nick.”

We have very little influence on the context as this is continually changing but it needs to be at the forefront of the mind of those who are making up the slogans for the Lib Dems as it seems at present this is distinctly lacking.

If we go back to what has worked for the party it has been simple language. Nick Clegg won the first debate, not because he said anything startlingly new, but because he used straightforward language, not the processed verbal pabulum that people have come to associate with politics. Five years ago the Lib Dems were all about simplicity, running with “The Real Alternative” as Charles Kennedy won the party their highest number of seats on the back of its opposition to the Iraq war.

Reading the suggestions by those in the party on LibDemVoice for a slogan seemed to read without a context and used political language. It is not that people are not trying or don’t have good ideas, it is that we are trying too hard. A good slogan comes naturally, in the context at the time, in a language people ‘get’.

One of the best slogans the UK has seen was the wordplay employed by Labour in 1957, who, reacting to Harold Macmillan’s government’s “Never had it so good”, hit back with “Never been had so good”. This placed the slogan in the right context with the right language. It doesn’t sound like it was made up by a politician or executive as much as it does someone down the pub.

Instead of people coming up with ideas and putting them on a website, or executives, or politicians sitting around a table, maybe we all need to go somewhere more natural, with people who are not political and just talk about politics and maybe something will come out that can be used. With 70,000 in the party maybe one sentence used in the pub by one member would make a great slogan?

Lessons from successful politicians: How Clement Attlee used collaboration to succeed

Clement Attlee, British Prime Minister 1945-51

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Clement Attlee is considered to be one of the most successful UK politicians of all time yet was considered a potentially weak leader and a poor communicator at the time. Much has been written about his premiership from 1945-51. However, how Attlee was successful is often buried deep in analysis of his time in office. Yet it is how politicians are successful, not what they do, which we can learn from.

Attlee’s approach was a managerial one seeking consensus. He acted as a chairman rather than a president, and this quality has won him much praise from historians and politicians alike.

Every time you have a Prime Minister who wants to make all the decisions, it mainly leads to bad results. Attlee didn’t. That’s why he was so damn good

Despite Attlee’s overwhelming mandate for change and the pressure from his own party to introduce wholesale socialist change, he instead opted for cautious reformism which allowed him to bring the country and other politicians with  him in the changes he was making. He couldn’t have done this from a more extreme position that many people wanted him to take. Attlee therefore had to be an expert party manager, capable of controlling difficult and wilful colleagues.

It is said that his personal attributes allowed him the ability to let things happen and not allow worries to get on top of him. He believed that a leader needed to trust people to do their jobs and said that no one can lead who is afraid of losing his job.

If [a politician] doesn’t display courage, the chances are that he will never become the leader, or that if he does, he won’t last very long. Attlee

It was his approach to politics which produced perhaps his greatest achievement, that of a political and economic consensus about the governance of Britain that all parties, whether Labour, Conservative or Liberal subscribed to for three decades.

When Wall Street Journal/NBC pollsters asked voters recently what qualities they were looking for in a leader, their top three choices were: the ability to work well with leaders of other countries; having strong moral and family values; bringing unity to the country. Those are cooperative qualities that require good listening skills, openness and the ability to compromise – The qualities that Attlee such a good politician.

Success in politics: How we can measure whether the Lib Dems have been successful in government

Why didn’t members of the Lib Dems call for Nick Clegg to stand down following the general election? He had said that success for him was to double the number of MPs in two parliaments and the party, under his leadership, had not only failed to increase the number of MPs but had actually lost MPs in its first. Yet following the election he was praised by those in the party. So what is success in politics? What is success for the Lib Dems now they are in government? Is success just about what we individually think it is or is there a more systematic way of understanding success?

Primarily politics is about power, with the most important success in politics about gaining power: gaining a position of power in a party, a candidate winning an election to a party winning an election. However, the skill set for gaining power and retaining power are separate. This graph shows how the Labour Party gained power but could not hold on to it until 1997, while the Conservative Party were good at holding onto power.

Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair seemed to have the skill of gaining power and keeping power but did it in very different ways. While Tony Blair kept ahead in the polls throughout the majority of his premiership, Margaret Thatcher spent much of her time trailing in the polls, yet both went on to win subsequent elections.

The 2010 General Election resulted in the Lib Dems gaining power and so this could be considered a success for the party. However, the election was not a success for the party as we lost seats. So the party was unsuccessful at gaining MPs but many praised Nick Clegg in the coalition discussions for gaining positions of power in government.

While the Lib Dems lost seats Clegg thanked the million extra people who voted for the party in this election compared to the last, so while the result was a disappointment the increase in the popular vote was a minor success, and one which was used as leverage in the coalition discussions.

However, George W. Bush gained power in 2000 and then retained power in 2004 by increasing his vote share and so could be considered a success. However, how many people consider his time as president a success? With 81 percent of Americans, according to a New York Times poll, believe he took the country on the wrong track – the highest number ever registered – and historians consider his presidency a failure.

So there is more to success in politics than winning elections and having power. So how do we quantify what this is?

Academics were asked to scale from of 0 to 10 how successful or unsuccessful they considered the prime ministers of Britain had been in office (with 0 being highly unsuccessful and 10 being highly successful). The results were:

Mean score
Clement Attlee (Lab, 1945-51) 8.34
Winston Churchill (Con, 1940-45, 1951-55) 7.88
David Lloyd George (Lib, 1916-22) 7.33
Margaret Thatcher (Con, 1979-90) 7.14
Harold Macmillan (Con, 1957-63) 6.49
Tony Blair (Lab, 1997- 07) 6.30
Herbert Asquith (Lib, 1908-16) 6.19

Many may not agree with the list (here are some alternatives) but many would recognise the names as important figures for the country. What sets them apart from many others is that they have made a significant effect on the country in a positive manner (the controversial one being Thatcher).

Their contribution has affected the country, changed the way the country works, what people value and the direction of the country. Whether a government is making the right decisions for the country is judged by the people at the time and in hindsight. This measure of success is the most subjective of all measures of success but a majority view is formed at the time and in hindsight and is important in forming narratives about a party or person.

So success in politics can be seen as:

  1. To gain power
  2. To keep power
  3. To increase the number of people who vote for you
  4. To increase the number of positions of power
  5. For people to perceive the use of power as positive for the country and its citizens
  6. For history to perceive the use of power as positive for the country and its citizens

The Lib Dems have had a majority success from the election but many in the party wonder how history will perceive the party’s contribution to the country, for it is this which holds the key to future success.

Lessons from successful politicians: Helen Clark gains success from relationship-based politics

Success stories exists in politics which offer great learning for anyone who follows politics. Where a party wants to learn about how to do well in coalition politics then we need to look at successful politicians in coalitions and see what there is to learn and New Zealand offers some good lessons for the Lib Dems.

Helen Clark, leader of the Labour Party and ex-Prime Minister, forged a reputation as a tough operator capable of making the hard decisions but  never had bold or visionary intentions to fundamentally change New Zealand, seeking to evolutionarily reform society. She was never considered a conviction politician and was regarded as a particularly cautious and moderate prime minister by her colleagues.

Yet she was phenomenally successful. She held the position of leader of the New Zealand Labour Party from 1993 until 2008 having lost 1 general election and then winning 3 in a row. She was the Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008 becoming the first women to become prime minister in New Zealand as a result of a general election, being one of the longest serving Prime Ministers and the most successful female politician the country had seen. So what why was she so successful where others had before her had not achieved as much.

Success to Clark was about winning, and about staying on top, which she was very skilled at. Part of Helen Clark’s success in winning power and retaining it was found in her highly managerial political style. Helen Clark used extensive use of opinion polling, focus groups and all sorts of other political market research to inform her political decisions. What she lacked in visionary politics and personal charisma, she made up in managerial skills and tactical cunning.

But the essence of Helen Clark’s skill was her excellent relationship-building capacity. She was a pragmatic politician par excellence, almost always knowing how best to effectively deal with a situation to obtain the most beneficial outcome for her party and government. So this wasn’t so much about pursuing a particular policy agenda, but about growing her support base in her party, in the parliament, and in society at large. This often meant that she was incredibly conservative. She was not inclined to push any policies that might endanger her political relationships or popularity.

Clark never attempted to be a ‘great’ politician. She sought to be a ‘successful’ politician, which is not the same thing

While many will see this it as a weakness not to push a more ideological agenda she believed in the importance of being in power to effect change. In a world of coalitions, building on the relationships you have, gives you the power to effect change. Clark and Labour worked with a variety of different parliamentary support and coalition partners including the Alliance, the Progressives, the Greens, United Future, and New Zealand First. By all accounts, Helen Clark was extraordinary at keeping all of these forces together.  Possibly the most significant achievement of Helen Clark’s 9-year rule was making MMP (mixed member proportional representation) work.

Managing the competing relationships i.e. stakeholders, was therefore at the forefront of her approach. She had her own party, the other parties in government, those who voted for her and those who may potentially vote for her. To do this she could not be a conviction politician and

the times Clark followed her heart rather than her head, were the times she lost voter support

However, there were times when she did not care for sections in her own party and some decisions played a key role in producing a split between much the Maori members and the Labour Party. A new party was created, the Maori Party, Labour lost most of the Maori electorate seats and the Maori Party went on to form a coalition with the National Party in the 2008 election.

The key to her success was her ability to make, manage and build on relationships with key stakeholders. It kept her in power and a centre-left government for 9 years (following a 15 year conservative government). It produced no defining moments but allowed for many social and liberal reforms. In a world of coalition politics, relationship based politics seems to be a successful strategy.

Personality characteristics of ‘successful’ politicians

The personality traits of many political leaders is important for a number of reasons and some have looked at successful politicians as compared personality traits with the performance of their governments. This showed four personal characteristics on which success of a political leader crucially depends.

  • Rationality
  • Authoritativeness
  • Adventurousness
  • Inspiration

They then went on to form a test which scores politicians on these traits (take the test yourself here).  The political performance index ranges from 0% to 100% with the higher score meaning more successful. See full results here

PerformanceIndex % Rational % Authoritarian % Adventurous % Inspired %
















































My issue with it is that being ‘successful’ is not an end in itself. While politics is about winning elections, essentially it is about a lot more than that; it is about the fate of the nation, the people, the world. Many of these politicians who have scored highly in this analysis are controversial figures and many will say have made some people’s lives worse.

I am interested in making politics accessible and success meaning we improve the lives of the people in the country (and this has nothing to do with money). Any analysis can only analyse what is being looked at and so some characteristics won’t show up in the results. Maybe if we changed what ‘success’ means and looked for other characteristics we would be looking at a very different list of people.

Therefore my lessons from successful politicians will have a different focus.


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