Saturday, 22 March 2008

The Liberal Democrats glimpse their narrative

Since the 2005 general election, there have been bursts of debate within the Liberal Democrats about the party’s need for a “narrative”, to provide a clearer political identity.

Liberal Democrats haven’t had a narrative of their own for years because our leaders haven’t provided us with one. (Suggestion: if you belong to a political organisation and your leader can’t tell your story, then get yourself another leader).

There are signs that this is changing. Yes, really. Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference in Liverpool a couple of weeks ago told a story. No surprises who the villains were.

The great political story of our time is the story of the vast and growing army of people who look at the two main parties and say “no thanks.” People . . . want something different . . . people are tired of politics . . . of a system that swings like a pendulum between two establishment parties. . . tired of the same old politicians, the same old fake choices, the same old feeling that nothing ever changes.

“. . . . Gordon Cameron. David Brown. What's the difference any more? . . .”

Nick catalogued Labour’s failings and slammed David Cameron for having no policies. The archetype was “stopping the rot” – except “the rot” is at the top of politics, Labour and Conservative.

He explained the part that the Lib Dems play in the story.

If we want a political system that works for the future, we need to start again. From scratch. I am not just talking about electoral reform. A change in our voting system is a vital part of what we need, but it isn’t enough. . . . . let’s clean up politics . . . let’s give people the say they deserve . . . let’s design a new political system for the 21st century.

It shouldn’t be hammered out in secret, smoke-filled rooms, by the powers that be . . . only the Liberal Democrats will ever champion the sort of change we need. Only we can transform the system, because we aren’t part of it.

Nick Clegg promised to work with either of the other parties (but not to allow the Liberal Democrats to be “annexed”) in order to:

“build a new type of government . . . based on pluralism instead of one party rule . . . a new system, that empowers people not parties.”

Sure, Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown said things like that. So did Jo Grimond and David Steel. One big difference: Nick Clegg’s comments were aimed at both the other parties, not just Labour.

As I have blogged previously, in promising a better sort of politics, we are not talking about what most people are really interested in. As the American pollster and strategist Frank Luntz says:

“Political messages should emphasise bottom line results, not process.”

[Words that Work (2007)]

Nick has started to address this.

“Change the system, and we can change Britain . . .

“We want a new, more liberal Britain . . . .

“. . . the great monoliths of centrally-run bureaucracies must be opened up – and run for the sake of the people, the patients, the pupils.

“. . . We want services that are human-sized, personal in nature, and designed for real people.

“We don’t want these services handed down by the faceless state . . .

“. . .. A better Britain would put education and opportunity at its very heart so no child, no parent, is ever trapped in poverty."

How Nick would enhance opportunities - the happy ending of the story – is a still bit vague. What Nick is saying is not very distinctive. But a story is starting to take shape. And the language and symbols are much more powerful.

To flesh the story out a bit, go next to Vince Cable’s keynote speech at Liverpool. His attacks on Labour and the Conservatives over the economy and taxes were even more barbed. More interesting was the way the Lib Dems came into his story as the voice of reason, of economic responsibility.

"During the Northern Rock crisis the boat was drifting listlessly. Captain Brown was hiding in his cabin. And Midshipman Osborne was jumping excitedly in and out of a lifeboat. We knew what had to be done.

“But the Government only finally listened [to us] after months of indecision. The delay caused untold damage to Britain’s reputation and cost a fortune in legal and accountancy fees.

“Now the Government has seen the benefits of listening to the Liberal Democrats perhaps they can make it a habit – to tackle the dangers of our slowing economy."

This is part of an (understandable) effort to promote Vince as a “safe pair of hands” on economic matters. As always, he had some sensible economic prescriptions:

“The Bank of England has to be freed up to use interest rates more aggressively by making sure that its inflation target reflects the fluctuations in house prices .

“We also need to think ahead to a different model of growth. It should not depend on a debt financed, unsustainable, short term splurge in consumer spending.It should instead draw on long term investment in this country’s human resources of skill and science, respecting environmental limits and repairing a fractured sense of social solidarity.”

(Nick Clegg’s comments on the economy from Thursday should be seen in the same light.)

But there was more to Vince Cable’s take on the “better Britain”:

“The Lib Dems don’t want higher overall levels of tax. We want to see fairer taxes making sure that the tax dodgers are brought to book. It means that the very well off pay a bit more in capital gains and income tax so that low and middle income families get a tax cut – 4p in the pound of national income tax.

“We also believe that tax can be used, albeit carefully, to change behaviour. That is why we argue for green taxes, particularly on polluting aircraft, raising revenue for our package of tax cuts elsewhere . . .

“. . . If I were to be self critical, I would say that we haven’t been radical enough. I would like to see a much stronger commitment to cutting the taxes of low and middle income families. And I would like to see a much tougher approach to the windfalls on property and land values enjoyed by the super rich.

“Liberal Democrats represent the millions of families ignored by this Government. Yes we believe in enterprise. Yes we believe in an open economy. But we don’t have to go down on our knees to the rich and powerful.

“We will stand up for fair taxes. We will stand up for green taxes. And we will fight for a more equal Britain."

I agree with Vince about taxation. But while there are plenty of policies, there is still not – quite – a Liberal Democrat story about taxes.

Likewise, Nick is correct about the need to change politics. “A plague on both your houses” is a third party leader’s safest story. A vital next step is to join those messages up with what Vince Cable is saying: how the new politics will deliver a better deal for millions of families; as well as the “opportunities for all” story that Nick is also building.

Nick’s reply to the Budget in the Commons was interesting in this regard:

“Labour has today completed its fiscal fusion with the Tory Party. Both parties believe in the same kind of Budget: the kind of Budget that kowtows to vested interests, but fleeces the average family; the kind of Budget that keeps tax loopholes for the super rich, but closes in mercilessly on single mothers who have been overpaid tax credits; and the kind of Budget that uses green taxes as an excuse to take more money from the kitty of low earners.”

Then there’s the question of how Nick Clegg can embody the promise of a new politics in his actions and appearance in the same way as Vince Cable projects an image of sensible thinking on the economy. In his 1995 book Leading Minds, Howard Gardner stressed how leaders need to embody their narratives in order to seem authentic and credible. Narratives and brands are as much about tone, symbols, pictures and body language as about words.

Nick gave part of the answer at Liverpool, when discussing the drive for a new politics.

“. . . I’m not shy about doing whatever it takes. If it means walking out of Parliament when the big parties collude against us, I say: fine. If it means boycotting banquets that celebrate our relationship with dodgy regimes, like Vince Cable did, or speaking up to expose corruption like Chris Davies did, I say: so be it. If it means risking court, and refusing to sign up for an Identity Card, I say: bring it on. And you can expect more - much more - of that from me. It’s a high-risk strategy. And I warn you, we can only make it work if we are united and if we are disciplined. United and disciplined in the face of attacks from the establishment parties and the establishment media. If we are not the radical force in British politics, who will be?

Yes, OK; and good on Nick for his pledge on identity cards. But this “high risk strategy” doesn’t quite sound or look like the same thing as “a safe pair of hands”.

No-one ever said the Lib Dem narrative was going to arrive, gift-wrapped, in the past. It didn’t for Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair. Or, that matter, for FDR or Ronald Reagan. Gordon Brown has no narrative and David Cameron is clearly struggling with his. The point is, Nick Clegg – the only person who had provide the Liberal Democrats with a story – is on to it.


Alasdair W said...

Very good optimistic entry

Linda Jack said...


Excellent as ever! I think what really excited me was the attitude of my children on hearing that speech. Neither are stereotypical Lib Dems, when Lara accompanied me to the leadership hustings she had to keep asking me what Chris Huhne was on about. But, she said then that she felt Chris was speaking to the audience and Nick was speaking to her. After the speech on Sunday both Lara and Ravi were really fired up, both saying that if everyone could have heard that speech they would have to support Nick. They got the story and they believed their friends would too. Yes, Nick is beginning to find the language to tell that story, our challenge is to ensure as many as possible hear it!


youngdegsy said...

You'd expect Linda Jack, a Clegg cheerleader, to be just as effusive as she is. Personally, I take the view that while a narrative is very handy, the key thing is credibility, and we have none if the leader demonstrates a complete lack of judgement, as he has done over Europe. A compelling story doesn't matter if we're made a laughing stock, which is where Clegg has led us back to, reversing eighteen years of progress.

Neil Stockley said...


Show me a leader or party that has succeeded without a narrative.

What you call "credibility" is an integral part of the narrative, or brand story. The narrative is ultimately what the voters see and what makes up their image of the party. The leader embodies the narrative and makes it authentic and real -- or not, as the case may be.

You are too harsh on Nick Clegg. He was left with no easy options and made what he could of a bad situation. We haven't been set back 18 years. Look at the opinion polls.

youngdegsy said...


I am looking at the opinion polls: the latest one in Scotland on Westminster voting intentions has us on 9%, down 14% from the 2005 result in Scotland. Three of our key target marginals to gain from Labour across the UK are here: Edinburgh North & Leith, Edinburgh South, Aberdeen South, and in a very good year we'd also hope to challenge in Glasgow North and East Lothian. On this showing we're not only not winning those, we'd have to worry about holding on for Danny Alexander, Jo Swinson, Willie Rennie and Alan Reid, with Thurso, Moore and Bruce not able to feel entirely comfortable either. The UK-wide polls give us higher numbers, but would these sorts of difficulties in Scotland make up for picking up the odd seat in Cornwall and Hampshire?

I don't deny that we need a narrative, Neil, in fact I've often said the same myself. The issue I was highlighting was that a narrative is only convincing or compelling if the narrator has credibility. Ashdown had it, Kennedy had it. Clegg is trying to get it, but isn't succeeding. All the "radical edge", anti-establishment, non-conformist protesting antics in the world will make little difference if they think Clegg is, at best, not a serious prospect as a Prime Minister or, at worst, an idiot. At the moment the few people who know anything about Clegg now have reason to doubt that he is competent enough to be an effective leader (a view I happen to hold and have never wavered from).

The main reason for this, of course, was the EU Reform Treaty referendum fiasco. Far from "making the best of a bad job", this was more akin to picking a fight with a paper bag ... and losing. It was a bad policy to start with, designed in haste and error under pressure from certain Lib Dem MPs in South and South-West seats who wanted the treaty to be passed without a referendum, but wanted also to have a credible answer to the hounding they can expect to face from well-funded, hungry Tory challengers in their marginal constituencies (i.e. "I wanted a referendum, I just wanted a different one").

The policy was Campbell's, so Clegg could easily and should have ditched it. He should have said, "well, there are some differences with the Constitution, but they're mostly cosmetic. The closest thing to our 2005 manifesto commitment would be to back the referendum on the Treaty, so that's what we're doing". This would have cemented an early public impression that he was honest and straightforward, and had a good measure of common sense (characteristics we have relied upon to distinguish ourselves from the dogma of the two other main parties for several decades). It would then have been up to the agitators to resign if they felt it was necessary to do so, which is the usual way of these things.

I have it on good authority that many (if not most) of the MPs who backed the abstention did so because they didn't want Clegg to look bad, not because they fiercely opposed a referendum on the Treaty. We have to look long and hard for the application of high principle rather than low politics in all of this, and I cannot find it. The public can sense this - helped by the media and the opposition pouncing on us - and could not understand why the line adopted was taken. It is this credibility gap - not the absence of a narrative - that partly explains the tumbling poll ratings in Scotland.

Neil Stockley said...

I take your point on the Scottish polls youngdegsy, though experience suggests that they are an imperfect way of predicting how we do in UK parliament elections north of the border.

The national polls in the first three months of this year showed us at between 16 and 21 per cent. It’s early days and there’s room for improvement etc. etc. but we’re doing better than the 16 per cent average for all of last year. It certainly doesn’t mean that twenty years of progress have been reversed, as you claimed in your first comment.

I agree with you that the narrator has to have credibility and s/he must embody the story. These are recurring themes of my postings! The point is that credibility is part of the story – or the counter-story.

No one seriously doubts that what happened on the Lisbon Treaty was not helpful. Is there any authoritative analysis on how that impacted on the Scottish polls? In the Populus poll that followed the Lisbon vote, we actually went up?! I think that Nick made the best of a miserable situation because, sadly, all the “what ifs” lead to disaster. Yes, the party could have supported a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. However, to put it mildly, many senior MPs and peers would have had something to say about that. And the public may well have sensed that Nick was personally opposed to holding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.