Sunday, 3 August 2008

Scottish Lib Dems search for a story as well as a leader: a few suggestions

When Ross Finnie announced his candidacy for the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ leadership, a quote from the former environment minister caught my eye. 

"Our message has become blurred and lacking a distinctive Liberal Democrat edge. We lack a political narrative that brings clarity and cohesion."

That sounds like a good idea. But my concern – and let’s all hope this is misplaced -- is that our Scottish colleagues won’t be given a narrative. 

I do not know very much about Ross Finnie or the other two leadership candidates. I have nothing against any of them. Nor do I claim any knowledge of the Scottish party’s affairs, personalities or internal politics. There is no axe being ground here.

My concern is based on experience.  In 2006 and 2007, none of the candidates for the UK party leadership really provided one.

And all too often, people confuse a narrative with a statement of liberal democrat principles.

Or they use a slogan, like “free, fair and green”.

Or worse still, we hear lists of policies.

My interest in this is uncomplicated. All Liberal Democrats should care about what happens in Scotland. When they provided members of the Scottish Executive for eight years, our colleagues’ achievements were important to our credibility as a party. And a good number of our Westminster seats are in Scotland. 

Our election results in the 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections disappointed my friends and acquaintances north of the border. Many still do not seem too happy with how the party is performing. 

My advice to people voting in the Scottish leadership election is that when leadership candidates talk about having a clear narrative, it should be a good thing.  But we all need to remember that a narrative is a story that provides target voters will a quick and easy framework for understanding a party, politician or what they are offering. 

A story works when it uses mental frames and expresses core values that they can recognise and relate to. 

Above all, the story will enable target voters to connect at an emotional and a rational level with the party. It follows from all of this that the party’s story will respond to respond to their needs and aspirations. (For further details, see here or here)

The point is, a party leader who tells such a story will succeed. A party leader who doesn’t tell a story will fail. It’s that simple.

Think Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair – and Paddy Ashdown. 

Or Michael Foot, Iain Duncan Smith – and Ming Campbell.

The leader is so important because s/he is the main person telling the story. S/he needs to embody the story, to make it real and authentic. The story and the leader are part of the same thing: the party’s image or brand.

None of that, by the way, should stop anybody from putting forward bold, new policy ideas or innovative campaigning tactics.  

Candidates for party leadership have a tough job. They have to convey a sense of what kind of story they want to tell the electorate; how they plan to win the party more support.

They must also tell a story about their own party. Where is it going now? What’s gone right, what’s gone wrong and why? Most importantly, where should the party go next; how do members fit in? What’s the happy ending?

People standing for the leadership of a party that’s in trouble or not doing as well as in should tend to tell one of three types of story. The first sounds like this: “we have drifted too far away from the electorate and now we have to make some tough choices and get back in touch, in order to win”. This is the story that Tony Blair told the Labour Party in 1994. It is also what David Cameron told the Tories in 2005. In both cases, their campaign rhetoric was more inclusive, more emollient and more vague than the leadership that followed. But the moral of the story was clear. These sorts of stories offer a happy ending, electoral success. There is also a sense of risk.

David Miliband has now offered an even cleverer version of the story, urging the Labour Party to stick to an agenda of bold change, in order to inspire the public and outflank the Tories. As befits his background, and the fact that the part is in government, Miliband's embryonic story has a bit more policy weight than Blair's or Cameron's.   His now-famous Guardian article will be one of my suggestions for political narrative of the year.

Another story is that the party has “fallen” or been betrayed in some way; by returning to its core principles and remaining true to its faith, the party can be re-born and re-energised. Sympathetic voters will like what they see and come home again; otherwise, the party will try harder to convey what it stands for. An extreme version of this was told by Tony Benn and his allies in the Labour Party of the early 1980s. There were also traces in the Conservative leadership campaigns of 1997 and 2001. This story is easy to tell and re-assures the activist base that they will finally be proven right. But electoral disaster almost always follows.

There is a third option: a leadership contender – usually the experienced “front runner” – asks the party to “trust me” and offer a version of “safety first”. Such candidates are usually somewhat opaque about their future intentions and tend to use vague, crafted rhetoric to empathise with party members’ basic beliefs. They may offer a “broad church” or a period of consolidation. Think Ming Campbell in 2006 or, perhaps, Gordon Brown who had no opponent for the party leadership last year. The weakness is obvious: there is no real story because there is no obvious plan or strategy (happy ending). You have to really trust the leader to deliver – to find the story that will work with the electorate. The UK party did that with Charles Kennedy in 1999 and, lest we forget, under his leadership the Liberal Democrats won more seats than any third party since the days of Lloyd George. But then Charles publicly called for the UK party to develop a narrative, just days after the somewhat disappointing result in 2005.

I don’t pretend to know which one of the Scottish leadership candidates will tell which story (if any).  As always, people voting in this election will be more comfortable with one sort of story than the others on offer. What they might also want to think about, however, is which story their target voters would most like to hear.

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