Monday, 3 November 2008

Narrativewatch: Lembit Opik, candidate for president of the Liberal Democrats

Lembit Opik MP – the great communicator vs. “good value”

[For more info on what this series of posts is about, please click here.]

Lembit Opik is another man with a mission. His campaign narrative is all about improving our external communications and “building a more effective campaigning party”. In his first e-mail to members, Opik promises to be “a President with vim and verve, whom everybody knows, with true commitment to spreading Liberal Democracy to the four corners of Britain”. In his election address, Opik lists his top priority as to “ensure that the party projects its message clearly”.

In his second campaign email, Opik says he wants to “promote our policies in bright . . . primary colours . . . bold, clear, forceful . . . distinctive and unmistakeably Liberal Democrat.”

Almost straight away, however, the narrative runs into problems. Opik does not ever convey an impression of what his “primary colours” would look like. We do not know how he would change the party’s efforts at marketing itself; what he thinks could make the party both popular and distinctive; and what kind of narrative he would like the Liberal Democrats to use. No, this reply to number 13 of Linda Jack’s questions to candidates isn’t a party narrative.

Back to his strengths. Lembit Opik embodies his narrative. He is a long-time, hard-working Lib Dem activist. His campaign website and e-mails remind us that he is “a dedicated and effective campaigner” who has “visited and spoken at over 200 constituencies and driven 380,000 miles to support our activists on the ground”. . . “travelled the country over 18 years . . . helping local parties with recruitment, fundraising, campaigning, training.” Opik has been on the Federal Executive for 17 years. His is the story of a committed MP and activist. Yes, the party knows him well.

Opik also embodies his narrative by being, well, someone who does a very good job of getting publicity for himself. An MP since 1997, he appears regularly – and, it must be said, effectively - on political tv shows like Question Time. In his e-mails to members, Opik claims to have a “strong, lively, high profile and a recognised voice”’ and to be “one of three politicians from any Party who's on "first name terms" with the nation!” (Oh, really?) Consequently, he claims to be able to “connect with the millions of people who have been alienated from the political process.”

All this underlines how Opik’s narrative appeals to the emotions of excitement, passion -- and a sense of risk.

But now you can see the storm clouds. Opik’s high external and internal profiles give his candidacy its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. To put it mildly, there are a lot of “counter-stories” about what kind of president he would make. The polite version is that he could attract a lot of publicity but there is a risk that not all of it would be helpful to the party. On his campaign website, Opik has now publicly acknowledged that the counter-stories exist.

In his second e-mail, he comes back with a none-too-subtle storyline that asks us to “have the courage to vote for me, so I can work to make us ready for Government by 2010 - and by inspiring the Liberal Democrats to achieve this goal.” Opik tells us that after 25 years of political activity he has learnt that “the hardest, most painful lessons can come from mistakes - no great achievement comes without risk.” He then promises to “swallow hard, step up to the platform - to proclaim what we value as Liberal Democrats and to breathe new life into British politics. . . "

Opik’s last campaign e-mail will try to frame this contest “as a test of our collective courage . . . whether we really do value different styles and approaches, or whether conformity is a primary limitation." He also says: “it'll be a heck of a ride” (in case you didn’t know!) More than most candidates for a position, he asks us to take him on trust.

The big question is whether, having raised the stakes in this way, Opik has done enough to regain some control of his narrative. I doubt that he has. There could be another way. Unlike many politicians, he has spoken publicly and movingly of personal tragedies and difficulties that he has faced in his life. Opik has had the courage and integrity to tell us a lot about who he is and what has shaped him. So, why hasn’t he told us stories about his own political courage; about the “risks” and “mistakes” that Opik says he has made over 25 years of political activity; and how the lessons learned could enable him to be an effective president for the Liberal Democrats? What a story of political courage, what a bold narrative that would make.

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