Monday, 3 November 2008

Narrativewatch: Ros Scott, candidate for president of the Liberal Democrats

Baroness Ros Scott: reassurance vs. risk

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

In contrast to her two opponents, Ros Scott seems to have no big mission for the presidency of the Liberal Democrats. In her election address, she promises simply to be “high profile and bring a professional approach to party management”, “supportive [of the leader] in public, candid in private” and to not serve on the Lords team’s front bench if elected.

Ros Scott’s manifesto contains almost no big, new ideas. Where plans are presented, they are almost all unexceptional. “Commit time each month to work with local parties on recruitment” . . . “attend one conference each year in every English region as well Scotland and Wales” . . . “ensure that my strong links with local government are maintained.” Who is against any of that?

Many stances on current organisational and structural issues are written with a caution and vagueness that some of us have spent years trying to stamp out of Lib Dem policy papers. Try this, on candidates’ diversity: “consider a hypothecated allocation of the membership fee for this work”. Or this: “Breaking the circle and changing the stereotype [MP] should be a key strategic priority for all the Party's decision-making bodies." On structures: “explore ways in which regional parties can be strengthened”. Or this: “improved central co-ordination of best practice . . . which is communicated back to regional and local parties, should be given increased priority.”

So, can we say that Ros Scott’s campaign has no narrative?

Au contraire, she has the cleverest narrative of the three candidates. We are constantly reminded that, as president, Ros Scott would be a safe choice, who would be do the right thing by party members – or, more particularly, activists.

At the start of her election address, she promises to “stay true to my roots, remember the activist in the bigger picture”. She also promises to “keep in touch” with candidates and members and “represent [the membership’s] views to the leader”. The worthiness and blandness of much of her platform serve a purpose. For instance, in her manifesto, Ros Scott promises to “ensure that the new decision making structures speed up decision making and are more efficient but without losing accountability to members for the decisions they make.” Those are activist buzzwords – hey, I should know.

Ros Scott embodies her narrative. She reminds us that she has almost two decades of experience as an activist, including as a councillor, council group leader and peer. And, lest we forget, hers is a grassroots campaign that was built up from nothing.

And Ros Scott’s campaign makes the most effective use of what the academics call “heuristics” -- mental short cuts that enable people, especially low awareness voters (“armchair members”?), to use their gut feelings to decipher issues and make choices. The campaign website features an impressive list of MPs, Lords, MEPs, parliamentary candidates, councillors and others who back her candidacy. As a former New Zealand prime minister, David Lange, might have said, they come from the ranks of the left, the right and the totally bewildered.

Ross Scott’s election address carries endorsements (with photos) from Paddy Ashdown, Vince Cable and Shirley Williams. On the website, there are supporting videos from Vince Cable, Chris Huhne and others. Yes, Baroness Scott of Needham Market is everyone’s insurance policy.

The story doesn’t end there. Lord Ashdown frames the choice in this way.

“Above all, a President has to be a person of judgement, somebody who understands the party and who can fearlessly represent the needs of the party and the ordinary workers . . . to the leadership. So, ability to make good judgements . . . to have roots back to the party . . . some experience in handling power . . .." [emphasis added].

Writing in a campaign e-mail, Vince Cable says:

Whoever [the president is] will have an absolutely key role in the election campaign as a spokesman [sic] for the party - and it’s absolutely vital that we have somebody in that role who has judgement and has experience.” [emphasis added].

Just in case you haven’t worked it out, we are invited to contrast Ros’s judgement with Lembit’s; her experience with his . Dr Cable and the Scott campaign remind us that she has run a council with a budget of £650 million, has been on the Audit Commission and has board level experience in the private sector. Opik can claim none of this.

There are important ways her narrative could be improved. I still don’t really know how the story ends (i.e., what she try hardest to achieve as president), even if I can be fairly confident that she’d do nothing wild, mad or embarrassing . And it would be good to hear some “who I am” stories from all this local government, public and private sector experience. They could tell us how she approaches the use of power in organisations; what she has learned and achieved.

Still, Ros Scott and her campaign team have done the best job of recognising that a campaign narrative must enable the target audience – in this case, Lib Dem parliamentarians, members and activists – make a connection with a candidate and to see how s/he will meet their needs and expectations.

Now, I have just a few days to decide who to vote for!

1 comment:

Linda Jack said...


A characteristically forensic examination of all three candidates! Excellent, whilst I have already made my decision (perhaps influenced by my own narrative)I think you have offered a really useful analysis, which I trust will help those who have yet to decide.