I was in the hall during the great NHS debate at the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference in
I suggest that you should too, because in the space of three minutes, Baroness Shirley Williams gave the conference a masterclass in political communications. (Click here – her speech is about 26 minutes in.)
Whether she realised it or not, Baroness Williams followed the key steps set out in Stephen Denning’s book, The Secret Language of Leadership (John Wiley and Sons, 2007). But she built on them as well.
Baroness Williams gained the audience’s attention, and not just because she is one of the party’s icons. Here’s her opening:
“Let me begin by saying, because we are being covered by the media, that nothing I am trying to do about health is intended is intended to weaken Nick [Clegg] and his fellow ministers and the coalition. I think that Nick and our fellow ministers have done a remarkable job and I very proud of them and I am very pleased to support them in every way I can. [applause]
“But we cannot be bound by those issues that have never been agreed by us and in particular where the outcome of the policy is specifically different from what we thought it was going to be.”
Baroness Williams spoke to the audience’s perceived ‘problem’ just as Denning advises. In this case, it was the NHS and Social Care Bill that departs from the terms of the coalition agreement. But Baroness Williams also provided her comrades with a sense of reassurance. Yes, Liberal Democrats, we can drop a depth charge under Nick Clegg’s bow, but without being disloyal. Right from the start, there was a simple, underlying morality: the government is not keeping faith with us, so we have a duty to keep faith with ourselves.
Denning’s second and third steps are to stimulate the desire for change and to reinforce that desire with reasons. The body of Baroness Williams’s speech encouraged the conference to do what they already wanted to do – vote down the Bill in its current form and demand big improvements. She urged the conference to reject a specific change. Yet she still applied Denning’s key principles.
Baroness Williams told a springboard story:
"There’s a long history of the private sector cherrypicking the easiest patients. What that leaves out is the most expensive patients . . .
"No names, no pack drill, but I certainly know of distinguished private hospitals in
that pass the difficult cases to the nearest NHS hospital. That would wreck the whole purpose of a health service that is supposed to be open and equal to all. London
The reinforcement (which actually came before the springboard story, but so what?) came as she explained how the changes would work in practice.
"We did not expect a massive reorganisation and one which will fall within a period when many of our fellow citizens are worried about whether they will keep their jobs and how they will pay for petrol and food. This is not the moment to embark of the reorganisation of the most treasured public service in the whole of the
"A combination of this reoganisation and . . . huge cuts, efficiency savings, of no less than £20 billion by the NHS over next four years, to add on to that reorganisation . . . is just beyond the imagination.”
“The accountability structures of the new proposals are lousy. The GP consortia will be able to meet in private. They will not have to keep minutes. They will not have to be transparent to the public . . .”
All this may read like a list of points and arguments. But, thanks to Baroness Williams, the conference lived a bad a story: that after massive cuts and a complex reorganisation, we will be left with accountable GP constortia making decision about commissioning behind closed doors and private hospitals cherrypicking patients.
Perhaps that was the story they wanted to hear. One of the other speakers was not far wrong when he described Shirley Williams as “having the sanctity for the Lib Dems of a cross between the Queen Mother and Dame Vera Lynn”. And Liberal Democrats see themselves (ourselves) as the party of conscience and reform, the progenitors of the NHS.
Baroness Williams finished with an appeal to this self-image: the party’s story about itself. She quoted a letter from a concerned citizen and challenged the conference to:
". . . stand up and be counted . . .
. . . in so doing we will strengthen both the coalition and the identity of this party, for which have all worked for so long and with such devotion”.
Yes, the story had a happy ending: together, we can make the coalition better.
Footnote: I appreciate that Shirley Williams is one of the Liberal Democrats’ most experienced politicians and that she has long been recognised as a gifted communicator. (She was first elected as an MP more than two years before Nick Clegg was born.) But I still can’t understand why so few senior Liberal Democrats follow her example and try to use straightforward storytelling techniques to put their messages across.