Strategic silences

I’ve been thinking a bit since Nick Clegg’s big speech on Monday. It was a speech intended primarily for the party faithful, rather than the broader public. Some of the shifts in position it signalled were only really going to be detected by those with well-tuned antennae.

Some of Clegg’s speech on Monday was as toe-curling as usual. It repeated some tired Coalition tropes. Some passages captured that air of vacuous profundity that you expect from these types of political speeches. But then again I thought some of the substance wasn’t so bad.

By that I mean he seems to be moving towards positions that some of his internal critics have been recommending for the last several years. He is, for example, surely right that we need to tell a better story about fairness. He is also right when he said:

… I don’t believe people will vote for us next year solely because we have prevented the worst excesses of Conservative nuttiness or nastiness, important though that is, and nor do I think we should blight the success of two party government by picking synthetic fights.

I thought his proposed new fiscal rule had a strong family resemblance to complete nonsense. And, for bonus points, it had “unwise pre-election pledge” written all over it. On that point, I was a bit perturbed by the fact that Clegg seems to be announcing policies that aren’t, as far as I can tell, actual party policy. But I presume that all that is required to straighten things out ex post is strategic deployment of the payroll vote at Autumn Conference to rubber stamp anything that Clegg would like to see as policy. That’s democratic policy making 2014-stylee.

But the speech caused me to reflect on two strategic silences.

First, Clegg is right that there aren’t many votes in simply telling a story about preventing extremes of “nuttiness or nastiness”. But I’m not sure he’s quite got the message about why. The problem is not that it is hard to produce a positive narrative from being “the party that likes to say no” because that fails to highlight distinctively liberal characteristics and achievements. The problem is that, from the perspective of many centre-left and liberal voters, the Coalition government has already pursued an agenda of excessive right wing authoritarian “nuttiness and nastiness”, and the Liberal Democrats are perceived to have been fully signed up to that.

Here Clegg arguing that:

… if there’s one criticism that I really want to take head on because I think it’s the most pernicious and misleading, as well as the most often repeated, it’s this: That by being in government with the Conservatives, we’ve sold out; lost our soul; become hollowed out and lost our identity as a party of progressive reform. It’s high time we debunk this myth …

So don’t let our critics rewrite history. We went into government for good, decent, honourable reasons and no one should be allowed to take that away from us. And then there’s the way those same critics from left and right try to airbrush out our role in the coalition as well. They claim that we’re merely passengers in this government. That we’ve failed to stand up for ourselves or see through policies we believe in. Again this is a myth we cannot allow to stand. We may be the smaller party, but we have all the biggest ideas.

Clegg then offers a list of policy successes that he claims for the Liberal Democrats. Many of these are fine achievements. And he talks about the things the Liberal Democrats have stopped the Conservatives from inflicting on us all.

But Clegg – or indeed any other member of the Parliamentary Party – rarely faces up to the measures that they have obediently lined up to support, often against harsh internal and external criticism and against agreed party policy. These are the actions that drove people away from the party. Be it pledge-breaking tuition fees or welfare reform that affects the disabled most severely or workfare requirements that are nothing other than spiteful or the privatisation of NHS delivery or legislating for self-evidently illiberal secret courts. These are the things that many people object to. These are the things that opponents will criticise the party for. This is the elephant in the room. The leadership seemingly does everything it can not to discuss them directly.

The leadership may or may not have sold its soul in the process of coalition government. I’m happy to believe it hasn’t. But that isn’t really the issue. However noble the motivation, it can hardly deny that these things happened.

I don’t think that strategic silence is going to be sustainable as the election nears. Up until now the leadership might argue collective responsibility and toeing the coalition line. They are now going to have to defend these measures as, in their view, consonant with a liberal democratic philosophy – and thereby finally lose the support of those who are hoping that the Parliamentary party has been supporting these measures while holding their collective noses – or they are going to have to differentiate and claim that these sorts of measures are not compatible with a liberal democratic philosophy, in the process exposing the reluctant nature of their support for these measures in the first place – thereby both annoying the Conservatives and leading a chunk of the electorate to condemn the party as dishonest and dishonourable. That chunk of the electorate may along the way demonstrate a failure to understand the compromises of coalition, but I think we’ve got plenty of evidence to that effect already.

And that brings us to the second strategic silence. Nick Clegg gives every indication that he believes the root of the party’s problem lies in the way the party’s message is conveyed or in campaigning strategy. We’ve had the crass suggestions that the fault for electoral annihilation lies with those at the grassroots who have not tried hard enough, which Clegg is still trying to row back from. And we now have another Gurling review to tell us where the campaigning fell short this time around.

But that leaves unaddressed the issue of the material campaigners have to work with. In particular, there is the credibility of the leadership in delivering a liberal message. Clearly Clegg’s personal ratings are plumbing previously unexplored depths. It appears the party’s polling could well be following a similar trajectory. The question is, given the track record of the Coalition, and the perception that the current leadership has facilitated an agenda which is anything but liberal in aggregate, is the electorate at large going to believe anything that Clegg says when he speaks liberalism and greater fairness? There is a strong possibility that they aren’t even going to listen.

And there is equally the, entirely separate, possibility that the problems with messaging, campaigning etc. originate with the way in which the party is being managed at the top. A fish rots from the head, type of thing. A key problem is that it appears Clegg doesn’t really listen to anyone beyond a coterie of Cleggites. You’ll find plenty of support for that position online among a vocal minority of party members.

Once credibility and trustworthiness have been lost it isn’t obvious what can be done to regain them. Nick Clegg might very well be a liberal democrat to his fingertips, unsullied by years in close proximity to the Tories. But if no one is listening then that really doesn’t matter. That is no doubt desperately unfair. And we might wish that it weren’t the case. But wishing the world were other than it is is not a hugely robust campaign strategy.

Yet I’m not sure that change at the top would cure this particular malady in time for the election. Or, rather, it might lead to changes in the way the campaign is run and improvements in morale at the grassroots level. But I doubt it will have much of an impact on credibility with the electorate. I suspect that is going to require a rather longer process of painstaking rebuilding.

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  1. Right on the button, Alex, but I have no confidence the Party will take a blind bit of notice. If thry don’t, my vote will go elsewhere