11 March 2012

Lib Dem Bloggers fall into the fatalism trap

Why do governing parties (in particular) lose elections? Is it because they make unpopular decisions, fail to listen enough or simply lose control of events?

If you read some of the most popular Lib Dem bloggers - here and here - they seem to suggest the fate of the Lib Dems is entirely down to a vote of a few hundred members in a conference hall in Gateshead on whether they pass or reject a motion on the minutiae of the changes to the NHS proposed in the current bill.

The facts are that if the bill is passed by 2015 the NHS will exist pretty much in its current form - very well paid independently organised GPs will still be the driving force in patient care decisions and multi national drug companies will still be rubbing their hands with glee at the fat profits they make for providing generic drugs to the entire NHS at a huge mark up because the central bureaucracy is incapable of procuring anything at a competitive cost.

But that isn't the point.

Even if the bill resulted in the sacking of every nurse and doctor and the importation from the USA of their rapaciously inefficient health practices - then the Lib Dems fate would still be in their own hands.

The fact is that since entering coalition the leadership have been atrociously advised, media and PR has been almost non existent and its campaigns stuck fighting the battles of 2005. That's the cause of the party's collapse in vote share in the last two years - not the the decisions MPs and ministers have taken in government.

And if the party and its activists can cast aside the fatalism that says there's no way back and the leadership learn the real lessons of the last 18 months there is no reason not to look forward positively.

And there are signs in Nick Clegg's warm up speech in Gateshead that that is starting to happen:
“And now it is time to move on. To stop justifying being in Government and start advertising being in Government. To stop lamenting what might have been and start celebrating what is. To stop defending our decisions and start shouting our achievements from the rooftops.

“Lower taxes for working people. Fairer chances for our children. And the beginnings of a new, green economy that benefits everyone in every city, not just a few in the City of London.

“So: no more looking back. You can’t drive if you’re only looking in the rear-view mirror."

Let's hope it's the start of a proper campaign strategy - but given the several false dawns over the last year or so - I won't be holding my breath...


  1. Hi Dan,
    Can I ask your opinion of the effective difference between viewing politics as series of revolutionary events or as an continuous organic process, and how does this shape attitudes to reform?

  2. Um, I'm not sure I really understand your question. My view of politics is that it is about defining a debate and communicating your views on it. Obviously sometimes events get in the way - but unless you have 'ownership' of particular issues, voters won't see your relevance. That's fundamentally the problem of the coalition - there is nothing that it appears to be doing that is distinctly Lib Dem and the Lib Dems aren't campaigning for anything distinctive within it.

    1. It's a question about tactics rather than a philosophical point, in which LibDems differ from Labour as more reformist and less revolutionary, while tories tend to favour the status quo.

      In a recent committee hearing on Lords reform I saw right-wing members state opposition to the plans because the reform proposals 'don't go far enough'. This struck me as particularly strange.

      Specifically, during questions with Nick Clegg Lord Trimble stated his opposition to introducing the principle of legitimacy via elections to the upper house on the grounds that it doesn't advance accountability, which itself doesn't exist now in the upper house.

      Obviously liberals believe both would be better, but given the electoral maths makes this impossible, is it therefore acceptable to engage in horse trading to ensure we gain at least one in the short-term? Or is legitimacy irrelevant without accountability?

      Should we work in concert with all sides to get reform moving, or should we seek confrontation with the resistant old guard to build up public support to introduce more sweeping changes? Does incrementalism neuter the overall effect by allowing other bad practises to continue unabated, or must we accept the world is irredeemably corrupt and we must do what we can where we can?

      Labour's approach was circular and effective only in so far as creating party activity - the problems which existed when they came to power in 97 are exactly the same as those that exist now.

      After thirteen years of constantly reshaping the NHS they ended up back where it was at the beginning; financial boom is still followed by financial bust; political devolution has not created a new consensus, but increased divergence of opinion and is polarising debate; social inequality started to shrink as mobility improved, then grew massively as state intervention shows its limitations.

      'Politics is a process, not an event' is a line that has been forgotten by many, and it's something which David Laws is warning against

      Anyway that's a long-winded way of asking you to consider how the tactical approach adopted by each side influences the policy result and how this influences party positioning.

  3. I think my point is that the Lib Dem's policy and other positions should not be determined by the other's tactical approaches.

    The problem the party has at the moment is that it is not clear what it is trying to do in government or outside of it.

    1. Now I fully agree with that!

      There seems to be a lot of support for the view that Clegg's appeal was as more of a national statesman rather than a general in the trenches, and this represented a change to trying to win the 'air war' instead of the traditional targetting strategy.

      As a result the large fuzzy core of LibDems have struggled with the need for sharper focus, and we've lost our dependence on protest votes.

      There was only so far we could go without redefining contemporary liberalism, and we're still a long way from it yet.

      I personally think a lot depends on the character of the individuals and now would have been a great time for someone with the charisma of Paddy Ashdown. Clegg doesn't hint at any hidden depths from where inspiration can emerge, and he's a bit too solid to stir the romantic imaginings of many idealists.

      But this can also be a strength, provided all the strngs of his 'liberal thread' can be disentangled and woven together again!

      I mean, this is something which is happening and is in the balance, so 'the vision thing' definitely deserves greater discussion.