The magic number (13 September 2008)
As the conference season gets under way there are three simple steps the Lib Dems can take to get the public’s attention
When they convene at Bournemouth, the Liberal Democrats will be queasily aware that they have spent a year treading water. Their poll ratings have more or less flatlined since their last conference. They have been stuck at 16% (give or take a point or two for sampling error), around 6 points down on where they stood in 2005, and about 5 points down on their rating at the equivalent stage of the 2001-05 parliament.
This showing is disappointing to the Lib Dems, as have been the election results in mid-term elections since autumn 2007. They did catastrophically in London and not brilliantly elsewhere. They were also squeezed by the Conservatives in Crewe and Nantwich, and even more ominously had a swing against them in Henley, the sort of seat where they would have previously expected to have a big swing in their favour.
The poor electoral results have added to a sense of drift at the centre of the party. Nick Clegg has not captured the public imagination since he became leader in December 2007. The Lib Dems have had a difficult time of it as the political scene has been polarised between the Conservatives and an increasingly troubled Labour government. They have had trouble in projecting a distinct image or any specific policies, and Clegg has been overshadowed by Cameron. They have also had problems and soul-searching in Wales and Scotland.
The Lib Dems have three basic tasks this season, the first of which is familiar from previous conferences:
1) Assert their continuing relevance. This is a perennial objective, and one that in the last couple of conference seasons has proved difficult as politics has centred on the presidential contrast of Cameron with Blair (then Brown). It will be difficult again this year. Coming first does the Lib Dems no favour in terms of gaining attention from the media and the public (for whom the first half of September still has something of a holiday feel).
2) Present attractive coherent policies. The Make it Happen document being referred to conference was intended to serve as a pre-manifesto, but given that no election is expected in 2009 it has been restyled as a “visions and values” document. The party needs a decent narrative, and some eye-catching policies. The party’s tax policy, of emphasising cuts for lower and middle income households (paid for by closing tax loopholes further up the scale) is part of this, although whether it bears scrutiny and commands support in the party are both questionable. Council tax abolition, lower and middle-end tax cuts, localism in public service and criminal justice, clean energy and an energy windfall tax will be some headline policies.
3) Build Nick Clegg up as a strong leader. Clegg needs to dispel the perception that he is not a political heavyweight and is more conservative than his party – “too light and too right” perhaps. Clegg’s speech needs to come over strongly to the party in the hall and the elements of the electorate that will be paying attention. Lacking an inspiring personal narrative (Ashdown and Campbell both had interesting backstories before they became politicians), he will have to surprise. One option is the Blair 1994 strategy of confronting his party with hard truths, and forcing it to do something against its instincts in the interests of modernisation. Another is to go against type – a rallying cry for social justice coming from someone who has seemed to belong to the right of the party. In any case, he needs to start defining himself before the public and this is as good an opportunity as he will get before the election campaign.
In terms of electoral strategy, the party is talking of targeting 50 Labour seats, which is a tall order and what Sir Humphrey Appleby might have described as “brave”. I hope to return to this question in another post. Clegg’s leadership has involved a further repositioning of the party. Broadly, the Lib Dems were “equidistance”‘ between Labour and the Conservatives until around 1992, when Paddy Ashdown proclaimed that position as having come to an end (although in practice it was, for Labour, benevolent neutrality, particularly after 1989). From 1992 until about 2001 the Lib Dems were part of a loose progressive front with Labour. From 2001 until roughly 2007, they formed a left opposition to Labour. Now they seem to be back at equidistance. But Clegg’s tone implies that this equidistance could be evolving into benevolent neutrality towards the Conservatives.
The party’s grass roots are for the most part situated on the anti-Conservative left, although with a dislike of the Labour party’s culture because it seems too establishment and collectivist. The prospect of a deal with the Conservatives, or loose participation in a pincer movement aimed at securing not just defeat but humiliation for Labour, will have consequences that most Lib Dems would find unappetising. On the other hand, anti-Labour posturing has the effect of raising the price of cooperation with a minority Labour government.
The Lib Dems face the essential dilemmas of positioning, electoral strategy and simply how to get their message heard in a two-party climate where the pros and cons of the Conservative alternative and the Labour government are dominating the scene.