Monday, January 24, 2011

Strategy - General and Local - some thoughts

Strategy in politics is a very difficult science – in many ways, you have to foresee the unforeseeable and even then deal with what had been unforeseen once it arises.

In the election last year, for example, no-one predicted ‘Clegg-mania’ and the Lib Dem poll rating of 33% – hence the lack of a strategy to exploit this sudden surge. On the other hand, Liberal Democrats did have a strategy prepared in the event of a hung parliament (as did the Conservative party but not, astonishingly, the Labour party).

So it was with a heavy heart that I saw the Guardian report the party’s executive had compiled a strategy paper for the next general election to put to the spring conference. Being prepared is one thing but preparing a strategy for an event in four years is something else – we cannot possibly predict the political environment in 2015.

Now of course anything in that newspaper to do with the Liberal Democrats must be taken with a pinch of salt. The Guardian is like an embittered girlfriend whose partner has dumped her in order to further his career. Hell hath no fury like Guardian readers scorned – or something like that – but then to be fair it's not the sort of paper to make things up.

According to the report the strategy consists of:
- Fight the election as an independent party (Yes)
- No preference for future coalition partners (OK, so far)
- Present a manifesto as a clear programme for government (no problems there)
- No pacts with other parties on local, national or European elections (so far, so good)
- Spell out which coalition polices were derived from the Lib Dems (er)
- Identify policies which had been changed due to Lib Dem pressure (not sure now)
- Identify policies which were Conservative and nothing to do with us (D’oh!)

The emphasis on the party’s independence is welcome. However the plan to go into an election with a strategy of ‘not me, guv’ strikes me as weak and buck passing and I don’t think the electorate will buy it.

In my view, we don’t want to say (i) these are the changes enforced on us by the nasty Conservatives and (ii) this is what we wanted to do but the Tories wouldn’t let us. You can already hear the two Eds rolling in laughter (and they won’t be the only ones) if we went down this path.

We must go into the next general election with two clear and simple messages:

1. These are the changes that Liberal Democrats have put in place by way of being in coalition (I gave a few examples in my last entry – and there will be some more by then).
2. This is our plan for a five year government from 2015.

There may be a case for a strategy for a snap general election should the worst happen but any thoughts about 2015 can wait for now. The world will be very different by then.

What we need now is a strategy for 2011 – the elections to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and most English local councils. And, depending on the Labour dinosaurs in the Lords, the AV referendum.

I would like to see us grab the initiative by a publicised launch of our local campaigns simultaneously in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh. The message should go out about how Liberal Democrats are very strong an experienced in local government, how we control more major cities than any other party, and a list of the benefits those cities have gained as a result – especially in environmental terms.

Presumably our Scottish and Welsh parties will launch a manifesto and Tavish Scott and Kirsty Williams will be there to lead the way.

Why not every local party put together a local manifesto, with ideas and proposals, and publicise it as far and wide as possible? If they can afford it, to post it through every door. It can be just a small document of four or eight pages – but it will shift the focus onto local issues and get people thinking.

With the regional media, our local leaders could hammer the message again and again. These are the issues we believe in, this is what we will do if we take/keep control of the council, what do you think? Regular press conferences, documents, advertising, marketing, we must show the electorate that we are still full of ideas and energy.

Of course, people will refer to the national picture, the fact that we went into coalition with the Tories, the tuition fees blunder – in which case we must be open and honest – we are getting the best deal we can (with examples) and we have made mistakes, but we are prepared to work with either party or independents to form a stable administration at all levels if necessary. This is grown up politics not the yah boo kind we are used to and which the media love.

This may be a gamble but I would like to see Nick Clegg take a back seat for the campaign proper. His energy and enthusiasm would be a great asset but I think the non-government Lib Dems (yes, there are some) should take the lead for the local election campaign. Simon Hughes, Tim Farron, Charles Kennedy, for example. And before anyone says so – yes, Nick Clegg’s current unpopularity, although undeserved, is another reason for putting him to one side.

I would like to see the big names out on the streets for our key and target councils. As a party, we need to work harder than ever before.

Obviously the other parties, especially Labour, will sense easy pickings – and we will have to be prepared to accept considerable losses around the country.

But if we can act fast, act positive, act energetically – if we can get a good start and keep momentum rolling – I think we could still hold our own and be well prepared for the year ahead.

Friday, January 21, 2011

One day ......

One day the Liberal Democrats will be back in opposition. We’ll be back to raffles and quiz nights, back to local campaigning to keep libraries and post offices open, back to being ignored by the media, back to watching our two big brothers make all the important decisions.

Oddly many members would prefer this. Many deserters may even drift back once they no longer have to dirty their hands with power and responsibility. Those who told me ‘I didn’t join the party to form a government’ will be relieved.

But why can’t we make the most of being in government while we can? We are the junior partner in a business arrangement to run the country and form a stable administration at a time of economic crisis to steer the UK through recovery.

And we are making changes. I could list them all but here’s just a few.

Raising the tax threshold, the pupil premium, linking pensions to earnings/inflation whichever is higher, raising capital gains tax, an elected House of Lords, fixed term parliaments, a green investment bank, a referendum on voting reform, and so on. None of these would happen without Lib Dems in government. Even if the AV referendum is lost, it will be difficult for subsequent governments to overturn many of the changes that have been or will be made.

True, the tuition fees saga was a blunder. And there have been some things we did not like (VAT, free schools) but then that’s the price of partnership. Isn’t half a glass better than no glass at all?

Much has been said about May’s elections in that around the country we may lose many councillors. Indeed we probably will – government parties usually do in mid-term. We will of course campaign as best we can, but if the results go against us there is no need for panic – we are in government – government! – for four more years.

What about Nick Clegg? Every day I read somewhere that Nick Clegg is finished, that his days are over – yet equally every day I read of some new initiative or opinion from Nick, every day he continues to show his energy and enthusiasm for the role, every day he proves that he was after all too big for just the role of leading the third biggest party.

Previously when Liberal Democrat leaders spoke, it might get a mention on page 7 of the Guardian. But now things are different. Rarely a day goes by without a prominent picture of our Nick.

I think history will remember Nick Clegg for being a man of courage and vision. He was the first Liberal Democrat leader to adopt an equidistant position between the two other parties, he was the first to have the genuine ambition for power, and, given all the knocks over the last year, and the fact that he carries on regardless, has proved to possess great courage and resilience.

Would any other Liberal Democrat leader have had the vision to go into coalition with the Conservatives knowing that many party members would be opposed? Would any other leader know that this was the best way to make at least some changes, and to show that the Liberal Democrats are prepared to be a serious party, responsible for governing?

David Steel told his party to go back to their constituencies and prepare for government – and he was mocked for it – but it came true (although probably taking longer than he had imagined).

What is wrong with ambition? Nick Clegg had the ambition to take his party into power – not controlling a few councils, not being known just for being nice people, but to have Liberal Democrats around the cabinet table putting policies into practice.

I didn’t join the SDP and then the Liberal Democrats to always be in opposition, to always be watching on while others played politics. I want us to be in power – again and again – to put into place as many of the policies I believe in. I want to see a Liberal Democrat Prime Minister in Number 10. I want to see Liberal Democrats no longer as the ‘joke’ party or the ‘wasted’ vote but to be taken just as seriously as the other two parties as an option for the voters to consider when choosing a government. What is wrong with all that?

One day, when we are back in opposition, I think many party members will miss having the Liberal Democrats in power. I know that I will.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Welsh Assembly Campaign - Part Three - The Hustings

It’s always a pleasure to meet Liberal Democrats from other parts of the country and meeting those in Ceredigion was no exception. Before and after the hustings, I met some new faces and answered questions – I was surprised to meet a former history lecturer from my university days. I also tried to calculate how much support I might get – to this end I was a little disappointed not to see more students present.

After the returning officer had arrived, it was down to business. I was first up and all eyes were on me.

Like I said in my last entry, I decided to give the ‘no-notes’ method a try and I don’t think I did too badly for a first go. (Practising to the seagulls of Aberaeron an hour previously had helped – although the seagulls didn’t seem too impressed). I managed to remember most of my speech but still tended to speak too fast – something I am working on.

As I addressed the meeting, I could see that my ideas were getting a mixed response. Some were met with a few nods, others a stony silence, while one person found the ceiling more interesting – which I thought was not a promising sign.

Speeches over, on to the questions. Unfortunately there were not many of these – so much of my preparation was not required. And at the end, the returning officer gathered all the votes and I was well beaten.

The successful candidate is a local councillor, Elizabeth Evans. On meeting her, I was instantly impressed, she was very well known and experienced locally, had great energy and enthusiasm, and has excellent people skills.

Ceredigion would have no better champion in the Welsh Assembly than Liz Evans and I hope she will be taking her seat next May. It is a consolation to know that, although I was not successful, I was beaten by a candidate of such high calibre. A by-election shortly after confirmed a large swing to the Lib Dems from Plaid Cymru, so, although the polls may say otherwise, I think with an effective campaign to add to a good candidate, there may well be a surprise in the Welsh Assembly election of Ceredigion.

That evening, I consoled myself in some old Aber pub favourites while watching Wales play the All Blacks and strolled around the old town on a bitterly cold evening recalling many happy years living in the town. The next morning, an early start to get to the station, and I left Aberystwyth once more. But anyone who has lived, worked or studied there can vouch for the fact that ‘Aber’ never leaves you.

Even though I was not successful, the whole experience of returning to Wales and applying for the nomination was enjoyable - and hopefully it will provide useful experience for when I try to find a seat to run for the next general election.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Happy New Liberal Democrat Year

A Happy New Year to you all – and it promises to be a good year indeed.

We have a year of Liberal Democrats in government – and, hopefully, many of our policies to look forward to. Much of our manifesto is in the government’s programme – it is a refreshing change to use it as a reference for our role in government instead of throwing it away as we usually do after each general election.

The argument about forming the coalition still goes on – so let’s all go to a parallel universe. Let us imagine that we did not talk to the Tories at all – and that instead the Conservative party formed a minority government.

1. The Liberal Democrats would once again be accused of being scared of power and responsibility (considering the number of members who have left the party over the last year then in many cases there may be a point here).
2. David Cameron would call another general election.
3. In this second election, the Liberal Democrats would not be able to campaign effectively (as we have spent all our money on the first election). Labour, temporarily under Harriet Harman, would remain shell shocked. And so the Tories would pick up seats from both parties to get a handsome majority.
4. We then enter 2011 with a ‘pure’ Tory government – which would still mean increased VAT and spending cuts but the main differences would be (i) no tax cuts for the lower incomes, (ii) no pupil premium for disadvantaged children, (iii) no cap on tuition fees which would go to £15,000 and beyond, (iv) absolutely no constitutional change at all (voting reform, House of Lords etc) and (v) helping the environment? You’re having a laugh!

The Lib Dem poll rating would hover around its usual 15% mark and many party members (now ex-members) would resume their sense of self-satisfaction in the purity of opposition.

The media would go back to ignoring us, there would be no Liberal Democrat ministers nor any of our policies in government.

By 2014 the PM would call an election at a time of good poll rating (no fixed terms). Our opponents and voters all say to us ‘you had the chance of power and you blew it – why should we waste our vote?’ With recovery under way, the Tories increase their majority.

Moving back to this world – we did talk to the Tories, we did do a deal, and we are changing things.

One world with Lib Dems in government, another with an exclusive Tory government. I think I know which I would prefer. Let's hope it is a Happy New Liberal Democrat Year to everyone.