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.