Chatting recently to a Liberal Democrat colleague, I fear we sounded like a second-rate version of the Monty Python four Yorkshiremen sketch.
That there were not four of us, none of us are from Yorkshire and I’m no John Cleese probably didn’t help the imitation as we exchanged tales of past poll ratings (10%? I remember when we used to dream of 10%) and the travails of leading figures (Speeding? You were lucky – what about missing Parliamentary debates due to drink? Pah, that was luxury. What about conspiracy to murder?).
Exchanging stories of past problems can be fun – especially as it recalls too just how improbably brilliant our victory in the Dunfermline by-election, in the midst of all the post-Kennedy disasters. One of my favourite election memories is returning from Scotland the weekend after with Paul Rainger driving and me reading out to him the commentary from awe-struck political commentators who couldn’t quite believe what they had just witnessed.
But we can’t assume that similar future events will automatically occur to boost the party’s popularity, especially given how often we’ve relied on the past in winning by-elections from the governing party.
Instead we need to both improve our ability both to cope with the political weather and also even to make some of the political weather.
A key factor in this is the changed attitude of the tabloid press. Pre-coalition their coverage was mostly either knocking or ignoring the Liberal Democrats. That meant the reaction to stories was often to ignore them, in the (often justified) hope that they would quickly blow over and that the quicker they were over the sooner the tabloid paper in question would stopping running knocking stories and revert to ignoring the party.
David Laws got it right and Chris Huhne got it wrong
That pattern no longer works in government. The knocking stories will just keep on coming. So one lesson in being better at donning the waterproofs to help get through stormy political weather is that, in PR terms, the party needs more often to be like David Laws than Chris Huhne.
That is, when faced with allegations, address them directly, quickly and firmly. David Laws’s comments have, of course, not won everyone over – but his quick and clear responses worked far better as an approach than Chris Huhne’s initial style of saying as little as possible as infrequently as possible.
Fast, to the point and fulsome responses – that’s the lesson many on the left learnt in the late 1980s and early 1990s as Labour in the UK and the Democrats in the US struggled to win in a hostile media landscape. “Speed kills” was the lesser known sister slogan to “the economy, stupid” that adorned Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign war room. It was about more than rebuttal, but it was about rebuttal – responding to attacks quicker than they can be made.
Like it or not, Lib Dem members read Guido Fawkes
Second, and related to this, is the need to understand how the internet has speeded up the media cycle. It’s a familiar enough comment to have become a cliché, but even so often does not result in the necessary speed of response.
The role of Guido Fawkes is a good example for I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Liberal Democrat communication (or would-be) people talking a day or two after he’s published a story about how to respond or – even worse – not appreciating that his blog is one of the most well read online news sites amongst Liberal Democrat members and helpers.
Don’t treat supporters as passive spectators
Third – and particularly because the implication of points one and two is that over-worked staff need somehow to find more hours in the day or more resources to call on – is a return to one of my regular themes about needing to see party members and supporters as active participants, not passive spectators.
Whether it is supporters writing letters to newspapers, members ringing radio phone-ins, bloggers accumulating the evidence for a key argument or activists working the Press Complaints Commission rules or editorial guidelines to make effective complaints there’s much that can be done to extend the party’s media impact.
Some of that requires other people in the party to take the lead or make decisions (hint, hint) but don’t fool yourself if you’re reading this by thinking it’s just an excuse to bemoan what others do.
It’s up to you too.
That, after all, is what liberal and community politics is all about. There’s power out there, waiting for you to take it and use it.