Some Lib Dem ministers should look at the latest mailing from party HQ and be embarrassed
As a follow-up to the Election Strategy Briefing posted out to party members in October, a Message Briefing has started hitting doormats, accompanied by tailored messages asking members to help in the nearest target seat.
The latter have been generally done well, and better than in previous elections, with customised messages from the relevant MPs or candidates, local contact details and a good balance struck between trying to direct people to help in specific seats and acknowledging that people may prefer to help elsewhere thanks to links with somewhere that isn’t the nearest seat spat out by a geolocation algorithm.
Where the mailing still struggles a little is in the top down nature of political activism it shows – a failure common through the party’s communications in this Parliament and something I’ve commented on before.
The mailing does give people a range of ways to campaign, from those online which take a few seconds through to offering up a substantial chunk of several hours a week. But it’s all about how people should slot into what the national party wants them to do rather than about empowering individuals. Some of that top down approach is necessary to make targeting at a general election effective but the party needs to be about more than just that.
Indeed, the idea of seeing party members as campaigning allies in a battle for liberalism still doesn’t come naturally to enough senior figures in the party. Witness the recent inside-Whitehall spat over civil liberties where Nick Clegg is, rightly, demanding judicial oversight for restrictions on people’s right to return to this country.
But where is the accompanying online and grassroots campaigning, to strengthen his hand, to mobilise liberals and to help win votes? Nowhere to be seen.
However, the bigger issue with the mailing is what it inadvertently says about the record of some Liberal Democrat ministers. For the Message Briefing sets out a selection of the party’s achievements in government, along with the party’s policies which are most popular overall with people willing to consider voting Lib Dem. It then also gives different ‘most popular’ list for sub-groups within that, such as Labour-leaning voters or voters with children.
What’s striking across all those different lists is how only a few Liberal Democrat ministers can point to their own record in government as having produced achievements or policies that the party will be focusing on for the general election.
Having equal care and waiting times for mental health as for physical health is in there and builds on the successful work of Norman Lamb as health minister in this area. Credit deserves to be shared, both with his predecessor Paul Burstow and with the party more generally. Indeed similar policies were there back in the Alliance’s 1987 pre-election policy book as I discovered on reading it over Christmas. But Norman Lamb can justly point at his ministerial record in both delivering a liberal policy and an electorally attractive policy for the future too.
Some other ministers can do that too, such as Lynne Featherstone whose work both on same sex marriage and against Female Genital Mutilation gets a rare double score for a minister for her. Even one non-minister can claim credit for part of the Message Briefing as Julian Huppert has been central to developing the party’s policy on a Digital Bill of Rights which also makes it into the Message Briefing as a priority to publicise to certain audiences.
But for an awful lot of Liberal Democrat ministers the verdict after five years in office is: you haven’t done anything significant and popular enough to feature either in the booklet’s list of achievements or in the list of policies to be prioritised at the general election.
That’s a pretty poor show.