Another month, another set of “priorities”
Fictional portrayals of politics involve actors hurtling through dramatic events. Something has happened? Quick, react by doing two things – and hustle along so you get them both in before the next ad break.
What they don’t involve is tedious, obsessive repetition. Which is understandable as that would have the audience fleeing more quickly than Liberal Democrat voters given sight of a Westminster coalition.
But they also therefore obscure the banal reality of effective political communications. Most of the time most of the public barely notice anything about politics. Which is why – short of the world-wide headline grabbing moments – tedious, obsessive repetition is needed to get any message over.
The key judgement required is to understand when your would-be tenacious reiteration has not yet been going for long enough and so should be persevered with, versus when the lesson is that the message is not going to work and needs changing instead.
So what to make of the fact that, once again, the list of “priority” issues the Liberal Democrats are meant to be concentrating on has changed? The latest occasion was the Queen’s Speech, for which the Liberal Democrats produced their own alternative legislative programme.
It is a good alternative programme, which would create a very different – and more liberal – society and economy than the plans Cameron’s government set out.
Top of the list was education, which was notable for its omission from the lists of priorities early in Tim Farron’s time as party leader. That is a change of direction widely welcomed in the party. It follows the success with concentrating on education in Scotland and fits with the traditional approach of seeing education as central to giving people power over their own lives in a liberal society.
The test will be whether the top billing now given to education is really seen through. Is it still top dog come Tim Farron’s autumn conference speech? When the first post-referendum National Campaign Day comes round, will it be on education? And, at a prosaic but telling level, will the party’s Connect database be updated to allow proper storing of the sort of education detail about voters which is the best predictor of their likelihood of having liberal values (for details on which, see my pamphlet with David Howarth)?
Of course, all those things could happen. But there are warning signs elsewhere in the Lib Dem version of the Queen’s Speech that the party has not yet got to grips with setting out a small set of priority messages and then remorselessly promoting them through all it does.
Mental health, for example, has been one of the party’s most frequent issues both before and since the general election, and was top of the list in material produced for the party’s spring conference. Yet this time it was demoted to being in the ‘oh and we’d also do…’ list at the end of the main Queen’s Speech plan. Down there too in the also rans list was a housing bill, the issue which Tim Farron for many years made his signature issue.
An optimist would say those were signs of tough and major choices being made over priorities, focusing in on health, education and the economy – all major issues for voters – and looking for a liberal twist in each.
But, but, but… the noises from elsewhere in the party are that this has not been a carefully considered change of direction, and rather is more of a tactical flirtation, of just the sort that happens when you don’t have a ruthless focus through all you do.
One other warning sign in that regard: second billing in the priority list was given to a Future of the Economy Bill. Readers who know me would rightly expect me to be cheering the high profile given to Bill which prompted the party to say, “new technology is shaking up every sector of business and the skills and infrastructure we need to compete if our economy is to continue to grow.” This is certainly a welcome move on from the sort of policy-making that caused me to say of a draft general election manifesto at a Federal Policy Committee meeting that “it is written as if the internet didn’t exist”.
But, but, but… once again, for you do not have to go very far to see how frequently a rejection rather than an embrace of technological change infuses public statements by senior Liberal Democrats. They don’t like Uber, for example (and understandably so given its issues with tax, snooping on journalists and the like). But there should be a world of difference between not liking the way Uber operates and defending the status quo. However, once you get beyond the ‘we don’t like Uber’ statements from senior Lib Dems, there is almost no mention of wanting a future in which technology changes the status quo and brings cheaper, safer and more convenient travel options for everyone, rich or poor, central London or elsewhere.
So was this Lib Dem Queen’s Speech the start of a well planned change in direction that will be carried out across the party’s range of activities? Or was it simply a smartly written and tactically astute press story that was at odds with other parts of what the party is doing and saying because the party isn’t joined up?
Time will tell… but it is certainly good news that the party’s governance review will be putting proposals to autumn conference to improve the party’s strategy making.