Role reversal for the Liberal Democrats

Hopi Sen has blogged thoughtfully several times recently about the risk to Labour of slipping into focusing on the tactics without getting the strategy right. In Labour’s case that means, for example, an undue focus on how to next best shout “those cuts are awful!”, rather than working out how to deal with the public mostly blaming Labour for the need to cut in the first place. Tactical triumphs at PMQs only gets you so far; rebuilding a reputation for economic competence is what is needed to win – as William Hague found in his time as Conservative leader.

The Liberal Democrats face a similar tactics versus strategy dilemma, though of a slightly different sort. In the past the party has been much better at tactics than strategy but is now facing a reversal of that familiar position.

Previously the party pulled off individual campaigns and by-election victories but did not manage to alter the fundamental public perceptions of the party such as – “they’re never going to win” or the party’s low ratings in the “party with the best policies for issue X” stakes save for environment and education. Even the heydays of Vince Cable as Shadow Chancellor and Deputy Leader did little to lift the public’s overall perception of the party on economic matters.

Paddy Ashdown pulled off one strategic success, abandoning equidistance, getting a decent package of constitutional reforms agreed by New Labour before the 1997 general election and fighting an election campaign in which the party wasn’t dogged by the “but who do you really prefer?” question. That success turned sour as he pursued his talks with Tony Blair too deeply and for too long and overall the party’s record was one of being much better at political tactics than strategy.

In coalition government that record has been flipped round. On strategy, a clear course has been set that is very different from the party’s past. The party is in ministerial office, demonstrating how hung Parliaments do not have to mean political and financial instability and (perhaps most controversially) with a very clear strategic messaging approach of loving the Tories in public. Whatever you think of the strategy, it’s a clear one and being thoroughly implemented.

But at the tactics the party is doing rather less well. Most notably, coming up in a few weeks will be a vote on higher education funding where the Parliamentary Party in the Commons will almost certainly split three ways – many ministers voting for a modified version of the Browne report, some ministers and MPs abstaining and other MPs voting against. There are many ways of describing that. “A masterpiece of Parliamentary tactics” is not one of them.

Some of the party’s tactical slip-ups earlier in the summer can fairly be put down to the problems from ministers and staff taking time to find their feet in government, the loss of Short Money with the resulting redundancies and so on.

As Mark Thompson put it on Lib Dem Voice earlier in the month,

I suspected when the government was first formed back in May that the public, activists and back-bench MPs would take a good while to adjust to the reality of coalition politics. What I was not really prepared for however was for Lib Dem ministers to find it so difficult to find a way to communicate the realities of what is happening within the government.

They need to find a way and quickly, otherwise how can they possibly expect Lib Dem activists to be able to do so on the doorstep?

The day-to-day tactical street fighting nous that a successful party needs, and which was essential in opposition for the Liberal Democrats to get heard at all, has been on an extended holiday. Mark’s correct to highlight the role of ministers, but it also extends to the Special Advisers. Overall, they are a really talented group of people, with a long commitment to the party and numerous examples of being a candidate, agent or other campaigner behind them.  They are also, however, dominated by policy expertise and it is no coincidence that the party’s internal communications about the coalition’s work is better at providing policy answers than political ammunition.

As I put it in July:

The danger is that, rather like a good speech writer, the party may end up making many significant changes to government, improving what is being done, but whose good work is not noticed by the public as it is behind the scenes.

The challenge for the party – at all levels – is to be seen as more than that. That both requires, as people get to grips with their jobs in government, a stronger flow of information from the parts of the party in government and also the usual hard work at publicising the party’s work by local parties, helpers and supporters.

Strategy and policy are important, but they are not enough for a political party to thrive – and without a thriving party, all the strategy and policy is but abstract day-dreaming.

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