The Liberal Democrat challenges for 2011: showing the difference Liberal Democrats make

Over the festive season we’re running a series of posts on the main Liberal Democrat challenges for 2011. You can find all the posts as they appear here.

When it comes to getting public support in return for making a positive impact on the coalition government, there are two requirements for the Lib Dems. It has to have achievements that people know are down to the Liberal Democrats and also to have achievements which add up to more than a scattering of interesting details. Unless there is a clear thread running through them, the details will get lost in the non-political noise that takes up most people’s attention most of the time.

The party has been moving away from the initial approach of loving everything the government does in public, with more of the disagreements showing in public. Unintentionally, Ken Clarke is turning into a key ally on this with his sensible liberal approach to justice policy regularly putting into the public domain how it is Ken Clarke and the Liberal Democrats versus the bulk of the Conservative Party on many issues. Without the Lib Dems, policy in this area would look very different.

Displaying such disagreements without wrecking the necessary relations for a function coalition will be a major challenge in 2011. So too will be ensuring that the many individual good pieces of news add up to an overall story. As I wrote over the summer being good ministers is not enough:

It’s reassuring to hear at first hand that Liberal Democrat ministers outside of Cabinet are managing to plough a Liberal Democrat furrow in their own areas rather than simply being junior implementers of a Conservative Cabinet member’s policy.

Reassuringly too for those of us who have seen local councillors disappear into the bureaucracy and do a hard-working diligent job but forget what it is that makes them Liberal Democrat rather than just an apolitical competent administrator, there looks to be some consistent liberal themes across the decisions being made. In particular, issues about empowering individuals and decentralising power come up time and again.

The trickier question, however, is whether a collection of liberal victories scattered through government will add up to a convincing overall picture for the public of what Liberal Democrats have achieved in government. 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.

Tim FarronTwo ways the party can meet this challenge is by better internal communications and using members and supporters as a campaigning resource. Half the Liberal Democrat ministers, for example, have both not sent any emails out to party members generally on what they’ve been doing since May nor placed a guest post online on a Lib Dem blog. [CORRECTION: the half figure includes Whips along with departmental ministers and Whips are generally more restricted in what they talk about in public.]

It is possible to be a really good communicator with party members and use neither of those routes – but in reality those who are not using either of those routes are also not communicating much through other means.

That said, the volume of internal communication has picked up and with Tim Farron taking up the post of Party President on 1st January further improvements are also likely. Tim being in post will give the party a high profile, media friendly figure who can argue the party’s case rather than the government’s case and – by not being a minister – will have more freedom to emphasise differences rather than similarities between the coalition partners.

As for using members and supporters as a campaigning resource, that is for tomorrow’s challenge…

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