Hearing both Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg speak several times at local Liberal Democrat events over the summer, something not quite right about their speeches was nagging away at the back of my mind.
It was not the delivery, for both have speaking styles which are excellently suited to the semi-formal audience of between 20 and 100 which is common at such events.
Nor was it about the consistency of message: without either lapsing into robotic repetition of the sort that served Ed Miliband so badly in his notorious public sector strikes interview, both in their different ways were echoing the same main themes. They managed that tricky balancing act of being consistent in the main messages without boring the audience or making the mistake Miliband made.
Nor was it about ideology, for both – rightly – talk often of the importance of having a strongly liberal approach to government and the need to fight for that within the constrictions of coalition government. Moreover the form of liberalism they espoused in these speeches was an inclusive one that people across the party could be comfortable with – and, to judge by the questions and reactions afterwards, not only could be but were.
So what was wrong? The problem is that the party’s message – as consistently laid out not only by Nick and Danny but also by others – is back to front.
The political messaging cliché is that you talk about how bad the past was and then offer hope for how good the future will be. The party, however, has slipped into doing the opposite: talking about how good the past was, in the form of 2010, and how tough the future will be, in the form of deficit-cutting.
The individual elements are all justifiable. 2010 was a good year for the party, with a coalition agreement negotiated that puts 75% of the Liberal Democrat manifesto into practice. For all the pain of some of that missing 25% – not to mention some of the Conservative Party’s policies that have gone into the coalition agreement – it is worth remembering that means in 2010 we got a majority in Parliament signed up to implement more Liberal Democrat policies that have been implemented in total across most of the previous century.
But talking about how good a result the coalition agreement was is talking about the past. It was signed in 2010, in the past. Talk of our major policy achievements is also largely of the past. Yes, the pupil premium will bring much needed help to pupils for years to come, but getting the pupil premium started is a story of 2010. So too for the big increase the basic income tax allowance and plans to increase it further. There will be news about that each budget for several years to come, but at heart it’s a story about the past: it is what we got the Conservatives to agree to in 2010.
The list goes on. It is an impressive list of policies, but it is a list where the high-profile, attention grabbing events and decisions were in the past, not the future.
The future instead, as painted by such speeches as those I heard, is about tough decisions and unwelcome policies.
That too was the message at the party’s Birmingham conference: lots about what the Liberal Democrats have done in the past (in fact too much, so that we ended up with too many things mentioned once and not enough concentration on a few key points that might start sinking into the voting public’s consciousness) and little in the way of positive vision for the future.
It is right to be tackling the deficit and to be frank that even in the most watered down Ed Balls’s version of deficit reduction there would be huge cuts that Labour shy away from talking about. Tough but necessary is not, however, a picture of a hopeful future.
So the party’s strategic messaging is turning convention on its head: talk up the past, be downbeat about the future. Yet this is a case when conventional wisdom has it right.
There is, to be fair, a hint of optimism for the future when Danny, Nick and others talk about what those tough decision will mean for how the public views the party. The hope is that the Liberal Democrats end up being seen as more economically credible than Labour and more socially fairer than the Conservatives.
It is not a bad image to be aiming for, save for one problem: you could aim for that image even if you do not have the slightest liberal bone in your body. Fairness is a good value to aim for, especially given how highly the public values it in parties. But talking of fairness is something that non-liberals do just as much as liberals. Our visions of fairness may be very different, but it means talking of fairness does not in itself give people a reason to go for a liberal party. The same too applies of course to having economically credible policies – that too is something people of all ideologies can try to lay claim to.
What the Liberal Democrats are missing, then, is a hopeful vision for the future that is distinctively liberal. The answer lies with community politics. Giving people real power to shape the futures of themselves, their families and their communities is such a vision. Taking power away from existing elites and helping people shape their own new local power structures separates community politics from its pale cousins of localism and Big Society.
Of course there are some overlaps between all three, but when done right – when done with the original vision of changing our power structures firmly in mind – community politics is very different, very Liberal Democrat and very optimistic.
A slightly shorter version of this piece appears in the latest edition of Liberator.