Liberal Democrats love debating policy. With good reason – add together the number of policies other parties have lifted with the number of policies the Liberal Democrats have successfully implemented, and the party needs a hefty policy production line to have enough to keep going.
Parties need policies. But they also need votes. Tallying up election votes looks much worse for the Liberal Democrats than tallying up the number of policies implemented.
No wonder then that the Liberal Democrat Autumn conference in Glasgow has also been packed with training sessions, briefing events and references in speeches to how the party can win over more support.
The problem is that much of it is misguided.
It’s misguided because the apparently super-rationale, evidence-based approach to crafting electoral strategy, deploying segmented mailings fuelled by opinion poll (often misleading) crosstabs with decimals points to work out the best messages to aim at the right people often has it back to front.
Yes, the evidence shows that many people willing to think about voting Liberal Democrat also think the party hasn’t achieved enough in government and hasn’t stopped enough Tory policies. But the answer to their scepticism isn’t to drown them in a factual list of policy achievements (useful though they can be).
That’s because the causation is the other way round. People don’t decide not to vote Lib Dem because they give a bad rating to details of its record. Rather it’s because they’ve decided not to vote Lib Dem that they then give a bad rating to details of its record.
This is a very common finding in political polling. People have a party preference and then answer other questions based on that preference. Those other answers aren’t the cause of the preference; they’re the symptom. That’s why when a party goes up or down in the polls, the answer to a whole stream of other questions about it trail along, all changing at the same time.
And in the current Lib Dem situation?
The underlying problem is one of trust and principles.
The party needs to persuade people that being in coalition with another party is consistent with sticking to your principles (it is – because that’s the way you get more of your principles turned into action).
The party also needs to persuade people that cohabiting with another party doesn’t mean liking it. Rather, the party is doing it despite not liking the Conservatives – because that’s the best way to make our country fairer and stronger.
Policy details can help illuminate the answers to that, but they’re the supporting evidence, not the message.