Complete this sentence in the most apt and original manner:
"I know the Lib Dems don't have much chance round here, but I am going to vote for them because they stand for..."It’s like one of those tie-break questions that used to feature on competitions on various grocery products from when I was a child. In fact, it’s the question posed by this blog’s regular author in his recent piece The danger of silver linings for the Liberal Democrats. He identifies it as the key question that we need to answer in order to, once again, extend our appeal beyond our current areas of strength. I’d like to use this article to set out some options and suggestions of my own.
But how do we answer the question? How do we set out our stall in the years leading up to the next general election? (And it must be in the years leading up to the election - we can’t leave answering this question ‘til 2015.
First, though, how have we answered it in the past? The 2010 election manifesto was quite clear - the cover proudly proclaimed that we were in favour of:
- fair taxes - that put money back in your pocket
- a fair future - creating jobs by making Britain greener
- a fair chance - for every child
- a fair deal - by cleaning up politics
In fairness (do you see what I did there?) the four cover pledges were outlined in more detail on the 4th and 5th pages of the manifesto. My point it we need to be putting specific reasons for voting for us front and centre - and for the highest profile promises to be implementable.
So what are those reasons? How do we give people an answer to our question? Or, rather, how do we give people reasons to positively vote for us - however they phrase the question for themselves?
It’s become a truism to say that national success is built on local success. This was part of the BBC’s narrative in reporting Labour’s results last week - and has historically been true for us. Whilst we have lost many councillors, we have not lost those people - or the chance to contribute to communities and demonstrate Liberal Democratic principles from the ground up.
We need to demonstrate the difference that Liberal Democrats are making to individuals. By which I mean positive messages about what our policies are achieving for people - the net tax saving of the higher Personal Allowance, the amount of pupil premium in local areas - rather than abstract principles and national figures. Make it personal and tangible.
Be pragmatic. It is often said that politics is the art of the possible. We need to learn the lesson the lesson of the Tuition Fee Pledge and not over-reach or over-state our commitments. And in circumstances where a hung-parliament is a possibility we should make our priorities clear - and those priorities should be in tune with people’s priorities. Ultimately, they should be believable.
Linked to the point above about talk of fairness and making things personal, is the need to be explicit. We cannot go into the next election just talking in terms of softening Tory policies or neutering the right wing - we need to point to the implementation of specific Lib Dem policies and the work of Lib Dem secretaries of state and ministers.
As well as making realistic commitments we should show not just that they are achievable but also how. It is here that we should harness the knowledge and skills gained in parliament. In this context Danny Alexander’s role is key - at the next election having in-depth experience of the workings of the treasury will be invaluable in that regard. Vital, as our policies will be under scrutiny as never before.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, I believe that we, as party, need to get out of our “left and right” mindset. If the other parties want to play at that, then let them. We are a party of the centre ground which they like to camp on. But, whatever they like to say from time to time, neither have the liberal instincts that unite us. Nick was right when he said we had our own label - the Liberal ground is ours and there are liberal-minded people who need a home for their vote.
It’s been a difficult couple of years. We’ve been party to a number of decisions we wouldn’t have made ourselves. And there’s more to come. But we shouldn’t be ashamed of entering coalition to provide a stable government and to stabilise the economy. And we shouldn’t be ashamed of taking the liberal ground and relating all we do - locally and nationally - to our liberal sensibilities.
I’m not sure any of these things are particularly radical or, indeed are they all things that we are poor at at present. Perhaps we just need a little bit more focus (excuse the pun). There is a time and place for navel-gazing but sooner or later we need to move on. The next few years will be tough, as will the next election. But we’ll only ever have hope for future success if we have the courage of our convictions now. Taking a stand on our ground within the coalition and taking a stand out in the country too.
A final word to those that suggest we should walk away - the original justification for entering the coalition remains and our budget input - personal allowance increases, capital gains tax increases, the so-called “Tycoon Tax” amongst other things - would not have been delivered and would not continue to be delivered under a Supply and Confidence agreement. If the Tory right want to break the coalition, then let them. Meanwhile, we must urge our ministers to redouble their efforts to implement and communicate Liberal policies.