What do ‘serious parties of government’ do? And what does it mean for how the Lib Dems need to change?

We’ve heard a lot from Nick Clegg and the people round him that we need to be a ‘party of government’.  Almost all Lib Dems agree with that – although many disagree strongly that this also means that we should stop being ‘a party of change’ and turn into a ‘party of the status quo’ – as our recent European campaign seemed to suggest.

But let’s focus on what we all agree on – and focus on the importance of being a ‘serious party of government’. Here are a few thoughts on what other ‘serious parties of government’ do differently to the Lib Dems and what that might mean for how the direction of the party needs to change.

Here goes:

‘Serious parties of government’ make pledges and, generally, try to keep them

One of the stranger consequences of the tuition fees catastrophe is that the leadership and leadership loyalists have decided that the Liberal Democrats shouldn’t make pledges any more.

The other ‘serious parties of government’ don’t agree with them.

While Labour don’t always appear to be serious about government now, they certainly were under Tony Blair in 1997.  Remember this?

Labour's 1997 General Election Pledge CardIt’s a pledge card.  It even has the word ‘pledge’ written on it. And Labour were pretty serious about keeping to them.

What about the 2010 pledge from David Cameron on government support for pensioners?

He’s kept it – even though it’s far more expensive than, say, the tuition fees pledge.  And he’s just made another couple with a 2017 referendum on Europe as a ‘cast iron pledge and another pledge to pensioners to increase the pension by 2.5% a year till 2020.

And this is hardly surprising.  People want to know what ‘serious parties of government’ want to do in the future.  This is particularly important in a coalition when there’s a real danger of giving the impression that what the government is doing is all you’re about.

That’s why the Conservatives are smart to be making pledges. And why it’s wrong for the Lib Dems to have decided they’re always a bad idea.

When in coalition, ‘serious parties of government’ make clear what they’re being stopped from doing

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have taken almost diametrically opposed approaches to communicating their achievements in coalition.

Nick and his central team of advisors have gone with a “what we’ve got and what we’ve stopped” strategy – outlining Lib Dem achievements in Government – and what we’ve stopped the Conservatives from doing.

David Cameron and the Conservatives have gone with a “what we’ve got and what we’ve been stopped from doing” strategy and haven’t put any effort into telling voters what they’ve stopped the Liberal Democrats from doing.

David Cameron’s strategy is working better.

Ultimately this is hardly surprising. While not repudiating the achievements of the coalition, the Conservative strategy makes it clear that they want to be doing something more and different to what the coalition government alone is able to achieve.

The Liberal Democrat strategy does the opposite. It reinforces the Conservative message (always a bad sign) – and does nothing to give any steer on what the Liberal Democrats would be doing or trying to do if governing alone or negotiating a new coalition.

Focusing on what you’ve stopped the Conservatives doing also reminds people of what you’ve not stopped the Conservatives doing – which, unavoidably in a coalition, is going to include a bunch of things your supporters are unhappy about.

In essence, it leaves the Liberal Democrats defending the coalition as the best of all possible worlds, rather than making clear – as we should always be doing – how we want things to be better than they are today.

Not smart. Not something that ‘serious parties of government’ do. And something that needs to change.

The most successful ‘serious parties of government’ challenge the status quo

Political theorists like to contrast establishment parties and challenger parties, but real life experience suggests that the most successful politicians and ‘serious parties of government’ are able to ride both horses.

Keith House has laid out the case for being a ‘party of government and a party of protest’ on Lib Dem Voice – and I had a go on the BBC on the issue of not being a ‘party of complacency and the status quo.

Even more simply, Nick Clegg was the insurgent in the 2010 Prime Ministerial debates and won (at least the first one). He was the representative of the establishment in the 2014 EU debates and lost. Of course, that’s not the whole story. But a large chunk of the British electorate – left, right and centre – are looking for change from where we are today – and only one person in the 2014 debate was seen to be offering it.

Two of the most striking examples lie outside the Liberal Democrats.

It’s no coincidence that Britain’s most electorally successful Prime Ministers – Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – started out being seen as outsiders challenging the status quo and having an agenda for change – and stayed that way more or less until the end.

Margaret Thatcher – to put it mildly – never gave any sense of satisfaction with the status quo or with the establishment until the day she died.

In both cases this could put them in conflict with members of their own party, but this was generally because they were seen as wanting to change things too much or too quickly – and not because they appeared to be taking things too slowly.

And it wasn’t just something that happened to get them elected first time. It was something they kept doing all the way through their terms of office.

Is that all there is to it?

Unfortunately not. There’s the small matter of delivering distinctive policy in government (and not just what was agreed back in 2010 in the coalition agreement) – and having the right set of policies that take you beyond the status quo.

It’s possible for a policy to be radical, promised in your manifesto and wildly unpopular – as Margaret Thatcher discovered with the poll tax.

But a complacent defence of the current situation and treating the coalition government as the best of all possible worlds is no longer an option. If the leadership of our party could learn from other ‘parties of government’, start telling us what they want to do if they weren’t held back by the Conservatives – what we’d be delivering if we had more MPs and a stronger position in Government – and get the party back to challenging the status quo, it would be a huge step in the right direction.

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11 Responses to What do ‘serious parties of government’ do? And what does it mean for how the Lib Dems need to change?

  1. Robert Brown says:

    Excellent blog.
    For the majority of the public at large I would imagine that they would be hard pressed to come up with any policy with which they associated the Libdems apart from staying in Europe.
    In fact, so would I.

  2. Paul Griffiths says:

    Re: Pledges. Not quite. What PPCs shouldn’t be doing is making pledges that aren’t in the manifesto (e.g. the NUS tuition fees pledge) unless they are constituency-specific.

    • Martin says:

      But it was in the manifesto. Or rather it was a very very watered down version of what was in the manifesto.

      This is what the manifesto said:

      We will scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.

      And this is what the pledge said:

      I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.

      A policy that was, in essence, free – since leaving the system unchanged incurs no extra cost.

      The leader signed it. The party sent out an email saying it was OK to sign. It was much milder than our manifesto policy. We’d also been running with the policy to scrap tuition fees since the 1990s – year after year – election after election – it was a signature policy (along with Iraq) and indelibly linked to people’s perception of us as a party.

      So why wouldn’t you have signed it? Wouldn’t it have seemed rather odd not to?

    • Martin says:

      As a quick PS, I’ve been campaigning against tuition fees since 1984. It really would have been very peculiar not to sign.

      • Paul Griffiths says:

        I may perhaps get the time to comment on this more fully, but for now:
        (1) A manifesto policy is qualitatively different from a personal pledge made by an individual PPC (remember, not all LibDem PPCs did sign the NUS pledge – although all the ones who got elected did). Implementing a manifesto comminment requires (a sufficient amount of) executive power. Keeping a personal pledge (should) only require that you get elected.
        (2) I’m not blaming you or any other PPC for signing it. To you, them, and the party leadership, it seemed like a “no brainer” for all the reasons you mention. Only the perspective of hindsight reveals what a disasterous decision it was.

        • Martin says:

          It was the combination of campaigning to scrap tuition fees continuously for more than 10 years – year after year – election after election, making the pledge and then trebling fees that was the disaster.

          We may need to agree to disagree, but given that the campaigning and the pledge were objective reality in 2010, the decision to then break the (zero cost) pledge was – by far – the biggest mistake of the three.

  3. Pingback: On Being A Party Of Government – Not A Party Of The Status Quo | Gareth Epps

  4. Bill le Breton says:

    For instance now, Martin, we should be compiling from local consultation a list of what we want in the Autumn Statement and campaigning all summer locally and nationally for these initiatives.

    Of course that means that the leadership has to be willing to surrender some of its power to local activists and actually through them to people in their communities.

    This time each year I call for this. This time last year I actually got Paddy to agree to it, but it is not something that can be ‘conjured’ without community involvement. Clearly whoever Paddy asked to action it, put it in a waste paper basket.

  5. Eleanor Bell says:

    Excellent analysis. But don’t agree (previous blog) that a change of face solves everything.

    The other disastrous and frankly ludicrous damage to our credibility early in the coalition was the AV campaign. Too early, too long, too irrelevant immediately after the banking crash – ordinary people had other things on their mind. Cameron cynically agreed to allow a referendum, then deployed a devastating counter campaign in the last month. Pusillanimous response by the AV alliance and a classic U turn by Labour who promised to support, then read the runes and backed out.
    Coming on top of not abstaining let alone opposing trebling tuition fees, the dysfunctional AV campaign did for our credibility in a big way and meant that this important policy can not be resurrected for a generation.

    Credibility actually recovered a bit with pension reform and tax thresholds – I base that on the doorstep not the media. No one raised tuition fees with me during this campaign except one mother with a 3 month old baby who agreed a lot could change in the next 18 years. They were grateful and interested to have the EU elections, regions, party list system etc explained to them as there is very little public understanding of that. Lib Dem leaflets which focused on Stop UKIP and the Tories did nothing to make it clearer to them.

  6. Rupert Pitt says:

    Very thoughtful analysis. There are four things that deeply worry me about the LDs at the moment. First they do not talk or argue for RADICAL reform of the EU. Whilst the EU has many good qualities it needs deep reform and accountability. All I hear from the LDs at the moment is more of “we are the party of Europe”. Secondly what is the coalition policy on housing? A necessity, along with food and housing is beyond most people’s reach. Why have the LDs not developed a housing policy.? What is their policy on unemployment? The unemployed need help with training for work and I am not aware of any policy. Fourthly why has there not been any deep legislation to control bankers and finance? They got us into this mess. During the 2010 TV debates Nick Clegg was the only debater to refer to greedy bankers. The Tories in the 1980s said they would reform the unions and they did, quite rightly. Why no similar enthusiasm to reform the Bankers? There are also other matters which worry me about the LDs. I support students paying fees but not at £9k. Why the abrupt change? Why has there not been clear criticism of corporate greed and legislation to stop it? Even the modest Swiss had a referendum about it. Why the absurd road building plans and bit radical support for public transport? The time is here for pledges as Martin has stated.

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