Saturday, January 14, 2006

Simon in Speedos: why perception is everything except substance

Another day, another government proposal that sounds vaguely plausible until you start thinking about it... I wonder if they do research sometimes, or whether they just devise some proposals in the bathtub and release them to the media to see if they float.

The idea is that having a national day (you know - bunting, street parties, binge drinking...) will cause people to realise the "united shared sense of purpose" of Britishness. Incase you're unsure what that purpose is - Britishness is apparently, erm, not blowing people up (perhaps I'm oversimplifying here). On the other hand, that's better than the government's previous attempts at defining Britishness which included the famous question about pint spilling (the correct answer is not 'prepare for a fight in the car park'). I hope not blowing people up is something that humanity in the main should be able to agree on, regardless of whether they are British citizens or not. Further, if you are deadset on carrying out a bomb attack then "the July 4th celebrations in the US and the common practice of many citizens having a flag in their gardens" are unlikely to cause you to embrace an integrated sense of Britishness and relinquish all thoughts of martyrdom.

How does this relate to the Lib Dem leadership election? Well, the take home message is that your sense of purpose and identity is important but you've got to decide what it is before you can promote it, and it's got to be about substance and not just stylistic things (like encouraging people to hang flags or knowing about brands of tea). Otherwise, you just look silly. In this election, we need to think about what identity we want to be promoting. And one of the best ways of doing that is deciding what's wrong with the identity that we're consciously or unconsciously promoting now. Here are some public perceptions:

First up, the Lib Dems are nice. Or, in the words of the Daily Mail (it's ok, I haven't sullied my browser by visiting the website. My parents used to get the Mail and I enjoyed shouting at it - kinda therapeutic): "Is the nice party turning nasty?". Being nice is a good thing - the Tories were the 'nasty party' for years which is why they brought in David "dolphin tattoo" Cameron and are trying to sound lefty.

Second up, the Lib Dems are in favour of higher taxation. This seems to be quite a common perception and not just in the Telegraph which writes about the "party's high-tax reputation". It's also mentioned here by Vince Cable MP who says that "Many voters still...associate us with high taxes and big spending." Higher taxation to fund public services/tackle inequality was an entirely fair position to take pre-1997 but the political debate has moved on. Labour "has increased a wide range of taxes" including National Insurance and a wide range of 'stealth taxes' such as fuel and tobacco taxes. The government has put money into public services like the NHS. The battleground is no longer ever-increasing absolute funding levels but devising novel ways to make that money work more efficiently. The government has attempted to address inequality but the mechanisms for doing so are complex meaning benefits are not claimed by those who most need them. It is for this reason that I think Simon Hughes' approach to discussing inequality and taxation are behind the times. And since he is perceived as being in favour of tax- and spend then he won't help us lose that reputation. We need to ensure that it's clear that when we want to increase some taxes, we want to bring others down.

Third up, the Lib Dems are woolly. A charge that gets levelled at us repeatedly by our opponents is that we have no ideology. You only have to take an article written today to get a bilious dose of the usual tired rubbish:

Very little unites Lib Dems other than a desire for power. They will be pro-European at Westminster but Eurosceptic in Eurosceptic seats; pro-cheese in Cheese, anti-cheese in Ham. Given that their vote is dependent locally on local issues, and nationally on how many people are fed up with Labour and the Tories, who leads them is irrelevant.

Oh, get real you silly person. This is so obviously utter underwear it doesn't even deserve the dignity of a detailed rebuttal except to make the very obvious point that if individual Lib Dems were THAT crazy about power they'd never have joined the Lib Dems since we haven't been in government for, erm, less years than Mark Oaten thinks. They'd be in the Labour party or something. But if you throw enough mud... so it's an image we want to lose at every opportunity. We need to avoid looking like we're writing down a "fairly random list of blandishments" and be serious about ideology. Having clear values and beliefs will make us stand out from the other parties since "there isn't space for three management companies in the centre of British politics" and will allow us to define a clear vision of the Britain that we want. It was the promise of a new vision and reforming zeal which captivated the imagination of voters and brought both Tony Blair (the Third Way) and Margaret Thatcher to power. It can break the Lib Dems through the 'third party' barrier in British politics.

I think that Chris Huhne or Menzies Campbell can give the right image of the Lib Dems. Which I vote for first and which second depends on how I think an STV election is going to play out. I'd recommend you all do the same...



  • At 1:10 pm , Blogger Tristan said...

    Just a note on the Britishness thing:
    The big problem with this is that Britain is not a nation state, it is a union of 3 nation states each of which has strong regional identities.

    Indeed, liberals have long recognised this, hense Gladstone's attempts at home rule of Ireland and more recently unwavering support for devolution and localism.

    What this tells us most about Gordon Brown is that he is a centraliser. Britain should be run from the centre not through local government (or even through national parliaments and assemblies).

    It also has shades of the laughable 'Cool Brittania' which Blair flirted with (and which always reminded me of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's song of the same name).

  • At 6:57 pm , Blogger Paul Leake said...

    The press are clearly wrong to suggest that the Lib Dems have no shared ideology (or at least to suggest that to a great extent than Tory or Labour), but while they have exaggerated on campaigning, there is something there to exaggerate. I think its largely because the Lib Dems as a party are a lot more active in local campaigns than the others - not being able to rely on the national swing or many safe seats. Where local campaigning has become an end in itself it does lead to a nationally inconsistent message because much of that campaigning is not based on a political principle but on a pragmatic 'what works' approach.

    There is also a difference in memberships - although not the way usually alleged. I've found that parties in Tory areas (where Labour are weak) are more lefty, having attracted many of the people who would otherwise back Labour. In areas where the Lib Dems are challenging Labour, natural Tories join the Lib Dems to get Labour out (particularly after the squeeze message has been shoved down their throats so often).

    One of the best things about the leadership contest is the ability to get local parties talking politics and ideas.

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