Tuesday, 4 October 2011
We need to stop acting like children
At the Lib Dem autumn conference last month we had some wonderful statements about the tories by senior figures within the party. We had jokes and mockery at their expense and we had some wonderful reminders of just how horrible the tories are.
Well, I won't deny that I enjoyed that. I find the tories as loathsome as anyone else, after all. But upon reflection I'm very worried that, as good as it feels, saying stuff like that could seriously damage the party.
Ever since the AV referendum we've been pursuing a strategy of differentiation with the tories. We've had Vince Cable sounding off at the tories, Tim Farron calling Thatcherism organised wickedness, their opposition to the Human Rights Act disparaged, and so on. But, as much as I might agree with that is being said, it hasn't helped us in the polls. Regardless of which pollster you prefer (go, go ICM!) our figures have remained pretty much static ever since the start of the differentiation strategy.
The tories meanwhile, appear to have got the hang of it. At their conference, bar the occasional jibes, they've been rather nice or neutral about us. If you look at Theresa May you see the perfect example of how to do differentiation. In an interview she said she, personally, would like to scrap the Human Rights Act as it stops the Home Office deporting terrorists and foreign criminals. The next day Cameron came out and backed her up, saying that he too would like to scrap the HRA but that they were in coalition and that compromises were necessary.
Now, aside from the fact that they are completely and utterly wrong, that the HRA was based on ancient British liberties and that the HRA protects us from inconvenient things like being shot by the police for calling Cameron a tosser, they actually handled it brilliantly. Here was a bit of red meat for the troops, this was what they wanted to do and they would do it if they weren't in coalition for the greater good of the country - which is code for "This is what a tory government would do, if you like the sound of it then vote tory next time."
Both Cameron and May got their policy difference from the Lib Dems across and yet did it while sounding mature and grown up, making it clear that this was a compromise because coalition but that they differed immensely from the Lib Dems on this issue.
In contrast, our sabre rattling looks childish. People won't see us and think, "Ah hah! They're completely different from the tories after all!", they'll think "Look at those childish idiots. They insult their coalition partners and yet still go along with policies they disagree with just to get their hands on power".
We all know that that isn't the case but that is the message we send out.
If we want people to see us as genuinely different from the tories then we need to act like grown ups. Where we disagree with the tories we just need to say so, explain why we do so, and make it clear what we would do things differently if we were government on our own.
Our biggest failure is communication. We will never win back support by just making fun of our coalition partners. The only people it will please are those who already agree with us. We need to make it clear to people what our achievements in government are and show how we ideologically differ from the tories. And, to be quite honest, I wish as much effort was going into that from the leadership as went into coming up with speeches insulting the tories.