Make It Happen: A Note of Caution

The Lib Dem blogosphere is buzzing with excitement about Make It Happen (pdf), which has indeed attracted some press reaction to it, as Stephen discusses. To this I just want to add my own paranoia. Here goes…

Lib Dem bashers frequently claim that we try to out-Tory the Tories in Tory seats, and that we try to out-Labour Labour in Labour seats (thus giving away their own belief in the natural order of things, and the specific tenet that there are only such things as Tory Voters and Labour Voters, “really, you know, deep down…”). Which is one of those analyses that’s so half arsed, it’s a good job nobody spends too much time thinking about it, or it’d fall apart. Because a moment’s thought reveals that the way to take a seat from a Tory is to bleed them of a few voters (if they happen to actually have more than 50% of the vote), and then persuade Labour voters, Green voters, etc. that to get rid of the Tory, they could do worse than vote for you. Now, I hate that idea, to be honest, but needs must as the Devil’s Very Own Voting System drives.

FPTP requires that you build a coalition. Every government which has gotten itself elected successfully has understood this. Every now and then, you can build a groundswell around a genuine point of ideology (eg. Thatcher?), but mostly you win by being moderate and sounding competent. The question for Nick Clegg here is, is this a time when a genuine feeling in favour of low tax is going to be big enough to drive voters his way. And, two years out from an election, there’s no point in me or anyone else making predictions about that.

But the point for Dave Cameron on this is that he long ago committed himself to the de-toxifying of the Tory brand, and he knows he couldn’t say what Nick has anyway, for exactly that reason. So if I was a Tory who subscribes to the idea that the Tories will win the next election on moderate-ness, not on hard Toryness – like, say, Iain Dale – then what would I try and do right now? I might start shouting long and hard about how Nick Clegg is leading his party into “a radical tax-cutting platform [that] has left the other two parties gasping”. I would say that it “marks the triumph of the so-called “Orange Booker” tendency”, and I might write something like:

He hasn’t just pledged a reduction in taxes; he has promised a cut in public spending, too. Admittedly, it is only £20 billion, a mere three per cent of total government spending, but it’s a start. And it’s a damn sight more than any other politician has had the guts to do.

The bonus point of selling the idea that the Lib Dems have now become the party of the government spending cut enthusiast (which Iain tries to do whilst not quite sounding like he’s actually saying he’s agreeing with us), is that part two of that narrative is to be used in debates:

“The Lib Dems now want to cut taxes, before they wanted to raise them. YOU CAN’T TRUST THEM!”

The amateurs are trying to jump to this step before they’ve done the groundwork of establishing that we are now a party of rabid taxcutters. But the professionals are letting this sink in for now, and just chipping in with their usual chippy bollocks about “yes, well, the Lib Dems can say what they like, etc….”

Can we not run headlong towards the idea that we’re now the party of a radical tax-cutting agenda unless we really are? Because as far as I’m aware, conference hasn’t passed anything other than the policy of cutting income tax at the low end so we can introduce LIT and implement the Great Green Tax Shift.

I hate to be a buzzkill and that, and I understand the imperative to get media coverage, I’m sure it’ll be good for the poll numbers and thereby for Nick’s narrative, and I’m not knocking that, really I’m not. But let’s not get carried away with all the media and start letting people put words in our mouths.

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Dale Has Dug Up A Slide Show, Cue Sarcastic Applause

Cast your mind back to March 2007. Ming is leading the party, Brown has yet to take power, and Spring Conference has just taken place. The one where, afterwards, people wrote things like

Sir Menzies Campbell steered the Liberal Democrats towards a coalition with Labour yesterday, effectively laying out the terms of trade by setting Gordon Brown five tests he would have to pass as prime minister.

Would it surprise you in the least to discover that the parliamentary party had been discussing this before hand? No, me neither. Still, it is a mark of how frightened of us the Tories are, and Iain Dale in particular, that he has posted quite extensively (for him) about this today, here and here.

Apparently, we are supposed to feel it is some kind of revelation that most Lib Dem voters would prefer a coalition with Labour to one with the Tories. Apparently, “gives the lie” to our position that we are not in politics to be an annex to another party, because our parliamentary party was looking at the possibilities.

Perhaps most desperate, Iain is trying to rake up some kind of scandal over the use of Henley Management College, because Chief Executive Chris Bones is a supporter of the party. He presents no evidence that anything improper has gone on, simply asserting that “his colleagues, … are growing uncomfortable with the Centre being used for party political purposes”. This use for party political purposes, it turns out in the next sentence, means four weekends over the space of a year. Which were in all likelihood paid for in the proper manner.

Dale tries to imply that there is something controversial in the following:

The PowerPoint presentation used in the Henley sessions is a substantial document of 50 pages and fully branded by Henley. So if Bones did this in his private capacity why is it branded ‘Henley’?. As it is branded ‘Henley’ it seems likely that Henley wish to be associated with it and that the College is claiming ownership of the work.

My reactions are twofold:

1. Is it not quite likely that this is Bones’s default slide format, and he just didn’t change it?
2. Is there any problem with it being associated with the college? There is nothing in the presentation, at least that Iain has shown us, that is in the least bit damaging to the college, or in any way a departure from the sort of very sensible judgment anybody could have displayed on the issues. Telling us that speculating about hung parliaments doesn’t help us in an election, you say! My goodness, that’s damaging!

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Here, Mr. Dale!

Iain Dale’s obsession with the Lib Dems continues today with an attempt to make Clegg look out of step with the party on the EU reform treaty (as long as for “party” you read “four bloggers”). He asks: “are there any LibDem bloggers at all who support their new leader’s calamitous stand?” Well, on the condition that I don’t accept the stance as calamitous at all (awkward, maybe), I would like to step forward.

Paul Walter has already put forward the best worded technical argument on this that I have heard (including from Ed Davey), and I don’t intend to retread that particular strand of the case against a referendum. If you haven’t read Paul’s post, read it, and then add the rest of my post to it, to achieve a full appreciation of my point of view.

My main reason for disliking the idea of a referendum is that it just seems like a really stupid way to work our membership of the EU. When these documents get put together, years are spent by our (constitutionally) elected representatives hammering out the clauses they want and those they don’t. There are now 27 countries in the EU, and they all have their own positions. It’s a long and drawn out process. Nonetheless, if we believe there is merit in membership of the EU at all, then it is a worthwhile one, and any treaty that makes the EU work better is worth negotiating.

Once all this stuff is put together, right at the end of the process of wrangling that has formed this constitution, its final step before being passed into law is for each country to ratify it. And this is the stage when it is appropriate for the British people (or the people of any other country, for that matter) to have their say?

Think of it this way. You commission an architect to design a building for you, on the basis of your brief for what it must do. They then go away, and get the building’s design accepted by your neighbours, which involves the odd compromise on one or two points. They have to change one or two building materials to comply with environmental regulation (quite right too!). They draw up a design. At the end of it all, they stand back and say “There you are, it may not be exactly what you wanted, but we did our best. You can now either accept the job we’ve done, or tear it up.”

What would be on offer to the public in a referendum on this treaty would not be a meaningful say on the treaty, it would be petulance. If we want to be in the EU, we have to accept that treaties must be negotiated, and must inherantly be compromises. If we don’t like what they come out with, we should not derail the process for the rest of the nations who are quite happy with the way it is going. There is no point in sending them back to the drawing board, we are unlikely to get anything better back if we do. If we don’t like it, we should leave the EU.

And that is why the referendum the Lib Dems are proposing is the only sensible one to be offered. Referenda are always blunt instruments, and the idea that a referendum is the appropriate instrument with which the British public should express a view on something like the contents of the EU reform treaty is barking. Not when we have already had, for some time now, a much more sensible instrument with which to do so: a representative democracy. Nobody could argue that a party’s position towards the EU was not a big issue in the minds of many when they elected the parties that they did.

(You might, of course, take issue with the way our representative democracy is organised. For instance, you might point out that the Tory party is not as outright anti-Europe as many of its MPs and supporters might like, and that as such, your only option for expressing an explicitly anti-EU stance is to vote for a party like UKIP with little chance of success. I know. Frustrating, isn’t it? Why not vote for a party with a committment to change that, then.)

So lets not waylay the EU’s progress any more. If the great British public are so set against the EU reform treaty, despite the government’s having done their best to negotiate it in our interest (it is not in their interest to do otherwise, surely?), then lets take the opportunity to leave them all to it. But lets not insist on remaining in the EU, sending them back to the drawing board with every attempt they make to reform the EU. And if we entertain the notion that actually, given an in or out vote, the majority would vote to stay in the EU, then can we also accept that membership of the EU entails a committment to compromise and due process, and that referenda are wholly inappropriate to that process?

When we passed Maastricht, there was a case for a referendum. When we entered the EC, there certainly was. And there is a case now for a referendum. And it is the one the Lib Dems are offering. But I just don’t see that it is in any way helpful to have a referendum on the reform treaty. Once we accept that we want to be members of something called “the European Union”, and that we do not want to be the only members of it, then we no longer have the right to expect it to be everything we might want. It belongs to other people as well. If, on balance, we don’t like it, we should get out of it.

And that is why what Nick Clegg has done is eminently sensible.

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Resignation Media Strategy

Sigh.

OK, Ming has done the right thing, and stepped aside. Just one thing to note here. The other parties are already spinning like mad on this one, and we need to be ready to rebut them. According to Iain Dale “It is clear that Vince Cable was the man who wielded [the dagger].”

Really? Because to me, he looked like a man quite genuinely surprised and shocked by the whole affair, both in his speech with Simon Hughes, and in his appearance on News 24 shortly afterwards, where he tried to steal Miliband’s blinking crown.

UK Daily Pundit gives us this:

The power-hungry trio of Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes, better known as the Rat Pack, are tonight expected to deny their involvement in the ousting of Ming Campbell as Lib Dem leader.

Widely suspected of organising the coup, all three will insist that Sir Ming’s decision to step down was entirely his own.

Again, pure crap. We have it from Nick Robinson that he “had been interviewing likely leadership candidate Nick Clegg for the News at Ten, and he had given Ming his full support“. It is obvious to anyone but the most instinctive political attack dog that the party as a whole is pretty bloody shocked at the swiftness with which this came.

Now, the party’s media arm has a very tricky job on its hands. The next few days will determine whether or not the other parties, and more particularly the media, can get away with pointing and laughing at the wounds they themselves have inflicted, by labelling us a shambles for having two leadership elections in as many years, and by painting our MPs as vicious backstabbers. So what we need now, more than ever, is a convincing strategy for media dominance over the next few days.

We have, perhaps unwittingly, made a good start. Ming not making his announcement personally means that, although this announcement will be top of tonight’s bulletins, we have a good chance of also getting our line on the news tomorrow as well. But for that to do much good, Ming needs to take a breath, suppress the upset and the anger which he must be feeling, and go out and give the most dignified and convincing performance of his life tomorrow. The management of the press strategy for this announcement will very likely be as important as the decision itself.

I would expect many members of the public, particularly older people, who after all are the most reliable voters, to have a great deal of sympathy with Ming. There is no reason why we should suffer from this announcement. Ming must tread a fine line between implying that ageist carping from the press has the power to end his career, and hammering home the point that the unpleasant and bigoted tone of much media commentary on his leadership was a disgrace.

He must make it clear, as it is already to someone watching the rolling news splurge that accompanied the announcement, that he has not been directly pushed, and that this is his decision not to let pride stand in the way of the party moving forward. Unfair as the media has been to him, we can’t do anything about the fact that this constant prattle was preventing us from making any headway on the issues. He has simply recognised that, and with regret, he has taken the decision to resign.

There must be no undignified early rush of candidates to succeed him. Remember, the media love personality stuff. If the “young turks” wait until after Ming has finished his set piece, then they can spin the coverage out further. Additionally, lets see a good strong field of candidates once they do come forward. Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, yes, but why not a few more too? Julia Goldsworthy? Steve Webb? Heck, even Charles Kennedy? We can lose nothing from showing off the wealth of our front bench.

Meanwhile, Vince has a chance to shine. He always goes down very well with voters who actually get to see much of him. He comes across as honest, even when it’s not in his obvious interest, and clear. Much of the political debate at the moment is centered around tax policy, so Vince has absolutely no excuse not to be able to shove us forcefully into the media agenda on his own terms. He may be a caretaker, but the great advantage of Lib Dem policy formation is that it is not determined by the direction the leader wants to go in, but by the members. Nothing about our values or policy has changed with the loss of Ming, and Vince has no good reason not to get out there and sell it.

The next week or so will probably do more to shape the environment which the new leader eventually inherits than anything else. Let’s not screw it up.

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How much do I trust Iain Dale?

Iain Dale has posted a distinctly gnomic post predicting some kind of significance attached to Gordon Brown writing in the News of the World. I suppose he may be onto something, but I also suspect he’s being slightly unforthcoming to promote his appearance on News 24 tonight. After all, if it turns out that what’s being announced is that there will be an election next year, then I guess most people would probably be quite happy to go to bed.

Anyhoo, I guess its worked, because I for one will probably be watching. Git.

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Electoral Calculus is A Bit Rubbish

One of the things which always happens when polling information comes out is that someone feeds the numbers into Electoral Calculus and quotes its considered opinion to illustrate what this new information would mean for the next election.

So it was today, for instance, over on Iain Dale’s blog. He posted a story about some Scottish polling data (mysteriously knocking 2% off the Lib Dems to begin with, now corrected), and within hours a comment appeared saying:

For Westminster seats electoral calculus converts this into SNP 51 (up from 6)seats and labour 8 (down from 41).

Lib dems & the other party are forecast to have nil.

As pointed out in another blog this in itself would eliminate labours UK majority at Westminster.

All very well and good, but when you look at the Electoral Calculus website, you do have to begin to question whether it really knows what it’s talking about. Any Lib Dem will instantly have their eye caught by their prediction that we are going to be absolutely slashed at the next election to 19 seats. So click on the link to which seats they see changing hands. Pretty much all the changes are Lib Dem losses. And most of them strike me as being completely based in fantasy land.

From my own background, I am somewhat surprised to see David Howarth apparently on the list to lose to Labour. This being Cambridge, a town which shows no sign of tiring of its status as an island of pretty solid yellow in a sea of blue. I know there are boundary changes, but having looked at them, I don’t think they pose a huge threat.

Others faced with the chop include Chris Huhne, Lynne Featherstone, Norman Lamb, Evan Harris, Michael Moore, Jo Swinson, and quite a few who I just can’t see losing their seat. So I thought I’d conduct a bit of an experiment. I put in the results of the 2001, 1997 and 1992 elections. Perfect polling data, so would it get it right?

Well, here’s a graph:


The white gradient-y ones are the genuine results, the solid ones the predictions from Electoral Calculus. In each case, it underestimates the party in power, and the Lib Dems. Now, I should mention to be fair that when you put the numbers in, it offers you the chance to put in a “Tactical Vote Swing” for each party, or in other words, to put in a fiddle factor to make things work right.

I sympathise with the difficulty of trying to predict elections, but really, is it such a good idea to authoritatively announce that the Lib Dems would lose so many seats on current polling data when, fed with real data from elections, the predictions it makes are wildly off, and always much too low?

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The Right-Wing Blogosphere Tamed?

There has been plenty of chatter on the Lib Dem blogs lately about Iain Dale and his increasing tendency to allow his credibility to be compromised in the service of carrying CCHQ’s agenda for the day forward a bit. I mean, come on; this is one by-election (for the Tories at any rate; they don’t stand a chance in Sedgefield). I know that, with the Brown Bounce and the none-too-rapturous reception their most recent policy announcement received, the Tories are desperate to show that the wheels haven’t come off their return to power. But really, is this a suitably impressive looking altar for Iain to sacrifice his credibility on?

The only reason I can think of for this bizarrely irrational behaviour is a belief that the result of the Ealing Southall byelection genuinely could unseat Ming (which I don’t think it could), and that if he was deposed, we would suffer hugely from it (which I don’t think we would – we have several great candidates for leader in the wings). Perhaps he thinks that a new leader wouldn’t have the time to bed in before a snap election if one were called. But if that is the case, he forgets that we fought and won the Dunfermline by-election with no leader at all.

Meanwhile, Guido has now similarly started to ditch the ostensibly independent-but-right-of-centre position that he has affected for as long as I have read his site. A little while back, Mr. Staines threw his weight behind Ireland’s Progressive Democrats in the Irish elections. In the last couple of days, however, he has fallen in line behind Boris Johnson’s campaign for mayor. Admittedly, not behind the Tory party per se (and we should acknowledge that he gave the Tory e-campaigning expert the reaction he deserved recently), just behind Boris. But one can detect a certain shift in tone towards Boris from, say, a month ago to now.

Last but not least, we hear of a Cameronite “balance” to ConHome in the pipeline.

Is it just me, or has the Tory blogosphere taken a distinct turn for the tedious lately?

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