Monday, January 08, 2007

Political Tactics in 2007

Once again "Lepidus" issues a challenge for this blog to respond to.

His basic point is that: "Manchester Withington [was] probably the most extraordinary Lib Dem result of all time. Bigger swings have been achieved, but really only in By-Elections. Tory vote drops by a third, John Leech elected.

Take two: Islington South close marginal, Lib Dem vote rises but so does the Tory vote! Result: Emily Thornberry MP.

That is is why Withington was won and I(slington)S(outh) not. There are scores of seats up the Country where Labour's machine has atrophied, with decent Tory votes but with the Lib Dems having surged into second. The Tory votes in such seats will indisputably be key as to your seat count. I bet Lord Rennard thinks so. Agree do you not......."

But actually it seems self evident that I do agree, and we need to ensure that we can get votes from both Labour and the Conservatives. The point I am making in my rant is what we need these votes for.

The battle for power in British politics has become a struggle for the supposed centre ground, with focus groups dictating the positioning of party policy. I believe that this has been entirely corrosive. I think that it is incumbent upon political leaders to have some moral backbone and to set out clearly their basic credo. This is why I have been so contemptuous of David Cameron thus far: his refusal to outline basic policy principles is a fraud against the electorate, since either he has such principles, but refuses to speak up because he fears that they may be unpopular, or that he has no such principles, in which case he is a moral pygmy.

The standard response from the Conservatives has been- I paraphrase- "stating policies is too much a hostage to fortune, and opens us up to attack from our enemies".

My response is that if the Conservatives have so little confidence in their own ideology, then perhaps they should pack up now.

I have considerable confidence in Liberalism as an ideology- I believe that the debates in our party are eliminating a lot of the waffle and injecting a properly Liberal demand to set limits on the size and role of the State. I believe that the Liberal agenda of Freedom and Personal autonomy are things that are necessary to our society, and that furthermore they will, when properly set-out, be popular too.

Once I might have said that the Lib Dem agenda, as an explicitly free market based ideology, would be more attractive to otherwise Conservative voters. Historically, the Liberals and the Liberal Democrats gained more when Conservatives were weaker than when Labour was weaker: so stronger in the two 1974 elections (19.3% and 18.3%), but falling back in the 1979 (13.8%) when the Tories surged to power. It was only in 1983, after the creation of the Alliance, that ex-Labour voters seem to have come to the Party in bigger numbers, and even that surge- to 25.4%- was blunted to only 22.6% in 1987. Subsequently the party changed its tactics in order maximise seat gains, but as a result the party remained below 20% until the 2004 election, when it received 22%, despite an increase in the Conservative vote- only the second time in my lifetime that both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat votes increased significantly at the same time (the other being 1983). However, the big question now is how bad is the disillusion with Labour? Although anecdotally, in such places as Wycombe, Labour are clearly in deep trouble, there is no polling evidence of a general rout of Labour.

What does this mean in the current political climate? Firstly I believe that we should not say too much about the programmes of the other two parties, but speak positively of our own agenda. However the blurring of the traditional Tory-Labour boundary, as a result of focus-group led politics, clearly may allow the Lib Dems to gain support from ex-Labour supporters, in a way that has hitherto been more difficult.

So far, so conventional.

I am beginning to think that some less conventional thinking is called for. The gradual decline in electoral participation rates, I believe, is our democracy beginning to show its age. The systems that we use are primarily 19th century in origin and the political system, including the parties, may be reaching a critical point. The are predicated upon ideas of the exclusivity of political decision making. Part of this blog is explore some of the issues that we will need to address, at a time when unexpected challenges are beginning to emerge to the general conventional wisdom about liberal, democratic States. Thus I think that ideas of personal autonomy and freedom will assume considerably higher significance as technology- including blogging- changes the nature of the political debate and potentially changes the nature of political decision making.

Thus the role of ideas, what might be called ideology, may prove to be of lasting significance, even while political organisations weaken still further. The internal compromises of party political policy making lose their emphasis in the more open forum which technology may provide.

On the other hand, technology may threaten our personal autonomy, with invasions of privacy on a scale that will be hard to control, unless the principles of freedom and privacy are built into the very structure of our political systems- and it worries me that too many politicians fail to understand, still less to grasp, the nature of the issues that we will have to address. Cameron has had an opportunity to demonstrate that his agenda engages with these future challenges: so far, no dice. It may well be that he can simply ride the political pendulum to power, if he does, though, he will be a failure. He needs to lead a moral and political debate, to demonstrate the credentials of his leadership: so far he has failed. He shows all the failings of his PR background, with no sign of a deeper understanding. Gordon Brown has such a moral agenda- as indeed, to be fair, has Tony Blair, its just that his principled stand turned out to be Iraq, where he was completely wrong at almost every level.

We can see that Brown will be different from Blair, but not necessarily better. He will continue to expand the state and to believe in micro-management. Liberal Democrats will oppose him with renewed vigour: Brown is an anti-Liberal. I don't even know what Cameron is, and as time passes, I don't much care either- he lacks the moral courage to speak out anyway.

10 comments:

vaba cymrulane said...

Cicero, the problem I think in politics is to differentiate those within a political party as 1) those who truly believe in the fundamental principles; 2) those who follow charismatic leaders semi-blindly; 3) opportunists willing to flip-flop; and 4) those who are really confused and conflicted.

The problem with British politics is that none of the three parties adhere to their principles, and they all fight in such a small middle that creates the opportunity for all these defections.

The LibDems was created as a merger of liberalism and social democracy -- as a rejection of Labour's flirtation with the Far Left. But now Labour is more centrist than what the Social Democrats were, and the party still has not re-defined itself.

Maybe what is needed is to just cast off the SD side and to re-create the Liberal Party, and see if you can get big defections like Churchill...

Cicero said...

Tere vaba cymrulane! Looking back the merger process was not so clear-cut. Many SDP memebers were liberal and several Liberal memebers were Christian Socialists (and very confused). It is not a question of casting off anyone- it is a question of recasting the party as a properly Liberal organisation, with a far more coherrent ideological approach. That is part of waht this blog is about.

Anonymous said...

Cicero. Have you observed local elections south of the trent at all. Next year Labour face annihilation south of that line. The Lib Dems will take a hit from renwed Tory strength there but will I predict make compensatory gains V Labour. I will pick you up on your other points later.


Lepidus.

Anonymous said...

Courage Consul. 90 days. Religious hatred/Rowan Atkinson bill. Shall I go on..........


Lepdus.

Cicero said...

Lepidus,

Agreeing with Liberal Democrat policies (a bit late) is no substitute for a coherrent political agenda- is DC ever going to deliver?

Anonymous said...

Cicero. There is no risk for a Lib Dem leader in risking the wrath of the Sun over 90 days. Therefore it is considerably riskier for a Conservative leader. You do seem to divorce from reality by compaining about the Conservatives not rushing out a new policy a week. It means they are doing what they should have done years past and really thinking about not putting it down on the back of an envelope.

Also you must keep the media happy at GE time not years beforehand. Before you start complaining about the media, it is a for a politician a little like a footballer complaining about the referee, you work with the conditions you are in.


Also I am mystified at your wilful but no doubt mischievous attempt to align all Conservatives with the social views of cornerstone. One might as well align all Liberal Democrats with the "economic policies" of Simon Hughes. Perhaps you might acknowledge respect for some Conservatives. I have no respect for the Simon Hughes or Jenny Tonges of this world, but a good deal of time for a David Laws. BTW just why is it you Lib Dems rave about Clegg and ignore Laws. Clegg too me is David Miliband sans charisma.

Lepidus.

Cicero said...

With all due respect Lepidus, this is bullcr*p. It should go without saying that a Liberal or even a liberal-Conservative should oppose fundamentally counter-productive and potentially dangerous policies like 90 days detention. So The Sun doen't think so- well so what? In any event Cameron has made several anti-Murdoch comments, so I hardly think that he is walking on eggs re: the Current Bun.

Since you think I am anti-Conservative I can't help wondering if you have actually read the points that i have made. I have repeatedly spoken of the idea that it is principles and not party ghettos that should define the new politics I speak of Liberalism far more often than of the Liberal Democrats.

As for the future, of course I accept that Tory policy should not be made on the hoof- but actually several times recently Cameron has done precisely that- I simply see no evidence of a great debate that will crystallise principle and policies and allow the Tories to seize the intellectual high ground. There is no such evidence.

So your theory of an electoral surprise: a coherrent positve agenda that is presented to the electorate within months of the next General election simply does not add up. I can see a PR campaign, I can see image changes. I do not see any intellectual coherrence, Ironically enough, it is only the Cornerstone group that has had the intellectual courage to talk about ideas and policies. The rest of the Conservatives- total silence!

Anonymous said...

What do you mean so what Consul. My point is that we will never know whether the Lib Dems would ever have hesitated as they were ahem unlikely ever to get the red top endorsement. In any case Cicero my old chap as you wipe the foam from your mouth, you can relax we are not months but years I repeat years before the next election, anyone who think GB is going to risk the shortest reign in London since Lady Jane Grey is either mad or know nothing of his chraracter. I appreciate your more subtle stance and have named a Lib Dem I respect can you do the same for a Conservative you think.


Lepidus

Cicero said...

Lepidus, I think you might be seeing my comments through the prism of your own party political hostility.

I am actually not particularly hostile to Conservatives, I am just pro-Liberal Democrat. Several Conservatives are my friends. I have worked quite closly in the past with Andrew Mitchell and enjoy debating things with him. I also have a lost of time for Michael Ancram- and although I disagree with his conclusions, I respect his world view: Conservative and, in his case, Catholic. There are other talented people on the Tory front bench: William Hague and David Davis, for example. I will always listen to Malcolm Rifkind and Oliver Letwin. Strangly, although his public manner and persona are awful, I find myself taking John Redwood seriously, and agreeing with him surprisingly often. Paul Goodman is a benevolant paternalist, John Bercow at least thinks outside the box. There is still the usual quotas of spooks and nutters: Fabricant, Heathcoat-Amory, Rosindell, Anne Widdecombe and so on. The usual buch of placemen: Wiggin, the Wintertons and others; and the frankly dubious: David Tredinnick, Tim Yeo, Boris Johnson, Johnatan Djanogly etc...

On the other hand, on the Lib Dem benches, despite one or two sub par members, the average I would say is higher: Laws, Davey, Huhne, Cable, Clegg, Campbell, Julia Goldsworthy would be front bench in any party.

Anonymous said...

BTW. Cicero where do you stand on the SNP coalition question. That could be interesting. By the end of the year you could be in coalition with the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives in Wales. Addressing your other point, it was completely pointless for Cameron to produce hard policy propsals last year. The Conservative party had a bad image that people stopped listening as soon as they opened their mouths. It was essential Cameron convinced them they were actually part of the human race after all first. I am sure you see that, but are mischievously ignoring reality.

Lepidus.