‘I don’t know what the Lib Dems stand for’: Problems with our Conference narrative
September 27, 2009
Returning from Conference always presents the peculiar experience of revisting the last few days of one’s life through the eyes of the media, and discovering that your experience bore little resemblance to what was reported. Presenting Bournemouth as some kind of battleground between the FPC and the leadership group may sound dramatic, but had very little to do with what actually went on.
What the media did reveal, however, is that in many cases our attempts to make our distinctive mark in the political sphere have gone awry. I’m sure we’re all still encountering the phrase in the title of this post on the doorstep – certainly, the internet is awash with it. Its use presents a problem to most Lib Dems, as we’re well aware of what we stand for and in fact find it quite mysterious when other people don’t. ‘Read our constitution!’ goes the cry, and occasionally the suggestion is made (a suggestion I myself have been guilty of) that we put all our principles in a leaflet and put it through peoples’ letterboxes, ignoring the fact that it never works.
It is this deep bewilderment at the rest of mankind that I fear is still affecting our attempts at dislodging Labour as the party of progressives. We still complain that the media will present the upcoming contest as between Tories and Labour, ignoring the fact that this is not the narrative that the media is interested in; a mere competition between parties is not exciting, it has to be a competition between something much more meaningful than that.
Rather, the media narrative will be about the conflict between economic interest groups. We do not represent an interest group, but both our opponents are defined in this manner. This leads to the sentence in the title of this post – people who ask this are in fact asking where we stand with respect to their economic interests, because that’s the political narrative they’re expecting. Our headline policy from Conference -the pejoratively named Mansions Tax – was portrayed by the media as an attack on the rich, thus neatly slotting us into the rich vs poor media narrative. This is the narrative we’re currently fighting in – but it’s not how most of our members percieve politics.
We cannot beat Labour on this narrative, regardless of how much better our policies are for the poor. For us, redistribution of wealth is contingent on our liberalism, rather than being an end in itself for Labour. It is certainly ironic – the greatest advances in alleviating poverty have been made by Liberals, whereas this Labour government has failed to decrease relative poverty and has caused a steep rise in unemployment. I have always found the concept of a party set up to defend the interests of the poor who finds its core support amongst the poor rather immoral; such a party’s interests would lie in appearing to help the poor while in fact enacting policies that will cause more citizens to believe themselves to be poor, to ensure its continued electoral success. This Labour Government has presided over increases in wealth disparity beyond anything under the Tories, and has massively increased the number of public-sector employees. Somehow gerrymandering is acceptable if it’s done society-wide.
The narrative we need to fight on is that of radical versus reactionary; the new guard versus the old guard. This is more in keeping with how we perceive our role with respect to the other two parties. In this sense, the Mansions Tax, representing as it does a shift from income taxation to taxation of economically unproductive assets, is very radical and is to be welcomed. However, it can also be far too easily placed into the current media narrative, and so in the electoral sense is counterproductive, regardless of the policy’s objective merit.
How can we reframe the media narrative into a radicals vs reactionaries contest? There are two things we need: an overarching vision of a Liberal Britain, and for that vision to be taken seriously, to form the focus of the media debate. The first should be easy – our policies are the best of all the political parties. However, while they all contain a liberal thread, it is difficult to represent them as a coherent vision, one capable of being recounted in merely a few sentences. The second is harder, but our strategy over the past few decades of building up our base locally will be effective – to be taken seriously, we need more MPs, and the next election will supply this.
Over the next few months, I hope to start a debate around how we can present a vision of a Liberal Britain simply and effectively, while campaigning for our victory in Islington. We will need both to overturn the media narrative, and both to eventually have the power to change Britain for the better.