MUST TRY HARDER
Liberal Democrats wondering why their poll ratings took a nosedive over the
summer would do well to read an article by Tory commentator Ian Birrell in the
Financial Times (24 August). It reported that, amongst leading Tories, “there is
surprise that the Lib Dems are not pushing harder in areas where there is room
for manoeuvre within the coalition agreement.”
The article revealed that “one senior Tory said he was amazed at how little the
Lib Dems fought their corner in meetings, thereby failing to offer sufficient
counterweight to the right. He was disappointed by their caution.”
Birrell contrasted this Lib Dem weakness with the pragmatism of the Tories, who
had adapted well to the new political landscape.
He advised Nick Clegg “to worry less about the role of deputy prime minister and
more about finding issues that he and his party can proclaim as their own” and
warned: “If he fails to carve out his own distinct territory, we will be left
with a curious conundrum: the party that has long advocated a new political
order will emerge as the least adept at adapting to the intriguing new world of
In the coalition negotiations, the Liberal Democrats focused on policy. As a
result, the coalition agreement contained many Lib Dem policies. But the party
made the mistake of confusing legislation with government. Reform does not
necessarily require acts of parliament, consequently the Tories can achieve much
of what they want without new legislation or parliamentary votes and therefore
without reference to the coalition agreement.
The party also failed to focus sufficiently on the allocation of government
jobs. Five government departments have no Lib Dem minister. Meanwhile in the
Lords, apart from whips, only two Lib Dem peers (Tom McNally and Jim Wallace)
hold any sort of ministerial post. The party was also short-changed when it came
to political staff appointments.
Coalition is a continuous job of negotiation but the Liberal Democrats seem to
think the negotiations ended with the agreement. Lib Dem ministers appear too
keen to emphasise their loyalty to the coalition and not keen enough to fight
There is no point joining a coalition unless the benefits outweigh the
disadvantages. If the Lib Dems remain inhibited about carving out a distinct
position, low poll ratings will turn into bad election results and ultimately
YOU’VE BEEN FRAMED
This September’s Liberal Democrat conference is likely to be awash with
journalists asking the same basic question, “Coalition. For or against?”
The media love a simple ‘either/or’ narrative. It makes their life easy. But it
is a frame of reference that rarely does justice to political questions, to
which the answers are invariably complex or nuanced.
And it can be a damaging frame of reference, as media coverage of the climate
change debate demonstrates. The media need two sides to every question so the
opinions of climate change sceptics are given equal weight, despite the weight
of scientific evidence being heavily against them. The media’s portrayal of the
issue thus becomes a travesty.
The Liberal Democrats will experience equally misleading media coverage at their
conference. Until May, the Lib Dems were perceived as marginal to Westminster
politics so not many journalists came to their conferences and those who did
rarely bothered to learn about the party. For evidence of this ignorance,
consider the media’s tendentious division of the party into “modernisers” and
“beards and sandals”. Note also the media’s habit of interviewing such
irrelevant figures as Mark Littlewood and Ben Ramm.
The coalition means there will be many more journalists at conference but their
knowledge and understanding of the party will be even worse. Lib Dem delegates
should not be surprised to be regularly accosted by hapless young reporters
asking, “I’m looking for someone who is for/against the coalition.”
Such media will have a tough search on their hands. Most party members regard
the coalition as a mixed bag. They understand the logic behind the formation of
the coalition, are pleased with the achievements in the negotiations but are
unhappy about some of the concessions made to the Tories and apprehensive about
the effects of cuts in public spending. And these views will evolve depending on
future successes and failures.
But this level of sophistication won’t fit the script. So the media will search
the corridors and bars and eventually they will find a very few delegates who
either uncritically support everything the coalition does or opposed the
coalition from the start. And armed with one of each, they will set up a
‘debate’ between them as a means of framing the issues.
The ‘either/or’ frame makes for good television but rubbish journalism. It fails
to report accurately or explain what the debate is about. It serves the
interests of no-one in the party. If a journalist tries to frame your views in
these terms, a short message about sex and travel is advised.
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