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Commentary 341 – September 2010
07 September 2010 (19:06:33)


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 coalition politics.”

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 their corner.

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 political oblivion.


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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