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Radical Bulletin 348 – September 2011
04 September 2011 (17:34:16)

SPECIAL SUBJECT, THE BLEEDIN’ OBVIOUS

MPs, peers and the Federal Policy Committee have been treated to a highly secret presentation on ‘polling and strategy’ from Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg’s £85,000-a-year special adviser.

This document is so secret that Liberator, naturally, has a copy. And it reveals, well, nothing startling. Its provenance, though, tells us something about the coalition and how the party is struggling to define itself.

Reeves’s paper kicks off by saying that party’s long-term strategy is to show that coalition government works, that it delivers Liberal Democrat policies and to assert a distinct, popular (our emphasis) Liberal Democrat identity.

So far, so ordinary. But next comes the aspiration to “own the political centre ground: competence with a conscience”.

Oh dear. As Liberator and many others have repeatedly explained, a party cannot inhabit ‘the centre’ without allowing its position and message to be defined by other parties to its left and right. Seeking ‘the centre’ condemns the party to define itself by what it is not, rather than what it is.

The presentation then turned to looking at what voters care about, which by a long way was the economy, the NHS and education, with taxation a distant fifth behind immigration. The Lib Dems are not voters’ first choice on any of these issues but get a decent showing on the economy and education, and are almost level with Labour on taxation.

There is then an interesting finding. Both soft Conservative and soft Labour voters give ‘immigration’ as one of the top three reasons for not having voted Lib Dem, which some might think suggests the Liberal Party’s 1966 slogan “Which twin is the Tory?” still has some mileage in it.

In the polling cited, 29% of the party’s previous vote has gone to Labour, with twice as many Lib Dem voters of 2010 favouring a coalition with Labour rather than the Tories, an interesting finding for the next election.

The problem is the conclusions drawn. A section on political positioning in 2011-15 asserts again that the party should be “neither left nor right”, and uses the preposterous ‘alarm clock Britain’ slogan (a Reeves invention) to describe the people to whom the party should appeal.

Reeves proposes that the party should choose three ‘big identity issues’, which distinguish the Lib Dems and which should be ‘broadcast’. A bit like the last election, in fact.

But Reeves then says there should be “many areas where it makes political sense to show unity with our coalition partners partly because we want to show coalition works, but mostly because we want to reap maximum benefit on the doorstep”. This presupposes that the coalition will do something popular between now and 2015, but the party should only ‘tell’ rather than ‘broadcast’ such achievements, Reeves advises.

Specialist issues that matter to the party, or certain groups of supporters, should be ‘narrowcast’, whatever that is, while “danger areas of potential differentiation that leave us politically exposed” should be ‘whispered’. Immigration is a ‘whisper’ subject. Much good that will do when other parties choose to ‘broadcast’ it.

When these insights were presented to the party’s MPs and peers, they were unaccountably underwhelmed. They also wondered where the underlying data came from, and rightly so as perplexed listeners learned, after Reeves’s main presentation, that some came second-hand from the Tories. The Lib Dems can hardly afford polling nowadays, whereas the Tories can and occasionally toss Reeves a few morsels.

It didn’t seem to occur to him, though it certainly did to the parliamentarians, that the Tories would toss only morsels to their own advantage. Presumably this is something to do with showing the coalition ‘works’.

Reeves further startled listeners by quoting George Osborne as a source of advice on the party’s predicament on tuition fees, which was to “walk away from the body”.

What have things come to when the Lib Dem leader’s main adviser draws on Tory poll data to devise the party’s strategy, and cities the Tory chancellor as a source of wisdom?

Also in Radical Bulletin 348:

  • THE COMPANY HE KEEPS
  • ANSWERS ON A POSTCARD
  • SOMETHING MUST BE DONE
  • A COSTLY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM
  • DEAFENING SILENCE
  • TAKING THE MICK

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