“Tory bashing” has been a key phrase this autumn as the Liberal Democrat rank and file use conference to let off some steam. The Daily Politics’ Andrew Neil notably dropped his warm, fuzzy style when grilling Tim Farron over his premonitions of ‘divorce’ – but we seem to be retreating back to ours. “Cuddly Liberal Democrats,” as the Prime Minister put it to his own party conference.
And David Cameron may be outlining the message of the Conservative party for 2015 – with a theme of “Leadership for a better future,” his party are opening up a dialogue between the country and its political leaders, whilst we are having a ‘Tory-bashing’ paddy on the sidelines of British politics.
My concern is that the difference between us swiping at the Tories while they outline a pro-business, forward-looking message is not simply one of placating members: it is an entire divide in the mentality, the strategy, and the maturity of both our parties.
Whilst George Osborne explicitly acknowledged the role of the Liberal Democrats on delivering a stable economy, and keeping our debt interest down, we grimaced at Sarah Teather’s puns on his past. Our general-election critique of ‘Punch & Judy politics’ seem distant now, and instead of taking ownership of the coalition as the ‘new politics’ Nick Clegg promised, we are being dragged down into the kind of tribalism which crushes us between the two larger parties.
The way forward is not just about how we perceive ourselves, but how we communicate with the public. We need to learn to be a party of government, of responsibility and communicate what we are achieving in power, rather than using conferences to be self-congratulating about every time we’ve thrown ourselves on the pavement and stopped a Conservative policy.
With current and upcoming debates on issues which form our core identity, such as human rights and Europe we have the platform to portray ourselves as equals – the voice of sensible, centrist Liberalism – and set out our case from within government, to the country, or else show ourselves up as the squabbling younger sibling of British politics, throwing a paddy at the very mention of something we disagree with.
And it is on these sorts of issues – where public opinion is broadly against us – that if we don’t set out a rational, well-reasoned case, the Conservatives will dismiss us as holding them back, and ask the public for a majority in 2015.
Our infidelities with the Labour party, and talks of an alternate coalition at this early stage will only increase perceptions of a petulant child, playing our parents off against one another. We can’t hope to pick up soft-Conservatives and swing votes if we’re perceived as opportunistic, and willing to ditch our partners at the nearest possible opportunity.
One of our greatest strategic gains from this coalition must be to show we are competent and mature – a party of power, not simply a pressure group – if we are ever going to advance beyond third party status. I felt in the minority when I was willing to give Nick Clegg the benefit of the doubt when he talked about an 18 month ‘ownership’ strategy of coalition policy: overlooking our Leader’s extensive experience in Europe, and knowledge of coalition politics, the party were more keen to hear what we’re stopping from happening, than what we are achieving.
The issue I’m raising here is fundamentally one of strategy and communication: put simply we must be outward- and forward-looking as a party if we are to advance in the polls, and develop our public perception. The alternative is navel-gazing conferences, where our ministers attempt convince us of tussles at the cabinet table, and predict our inevitable ‘divorce’ from a volatile marriage. Just don’t be surprised when the public blames us, and take the Tories’ side…