September 2008

There was an astonishingly thoughtful editorial in Thursday’s Times about the composition and direction of the Liberal Democrats. Not necessarily glowing in every part. Just thoughtful. Not only does it, in the teeth of my latest outpouring of anti-meedja bile, “get” liberalism in a way I’ve rarely seen a national newspaper manage:

In an interview on the fringe this week, Mr Clegg emphatically described himself as a liberal. His conference speech contained the seeds of a viable liberal position that will champion independence as its sovereign value, that will push power to the lowest possible level and that will encourage everyone to live a life of their own choosing.

There is also a sober analysis of the two ideological instincts informing the party – as crystallised, rightly or wrongly, in the Make it Happen debate – and where they might be headed:

All that said, this has been a good week for the Liberal Democrats at the end of a good year. That’s because they have begun the process of resolving the tension that they carry in their name. Between the liberals and those whom Keynes derided as the “watery Labour men” there can be no permanent reconciliation. Though the organisational merger was clean, a philosophical merger has proved impossible…

If the leader can take his party with him, the Lib Dems could yet turn themselves into a party with a purpose. The Liberal Democrats will still be a coalition, as all political parties are, but the emphasis will be on the first word.

So by that analysis we are now set to be more “Liberal” than “[Social] Democrat”. I don’t disagree, but I cannot emphasise enough how mutually dependent I think the two are. The implication, in that and other newspapers, is that Clegg has successfully avoided a split. All very well for the column inches, but I’m not sure why any rational person, on either “side”, should be pleased about the idea that a divergent path of thought has been closed off. I don’t really remember being aware of a world in which the Liberal Democrats didn’t exist; maybe I’m in a position to detect the irresistable pull between the two informing ideologies of liberalism and socialist democracy, rather than fear the gap over which that pull is exercised.

All-party unity is a mid-20th century value, a remnant of the dead war between the massed ranks of  the socialist and conservative blocs. There’s absolutely nothing sacred about the idea that a party must demonstrate total unity or be considered weak. It’s just an idea like any other, and it may have had its day. It’s an idea from another age, when society was more hierarchical, choice more limited and a political message was dependent on fewer channels of transmission, all of which therefore had to be saying precisely the same thing. To a rationalist in a multi-media age, whatever his or her political stripe, it just looks odd, uncomfortable, inimical to reason. For that matter, how many of us feel a teensy bit embarrassed at conference rallies? (”Yes! We’re all individuals!” “I’m not!“)

So for all that the papers have painted the Make It Happen debate as a victory for Clegg’s leadership, I see it as the beginning of a true, point-by-point policy debate. The thing is, I, probably like many of us, wouldn’t like to be in a party where there weren’t “watery Labour men”, to keep my brand of liberalism honest. Said “watery Labour men” need my brand of liberalism to keep them honest. I still believe that liberalism and not  half-statism should be the keynote, and evidently so does the party by a factor of between 2:1 and 3:1, but the half-certain statists are still vital to the health of the organism.

Now that the party has voted to consider further tax cuts as one option in the fight against inequality alongside further provision for every existing function of the state, we are in the position of being able to have the Make it Happen debate again, on every piece of potential expenditure. We’ll be able to put facts, figures, the actual destination of the available funds, into the insert-government-service-here blank spaces of the Make It Happen debate. That’s the way it should be. Every item of possible government expenditure should be assessed in the light of the simple fact that it is not our money. Proof that a government has sufficient right to take money and do something collective with it  needs to be advanced in every case, and the argument should be specific to that case.

So while supporters of the amendment to the Make It Happen motion have been feeling, evidently, a little miffed this week, my view is that this is their big chance. Over each policy area they can marshal precise arguments, demonstrate in practical terms the value of x piece of expenditure as against y tax cut. This is good. This is reason and empirical evidence at work. Who knows, we might end up with a dramatically reduced number of health sector QUANGOs but a doubled drugs bill for the NHS – that’s what we all want, isn’t it? Who can make those specific, measurable arguments with the same enthusiasm as the amendment’s supporters? For this reason, I hope they’re gathering their facts, and I hope they aren’t storming off in a huff, because I need their viewpoint to inform mine. Linda Jack, batting for the social democrats, says Nick he has won the battle – but will he win the war? My answer would be that a war is just a series of battles, so I hope she’s preparing for them individually, to put the case for the social democratic side. Why would a liberal want anything less? No-one with a good argument should be afraid of a good debate.

John Prescott has been trundling around this week growling that disunity could kill the Labour party. He’s probably not wrong. Labour’s full-blown statism in government is reflected in their full-blown control-freakery within their own organisation; the rejection of rational disagreement is buried in the Labour psyche. It’s a simple fact, denied by Tory and Labour trolls when they’re playing dumb, that rational disagreement is a positive thing. And it’s unique to us. The divergent ideas from our two parent influences is what forces us to test our policy direction in our own two home-made ideological crucibles. (I still happen to think, despite the grimly determined anti-intellectualism of every form of political campaigning we undertake, that this two-way test is a much more attractive quality than we let ourselves hope, but that’s a rant for another day.) It makes our policy-making process thorough, sceptical, rational and thereby ultimately radical.

Anyway, was it not that great social democrat, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork (”One man, one vote”) himself who said “Progress does not mean all men pulling together; progress means all men pulling in different directions.

After an extended sojourn in our outlying embassy at Lib Dem Voice, we make our triumphal return to the People’s Republic with three of the finest artworks ever bought on the internet for $8.99+shipping. We would like to thank our agent, etc, and are truly feeling rather over-honoured and a bit stunned, although that could be the result of the several well-aimed sticky buns. A shame, given this upbeat homecoming, and in a week when the party has had some of its best media coverage in months (and from some quarters, ever) that we have to begin on a negative note.

But for crying out loud, why didn’t you silly PR pop tarts in Comms think to run this 250,000 phone call survey plan thing past the Information Commissioner? How hard would that have been?

And why make a media splash of it anyway? I’m not necessarily against the idea of an automated phone survey in principle. Every method of information gathering irritates someone, and I probably wouldn’t hang up on something like this provided I was at least peripherally interested in it. But surely the whole point of our talking to directly people and garnering their views is that we don’t have to involve the sodding media.

That’s the main reason why they’re so down on the call survey idea, of course. They know that ultimately this kind of notion, whatever its clumsy shortcomings in early prototypes, renders them irrelevant. Yes, I grow bitter and dark as a bucket of bile, but that’s because I’ve spent all week reading newspapers. God, it’s a sick world those people inhabit. So whose shiny happy idea was it to try to enthuse these blood-encrusted vultures with a plan to – if you’ll excuse me – cold-call the population? You might not think of it like that. I, with a bit of persuasion, might not think of it like that. But what kind of Janet-and-John outlook do you have to have to not see that the media would treat it like that? You numpties.

And this is where Nasty People’s Republican Guard takes a break and Nice People’s Republican Guard comes in with a cigarette and some pictures of their family, because I have some thoughts for the Head of Communications which don’t involve a spike.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a bag of Focus leaflets covered in bar charts must be in want of a campaigning techniques refresher course. But an equally universally acknowledged truth is that we’re running out of track on our successful early 1990s campaign techniques, and ever-subtler refinements to the way we write Focuses, or where we deliver them and in what concentration, are achieving at best tiny increments of improvement. Most people’s solution to this problem is to seek great leaps forward in the national media instead. If we need to shift from “ground war” to “air war”, in Rennard parlance, “air war” translates irresistably for most people into “air waves”.

And that means a perpetual exhausting fight for a decent amount of fair and balanced coverage. People throw whole chunks of their time away on this goal, energy is pissed freely up the wall in the form of impotent rage that we have to scrabble and scream for even a mention of a vast new vista of policy, when the Tory leader, as one LDV wag has it, get full page spreads for saying that nice things are nice and nasty things are nasty. I swear the majority of the press actually thinks we passed the 16p basic rate cut package this week.

I submit that continuing to attempt a balanced relationship with the national media is likely to be  profoundly unrewarding, perhaps destructive, for at least a decade, and render a disproportionately small return to the amount of time and money we spend on it. I submit that we should dump the national media – actually dump them, as in not give them stories – and spend the money on workshops, public information meetings, local information points, websites, local advertising that goes beyond the Focus leaflet (created within the party; party message is too important to be left to professionals) and local campaigning on specific national issues instead. In other words, shoring up what Nick Clegg does himself when he beetles round the country getting shouted at in draughty school gyms. He does it too often and too privately to not find it productive and enjoyable on some level, and he does it deliberately out-of-sight of the national media.

Journalistic writing is necessarily a pigeon-holing exercise. They have to relate one thing to another, make links between different events and concepts, to build up the newspaper’s outlook – a macrocosm of how an individual arrives at their worldview, really. Which is fine, so long as the key political concept you’re trying to advance is something journalists already recognise and have a label for. But they just don’t – en masse anyway – have one for liberalism. Their instinctive, natural grasp of what liberalism means is lacking. I was tickled to learn (though not as tickled as Will Howells) that the Liberal Democrats have finally made it onto the Dewey Decimal system – so journalists may not have an excuse for too much longer. But right now, the outlook for comprehension of what liberalism is all about in the mainstream media is bleak.

Liberalism as a wider political movement has been splintered into environmentalism, pacificism, alternative living and the like more or less since the 1960s, and in abeyance as a high political creed for a century partly as a result. As individuals, journalists have lived through an era in which high politics is dominated by the twin blocs of socialism versus conservatism. No wonder they try to wodge our radical liberalism into mid-20th century Labour and Tory loaf tins. They’ve never known anything else. Most of them have never bothered learning anything else (this is what comes of studying Eng Lit at university instead of history).

That’s why they keep asking Nick Clegg, with repeated, almost desperate insistence, “Aren’t you just like David Cameron?” and then making a headline out of the result. They need the answer to be yes, or they can’t compute what he’s saying. The wellsprings of ideas in two-party politics dried up a decade ago, and that ideological barrenness has infected the fourth estate and invariably saps their powers of reason. That’s why they’re able to make statements, as Cathy Newman did on Channel 4 News last night, like this:

They’re [the Liberal Democrats at conference] a million miles away from reality.

A half-a-second, throwaway one-liner on the end of a report, and to utter it Cathy had to suspend every single rational synapse in her head. Six million people voted Liberal Democrat at the last election. Six million people inclined to a liberal outlook? A tenth of the entire population, a quarter of the voting population? A million miles away from reality? When proportions like that are in the balance, it’s your perception of reality which needs fixing.

When they give us good or fair coverage, it’s sheer chance, a momentary collision of our views with their spin-obsessed binary outlook. Vince has made a joke, Nick has delivered a speech well – therefore the Liberal Democrats must be Doing All Right. The party has created a tax package, or passed a series of measures, which a lemming-minded hack can translate into their weirdly flat and one-dimensional Left/Right worldview – therefore the Liberal Democrats must be Finally Showing People What They Stand For. It’s an accident when it goes well for us in the newspapers, not a sign that they’re developing an embryonic sense of fairness, or suddenly understanding what we’re all about. They never will, until the world has moved on and rediscovered liberalism again (as it may well over the next twenty-odd years) and the media, as is their wont, start following and reporting on that trend.

We know from our experience in local government that people don’t need ideological reference points for liberalism to see that it works. Because devolution and anti-statism are such essential components of the liberal creed, you don’t need a degree in political studies – much less English Literature with Journalism – to make it work for you. It already works for you. It lets you do what the hell you like so long as you don’t harm anybody else.

Simple. But not easily reportable. Liberalism’s strength lies in its acceptance of disparate points of view. That is just far too far a cry from the top-heavy high politics reportage favoured by most political editors, floundering around either in the 1970s or 1980s as the case may be, babbling about new angles and fresh ideas at brainstorming sessions, and all the while totally failing to comprehend the seismic shift in the political landscape. The Westminster Village, if its current course of irrelevance continues alongside a global recession, will eventually topple into a newly-created ravine and mass-participation liberal society will flow into the space left (it’ll have to; they say society is three meals away from revolution – even truer that society is three missed bin collections away from self-government).

Individual journalists might be natural liberals, and they’ll pick up on liberal trends anyway, without needing us to point them out – assuming their editor allows it. But taken as a whole, the media is a shuddering monolithic automaton with two default settings, and our words are wasted in trying to communicate with it. We need to wait for the dinosaurs to die and a more thoughtful younger generation to take over (assuming they’ll do so via the national media at all; there may not even be a newspaper industry in twenty years’ time). And next time the media calls, we need to hang up the phone.


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