Dogs that don’t bark in the night-time, Pt 1

Silent noctural dogs are what I thought of when I read James Graham’s CiF piece on Clegg’s leadership and Paul Walter’s response. The exchange is one of the most useful I’ve read about Clegg since the leadership contest. Essentially, Paul defends Clegg from a number of charges laid by James, who falls into camp critical at the moment:

Yet the party, after a bumpy two years, is a bit frazzled. I’ve been struck by how many people I have spoken to over the past few weeks – candidates, councillors and activists alike – who appear to be either demoralised or disenchanted with Clegg’s leadership.

(It’s worth pointing out, incidentally, that much of the negative cast of the piece comes from the title and byline, and these are usually created by the Grauny subs, so Paul might be aiming a kick at the wrong dog there.) James adduces three possible reasons for the disillusionment he observes:

  1. Lack of internal communication
  2. The confused position on Lisbon
  3. The Dark Shadow of party centralisation in the form of the Bones report outcomes

To go about this illogically, I think Paul knocks number three very effectively on the head:

We get someone from the Henley Management College to look at our organisation. They’re used to looking at businesses, among other organisations. Well, knock me down with a feather. They come back and tell us that we need to centralise our decision-making a bit. Staggering.

…and is more trusting than James that Clegg won’t – can’t – try and implement the recommendations wholesale without party consent. A battle still to be fought, there. The Europe canard is also dealt with neatly:

Chris Huhne would certainly have handled the Lisbon treaty exactly the same way as Clegg (perhaps with the odd tactical tweak) – he said as much in the campaign. And I note that James Graham brilliantly exposed the lie that the Lisbon Treaty was in any way a constitution. From that I conclude that there was no reneging of our manifesto commitment.

…though I’d be wary of over-relying on the fact that Clegg was, er, right. Whether we like it or not the entire country – or, ok, the 0.0000003% of it that comments on the Spectator Coffee House blog – is now convinced that it was a “debacle”, a word people never actually use in real life, so it’s a very useful indicator when it does pop up that they’ve been mainlining the Daily Mail and no longer have a brain cell to call their own. James’ whole point is that our position was just too nuanced to ever do us, or the cause of Europe, any good in the papers – not that it was wrong.

Paul is a little less convincing on internal communications:

I am not sure what briefing notes came out before “Make it happen”. But if any PPC cannot extemporise a selling pitch for such a brilliant document, then they don’t deserve to be a PPC.

Absolutely agree with that as far as it goes, but it doesn’t address James’ broader point:

Outside of conferences and training weekends, there appears to be no mechanism for feeding the views of key activists and candidates at the frontline back to command central, informally or otherwise. With no two-way communication, the possibility of grave mistakes being made is that much greater.

We could, of course, remind ourselves that this is still a damn sight more than the other parties get. But it’s still a good point for any party to consider, particularly in the field of communications and campaigning.

Where I think Paul really hits on something is here:

Many have expressed relief that our leadership is no longer an issue in the media. The days of the zimmer frame cartoons have gone. We have a young, vibrant and positive leader. I have certainly noticed how we managed to keep ourselves in the media day after day. It is a very welcome turn of events.

This is a dog that isn’t barking in the night-time. Look at the one big thing that is not going wrong. No-one has made any serious attempt in the media to assassinate Clegg, though you can bet your arse they would have if they hadn’t known that they’d look bloody stupid. Reports of our imminent demise have been noticeably lacking, especially since Make It Happen, even though it’s silly season and there’s only so much mileage you can get out of kicking Labour’s twitching corpse. Don’t get me wrong, a dog not barking is clearly nothing like where we need to be. But it’s further than where we were.

I also think Paul is on to something in suggesting that Cleggmania is in part responsible for any disillusionment that may be floating around. I know someone, a perfectly intelligent, politically aware, er, authoritarian socialist admittedly but of no party affiliation, who thinks that Clegg is – and I quote – just as much of a wanker as the other two. Now, I think much the same of Clegg as Paul does, as “an exciting and intelligent thinker and an earnest leader who deserves our full support.”

But it would be daft to suggest, as plenty of people were during the leadership election, that the whole population would love him and he would be the panacea that turned people on to the Lib Dems. People are just too wary of politician cults now. Anyone who voted for Clegg (and like Paul, I didn’t) and did so because they thought his being a “people person” would automatically translate into public affection and votes was misguided. That was clear all along. The media would never have stood for it.

So, while I think James’ three reasons are great starting points for discussion, the problem with being this high-falutin’ erudite liberal thinker like wot he is is that he has trouble appreciating that people might just have really, really crap reasons for taking the lines that they do.

To go back to my perfectly intelligent  and informed authoritarian socialist friend, she doesn’t like Clegg because of the Lisbon treaty, the Clegg 30 and because he’s “Cameron-lite”. That’s two thirds shitty, facile, undisproveable, media-led-by-the-nose reasons that we have no control over whatsoever, and one third good point but-not-in-the-way-she-thinks. So we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the great majority of any disillusionment with Clegg inside the party, or dislike outside, is anything like as thoughtful, nuanced or sophisticated as the JG/PW exchange suggests.

Don’t miss Pt 2, in which an Outsider makes a Constructive Criticism…


  1. I didn’t vote for Clegg but haven’t been too disappointed with him and I do largely feel that Jame’s piece is misguided (and indeed misplaced – why say all this in a Comment is Free piece?). However something clearly isn’t going right at present – we’ve had a series of non-Kasbah-rocking results and have capitalised scarcely a jot on Labour’s misfortune. Furthermore to rehash a point I made on Libdem Voice (sorry about that) if you look at the recent YouGov poll on alternative possible leaders, with Ed Balls as Labour Leader we do overtake labour but of the 8 points the drop we only pick up 2. We aren’t picking up disgruntled Labour voters, nor by that evidence will we.

    I also hear rather too many views along the lines of “don’t worry, when election time comes round the cracks will begin to show in the Tories and their policy weaknesses will cost them.” This is rather too similar to “don’t worry, Boris is bound to screw up at some point in the campaign and when he does we’ll be in gravy” it didn’t happen then and I doubt it will happen now. Any advances we make will have to be of our own doing.

    I don’t really know entirely what’s going wrong, thoughI’m willing to bet that few voters think “well I would vote Lib Dem, but I’m so sick of their lack of internal communication and I hear they may centralise their decision making process”. I think Nick could maybe do with borrowing Chris’s sharp elbows and finding new ways to force us onto the media agenda, I think it’s also pretty clear that our press people aren’t cutting it, both in terms of things they’re failing to do and things that have been done that ought not have been (I assume that terrible things have happened in the press office or are shortly to).

    Beyond that I haven’t a clue. Could it possibly be to do with not delivering enough Focuses? I hope so, you know where you are with problems that can be resolved by delivering enormous numbers of Focuses.

  2. This is getting quite comical – it’s like making resolutions at closing time on a friday after completing a project to meet a tax deadline.

    If we want to judge Clegg’s record, let’s do so at the traditional times of 100 days and 1 year, rather than every five seconds when we’re late and stuck in traffic on the way to the airport. So let’s just use our holidays to recharge our batteries and refresh our sense of purpose – not that we’ve ever lost it, just that it’s easy to lose a sense of proportion after slogging through a dry patch of by-elections with no tangible results.

    My own feeling is that it is highly sensible not to want to abandon the principles we fought long and hard to gain in exchange for the short-lived ego-boost a quick jump in the polls would give.

    It’s the end of term and silly-season has begun, we shouldn’t get dragged into serious discussions when no attention will be gained.

    Clegg is here for the long-haul and he doesn’t want to divorce the membership, so let’s dance awhile because the night is still young!

  3. “I also hear rather too many views along the lines of “don’t worry, when election time comes round the cracks will begin to show in the Tories and their policy weaknesses will cost them.””

    This is true, and I agree one can’t rely on it as the main plank of one’s strategy. Having said that, we all spent a year grumbling amongst ourselves about the 10p tax thing and how surely people just had to see through it in the end, and eventually they did.

    But the real problem with trusting to this is of course that the media decide what gets seen through and when. It may therefore be slightly disturbing that Clegg said, in our May bloggers’ interview, that this was basically part of his view – “ideas will win” was I think what he said, conceding it was “old-fashioned”. I always wonder in our interviews how much he is tailoring to his audience – I mean, he knows we’re likely to be a bunch of over-educated nerds who like ideas – but anyway, dat’s what he said.

    I don’t know why we’re not picking up Labour votes either. But maybe the fact that we’re waiting expectantly for them is a symptom of the problem. In a way, and speaking naifly for a moment, it would be much easier from a marketing point of view to pick up *new* votes than recycled Tory and Labour votes. But that would involve engaging the disengaged which is the elephant in the room because everyone assumes that it is impossible.

    “I think it’s also pretty clear that our press people aren’t cutting it…”

    This is my instinct as well, and I’ve heard several pretty well-informed bods opine that but doesn’t it fail just the same harsh-truths test as the idea that people will see through the Tories? It feels a bit lazy blaming a largely faceless campaigning/press team. However, I do think the answer, of which I only perceive the shadowiest outline at the moment, lies in communications in some way.

    But probably not in Focuses. Sorry. You can get through this, you know. Just start by cutting down to 20 a day and if you manage to resist the urge to do an extra round on the weekends too, give yourself a reward – a meal at your favourite restaurant, say, or some envelope addressing. Small, easy goals…

  4. I’m definitely up for the long haul with the Cleggster. My whole point (not terribly clearly made) was that the problems we have with image at the moment are the same ones we’ve always had – the Bloody Press.

    But I do think it’s worth asking whether we might be entitled to expect a positive swing at this stage, and if so what might be holding it up. Because like you I’m fairly sure it ain’t Clegg.

  5. Poll figures present a paradoxical challenge at the moment – of course we’d like to see gains, but at the same time anything less than a big swing in our favour means we can appear to to have gone nowhere.

    I prefer to think that poll stability is far more preferable because it means we’ve got back to a situation where we are trying win the political argument with action and example, while we are leaving big showy populist moves (like changing leaders at the drop of a hat) in the preserve of unreliable fly-by-night snake oil merchants.

    The irony of the problem with our method of media management is that we are more interested in the fine print and the facts than the headlines and the photos, which would be good for government if it’s bad while we’re in opposition.

    It’s a shame that technology is making traditional media virtually obsolete because I’d love to set up a gossip-free, commentary-free newspaper to balance out the rest of the dead tree press.

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