Monday 20 October 2008

What on earth is the matter with us?

I have to admit to a teeny bit of frustration when I saw the latest poll that puts the Lib Dems down to 14 per cent. The side effects of the crash, no doubt, but even so…

It is true that we have Vince Cable, who has launched an excellent initiative on tax havens, at precisely the right moment. He also seems to have the preternatural ability to be about 48 hours ahead of the mainstream, which was C. P. Snow’s definition of somebody with a reputation for being far-sighted in their own lifetime.

But that isn’t enough to grab the attention of opinion-formers, which is what we need to do, with a distinctively Liberal approach to the crisis.

It may be, of course, that our spokespeople get ignored even more at times of international crisis, especially when Cameron’s Tories are wriggling on the end of a stick. But when we had a captive radio audience in recent weeks on Any Questions, our answers on the financial crisis were absolutely vacuous – international co-operation, told you so, pinch me please to stay awake.

This is actually one of those unique moments when nobody really knows what to do, where radicalism is not just acceptable but is actually demanded. Where thoughtful party leaders could be heard, especially from parties that used to be known and loved for their quality of thought.

I’ve been wondering why we are failing so badly here, and have come up with two reasons:

1. We haven’t had an economic policy since Keynes breathed his last in 1946. Worse, we don’t think economics is very important, and have developed nothing to say on the subject in recent decades apart from bleating on about sound money occasionally.

2. We have no clear idea who our core voters are. If we had, we would realise immediately what needed to be said – because the challenge now for small business, thriving local economies and the voluntary sector are pretty clear. But we don’t say it. Worse, we let the Tories get into the media about small business before we did.

But somehow those two reasons still don’t seem an adequate explanation. So I’m left pleading with fate like a Greek tragedy – what on earth is the matter with us?


Anonymous said...

Hi David, slightly better poll news in tomorrow's Guardian (up 4 to 21) (see

Also, I'm not saying it answers all your points but did you see the party's Fairer Future Economic Recovery Plan (

Anonymous said...

Yes George I saw it too - i had to blog about the fact that it would take a committed activist to find it on our website!

It was then put on the front page as part of an article - then it gets shifted downwards when what should happen is for it to have a box of its own at the top of the website.

My fear is that the party has among its employees people with no fire in their souls and no obamanesque sharpness to campaigning.

I think whenever any decision however small is taken in our party one question should be asked `What would Barack Obama do` - he is leading the most effective and proficient election campaign ever!

Tristan said...

I'm pretty sure the Liberal Party had an economic platform in the 50s and 60s. I'd hazard a guess at it being liberal and distinct from the managerialism of the other parties - I'd love to reclaim something like that.

Unfortunately the LibDems is a coalition of state socialists and liberals with some very different views on economics.
A more coherent economic policy at the moment would probably cause much trouble for the leadership.

Anonymous said...

Whilst it is important that we develop a clearer economic stratgey, I don't think the lack of one is why we are not doing so well in current polls.

If it were, the Tories would not be doing as well as they are.

It is certainly the case that we aren't clear enough about who we see as our core vote or how to appeal to them.

But I think the reasons for low poll ratings are more down to the fact that in the current climate where people are looking to bash the Government on the economy, they treat opinion polls more as a like/dislike the Government poll than an actual voting intention.

After all everyone knows that there isn't going to be a general election tomorrow.

I also suspect we are doing much better amongst 'opinion formers' than the general population.

While we and they see Vince Cable on Newsnight and in The Independent, 95% of the population are looking the other way.

In the current climate we should worry a little less about the polls and a little more about doing the groundwork so that we have a distinctive and compelling message ready for the next election.

David Boyle said...

Hello, George. I hadn't seen the Recovery Plan, in fact. I ought to have done. Mea culpa. It's good as far as it goes - but needs to tackle the key issue for Lib Dems: how are we going to rebuild a proper lending infrastructure for local enterprise? How are we going to re-build the mutual sector, upgrade the community banking sector as they have in the USA? Are we going to de-merge the big banks? Because as they stand, they have been consolidated beyond the point of usefulness to the local economy.

Anonymous said...

Hi David, since this present crisis originated with a housing market bubble, surely the 1st policy response is to say "Never again will we let house prices shoot up". Easier said than done? No, with a tax-switch to site-value rating (a fine old Liberal policy, lately abandonded) there would be no more booms; and a steady tax-revenue stream too. Why not?

Neale said...

Well said Conall!

It's ridiculous to be taxing the productive aspects of our activity as a society so highly, and then fail to tax those that contribute nothing.

SVR at a level high enough to do was you suggest, would eliminate two elements of unearned income: land speculators (land banks, developers building crap housing etc) would lose their windfall that comes just from economic success and a shortfall; and, the resulting decrease in mortgages would mean that the banks would not get so much free income from money that shouldn't have been issued into circulation.

The Systemic Fiscal Reform Group have some interesting ways to make a fair and safe transition - for those that choose to...