Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Robert Brown: end spin doctors' tyranny and develop principled, practical policies

This is quite long - but bear with it, because every word is worth reading. It's the thoughts of former MSP and Scottish education minister Robert Brown who was in May elected as a Councillor in Rutherglen, near Glasgow.

He sets out what he sees as the way forward, to recovery by looking for new people to develop our policy in line with our principles and talks of the challenge of setting out a left of centre stall for 50 years and then going into coalition with a centre right party.

I feel that I shouldn't try and say any more - just let Robert speak for himself.

Tackling the Policy Problem

At last year’s Social Liberal Forum event, I spoke about the lessons of our catastrophe in the Scottish Parliament elections. I said that there was no substantial reason to vote Liberal Democrat in those elections, that the central strategy and the messages were not up to the job – indeed that there was no obvious strategy, no big ideas, no narrative as to our vision of Scotland, and no grounding in the core values of the Party.

It is true to say that I was hurting – as we were all hurting - from defeat, but I stand by that analysis. In a small way since then, I have tried to do something to change things. Nigel Lindsay and I co-edited a book of essays - The Little Yellow Book – which many of you have been good enough to buy. Some of you have even read it. I have gone back to grass roots, stood as a Council candidate and been elected. This was good for me personally and in demonstrating that Liberal Democrats can relate to local people in the West of Scotland and can win. But, nevertheless, I fear that Liberal Democrat Councillors ought to be declared a protected species.

The Party remains rooted in what one commentator described as “steady pain” in the opinion polls, registering between 7% and 12% on a UK basis since the beginning of 2011. In the local elections in May we registered 6.62% (12.7% in 2007) as compared to 5.2% in 2011(11.3% in 2007), hardly a robust revival.

Politics is hugely unpredictable and very much at the mercy of events. Those events include the independence referendum which I believe the SNP will lose, perhaps quite badly. They include the outcome of the euro-zone crisis, and the progress of the UK economy, but they may include other things totally unforeseen. We sometimes forget that Mrs. Thatcher was done for until the advent of the Falklands War, that Gordon Brown would probably have won an election a year earlier, and that Paddy Ashdown had poll ratings within a margin of error of zero.

But, on any view, it is clear that we have a long, hard, haul ahead, and what I want to talk about today is how we inject more vigour into our strategy, how we prepare ourselves for the big opportunities when they come, how we find the magic bullet of future political success – how, in the title of this session, we “tackle the policy problem”/

Political success comes, in my view, from the application of political and organisational/resource drivers to events. Money is a great help, so is favourable media, but the absolutely indispensable things are people and ideas – strongly rooted in a vibrant core set of principles which inspire and motivate.

We badly need to talent spot – to recruit Liberally-minded people to be our Parliamentary and Council candidates, our activists, our ideas people, the bearers of the Liberal Democrat flame. We need to go out and find them in community and interest groups, churches and family contacts. We need to give much more attention to how to attract them, what would motivate them to join, perhaps to the opportunities available to discuss politics and ideas and the future of the world.

Let me put forward some central propositions for consideration:

1.      The first is that attracting new people, and developing a grassroots policy dynamic are two sides of the same coin. The more we are a Party which has exciting ideas, where the membership can influence the agenda, where people feel they count and can make a difference, the more we can appeal to and attract new people. Is this not the essence of what a participative Liberal Democracy is supposed to be about?

2.      The second is that it is time that we ended the tyranny of the spin doctors in our Party – of the pseudo-newspaper, of the Focus leaflet, of the blue envelope, of the massaged campaign slogan. I don’t mean that we should stop campaigning, or not harness proven techniques, far less cease the community politics style of campaign, but that we should pay far more attention to what we are campaigning about. The Party must ultimately be about ideas and leadership – substance more than style.

3.      The third is that we need to restore trust and consistency to our political reputation. This is not just about tuition fees or the NHS. It is about positioning too. We have learnt the hard way that you cannot spend 50 years positioning yourselves solidly on the centre-left, as the radical anti-establishment party, as the party of the future and young people, only to suddenly decide that you really belong in a different part of the political firmament. Should it really be any surprise that a large chunk of our support has upped stumps and left us?

4.      And the fourth proposition is that we absolutely must be able to be in a place which is relevant to people’s big concerns, where our ideas and contribution are central to the debate. Many of us no doubt support electoral reform and House of Lords reform for example, but is it at all wise, after all our other problems, to let the first define our image for half a Parliament and the second for the time that remains?
What are the challenges for us?
Since 1999, in particular, there has been a heavy reliance on Parliamentary staff for policy development, Conference has perhaps had a reduced role and status, we have emptied our policy cupboard and have a dearth of new big ideas.
Firstly, we should note the obvious – that the objects of the Party are to develop and promote policies that lead to the realisation of the values and principles contained in the Preamble – in short, to promote Liberal Democracy.

The Party Constitution also provides for 3 very specific rights -
o   The right of every member to participate in the policy making bodies of the Party
o   The right of the Conference to make policy relevant to Scotland, and
o   The right of the Conference to debate and express opinions on matters of federal policy

So let me make some specific suggestions of what we might do to reinvigorate the Party’s policy mission:


·         We should give far greater weight to encouraging and supporting grass roots debate and policy discussion at local level – Policy suppers or dinners, Moot Groups in someone’s house, pizza and policy nights, debates and resolutions at Local Party meetings

·         The Policy Committee should look at the best ways to make such events successful, exciting and worthwhile. Proper planning is key. This includes how to identify and attract in outside sympathisers, academics with ideas, local opinion leaders, local business people. Maybe one or two Local Parties with experience could be asked to deal with this.

·         The Party should develop training of its membership in how to handle policy development – how to debate, procedures, resolutions, education in the core philosophy of the Party.

It has been my view over some years that the standard of Local Party resolutions, with some honourable exceptions, has been not just bad but woeful. Reinvigoration of local political debate along these lines is surely the main way to improve this.


·         I serve on the Board of a Voluntary Sector body which has recently brought in business advice called Pilotlighters to challenge and improve the focusing of their business, its clarity of mission and its effectiveness. I wonder if we need something like this for the Party.

·         Conference should take seriously its right to debate federal policy, not least in the current situation of being in Government, and allocate at least one slot at each Conference for an effective debate on key Coalition issues. Some of these may from time to time be awkward for the leadership but it is far healthier to have these things discussed than squashed.

·         The Office bearers should establish a permanent Strategy Group – a National Vision Board - to advise the Leader and the Party on the area falling between policy and campaigning which covers positioning, mood music, the development of big ideas, etc.

·         There might perhaps be a Policy Development Plan covering say the next 3 years which tackled key areas of policy systematically, and used the diminished resources of the Party effectively to do this. For example, while groups like the Social Liberal Forum, Liberal Futures, ASLDC, or the Green Liberal Democrats all have their own roles and priorities, they might be agreeable to taking on particular policy areas, perhaps under the direction of a remit from the Policy Committee.

·         There must be a much greater priority to attracting, supporting and training young members in the Universities in particular. It is astonishing how many key activists of today began as Young Liberals years ago. This is a major undertaking, covering Freshers’ fairs, support of Liberal Youth Scotland, perhaps the idea of a Liberal Youth Summer School, and talent spotting and mentoring.
·         We must identify and draw in the talents of sympathetic academics and successful practitioners. Some of these people will be Party members but a function of our ageing membership can be professionals with hobby horses which are 20 years out of date. We must access the best talent but we need the expertise and political nous to challenge and extract from it.  Often this needs to be matched with the political understanding to turn an academic idea into political practicality. I think there is a lot to be said for either a dinner with key people to strike sparks off each other, or asking people to produce papers on discrete topics as a basis for discussion.

·         The start point for policy development should perhaps be to identify the key questions of highest importance to people and our country in the future – not as easy as it sounds. A few starters for ten:

o   Tackling obscene levels of executive pay
o   A programme to eliminate fuel poverty
o   Developing the successful Colleges campaign issues
o   The future of town and suburban centres
o   Developing Scotland’s competitive advantage
o   A Liberal programme for community empowerment
o   Putting Scottish education back on top
o   Returning to Industrial Democracy
o   A Scottish solution to public sector reform
o   Reclaiming the underclass
o   Equal opportunity for children in care
o   Creating a work and responsibility ethic in our society
o   Security and care in old age
o   Restoring the general interest

·         I am not sure if we now have a proper resource where people can access party manifestos, policy papers, Conference resolutions and the like over say the last 10 years. Local Parties and others need to be able to find out what the current state of play is on a particular topic.
This whole issue of policy, politics, debate and motivation is central to our current challenge. We need to find a new generation of key activists and to re-motivate members and supporters as to the worth and mission of the Party.
At the core though there must be the idea that Liberal Democrat politics are worthwhile, that increasing the influence of people like Willie Rennie is important, and that the whole thing is exciting, enjoyable and stimulating to do. I sometimes feel that the relentless pressure of elections, of leaflet delivery and campaigning, of jumble sales, fundraising and Committee meetings has taken the joy out of politics. We will perhaps all be more appealing if we get it back!

1 comment:

Stuart Smith said...

There is one big policy area that Robert missed - the economy. What type of economy do we want: current, low or zero carbon, zero growth, sustainable, GDP+. All this needs addressed before discussing anything else as an economic policy underpins all other policies.


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