This is an expanded version of a piece originally published on Lib Dem Voice

Towards a Strategic Narrative


The incumbent Labour MP got up at the hustings to speak first. But strangely she didn’t produce an encomium on her party or introduce their programme. She began with what she disagreed with, starting with the Iraq war, moving on through tuition fees and the retention of DNA and ending with the red immigration mug. There seemed to be little left. But of course, anyone who voted for her would have got her party and all the things she was apparently standing against. None of her opponents (there were six of them) picked her up on it. What are we to make of this? No-one wants “Lobby fodder” but isn’t there something corrupt about remaining in a party which you are so openly ashamed of?

And yet, when we talk of the “incumbent effect” or rely on our candidates’ mastery of local issues, or even our MPs satisfaction ratings, haven’t we moved some distance up this same road? Vince Cable in the New Statesman blamed the extent of his defeat to the “politics of fear”. But isn’t the politics of fear our bread and butter as we move from door to door clutching our bar charts with their helpful assertion that “they can’t win here”. Fact is, when there are coalitions, “they” can and do.

Kurt Vonnegut in his once well known book, “Cat’s Cradle” commented on the good luck of meeting a person or event which dramatically illustrated the complete futility of a course of behaviour on which one is embarked. At this election our number of MPs have been reduced from 56 to 8, our leader has resigned, most of our most prominent and influential personages have been driven from their positions and we are bathed in general disapprobation. Could we be more lucky?

And yet…and yet… there are many (maybe Vince) who ascribe the defeat to small, localised events such as the SNP rise or the influence of the media; despite the fact that the decline has been severe, regular and well documented across the period of this parliament. Some have embarked on a struggle to “move” the party is a right or leftward direction. Others have called for unity – presumably on a programme of more of the same.

I suggest that our defeat is due to the complete lack of both a strategy and a strategic narrative (I have taken this term from Emile Simpson’s book “War from the Ground Up”) My experience on the doorstep is that the regular voter prefers a party with clear ideals and a comprehensible programme which they stick to. What it has been offered is a party which makes little effort to communicate its ideals, explains it’s position only in relation or reaction to other more dominant (and therefore more attractive) parties and offers a rag bag collection of seemingly unconnected policies diluted by the inevitable compromises of coalition. To the assertion that we have achieved much or most of our manifesto the answer is often, “what”?

As for our slogan: “a stronger economy, a fairer society” everybody is pretty sick of it but it’s worth pointing out that one thing it implies is that we recognise another party as promoting a fairer society than we do. Is that what the party thinks? Then why say so? Why say, in effect, “a slightly less strong economy, a slightly less fair society” ? How to make a stronger slogan? Let’s try using a pair of scissors. “A Fairer Society” and leave it at that.

But are we promoting a fairer society? Really? And how do we develop a strategic narrative?

Strategic Narrative

Politics is not war but war is a matter of definition and war is tightly aligned with politics. Modern war is as linked to perceptions as it is to facts and without a strategic narrative to perceive, in war or politics, there can be no success or failure. Success, in politics is very much a matter of persuading the public to adopt your narrative. It does not matter how successful a party is in implementing specific policies unless those policies are linked to a coherent picture of what the party wants to achieve, how it is going to achieve it and why it wants to do so. Policies cannot be pulled out of a bag willy nilly with no connections. They have to be linked to the narrative in a clear process.

The Strategic Narrative can be manipulated to address and persuade the target audience(s). But it is not endlessly malleable. It also has to be rooted in the ethos of the party. What is the Liberal Democrat Party for? Many party members seem unable to say, merely expressing some concern for “liberal” attitudes or values, often in the context of “that isn’t very liberal is it?”. Unfortunately, liberal as it was once understood, is, for better or worse, associated with practically all parties in our modern state. It is quite easy for a liberal to take the view that enough has already been done and that preserving the liberal viewpoint with perhaps a bit of fine tuning and avoiding the excesses, which we project onto the other parties will be sufficient. This is the basis of the “middle of the road” position we find ourselves in and which Ryan Coetzee thinks is the essence of our liberalism (“had we abandoned equidistance we would have split the party and compromised its liberal purpose”). Alas, the electorate has taken us to be lukewarm and “spat us out of their mouth” (Cf: Rev 3.15). A Liberal Democrat narrative needs to be far more positive and specific.

Liberal is an evolving concept but lets take it as it crystallised two hundred years ago as “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (Community)”, the terms found in our preamble to the constitution. The preamble talks about balancing these but they can better be seen as self-reinforcing aspects of a view of politics which is human-centered. We want people to be free, equal and linked up with their community. Are people like this now?

Liberty has two aspects: it means that as far as possible, people should be able to do as they please without hindrance from the state: it also means that control of government should be as close as possible to the people affected. It means liberty from the state but also from the powers of large international organisations. So liberty might at one time be best served by free trade without monopoly and control but now by the active interference of government to prevent that trade centralising and concentrating and this leads to internationalism in Europe and beyond.

Equality means equality of opportunity to all but it also means that our society as a whole, nationally and internationally, cannot accept gross inequality between its members. The value

that our society produces has to be spread more widely. That means a programme to achieve that aim. Its no good bleating about the importance of mutuals, for example, unless we have a plan to use the mutual idea to change things. Does this mean socialism? Possibly yes, but not in the centralised planned manner that has been tried and failed so many times since 1945. If we promote equality it is in a way that lessens the power of the state.

Community includes a concern for all our fellows in the population, and in Europe, and in the developing world, and for the world environment we all inhabit and which we hope our children will inhabit. Without community everything else will fail. There is already a tendency in the Lib Dem mindset to concentrate on liberty and to say, “Devil take the hindmost”. We, like all the parties are far too complacent about the massive “tail” of dispossessed, disadvantaged, disturbed and disabled mass of people that our society has sloughed off and left milling around at the bottom of the heap. And we had better not be complacent because as automation increases, more and more of us will end up in that position. Of course we need to get these people back into taking part in regular society but we are not going to get them there, as other parties have suggested, by beating them with a stick.

There is very little new or controversial about this and one can argue that policies like equal marriage, the foreign aid guarantee and the emphasis on education derive from them: but the construction of a narrative that persuasively and cohesively and above all, dramatically links the narrative to the programme and policies is more difficult. It is not impossible.

What is clear that the Lib Dem party, temperamentally, traditionally, essentially, is a party of change. When asking about the defeat we should take note that, as such, it is impossible for the party to go into coalition with any conservative party which seeks to preserve and reinforce the status quo. There can be no coalition, there can only be manipulation and domination of one party by another. Yes, the party did go into coalition. It tried to do something which was impossible. The result was as could have been expected., disastrous.

In passing, it flows from this that the new leader, whatever their strengths, must not be a politician directly associated with the coalition government.

A coherent narrative must be something. It cannot be all things to all men. So developing it has to accommodate the risk of failure. It will lose votes as well as win them. But the development of a coherent narrative is essential and that means a coherent view of what liberalism is. And that may mean a fight. And those that lose it may need to go. The maintenance of a “broad church” is an attractive idea but it is an idea that cannot stretch too far into contradiction.


Is the Liberal Democrat party purely pragmatic, a mechanism for public spirited and ambitious people to gain office and do good, as Paul Foot (“The Vote”) alleges of Liberals (including his own family) who joined the Labour Party after 1945? That isn’t an ignoble aim in itself but unless it is clearly secondary, it will distort our perception of what political action is worthwhile and what can be bargained away. There is a strong perception in the country that during the coalition we, to quote George Smiley, “have been giving them the crown jewels while they have been giving us chickenfeed”. So, no coalition but if that is impossible, a clear core of belief needs to be demonstrable both before and after negotiation. And this core needs to be central to how we present ourselves all through any coalition period.

The aim of the party is the good of the country which means a Liberal Democrat government. Not a coalition. A coalition has been shown to be futile and destructive. Several things flow from this. First, if a Liberal government is best for the country then anything that prevents or hinders that is bad for the country. So “going into coalition for the good of the country” makes no sense. Never did. We should stop saying it.

Second, if politics is like war or at least a war of perception , then the period of opposition during which the party built up its parliamentary and Council seats was most like the progress of a guerilla campaign. In such a campaign the most important thing is to avoid battle by which I mean involvement in government. There is a derogatory term for this, it is called being “opposition minded” but for us it is essential. If coalition is really unavoidable then it must above all be shown to be so. One failure of the leaders of our party was not to show that on entering into coalition with the Conservatives they had exhausted any alternative and that that was the fault of the other possible parties.

Finally, without a strategic narrative the strength of a campaigning machine on the ground is not enough. So once the narrative is developed it needs to be the dominant element of all campaigning and applied to all local as well as national issues.

May 2015

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