I awake, slightly feverish with the cold I have been suffering all day, and the thought occurs to me that one of the problems that the Liberal Democrats might have is that they are not enough like Tony Blair’s New Labour. Well, it is the middle of the night and I can’t sleep but might it be a question worth considering?
Yesterday I had the parliament channel on in the background for most of the afternoon. One of the items on the parliamentary agenda was a statement from energy and climate change Sec Chris Huhne. He is an effective parliamentary performer and he was little bothered by the pathetic attempts of one or two childish Labour MPs to introduce the issue of driving license points into the questions.
I have not been paying all that much attention to this alleged scandal. I take the view that there are sections of the British media who are actively trying to undermine the Liberal Democrats in government and using what they can to do so. Therefore it is no surprise that one of our leading figures comes under pressure like this. I expect that every leading Liberal Democrat will face a ‘scandal’, whether real or manufactured, of one kind or another during the course of this parliament.
Yet the truth is that Chris Huhne is doing several very big and important things on climate change and energy policy, but sadly at the moment, if he is in the public imagination at all, it will be for something dodgy to do with cars and ex-wives.
In the wake of the Liberal Democrats disastrous results in the devolved and local government elections there has been a lot of talk of needing to get our message across better. The Chris Huhne thing illustrates the mountain we have to climb. If all politicians are seen as dodgy, as self-serving, as arrogant and detached, a stereotype reinforced by a hostile media, then it is difficult to get the day today effectiveness of the business of government into people’s awareness. If all politicians are hated, then the quiet unassuming but effective ones will be hated just as much as the loud brash but incompetent ones. Sadly, this gives an advantage to the loud and brash. Can it be a coincidence that one of the most high profile government minister outside of Clegg and Cameron is Eric Pickles?
We have to face the fact that our ministers will not get any credit for getting on with the job and being successful. It is not enough to just achieve things – you have to make other people aware that you have achieved things. They will only get credit if they are seen to be successful.
So they will have to shout about their achievements. Something even more important when you consider that they are competing with Tory ministers seeking to do the same and the need to cut through the tittle tattle that goes for much political discourse.
Yet one of the most disturbing things for a supporter of the Liberal Democrats in government is the sense you get of the lack of any kind of thought through political communications strategy.
We rightly criticised Blair for the endless round of initiatives, announcements, and re-announcements. All spin and no substance was the claim.
It was a scandal, was it not, that policies were launched one year and then re-launched the next year, and then the year after that. Shameful. Yet deliverers of Focus leaflets across the UK will know that constant repetition is an essential part of getting your message across.
This government have said that they will do things differently, not least the Liberal Democrat part of it, but maybe we have gone too far in the other direction? It seems we may have gone from all spin and no substance to all substance and no spin.
It is right to be critical when spin doctors drive the policy. But ‘spin’, or rather the application of communication skills and strategy, is an essential part of politics.
It may be seen as a bit trite to say the Liberal Democrats need their own Alistair Campbell but – just maybe – the Liberal Democrats do need their own Alistair Campbell.
Yes I do seem to be calling for less substance and more spin. Maybe I am more feverish than I thought?