Slogans and titles are tricky things. Does the title of the Liberal Democrats new policy and consultation document, ‘Make it Happen’, work? I’m not sure. They could have gone a bit more Trekkie and tried out ‘Make it So’. But if the title is a bit dodgy, what of the contents?
Not wanting to rush to judgement I have now read it for the second time and mulled it over and reached the conclusion that I am, with some reservations, very pleased with it. I think it is a very significant step forward.
The first thing that needs to be recognised about ‘Make it Happen’ is that in policy terms by and large there is nothing new here. Yes, there are a few headline innovations, more of which later, but the bulk of it is either long standing existing policy or the development of themes that are well within the mainstream of a Liberal Democrat approach.
The significance of the document is not in new policies, but in the use of new language.
One of the problems that the Liberal Democrats have had is that we have had good policies but have been crap at communicating them. The great thing about ‘Make it Happen’ is that it is an attempt to talk to people about what we want to do in a way that is actually relevant to their lives and how they feel about national issues. While we still have a long way to go to get to that elusive “narrative”, this document is a huge step forward.
This positive development is reinforced by the language used in Nick Clegg’s Summer message which as Neil Stockley points out demonstrates how at last the “Liberal Democrats are starting to frame our policies and messages in ways that will encourage people to vote for us”.
One particularly pleasing aspect of this change in language is a recognition that we need to find ways of talking to an angry and disaffected electorate. We have often talked about how “politics is broken” in the UK – but so often we have done so in an abstract way that was too much informed by the perspective of the practising politician. We need to translate our analysis of how and why the UK is badly governed into language that is relevant to people’s lives. ‘Make it Happen’ makes a good attempt to do this. For example take this from the section on health;
“Everything’s designed to make life easy bureaucrats and form fillers, not for patients and their families, or for hard-working doctors and nurses.”
The theme of people’s frustrations with a remote, impersonal, bureaucratic and unaccountable state is one which needs to be central to the Liberal Democrat narrative in the coming years. And I believe that it is a theme that is complemented by the most controversial, and genuinely new, element of ‘Make it Happen’ which is the shift in our tax policies. I hope to say a bit more specifically about tax in a future post, but it is an aspect of ‘Make it Happen’ with which I am actually entirely comfortable.
There are other aspects however where I do have doubts. ‘Make it Happen’ is a very good attempt at getting the message right. We are beginning to find the right language with which to discuss with voters their problems and talk about our distinctive answers – where we have them. Yet in some areas we do not have sufficiently distinctive answers to back up our new rhetoric. There are some blanks which we need to quickly begin to fill in. For example, I am nervous about whether our policies on transport are strong enough and I am also nervous about whether the attempt to beef these up by a switch to national road pricing is the right approach. Also, a huge part of what is in ‘Make it Happen’ hangs off an agenda of decentralisation and devolution – yet I have considerable doubts about whether we have a sufficiently sharp picture of how we would actually do this.
I am sure Nick Clegg recognises this problem. The need to fill in the blanks must lie behind a lot of the policy agenda he has been outlining in recent months. Yet we need to get this right. We need to be distinctive, but we need to be distinctive in a way that fits comfortably within our social liberal traditions. There may be some critical battles ahead to make sure that we can “make it happen” in a Liberal Democrat way and not end up with a pale imitation of the Labour/Tory agenda.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.