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"A letterbox without a leaflet in it is a wasted opportunity"

“A letterbox without a leaflet in it is a wasted opportunity”

One thing I’ve said repeatedly in recent years is that no one gets involved in politics because they really, really enjoy delivering leaflets. I thought that was a really obvious thing to say, but now I’ve had a comment that makes me question that. Apparently, I shouldn’t waste time writing posts on my blog about things that interest me and instead ‘just get out and deliver some leaflets’. (There’s also an appeal to ‘Mark’ to limit the topics that get written about, which makes me wonder if some people think Mark Pack is now the literal God of Liberal Democrat blogging, casting down thunderbolts at those who displease him)

This isn’t a new thing - Liberator magazine has spent years complaining at how the ideas of community politics have been turned into a leaflet delivery cult – and with an election coming one would inevitable expect to see the calls to stop thinking and start delivering increase in number. It’s not even a specifically Liberal Democrat thing – sure, that’s where my experience is, but it’s easy to spot the calls to campaign more and discuss less in other parties, even if they don’t have quite the same fetishistic devotion to shoving pieces of paper through letterboxes.

There are several problems with the ‘shut up and deliver leaflets’ message, not least the fact that it’s bloody rude, but for me they all come down to a misunderstanding of why some people get involved in politics. They rely on the belief that politics is essentially a game, and that it’s about ensuring that your team does the best it can, in the hopes that it can defeat the other teams. In this view, any of us mere bloggers are just average players in the game, not required to think about strategy or tactics, just required to get out there and follow orders. Deliver those leaflets, knock on those doors and do as the party’s high command tell you. Ours not to reason why, ours just to deliver then go back to HQ and ask for more, like a good Stakhanovite.

In that vision, a blog is just another campaign tool. While it’s probably not as good as delivering leaflets – for nothing is as good as delivering leaflets – it probably has some use as a cheerleading tool, telling everyone just how wonderful everything is, and how much more wonderful it would be if they’d just go out and deliver leaflets. That this and other blogs steadfastly refuse to take that approach means that we’re obviously in the wrong.

Unless you look at politics from a different perspective, and see ideas as important or just enjoy talking about general political issues, institutions, and history. What got me into politics was talking about things and considering ways that the world could be different, where the campaigning was a means to an end, not an end in itself. Sure, people like that might be a minority in modern politics (which tells a sad enough tale in itself) but telling us to ‘just go and deliver leaflets’ rather than have an interesting discussion or discover new ideas is not going to motivate. If anything, it’s going to demotivate us, because it tears down another bit of the facade and insists that everything is just about the game, where winning is the only thing of importance, not what you do with the prize after you’ve won.

So no, I won’t stop writing about things I find interesting in favour of delivering leaflets and if anything, I think one thing we need less of in politics generally is campaigning. The general election campaign has been running for several weeks now – whether we wanted it or not – and I’m pretty sure that time might have been better spent by dropping down the level of campaigning and actually trying to get more people to think and talk about issues instead of parroting soundbites and talking points at each other. But then, I would say that, and while I’ve been writing this post I could have been getting my fingers trapped in countless letterboxes.

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We should be glad that having decided to emphasise something other than ‘Stronger Economy, Fairer Society’, the Liberal Democrat message of ‘opportunity for everyone’ is something clear and distinct that no other leader would ever use…
blairopportunity

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(Blair headline here, Major picture from here)

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Nick-Clegg-004(First, a disclaimer: this is not a prediction of anything that might happen at the general election. I’ve got no idea what will happen in Sheffield Hallam or any other seat in May, and I’m not making any predictions about what might happen in the election, nationally or locally.)

As ever, when actually asked to explain how the systems of British politics works, and not just repeat some juicy gossip, Britain’s political columnists have come up short. They can read the constituency polls that say Nick Clegg might lost his seat at the election, but when asked to think what that might mean, they have no idea. Sometimes, it feels that having knowledge of how things work is rapidly disappearing from our media, because it’s all too complicated to have to remember facts.

What’s most frustrating about a lot of the ‘nobody knows what might happen’ is that the Liberal Democrats have twice found themselves unexpectedly leaderless in the past decade, though both of those were because of sudden resignations rather than the actions of the electorate. The procedure established by the party in these circumstances is quite clear, even if it’s not in the party’s Constitution: the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party becomes acting leader until such time as a new leader is elected by the party’s regular processes.

So, that’s perfectly clear, except for one small problem. The current deputy leader of the parliamentary party is Sir Malcolm Bruce, who’s not standing at the election, but appears to be holding on to his position until then, which means it will be vacant at the start of the next Parliament. It is important to note that while this role is often referred to as the party’s deputy leader, it is technically only deputy leader of the party in Parliament and as such is only elected by the party’s MPs.

So, if Clegg was to lose his seat in May, there’d be no one to replace him, and there’d clearly be chaos, right? Well, yes and no. Despite the party being full of many people who love nothing more than arguing over a constitutional clause for hours on end (and if you’re that sort of person, you too could become a member of English Council and do it to your heart’s content) I think all but the most stubborn would recognise that this is a case where force majeure applies.

It’s established that the Deputy Leader becomes acting leader when there’s an unexpected vacancy, and that the deputy leader is elected by the party’s MPs. While there may be an established procedure for electing a deputy leader, I can’t see anyone reasonably objecting to the remianing MPs following a very truncated process as soon as they’re able to meet, with their decision then further authorised by the party’s Federal Executive as soon as it meets. In that situation, I would expect the parliamentary party to meet as soon as possible on the Friday (the deciding factor on meeting time may be the timetable for flights from Orkney to London) and the FE to meet on Saturday morning. How urgent the process needs to be would likely be determined by the rest of the result – very rushed if it looks like the party will be taking part in coalition negotiations, somewhat more leisurely if a party has got an overall majority in the Commons.

Who might that interim leader be? I have no idea – I’m not making those sort of predictions, remember? All I know is that there is a simple way for the party to choose an interim leader if the current leader isn’t returned to Parliament, and it’d likely be a herald of some interesting political times if it had to be used.

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libdemblogsAs three of my fellow Liberal Democrat bloggers (Mark Valladares, Alex Marsh and Jonathan Calder) have tackled this subject without using the most obvious of headlines for it, I decided to wait no longer and throw my tuppence of opinion in before someone else realised it was available.

Despite the headline, I think a lot of the decline in political blogging isn’t just limited to the Liberal Democrats. Sure, there’s now a smaller pool to draw from, and previously high-profile names like James Graham aren’t Liberal Democrats anymore, but to me, there don’t seem to be as many political bloggers as there used to be, or if there are they’re now much more congregated into sites with multiple authors rather than individual blogs.

There also doesn’t feel to me that there’s the same level of networking being political bloggers that there used to be. Again, this is personal perception, but I rarely see (or write) posts like this one, where they’re written as a response to something another blogger posted. Back in the Good Old Days of blogging, many posts seemed to be ‘in response to X, who was enraged by Y’s post about Z’s statement’ but now that kind of post is rare, and the self-contained post more common.

I think there are two main reasons for this change. First, there’s been a decline in blog aggregators and readers, the most notable of which to disappear was Google Reader, though I still lament the disappearance of the UK Political Blog Feeds page most of all. It feels to me that what tools of this sort that do exist generally tend to favour aggregating content from a single site or platform. WordPress will aggregate content from WordPress blogs, Blogger from its users and Tumblr from its, but people are less likely to range across platforms than they were. (For those of you who miss Google Reader, I do recommend The Old Reader, though) It’s much harder for a new blog to get noticed and find readers than it used to be, especially if you don’t have access to large number of social media contacts to promote yourself to. (One thing I have just realised – Lib Dem Voice doesn’t appear to have done a ‘welcome to the new bloggers’ post in a while)

Perhaps more importantly, though, the rise of social media has changed the way people use the web and stolen a lot of the niches that were previously only filled by blogs. Short points, sharing links and conversations are much better done on Twitter than blogs, and it’s much easier for a councillor to keep in touch with residents through a Facebook page than a blog – primarily because much more of the population use Facebook regularly than read blogs. It used to be that the answer to a lot of ‘how do I do X online?’ questions was ‘set up a blog’, but now it’s the answer to a much smaller set of questions. Even if you just want to expound your opinion on things, there are enough group blogs looking for content that you don’t need to set your own up and post regularly.

I don’t think blogging – even Liberal Democrat blogging – is dying, just evolving as the web and political ecosystems it sits within change. I would like to see more blogs and bloggers, especially from people who like discussing ideas in depth, but who knows how things might change after May?

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For an affordable increase in your gruel ration, vote!

For an affordable increase in your gruel ration, vote!

I don’t always like being proved right. When I wrote about hope earlier this week, there was still a little part of me that thought I might be proved wrong and things might turn around. Our politicians might all have suddenly been infected by a desire to spell out positive visions for the future, but sadly the virus that does that doesn’t exist in our universe as yet, and all we get is the drab and the banal.

Yet again, we got more slogans to add to what sounds like an attempt by a particularly uninspired management training weekend to come up with the most generic slogans possible, things that are too bland to be included in mission statements. ‘Finish the job and finish it fairly’ is the latest attempt at non-differentiation from people who’d advertise tea by claiming it was less caffeine than coffee, but more taste than water. If all you can do to distinguish yourself is claiming ‘slightly different than X and Y, but not by too much!’ then is it any wonder no one wants to pay attention to you?

That’s why we end up with headlines like this. Look, I know the Important And Serious People who write newspaper columns and hang around the Westminster lobby like nothing more than to talk about the deficit and the minutiae of post-election taxation rates, but “Lib Dems propose £8bn in tax rises to reduce deficit” is not a message to excite or motivate anyone. Rather than promising a better nation, it’s merely asking people to work as though they were in the early days of a better budget strategy. It’s expecting people to be somehow inspired by the rhetoric of managerialism, despite all the evidence suggesting that it’s the last thing that inspires people. People like to leave work behind at the end of the day, and a politics that represents all the worst of it isn’t going to inspire anyone.

I’m not going to claim that previous Lib Dem general election campaigns were examples of unalloyed genius in political campaigning, but they at least gave people something positive to latch on to as a promise of better days to come. Now, there’s no one doing that, and instead the election is threatening to turn into a series of dull people reading out PowerPoint slides comprised entirely of the dullest buzzwords possible, then wondering why all the audience has slipped out to go to the pub.

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vincedannySo, despite months of people consistently saying it’s a bad idea, the Liberal Democrat leadership has confirmed today that Danny Alexander will be the party’s main spokesperson on Treasury issues for the election campaign, while Vince Cable will be restricted to commenting purely on BIS matters. Some people are claiming that this is no big deal, as those are related to their Cabinet positions, while others are not very happy.

The point here is that this isn’t a case of two people doing the same jobs they’ve been doing for the last few years. This is the announcement of the party’s key election team, the ones who’ll be dragged out to do the morning press conferences and the rounds of the TV and radio studios, as well as the ones who’ll have to debate their counterparts from other parties. These are key election campaigning roles, not ministerial government ones.

Mario Cuomo’s recent death has reminded me of his old phrase about the difference between the two: ‘you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.’ You may have to make compromises if and when you get into government, but in the campaign you don’t. You show the best of yourself, put forward all your best policies and argue for them as strongly as you can.

The economy is going to be a central issue of this election, and the treasury spokespeople are likely going to be the most called-on for press appearances of all of them. The Liberal Democrats need someone in there who’s good at those sort of media appearances, not someone whose previous appearances in the media have been more reminiscent of Ben Swain from The Thick Of It than a polished and confident media performer. The job of being a party’s spokesperson – and implied candidate for that position afterwards – in an election campaign is not the same as being a minister. (If it is, those arguing for Danny Alexander should explain why Tim Farron is the chief voice on foreign affairs, another high profile role, despite having little Parliamentary experience in the area)

Regardless of the issue of how much distance and independence on economic policy the man who’s sat alongside George Osborne for almost five years can claim, an election campaign needs the party’s best given the most high=profile jobs so they can communicate the party’s policy to the media. To not give the most high-profile and frontline role on the economy to the party’s best-known and most respected voice on economics is foolish and hampers the party’s ability to campaign.

(UPDATE: I changed the title of the post, because the original one was far too long)

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Lib-Dems-voting-at-conferenceMark Pack asks Liberal Democrats what needs to be done to make One Member One Vote work. I left a brief comment there, but decided I needed to expand on that thought a little more.

I’m on the record as being sceptical about OMOV, and neither the debate at conference, nor the discussions that have been had about it since have shifted me from that scepticism. However, I have continued to think about the subject and I’m coming to the position that OMOV as constituted is attempting to solve the wrong problem.

The problem we’re being presented is that the methods of accessing the party’s current power structures prevent many members from influencing those power structures. Thus, OMOV is proposed as a way to change the way the power structures are accessed: no longer will elections to federal committees and votes at conference be limited to conference representatives, now every member will have those opportunities. It seems reasonable until you notice there’s one big assumption in there: that the existing power structures are fine, and it’s just the inputs to them that need tweaking.

My problem is that I’m not convinced that is the case. One important thing to consider here is that the structures of the party have changed very little since it was founded in 1988. This actually makes the party’s structures effectively the oldest of the main parties – Labour’s structures were changed after 1994 and the Tories after 1997 – and any changes that have taken place since then have effectively been changes of procedure, not changes of any of the fundamental structures. (It’s endless tweaking and not fundamental reform that leads to organisational charts like this where things keep getting added on to what’s already there instead of replacing them)

My problem with OMOV proposals – even as Conference amended them – is that they’re yet another set of tweaks to the existing system, and not an examination of whether that system is capable of doing the job we want it to do, regardless of what inputs its getting. It’s a bit like trying to fix a car by bolting new parts onto it and changing the fuel while insisting that the engine is fine and needs nothing more than an occasional tune up.

What I think we need to do – though not till after the election, obviously – isn’t another set of tweaks that we’ll then look at in another couple of years to see if they need more tweaks, but to start again with a blank sheet of paper and work out just how a political party for the twenty-first century should work. Is it best run by a set of committees and a conference that rely on everyone being in the same place at the same time before decisions can be made? I’m much better at asking questions than designing new structures, but surely there are other ways of doing things with a much more distributed and networked power structure. The current party structure was set up at a time when hardly anyone involved had a computer at home, let alone mobiles, email, the web or social media, before 24 hour news, devolution and countless other things were part of the political landscape.

I think we do need to create a party where the members have a lot more say in how it runs and what it campaigns for, but I’m still not convinced that adding OMOV to the current system is the way to achieve that. When the election is done, we’re going to need to have a proper debate about the future of the party, and I think that debate doesn’t just need to be about where we’re going but how the party is organised and run. Rushing to introduce OMOV before the election is saying that the existing structures are mostly fine and taking that debate off the table when we most need to have it.

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