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The Negative Narrative

November 14, 2010

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceFeatured on Liberal Democrat Voice[Author’s Note: Thanks very much for the retweets, pingbacks, links, votes on LibDig etc. This is my first post to hit the Golden Dozen twice!

There’s a lot of despondent Liberal Democrats out there these days. I should know – I’m one of them. It is frankly not a fun time to be a member of the party. The compromises inherent in coalition, which we understood and were prepared for intellectually, are emotionally a lot harder to swallow. We’re seeing our MPs, our Ministers, doing things we don’t agree with, things that aren’t party policy, things that are wrong. It’s natural that we focus more on those things than the Lib Dem policies which are being enacted, the ways we’ve held back the Tory right – after all, that’s what we expect Lib Dems to do.

Narrative

It’s not just a matter of cognitive bias though, real and measurable though that effect is. The national narrative is against the Lib Dems as a party. Narrative’s a hard thing to define, but basically it’s a crowd effect. It’s not just that there’s lots of negative stories about us in the papers, it’s that it’s sticking. When people think of the Lib Dems, they think of betrayal, not compromise. We’re an acceptable target for jokes about politicans being liars. People will assume the worst about us by default. It’s not about the facts, it’s about the spin on them in the common consciousness.

This is the exact opposite of what happened during Cleggmania. In that heady pre-election rush, which didn’t last until polling day, people saw the policies we advocated, including what we planned to do in the event of a hung parliament and coalition negociations. They assumed the very best of us. In coalition, the party is delivering the key policies it identified before the election. But people feel betrayed, because they’re looking at the same facts in a negative way rather than a positive one.

Incidentally, I really don’t think that Nick is doing us any favours here. His claims that we “just didn’t know the economic reality” before the election is bunkum, a fabrication to comply with collective responsibility. He’s taking it too far, and he’s doing the party a disservice. The Lib Dems were the party with the most detailed outline of a recovery programme, the only main party to have our financial plans independently audited, and the party most honest that we could deliver what we promised. I think Nick needs to stop insulting the people who campaigned for the party on those grounds, and say it like it is – we’ve made compromises in some areas to achieve wins in others, and we made clear what our priorities were before the election.

This isn’t, of course, to say that everything the coalition is doing, that the Lib Dems are doing in Government is good. See my first paragraph. But we were expecting that in coalition. What’s changed is the way things are thought about and discussed. If the narrative were going the other way, we might see “Labour MPs break NUS pledge to introduce fairer funding by opposing Browne proposals” as a headline, or “Coalition simplifies benefits to introduce a Citizen’s Income”.

Implications

This bad faith is applied to everybody who’s stuck with the party, and it makes it disheartening to be a Lib Dem, let alone try and defend the party. The sheer quantity of vitriol hurled at us, regardless of its low factual quality, is hard for us to deal with. We’re only human after all, and we’re trying to do our best, and think the Lib Dems are still the best way to achieve that.

While our overall membership numbers are up, we have lost members, and the narrative plays a part in that. I’ve seen people resign for solid reasons since the Coalition was formed –  a compromise too far, or something that they couldn’t personally stomach while still accepting the many concessions we’d forced out of the Tories. But I’ve seen people resign because of the narrative as well, regurgitating partisan headlines or Labour half-truths verbatim, claiming that we’re “letting the Tories get away with everything” and “haven’t gotten any of our policies through”. It’s very tempting to just dismiss anybody “stupid” enough to abandon us because of the national tide, but I don’t think that’s fair. After all, we didn’t dismiss the people who joined us during Cleggmania as merely going with the Lib Dem trend, and we shouldn’t deny how hard it is to remain a party supporter while going against the narrative – even if we ourselves have managed to do it.

We’re on the back foot now. For every achievement, we’re confronted with “yes but this bad thing is happening, which negates it” – rather than “for every bad thing, this good thing is happening”. Because we’re arguing against the narrative, it makes it much harder for us to promote the good things that we’re doing. People don’t want to hear things that go against their preconceptions, and find it easy to dismiss things that do.

Our opponents attack the relatively minor details of what we’re achieving (some of which, admittedly, need work) rather than face up to the overall shape of things – more incentives for people to get into work, taxing the rich to benefit the poor, and an end to the culture of dependency which didn’t make it financially viable for people to take employment. Even the NUS protests can be seen as students campaigning against better-off graduates paying more so poorer graduates pay less. Personally, I’m sickened by people making political capital out of whipping up fear among poor, ill and disabled people when the details of the proposals haven’t even been published yet.

Options

My opinion remains that the Coalition was the right move for the Lib Dems. It remains popular among the membership, and it means that Lib Dem policies are being implemented by the Government, while Tory ones (such as uncapped tuition fees) are not. I don’t believe a minority Tory government would have survived – we would have had less influence, it would have been unstable at a time of critical economic fragility, and the Tories were best placed to benefit from a second General Election as the only party with money in the bank, and a few months of “tough but fair” rhetoric in power.

Obviously, one could argue that I’m following a pro-Lib Dem narrative that’s even more biased than the national opposite. I’m not particularly minded to debate that here – if you want to discuss whether the Lib Dems are angels or devils, there are many other places on the Internet where you can do so.

Family

However, as a Lib Dem who wants to see the Party remain strong to challenge the Tories in Government and Labour outside it, where do I go from where I am? I can’t deny the national narrative, and I’m not best placed to try and counter it. But neither do I want to ignore it, to take my ball away and go home and not challenge the half-truths I see around me. One thing I’m doing is making a vague effort to throw in the occasional comments on Lib Dem Voice, on the party’s Facebook group and other places where you can see the narrative being regurgitated by angry people. I don’t think this is going to be entirely effective – the narrative is a tide, which has swept people along who contribute to its power, and I am but a pebble trying to divert its course rather than check it. However, it makes me feel better to see those comment threads with some positive contributions, and my Facebook comments get a lot of “likes”, more than the negative ones, which makes me feel like I’ve cheered up a fellow supporter.

I’ve often heard the Liberal Democrats described as a family, and it’s really time for this family to pull together and look after its own. Perhaps our family has more distant relatives, who may not even be party members, let alone involved in local parties, bloggers, conference-goers etc. These people are the most vulnerable of all. We need to be there for each other, to support each other. Local parties need more social events such as Liberal Drinks (though not all in pubs please, that’s not inclusive) – no agenda, no fundraising raffle, no keynote speaker. Just ordinary members, getting together, talking, realising they’re not alone. I’m sincerely hoping that our new President addresses this concern. We need local parties to pull together for the sake of our members and supporters, but we need support from Cowley Street as well, for those parts of the country where our local party structures aren’t so strong.

Other people who are more skilled at media and semiotics can discuss how we alter the national narrative, but we can all play a part in how we weather it as a party… and as a family.

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  1. November 14, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Many thanks for writing this. As a relatively new member now struggling with the fact that people have suddenly started piling on to tell me how evil and wrong I am every time I even mention the Liberal Democrats, it’s much appreciated. I can see the narrative which you identify very clearly for what it is, and I’m also aware that that’s partly just how both politics and the media work. But I feel angry about the way we seem to be being singled out for a pummelling from every direction, and helpless to act against it. And (again as you recognise above), I also feel rather isolated in my efforts to deal with and work through it, given how many of my friends recently seem to have been converted to this ‘negative narrative’ (great phrase, BTW!).

    Perhaps the most useful, and in a slightly distorted sense, positive outcome of it all for me has been that it has prompted me to look more closely at my own attitude towards the party, and to refine my own position. I didn’t join up lightly in the first place – although I will freely admit that Cleggmania helped me along the way! But watching the growing hostility towards the party over the last month or so has inevitably made me think extra-hard about how much of that hostility is justified, and whether or not I want to stay on board. I’ve certainly shed a few illusions, but fundamentally the outcome of that has been to leave me all the more convinced that the Liberal Democrats are the party which best represent my views and principles, and that they are forwarding those views and principles to the best possible effect by acting as part of the coalition government. I know now that I’m not going anywhere – and I hope that the same will turn out to be true of some of the party’s other recently-joined members.

    Actively fighting on the party’s behalf, though, seems very daunting in the present circumstances. In a way, the issue is academic for me at the moment, because I am quite genuinely so busy with work that I don’t really have any spare time for campaigning (just spent the entire weekend writing an article – yay!). I also have the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign as a convenient workaround, since it gives me something that I *can* campaign for in what spare time I have without being called evil – and yet will also hopefully be a real boost to the party if we can secure a win.

    But I agree that strong real-life social networks are a good mechanism for helping people to keep the faith, and encouraging people like me to gradually get more actively involved in the party. I think it’s already made a big difference in my case that I have long-standing friends (such as yourself!) who are active LibDem campaigners, and also that I went to the Special Conference in May, so got the chance to reinforce some of those contacts and also see directly for myself how the party works – which is very impressive. But it’s a pity my local party hasn’t made a more concerted effort to pull me into the fold – and I agree that that’s something which would very much be worth some thought from Tim Farron.

  2. Holly
    November 15, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    I really think there has been a lack of challenging this narrative. On the issue of tuition fees, for instance, if it hadn’t been for you telling me that the poorest 30% will pay less this way, and Tim Arrowsmith pointing out on Twitter that the Lib Dems’ pledge on tuition fees was dependent on the budget going the way the Lib Dem manifesto would’ve had it, I wouldn’t have heard anything that goes against the dominant perspective in the mainstream and online media.

    So these little pebbles do have an effect, and I guess like everything about the Lib Dems, and being a liberal in general, it’s about combining enough diverse opinions that still manage to be similar enough to counter the narratives of people who are used to thinking of the Lib Dems as nothing more than third-party ineffectual obscurity (indeed, one of the more grating bits of the negative narrative has been that the Lib Dems can’t handle power! as if we were joking all along and bemused now to have our bluff called).

    But sheesh if you’re a pebble in this fight against the negative narrative I must be a mote of dust :) Still I am keen to see what if anything I can do to help redress the balance.

    I really like the idea of the party as a family; it resonates with how I got involved with it — having a husband and some good friends be involved in varying degrees, and it giving me one of my first paying (only just!) jobs in the UK, has meant it’s always been something I’ve felt comfortable with. And the emotional power of that is not lost on me; I like to think I’m a smart cookie but all the intelligent arguments in the world matter only to a point, and the other thing that matters is being able to hang out with Lib Dems in a pub mere minutes after a personal catastrophe; cheered me up to no end. This sort of stuff should be part of the narrative, too.

  3. November 17, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Hey, at least the Nick who ? Cracks have died down!
    What worries me is the NC is trying to Tony Blair his way out of this, he needs to reread his copy of “the political brain” and stop treating the public like 5 year olds.

  1. November 15, 2010 at 7:40 pm
  2. November 17, 2010 at 8:03 pm
  3. November 21, 2010 at 7:01 pm
  4. November 22, 2010 at 8:50 am
  5. November 30, 2010 at 12:43 am
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