The Negative Narrative
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.