Finally, the Liberal Democrats have a new leader: Nick Clegg. During the leadership contest, I’ve refrained from openly supporting one candidate or other on my blog, but it’s worth saying that I voted for Clegg, and am very glad to see him win.
This is a crucial juncture for the Lib Dems, and comes at the end of a period where we’ve struggled to make progress. The trouble started at the last general election, where we achieved our best result in living memory, but still undershot our expectations – expectations which were understandably quite high, given the favourable political landscape. Returning 62 MPs was too impressive for Lib Dems to complain about, but given our hopes of making a big breakthrough, it left us feeling unfulfilled and uncertain. It’s that uncertainty which has led to the turbulence of the past two years, far more than Kennedy’s alcoholism or Ming Campbell’s failure to get a fair hearing from the press.
Clegg’s top priority, therefore, is to draw a line under what has been, in his own phrase, a very introspective time for the Lib Dems. There needs to be a clean break from the past few years. I don’t mean a break in terms of policy; we had a very clear one of those under Ming Campbell, who dropped Kennedy’s 50p tax rate in favour of his own policy of fiscal neutrality – without it making the blindest bit of difference to the perception of us as a tax-and-spend party. Good policy is very important, but on its own, it won’t take us beyond the level of a liberal think-tank.
Rather, the clean break needs to be made in terms of psychology. The media and the public won’t trawl through the fine detail of our policy papers, but they will respond to changes in tone and atmosphere, which is a far more subtle problem for the leader. The challenge is to paint a picture of a party that is confident, that has a vision, and that knows exactly where it’s going. If Clegg can generate that ambience, the troubles of the past couple of years will be quickly forgotten.
How to do it? Much as I hate the dumbing-down of political debates, he has to create a simple Lib Dem story, one which is easily told. It needs to be the story of an anti-establishment party, coming from the outside to take on a stifling and complacent political consensus. This is a story we’ve already started to tell; the “fighting the cosy consensus” soundbite has been cropping up for a while now. That soundbite needs to be taken up as our motto, and it needs to be the thread running through every announcement the party makes in the coming few months. We can’t hope to beat the other parties if we fight them on their own terms, as part of the political establishment. We don't have the resources, the core voter base, or – however much it pains us to admit it – the credibility with the media and the wider public. More to the point, within that establishment, the others have drawn up and designed the playing-field, and it’s slanted against us. It’s only by coming at them from outside that we can hope to make progress. For a realistic strategy, that theme needs to be incorporated into every single press release, statement or speech.
It’ll be a question of choosing the right phrases, the right angles, the right perspectives – and using them consistently, again and again, until they’re entirely associated with the Lib Dems. The rest will be down to the subtleties of body language, a few good interviews and speeches, and a fair bit of luck. From there, it should snowball. If we create the right atmosphere around the party, it will begin to affect the way other people see us, and utlimately, the extent to which they're prepared to trust us.
One thing is certain: we can’t afford to stagnate. Forget about Christmas: Clegg needs to get cracking. If he can put the troubles of his predecessor into a box, file it neatly away, and start a new, relentlessly positive era for the party, then we have a bright orange future. If he can’t, we’re doomed to another few years of misery. It’s game on.