Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Annual Dinner Talbot Hotel Southport

Pat Sumner and her team deserve great praise for all their efforts organising the Annual Dinner on Saturday the turn out was magnificent and everyone I spoke to had a great time. I understand from Dave Sumner that the collection for Children in Need went well. Our speaker apart from reviewing the last 50years also analysed the challenges that now confront us and gave some good advice. Judging by all the conversations that were going on after the event I think he achieved his goal of making us think about how we approach the next 18 months campaigning.

One or two things must be acknowledged from the beginning. Firstly you could be faced with a candidate like Sarah Palin but without the intellect or her grasp of foreign affairs and still loose. Equally, as Sir Ron Watson observed recently, there are some people who sit by the windows waiting for a passing bandwagon to jump on, sort Poujardism without the restraint of principle and if you are faced with one of those you may still loose. So let us accept what the Hebrew Bible says that ‘the race is not to the swift nor yet the battle to the brave....but that time and chance happeneth to all things’

I think that there is much common ground in how we should approach the task. The big issue in politics is-and almost always is-the economy. For the first time in 70years Lib Dems are ‘in front of the curve’ on this the main issue. The man in the Daily Telegraph summed it up:
‘Mr Cable is having a good war. Unlike just about everyone else, he has the ability to see what is coming next, and other commanders are left struggling to explain why they are only saying now what Mr Cable pointed out some time ago.’

It is rare for us to be holding the Ace of Trumps and we must make as much of it as we can. The polls always show that people would vote for us if they thought we might win. That is not a problem for us in Southport we have won 4 out of the last 5 General Elections. All our campaigning has won us an electorate prepared to consider what we have to say.
Let us be clear we have been lucky with the choice of Tory candidates to date, neither Ronnie nor John have been faced with a highly credible candidate in this period. There has also been a very strong anti Tory mood across the country. The landscape is changing. The opposition is learning from the way we have campaigned. We have to keep ‘in front of the curve’ not just in policy but also in campaigning.

It is always a temptation when you are ‘close up’ in politics or indeed any other activity to imagine that the detail you are aware off is known to a wider audience. It is also a mistake to assume that the wider audience care. Nevertheless the caliber of candidates matters. It is of course true that the party label can effectively obscure candidate’s deficiencies. But a campaign should be like a refiner’s fire revealing the true worth of a candidate. Sarah Palin demonstrated that. The base vote was delighted they had someone who shared their gut instincts but it soon become apparent that the rest of the electorate wanted more than an ideological bedfellow. I remember listening to one US voter explaining how in the past she had voted Bush but she felt she had been let down and was choosing ‘competence’ over ‘faith’ this time.

There are candidates who are suited to a particular time. I guess many Lib Dems voted for Ming Campbell as leader in the belief that there was to be an early General Election and that therefore issues about his age would not come to the fore. After Brown delayed the Tory press mercilessly went after the issue of Ming’s age. It stands to reason that political parties of all stripes who were rushing to put someone in place for the expected Gen Election last year made similar calculations about candidates and as the time passes the candidates vulnerabilities becomes more obvious
Candidates can self destruct. They can become obsessed with minor issues that do not resonate with the electorate at large. In the media age if they can come across as cold, aloof or unfriendly that is a handicap. (I guess Gordon Brown’s failure to believably express empathy over babyP caused him real problem last week-more here .Tony Blair would have effectively dealt with that and Cameron would not have come back for more. Labour backbenchers would not have barracked the Tories because Blair would have set a tone which stopped it happening.)

We are no entering an election period- it could come in the Spring of 2009. There are no policy big surprises to come, our challenge is to put those messages across in a way that connects with the electorate. We have a good message and an electorate that is at least prepared to listen, We must stick to the central theme and not pander to noisy lobbies. For 90% of the electorate the economy is the main issue and 90% of our campaign should reflect.