Ambitious leader speech sees Vince Cable aiming for the top job

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

As the Liberal Democrats met for their first conference since the 2017 general election, many were feeling disappointed at the state of things. The party came away with a mere 12 election victories after mistakenly believing the Brexit referendum had given it a branding which would help it capture more votes. Yet despite disappointment, party managers reported a higher than average conference attendance and membership numbers remain high.

Members met to reflect on the past, look to the future and begin working on how to take the party forward in an increasingly muddled political environment. Lib Dem conferences are a mix of decision-making votes and key note speeches and the leader’s speech is traditionally the final session of the event. This year that fell to Vince Cable.

Leaders’ conference speeches are difficult at the best of times. They have to communicate to party members in the hall, to (often) cynical journalists who have “heard it all before”, to members of the “political community”, and to potential voters, members and others who will only catch bits of the speech on the news. And whatever the leader wants to say, there will be questions which need to be answered and fires which need to be put out. Anyone reading the Alastair Campbell Diaries, or indeed the accounts of John Major’s time as Conservative party leader, will know just how fraught and last minute the speech preparations can be.

And of course if it is your first run out as Leader, the pressure is worse.

So today Cable had a lot to do. He had to look and sound like a leader, positioning both himself and his party in the most beneficial way. And he was certainly ambitious about it.

When, a few days before his speech, he told an interviewer that he does genuinely believe he can become prime minister, some may have thought that this was simply the answer to expect from a politician. But a theme which sprung out from Cable’s speech was government. “We are the government of the future,” he said at one point. And he ended with a call to head “back to government”.

This is actually quite risky. Many will remember David Steel’s rallying cry at the Liberal Assembly in 1981 when he called on members to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”. Government for the Liberals, now the Lib Dems, didn’t arrive until 2010, and only then because of the need for a coalition. The Steel phrase is often recalled with raised eyebrows at party conference. (It also became a regular in sketches at the Liberal Revue or the conference Glee Club.) And of course when Steel made his speech, the SDP Liberal Alliance was riding high in the polls.

So for Cable, head of the group of just 12 MPs, to make such a bold statement is a risky piece of positioning. But it is also necessary. For Lib Dems to have an obvious purpose, they must be seen as working towards that end. And that end must seem possible.

Safe pair of hands

Another theme of Cable’s speech was the need for people with experience who could take a grown up approach to things. He devoted significant time to talking about ministerial work and achievements. This is not an unknown practice for a political leader but it is a little unusual to look back more than two years. However, if Cable’s pitch is about being able to govern, there will be an ongoing need to stress examples of this work by key people such as Norman Lamb and Jo Swinson, both MPs, and Lynne Featherstone, now in the House of Lords.

As ever in a Leader’s speech there were short points on issues which would go down well with the party and also garner soundbites. Donald Trump’s state visit should be cancelled, the hall was told. Votes at 16 would be the centre of the party’s campaign for political reform.

The ConversationIt’s never clear how to measure the success of a conference speech in a non-election year. Is it about membership increase, good media coverage, more donations, poll ratings? For this piece of positioning however, what will matter is whether the message can be credibly sustained over the years to come.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

PR challenges facing Vince Cable

By Paula Keaveney, senior lecturer in PR and Politics

It is all change at the top of the Liberal Democrats, with Vince Cable replacing Tim Farron.

Cable’s  position comes as a result of Farron standing down in the wake of the most recent General Election. The Lib Dems will forgo a leadership election though as Cable was the only nominated candidate after a series of likely contenders, including  Scottish MP Jo Swinson and North Norfolk’s Norman Lamb, ruled themselves out.

Since the 2015 General Election, and 2016 Euro Referendum, the Lib Dems have seen membership soar. But the clear pro EU positioning in June failed to deliver much of an increase in seats. In fact, there were more lost deposits and a low vote share, leading to internal discussions about what happened and why.

So, what are the key challenges facing Cable?

Sir Vince does start with one advantage: He is known in a way that Farron was not when he took over. Cable became prominent for his prescient warnings over the economy in the run up to 2008. He has also had time standing in as Lib Dem leader – remember the soundbite about Gordon Brown going from Stalin to Mr Bean – and he was a Cabinet member during the Coalition.

So, the party has less to do in terms of making journalists and the wider public aware of who the new leader is. Being known will make it easier for him to gain broadcast time and print inches .

However, the profile of an individual leader does not necessarily mean the party’s image is right or the party well positioned.

The immediate challenge for Cable is party conference in September. It is one of the few guaranteed shop window events for a smaller party.  Farron was known for his energetic , activist style. Cable will need to use the occasion to show that the party is very much back in business.

However, poll bumps as a result of  a good conference rarely last and the first big challenges, barring any by elections, will be May 2018, when local elections include those in London (in which every seat is up for grabs) and in the Metropolitan Boroughs (in which some seats are contested in places like Liverpool and Manchester). In many cases the party will be attacking Labour which will be in the happy position of facing a Government party likely to be garnering poor reviews. This makes life very tricky for Lib Dems. A good showing is needed but this is not particularly fertile ground.

This means Cable will need to be very canny in terms of positioning. Some individual campaigns will go against the general run of play, but in many local elections people follow their general impressions of the parties on offer.

So which positions would work?

The clear ‘give people another say on the EU’ call did not work in the General Election. The ‘sage advice on the economy’ is useful but not unique.  ‘More investment in schools, health and policing’ is usually a welcome message but is shared by just about every party.

There is no one position which is both stand-out and likely to work at the moment.

Of course, politics is not just the art of the possible. It is also the art of opportunity. In the past leaders such as Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Tim Farron (on Hong Kong, Iraq and refugees respectively) have found and pursued issues which made clear calls about human rights and liberal values. Sir Vince will need to bide his time and be ready to recognise the issue which provides a liberal moment which resonates with the public.

He will also need to avoid overstatement early on. Reports in some media that he is likely to talk about making the Lib Dems the second largest party will worry long term activists. Many remember talk by former leaders of replacing Labour.

And meanwhile? Meanwhile the task is to reassure activists, many of whom did not see the poor result of 2017 coming, and take the fight to Theresa May in the Commons. The Mr Bean sound bite won’t work now, but I feel sure the Lib Dem team will be looking for something equally cutting and memorable.

Britain’s first post-Brexit by-election a triumph for Liberal Democrats

Robert Courts won for the Conservatives but on a dramatically reduced majority. PA/Chris Radburn

For those who like to read the runes of politics, parliamentary by-elections are a gift. Each local area of course has its own characteristics but these contests offer a snapshot verdict on the government and major parties between general elections. It’s also a chance for those parties to try out and refine campaigning techniques.

The Witney by-election, caused by the resignation of former prime minister David Cameron, has certainly given us something to pore over.

By all accounts this is one of the safest Tory seats in the country – Cameron took 60% of the vote in the 2015 election. West Oxfordshire Council is Tory run and, although there are pockets of relative deprivation, the constituency is generally rural and affluent.

And indeed, the Conservative candidate won the by election on October 21. But the significance in Witney lies less in which party won than in the performance of the parties that didn’t.

Back in the game. Paula Keaveney, Author provided

After being almost totally wiped out in the 2015 election, the one-time coalition partners increased their vote share by 23% in Witney, beating Labour to come in second place behind the Conservatives. There was a swing to the Lib Dems of just over 19%, denting the Conservative majority by around 20,000 votes.

The Lib Dems have a reputation as a formidable by-election fighting team. Actually this reputation is based on events quite some time ago. Since 2007 the party has performed relatively poorly with tiny increases and some falls in percentage vote share. Even Eastleigh, which the party held in 2013 after Chris Huhne’s resignation, saw a large drop in vote share.

So party organisers will be extremely satisfied with this result. It indicates that the Lib Dem campaign machine is working again. Considerable effort went into encouraging activists to making phone calls to voters – or making the journey to Witney – and at times it was hard to walk down a street without seeing a Lib Dem campaigner. Labour was less obvious on the ground, although the party had clearly worked in its areas of strength, as demonstrated by the number of posters in some pockets of support.

It also shows that there are Conservative supporters who will swap to the Lib Dems. That may indicate that they are unhappy with the whole Brexit saga (Witney voted to remain) or with new prime minister, Theresa May.

2015 election results in Witney

Lib Dem slump. Paula Keaveney, Author provided

For Labour, I am sure the party forums will carry arguments about Corbyn’s failure to deliver a challenge to the government here. Witney is not a seat Labour could conceive of winning, but there must be some anxiety at a failure to make progress. The Labour candidate was, after all, a local councillor with a core of support.

As for UKIP, it will not be happy to have been beaten into fifth position below the Greens. We’ll never know how much the fight between two of its MEPs and the ongoing saga around the leadership has affected this vote. But common sense tells us that the party is facing not just a series of rows but a crisis of identity. It is impossible to do well in this kind of battle without a clear sense of purpose and message.

The Liberal Democrats clearly approached this race with a clear purpose and have achieved it. A full recovery is still a long way off but the Witney result has brought some much-needed cheer.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Liberal Democrats in Brighton – why their party conference still matter

Tim Farron hearts EU. PA/ Jonathan Brady

Party conferences are strange beasts. They can be a mix of sales conference, rally, social event, training course, decision-making forum, networking opportunity and job interview. And there will always be several “conferences” going on at once. For a charity campaigner or trade union lobbyist, the conference will be very different to that experienced by an MP or an activist.

But while us outsiders only get a glimpse of everything that goes on, there are ways to read party conferences that offer insight about the party and its people. The Liberal Democrats are at a particularly interesting period in their history, so the party’s meeting in Brighton offers particularly interesting fodder.

Who is on the podium?

A key issue at conference – and particularly this year – is who speaks. The Liberal Democrats only have eight MPs but they can’t all have keynote speech slots. The choice of speaker is significant.

This year, apart from the obvious Leader’s speech by Tim Farron, keynote MP slots have been given to Norman Lamb (Farron’s challenger for the leadership) and Alistair Carmichael (MP for Orkney and Shetland and home affairs spokesperson).

Carmichael could do with some good PR. PA/David Cheskin

The choice of Lamb, given he is health spokesperson, is not surprising. Health always yields plenty of topical material. Carmichael, however, is a less obvious choice. His inclusion could of course point to the party’s ongoing desire to stress the sort of civil liberty issues covered in his portfolio. Or it could suggest the need to provide him with a positive platform following a recent scandal in his constituency, during which he did not exactly cover himself in glory.

What’s on the agenda?

In politics, timing is key. At conference this means how much time is given to a topic and at what point. Scheduling matters. Has a topic been given a prime slot – such as mid morning or in the run up to one of the leader’s appearances? How much time is being given over to discussing the topic? That gives us an indication of how important the issue is to the party.

The selection of topics up for debate on the conference floor also tells us a lot about what is important to the wider party and about what it wants to promote. When an election looms, party leaders see it as more important to be seen making soundbite-laden speeches. With limited time, that can mean less time for votes put forward by the members. But since the next election is probably years off, there is plenty of time this year for voting on the nitty gritty of policy.

High on the agenda is Europe – an issue which has been given a prime-slot motion. The party has deliberately scheduled an opportunity for this highly pro-European group of people to discuss the fallout from the referendum and, more importantly, what comes next.

One of the problems faced by the Lib Dems in the past has been a certain fuzziness. Polls often showed voters were not clear about where they stood on certain matters. However, Europe provides a massive opportunity for the party. Brexit may well mean Brexit for the majority of voters but there is a clear advantage when it comes to the remainder for whichever party keeps the pro-European flame alive.

Both in post-referendum comments and in those closer to the conference, party leader Farron has managed clearer statements and more defined positioning than Labour. Now, a large chunk of the Monday morning session at conference has been allocated to Brexit discussion.

Less prominent this time, but important none the less, is a session on Trident and nuclear weapons. There will be no vote on this. Members are taking part in a “consultative session” in the run up to an actual vote in the spring.

These consultations are part of a rather lengthy policy development process which the party uses on some topics. And while this will get less attention than conference floor proceedings, it is important. Lib Dem policy is currently not unilateral nuclear disarmament but there is a strong seam of unilateralism running through parts of the party.

What does success look like?

Given how much political media coverage is based on speculation and preview, there is a real risk that coverage of the Brighton event will be drowned out by guesses about Labour’s annual conference later in the month. So one measure of success for the Lib Dems will be a decent level of positive coverage.

Externally the party will want the event to deliver profile and positioning. Internally it will want to bind members in more strongly to the shared efforts of the next few years. It will be interesting to see, next time there is a TV interview on Europe, whether broadcasters are more likely to pick up the phone and call Farron. If they do, then this year’s Brighton conference will have achieved at least one of its goals.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.