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.