Narratives….what are they good for?

Over on another post; myself and Oranjepan are having a debate about the Liberal Democrats narrative (or what I feel is a lack of one). One of the poorer aspects of our conference was I believe the lack of a coherent narrative and while I agree that open debate is totally a good thing and seeing it in public is good I do think there is so far that can be taken without appearing to lack a coherent narrative.

My contention is that Nick Clegg with his ‘savage cuts’ and Vince Cable with his mansion tax risked reviving the old perception of the Liberal Democrats; that they tack to the left against Labour and right against the Conservatives. Oranjepan doesnt see this as a problem;

“Being caught facing two ways is exactly what we DO want!

In the discussion over Clegg’s use of the word ’savage’ with regard to cuts, this has obvious appeal to the right-wing and shows we are sympathetic to their concerns, but in the rejection by Steve Webb and the wider party we show we are also sympathetic to the concerns of the left.”

I, on the other hand, do because to me it reinforces the prejudice that this is what Liberal Democrats do and that is the behaviour of a protest party not a party of potential or one that necessarily looks like it is seeking government. It reinforces the view that we are there to cater for every need of the protest voter whether they be of the left or right wing variety. If there was a stronger central narrative then it may well look as Oranjepan says it already does; that we are a party of strong diversity which is capable of healthy disagreement, however, given our position that is not how I feel it comes across.

Tensions over issues like tuition fees actually run deeper than the depth achieved by the singular issue themselves and actually speak to a wider tension within our narrative and the contending versions of what people want that to be; this will need to be resolved if we want to make a serious push to challenge Labour for the mantle of THE progressive party.


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5 responses to “Narratives….what are they good for?”

  1. Liberal Eye says :


    I agree with you on this. The failure to develop a coherent narrative is the biggest failure of the Lib Dems for without one we are merely a party of protest, destined to be dragged along in the wake of events.

    The difficulty is that all the existing political narratives are broken. This was not some sudden event but rather a state of affairs that developed gradually as the world changed while the Westminster Village folk (and, to be fair, those in most other western capitals) sat, like the proverbial frog, complacently in their pan of steadily heating water.

    The credit crunch represents that water getting close to boiling point; it’s not just another recession as they desperately hope that can be fixed with tradition tools. (And don’t believe anyone who says it’s over – it’s not by a long way yet). Rather it is an epochal event that completely changes all the rules. Thus there is nowhere on the traditional political spectrum where a niche exists waiting to be found and colonised for Lib Demmery. We should instead imagine a kaleidoscope where all the pieces have been shaken up and scrambled into a new pattern.

    The future belongs to the first to understand that pattern, explain it to the electorate and propose sensible policies based on the new reality. Electors will warm to a party that clearly understands the challenges we face – as they have with Vince Cable as an individual.

    Yet the Lib Dems are poorly equiped for that task which must start with good analysis on which good policy can be built. The Party’s central policy ‘engine’ contains some good people but the failure to find a way to leverage its ability is a key failure of leadership over many years. Certainly sidelining it is not the answer.

    The inevitable result of lack of leadership on the narrative is that everyone is trying to work out their own and hence there is an element of fragmentation happening, most notably between the social liberals on the left and libertarians on the right.

    These can be reconcilled but only by uncovering a deeper reality than either group perceives. This is not an easy task but it is doable. Unfortunately it requires rather better leadership than we have.


  2. Barrie Wood says :

    I think the ‘narrative’ of the Tory / LD coalition in Leeds could do with a response from you !

    I’m sorry but as a ‘left wing’ social liberal and lifelong trade unionist the attempt to cut low paid workers pay by 33% is appalling. It’s morally unjust band has got a deserved response from bin workers.

    Low paid workers v Leeds Lib Dems – I’m with the former !! So much for all that blather about ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice’ and being a progressive party !!!


  3. darrellgoodliffe says :


    Thank you for the comment. I agree to a large degree with what your saying about all political narratives being broken; although I do feel that this presents us with even more of an opportunity.

    Totally agreed about the epochal nature of the credit crunch and once again agreed that this presents us with an opportunity. Agreed about Vince too and agreed on all your other points 🙂


    I certainly share some of your concerns about this and have previously blogged about trade unionists having the democratic right to strike; something that we certainly should remember and also that an adversarial tone in these situations rarely does any good.

    I don’t know the specifics of what the council is asking for in return for an increase but the phrases used be Andrew Carter (increased productivity, reduced sickness) certainly raises my hackles. Certainly, with regard to these things we should be leading from the top when it comes to making any sacrifices that are required before we ask those lower down the scale to sacrifice.

    While appreciating that the council is cash-strapped I certainly question if this rather ‘savage’ pay cut is the way forward.


  4. liberaleye says :


    The thing about a broken narrative is that it doesn’t require vast financial resources that we don’t have to fix it; just good analysis and a willingness to break free of the tramlines of conventional thinking. As it happens I’ve been there (albeit in a corporate context) and, believe me, the speed of the change that ensues when you start getting things roughly right instead of badly wrong is quite startling.


    As I understand it (and I stand ready to be corrected if wrong), this is the result of framing the dispute according to a libertarian view of the world – ie roughly that free markets are wonderful and anything that hinders them (typically unions or government regulation) is bad, verging on evil.

    This is not a view I share for reasons too many and various to explore in a brief comment. When I feel suitably inspired I must attempt a fuller discussion on my own blog.

    It may perhaps be the case that the bin workers are overpaid (I offer no view on this), but even if they are overpaid you cannot ignore history; you cannot simply tear up contracts whenever it suits and, if the council has indeed made mistakes in the past, it must find a cleverer way of correcting them now. These are people with families to support not machines that can be summarily scrapped when it becomes expedient; any political philosophy that does not put care for people at the heart of its thinking should be highly suspect.

    I can sympathise with the libertarians’ world view to a limited extent. We have had many decades when regulation, specifically bad regulation, has become the norm in government practice and the whole issue needs to be rethought. However, treating people as disposable ‘factors of production’ amounts to throwing the baby out with the bath water and is not the way to go.


  5. darrellgoodliffe says :


    Totally agreed. Costs nothing but is potentially priceless. As to your comments regarding the bin strike I am sad to say I think your remarks could well be spot-on.


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