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Fear and loathing at the coalface: how to combat it

February 24, 2016 11:57 AM
By Katharine Pindar in Liberal Democrat Voice

European flagsTaking charge of the Stay in the EU campaign, David Cameron was accused of using the politics of fear: claiming Britain will have greater security staying in, while leaving would expose us to unknown hazards. It's ironic, though, that his actions caused an astonishing split even in his own Cabinet. Are the British people expected to feel safe and secure while seeing our Government and the ruling Party split from top to bottom? How much effective business can such a Government enact in the next fraught few months?

Meantime our own Party has had its share of turmoil and trauma in the past five years. Internally, the comprehensive 2015 Election Review from the Campaigns and Communications Committee shows that a fatal dislocation arose between our Party in Government and the Party in the country. Externally, strong negative emotions against us were simultaneously roused in the British public. Anger among many that we joined with the Tories in the Coalition at all became disgust and even hatred when our Government Ministers broke the Manifesto pledge on abolishing tuition fees, and went on to back austerity measures to reduce the Deficit. As the Review reminds us, our Poll ratings dropped like a stone, our activists departed and our councillors fell from power. While the Lib Dem Ministers achieved much good and prevented some harm, there was little recognition of this in the country.

During the build-up to the Election, the Review points out the inadequate 'messaging' from our Centre: 'Stronger economy, fairer society' was a slogan not distinctive for us. Then came 'Look right, look left, then cross'. This though more specific was surely worse, for it suggested the truth that we were willing to enter another coalition with either Tories or Labour. That could be seen as opportunistic and unprincipled, the Lib Dems out for a bit more power and ministerial salaries. Cue renewed hatred from sections of the public, especially if we looked likely to 'let in' a candidate from the Party they most detested.

But our collapse had many causes, as the Review makes clear. For example, the Tories' recognition that one of our strongest emotions is fear led to their instilling in the English public a fear of an alliance between Miliband's Labour and the Scottish Nationalists. Why should that be dreaded? Was it much the same fear that drives some people's dislike of the EU, that we English may not have sufficient control of our own laws?

Liberal Democrats should be just as aware as the Tories of the part that fear plays in the national psyche, for there is plenty to be afraid of. Consider only the fear not talked about, of terrorists appearing in our cities, and the dread of Putin's expansionism. And there is fear of immigrants taking our jobs when good and lasting jobs are so hard to come by, or of them further depleting our too-small housing supply and our overstretched NHS.

When the current indifference to us lifts, will we still be hated and distrusted? And can we help to alleviate the nation's fears? There are ways ahead on both fronts, notably by following Review recommendations. Furthermore we need a positive message now about the Lib Dem work in the Coalition. The leadership should draw up a national statement, honestly setting out what the real achievements of our Ministers were in their minority role. From that we can derive campaigning material, adding to it news of our developing policies. And as the Review suggests, we can adopt better campaigning methods involving the whole Party.

Yet it is the image that we convey that will count for most as we seek to win back the public's liking and trust. As the Tories did last year, we can now project an image of safety and security. Did we not keep the ship of state steady for five years, thanks to the committed efforts of our Ministers in Coalition? And aren't we ourselves an image of stability, united as we mostly are, secure in our faith in the EU and in the potential of our people?

We have an unprecedented chance this year to project ourselves as national saviours. The image of the Tory Government struck through the heart is not one to be dwelt on by people nursing fears, and neither can they take comfort from the spectacle of the divided Labour Party with its apparently unelectable Leader. We are the only sensible but progressive major Party around, and as the Review suggests can look forward now with optimism, hope and belief in our rebuilding.

* Katharine Pindar is a long-standing member of the Lib Dems and an activist in the West Cumbrian constituency of Copeland and Workington.