What the Lib Dems need to do to get back on track in 2013

Stopping the worst excesses of the Tories is not enough. The party needs radical new policies.

We’re bumping along in the polls at around 10 per cent, we have the most unpopular leader of all the major political parties, and in the last three Westminster by-elections we came third, fifth and eighth, losing our deposits in two of the three campaigns. You might think the Lib Dems go into 2013 with a large black cloud hanging overhead and an awful sense of impending doom. You’d be wrong.

The grassroots are surprisingly chipper. In the most recent Lib Dem Voice survey (fieldwork just before Christmas), 77 per cent of respondents said they continued to support the party being in coalition, 61 per cent said they thought the party was on the right course, and (hold onto your hats) 58 per cent said they were either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with Nick’s leadership.

How come? Well, partly it’s the Pollyanna lurking inside every Lib Dem. Doing less than spectacularly in mid-term polls is the default expectation for most grassroots members (even if by-election disaster after disaster is something of a novelty), so this doesn’t feel like particularly alien territory for most folk. It’s also true when you look at local election results – and when we think about the 2015 general election, we think of it at a local level – we’ve done rather better in 2013 than most people realise.

And many in the party genuinely look at the good things the Lib Dems have achieved in government – 2 million out of income tax altogether, the pupil premium, Green Investment Bank et al – and think actually, for doing all that, unpopularity is a price worth paying. And that’s a fair point. But I can’t help but feel the party may have listened to the Prime Minister’s call for the country to approach 2013 with a sense of realism and optimism a tad too literally.

So here’s my two pennies' worth for the next 12 months if the Lib Dems are going to get back on electoral track.

We have a ‘new’ positioning of the party as the only repository of both economic competence and social justice. Of course, it’s not new– Nick announced it at conference in September 2011. But it’s not really stuck has it? Might I suggest that this may have something to do with the fact that demonstrating economic competence during the worst economic malaise for 80 plus years is quite tricky? Ditto social fairness, when the last government before you has spent all the money, and you’ve got your coalition partners introducing a benefit cap and apparently encouraging words like ‘feckless’ and ‘workshy’ to be bandied about.

So if that’s the strategy, fine – but we’ll need some rather better communications to get it resonating than we’ve managed to date. Might I suggest ditching the HQ line of ‘the Lib Dems are working to build a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life’ for the rather snappier ‘Lib Dems represent the head and the heart’. Folk might actually remember that.

And while stopping the worst excesses of the Tories is as important as ever – the snoopers' charter being just a starter – that won’t be enough. Neither will shouting ‘well, what would you do then?’ on a continuous loop at the Labour Party. We need some new, exciting policy initiatives of our own. Our newly elected federal policy committee needs not just to be thinking about the general election manifesto for 2015. It need to be presenting conference very quickly with some radical new thinking for debate and agreement. And then we need to be presenting it to the country.

As a party, we spent too long on our non-differentiation strategy with our coalition ‘partners’ – and we are now similarly in danger of thinking that if we shout at the Tories about how awful they are for the next 30 months, all will be right in the world. It won’t. We have 12 months to show the country we are still the radical, reforming and creative political party the members all joined. And if we do that, combined with our record to date, we’ve got a half a chance.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Nick Clegg delivers a speech to the Centre Forum at The Commonwealth Club on December 17, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit