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20 September 2010

Why it’s futile following Simon

As ever at this party conference the media come in for quite a bit of stick.

By Olly Grender

“I’m on Simon Watch,” a journalist said to me as he arrived at the fringe meeting I was chairing. Now that means different things to different people. For a journalist, Simon Hughes, deputy leader, might be a good bet to follow around all day in case he shows a scintilla of difference with the coalition government.

At this IPPR fringe meeting there was disappointment on that front. His robust defence of the decision taken and his total rejection of constituency arrangements were argued with his usual eloquent passion.

For anyone involved in the party media operation, “Simon Watch” is a different thing entirely. He is often triple-booked for every fringe meeting and someone is always tasked with sticking to him like a limpet to ensure he keeps on time. And yes, every now and then he does give great and controversial quotes.

As ever at this party conference, the media come in for quite a bit of stick. Like a grumpy vicar who acquires a larger congregation, the temptation for delegates is to say, “Where have you been for the past few years?” instead of: “Welcome. How nice to have you here.”

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Lib Dems need to ease off a bit on over-worrying about the media. There is a reason Nick Clegg said in his speech, “We’re keeping our eyes on the horizon, not on the headlines.” This is a critically important internal message. Ask anyone from the Labour Party and they will tell you that their obsession with the media distorted their decision-making in government.

It is a difficult path to take, but getting governing right, rather than messaging right, is a new kind of politics all of its own.

So media operations may perhaps change, I am certain that they should change, but I am sure one thing will never change: the age-old tradition of “Simon Watch” on both sides will continue.

Olly Grender is a political consultant. She was director of communications for the Liberal Democrats between 1990 and 1995.

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