Friday, April 06, 2012

Is this why the Leader's Office doesn't get it?

The recent debate over rumoured proposals to snoop on private internet traffic has been something of an eye-opener for many internet savvy Liberal Democrats. The report sparked a great deal of anger amongst the online community, all of which led to a hurriedly organised conference call between a group of Liberal Democrat bloggers, two Special Advisors in Nick Clegg's Private Office, and Matthew Hanney, Nick's political advisor on Tuesday evening, organised by the Liberal Democrat blogosphere's resident Auntie, Helen Duffett.

It was, it is fair to say, a rather difficult conversation, and it would be hard to describe it as a wholly successful meeting of minds.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThere was a decided sense that the Leader's Office doesn't 'get' it, that they are too close to the heart of government to see why those of us with the opportunity to apply some perspective or, in some cases, expertise, are so aerated about the issue of internet monitoring. It would appear the Leader's Office suffers from a failure to connect to the wider Party.

If it's any consolation, it has been ever thus. David Steel was pretty much loathed by the radical wing of the Liberal Party (the feeling was almost entirely mutual), whilst Paddy Ashdown's leadership was punctuated by interesting 'out of the blue' policy announcements which did at least have the effect of ensuring that you listened to his leader's speech. Charles Kennedy never really engaged with activists, and Ming Campbell's understanding of how the Party really worked tended to ensure that he was respected but never really loved.

But whereas in the past it wasn't important because we weren't in government, and the absence of social media made organising a co-ordinated response was difficult (how outraged can you get if you don't know how outraged everybody else is?), both of these have now changed.

And that, perhaps is the key to the sense of dislocation between 'us' and 'them'. One presumes that the Special Advisors know more than we do about the detail of government - what is being discussed, at what level, and at what stage of development it is at. That knowledge is a blessing... and a curse. It is a blessing, because they can see beyond the newspaper headlines, but a curse because they therefore don't necessarily see what the impact of those newspaper headlines is on the rest of us.

However, that doesn't mean that they're right, and that the rest of us are wrong. We have to remember that a small group of people are tasked with attempting to keep track of the entire gamut of government business, whilst we can focus on the things that interest us. They are also outnumbered by evil Tories, with their own agenda (which isn't ours, lest we forget).

But the fact that we are watching, as an online community, changes the way that politics should be done at the centre. Unfortunately, the centre is suffering from time lag. In the same way that government was slow to understand the impact that freedom of information would have on its work, and that coalition would have on decision making, so it is with the ability of opposition groups to convey their message and influence the media agenda.

As Nick kept saying, we need a new politics. Ironically, that's not just because it is right, but it's because the old one is now transparently broken. And our mission, should we wish to take it on, is to help in those efforts to change the way that policy is made in this country, to break down the walls of silence and deception that impact on our body politic, and to shine a light upon those shadowy media moguls, lobbyists and apparatchiks whose influence is so strong over those who govern us.

It isn't easy, and it won't be quick. But, in the long run, it will reduce the scope for the sort of gulf that causes disharmony amongst us...


Anonymous said...

It's not just that they don't see the potential political impact.

It's that they didn't instinctively realise it was a bad policy, completely out oif line with liberal (to our fingertips) principles.

That is far more worrying.

Edis said...

I suspect it would be helpful if we (activists and advisers and perhaps even Ministers) read Paul Ormerod's book 'Why Most Things Fail:and How To Avoid It'.

The chapters on government show how governments get shut into little worlds of internally justified arguments that often don't survive ruthless scrutiny. And the how to avoid it bit includes a messy process of evolutionary give and take drawing on wider experience.

Might be worth discussing?

James said...

Isn't it time that the LibDem special advisers should be made accountable to the party which they are meant to be advising in Government - I'm sure that minds with a great capacity than mind can devise some sort of way of keeping the "SpAd's" accountable!!