It was a cosy and intimate affair in the Leaders office for our interview with our Work & Pensions spokesperson and Nick Clegg's chief of staff, Danny Alexander earlier on this week. Chocolate Easter Eggs in lieu of the traditional doughnuts were handed out and the Millennium Elephant took his position on the coffee table (separating me from the chocolate but then that is probably a good thing!!).
Now, whilst the notes I made on the answers to everybody else's questions are copious, my notes on Danny's responses to my own questions are a little threadbare. I am a very active listener, you see, and this requires me to be looking at the person that is talking to me rather than taking notes. If I am going to make a habit of this interviewing lark it may well be worth investing in one of those dinky little dictaphones – or investigating whether my iPhone does the job (surely it does??). So, I'm afraid there'll be no verbatim quoting in this posting!!
As Danny is in charge of preparing the manifesto my questions focussed on what he thought was the Lib Dem narrative, our manifesto and also what we were planning on doing on making our policies attractive to women voters.
His somewhat predictable but slightly frustrating response to the questions about the role and structure of the manifesto (I wasn't the only one asking, by the way, Alex started it) was that it wasn't just him writing the manifesto and there was a whole manifesto sub committee on the Federal Policy Committee and he wasn't going to start second guessing them. He could however report that there is going to be a pre-manifesto document, that will be much shorter and stake out the 'mission' of the party. That's perhaps a safe line to take, especially knowing Lib Dem activists who sometimes seem to me to be unable to countenance any actual leadership by the elected representatives put in charge of these things but I found a little disappointing.
This is a failing in my interview technique, I guess, I'm sure I could have been more aggressive but I was disinclined to be so (seeing as he's one of our own; and I've never done it before and it would have felt rude). However, I do need to develop Eddie Mair like tendencies, rather than John Humphries, because on reflection I think it's possible to provide ones own thoughts about how it should be without usurping the role of the committee that you are chairing.
The pre-manifesto will have themes such as being anti-establishment, pointing out how Labour and Tories work for vested interests and the Lib Dems are the only ones arguing for a dramatic change. Picking up on his remarks about themes I asked him what he thought the narrative should be, and here I make no apologies here for my lack of notes as compelling narrative should stick in the brain without them, but it went a bit like this:
Politics and the country is being run by both Labour and the Tories to deliver what a whole series of vested interests want and not for ordinary people like us. When David Cameron says that society is broken he is wrong; it is politics that is broken not us. Only the Lib Dems are radical enough to break up this cosy consensus.
Which is fine as far as it goes and rather similar to the manifesto themes and not quite tugging on the emotions enough to be a narrative. For my money I would like to see not just an analysis of what happened in the past and what is happening now but some idea of where voting Lib Dem and a Lib Dem government will take us in the future; I want our narrative to give me a glimpse of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I want to know what's in it for me as a voter not just that the Lib Dems are radical and anti-establishment.
It is however further than we have got for many years in defining a narrative for ourselves. The interview originally with Nick was meant to mark his first 100 days; we will be seeing Nick finally at the beginning of May and I hope that he doesn't leave it much longer than that before he defines what the future is going to be like!
If you read back over previous blogs you will see that I have been very excited by how important the women's vote has been in the US Democratic primaries and how both candidates have had to court the women's vote. The Tories have noticed this and published a policy paper to address issues that impact women such as rape convictions, equal pay, childcare provision; and David Cameron was rather compelling on Women's Hour on how much he wanted to welcome women into the party (whether the rest of the party is so keen remains to be seen). I wanted to know whether the manifesto group were thinking of doing anything special given how important the women's vote could be in the next general election.
I think if I had required Danny to give a one word answer to that it would had to have been 'No'. He started off by saying he thought women were just as concerned as men about mainstream measures; which I don't argue with but in the end I think he understood that I was talking about presentation and packaging of those policies to make it clear to women what's in it for them. He mentioned something else about family friendly policies in the workplace and childcare, given that being able to work and get childcare is key to lifting oneself out of poverty.
Firstly I get a bit narked when politicians conflate family friendly policies with women friendly polices; after all, what about women like me that don't have children, of which there are more and more? Plus men should be just as interested in family friendly policies.
Secondly, my feeling was that his lack of thought around marketing ourselves to women was just a lack of thought rather than an antipathy to it. I think we will really miss out on a lot of votes if we ignore the women's vote. After all sorts of other organisation absolutely understand that if they want to reach a certain section of society they need to mould their message to appeal to that group. That's not patronising that paying due respect. But then until we, as a party, start understanding that campaigning is not the same as marketing I don't think we'll be getting much further on that one.
Then came the most joyous part of the interview for me: Helen Duffett, one of my fellow interviewers, started to ask Danny about neo-natal care and classes and their funding and availability. There followed a few minutes of sharing experiences (not mine, see above comment on no children) of neonatal classes and how important they can be to new mothers, families and those wishing to avoid post natal depression – especially relevant given all the work that the Lib Dems have been doing on the lack of mental health services.
These sorts of conversation are rarely held outside WLD or at least in mixed or majority male fora; it was a new experience for me!
I would like to thank Danny very much for standing in for Nick at such short notice and giving us an hour of his time. I do think that we are closer to defining our narrative than we ever have before and I get great comfort from having spoken to Danny. I think there's more work to be done though as I fear we're still confusing themes with narrative and they are very different things.
I had not met Danny before and I found him very pleasant and rather modest. When asked by Millennium Elephant (on behalf of Stephen Tall who couldn't make it so had written in with a question) whether being Nick's Chief of Staff was like being Leo McGarry in The West Wing he first of all suggested that the team that worked for him were more talented than the West Wing team but that his job was much more to do with administration.
Well, I think Danny could afford to be a little less modest and still not be in danger of being arrogant; I think Nick is really quite lucky to have him!