Interview: Danny Alexander

The Lib Dems should be doing better than ever, but their polling remains stubbornly unmoved. Danny Alexander tries to explain why.

By Ian Dunt

Last Tuesday was ‘cuts day’. Gordon Brown dared to use the word in a speech to the TUC. Osborne pledged an emergency Budget after the election. And very quietly, Vince Cable published a pamphlet.

As it happened, that pamphlet contained more details about precisely what the Lib Dems would cut, and when, than either of the two other parties put together. It earned a couple of mentions, but Brown’s speech and Osborne’s snarling response dominated the headlines. A typically frustrating day in the world of Britain’s third party.

Twenty-four hours later, I’m sat with Danny Alexander, chief of staff to Nick Clegg and the chair of the Liberal Democrat Manifesto Group. Basically: the man formulating the Lib Dems’ election campaign. As he gets ready to head to conference, it seems sensible to ask whether the party hasn’t revealed its hand too early? With all the details out on the table, to only a modicum of media interest, they’re now free to poach.

“Sure, occasionally other parties do steal our ideas,” he accedes. “That does happen. But they don’t necessarily sound very authentic coming from them. People aren’t convinced by parties that steal rhetoric. There’s got to be the substance behind it too.

“There are quite a number of very powerful ideas which we’re putting forward,” Alexander explains, including “fundamentally rebalancing the tax system to take an awful lot of people outside of tax, to raise the tax threshold to £10,000, and having that paid for by closing many of the loopholes that the very wealthy are able to exploit”.

He continues: “That’s something that financially adds up, it clearly makes common sense, it would make society fairer. It would put money into the pockets of those who really need it right now. Perhaps what’s surprising is that that hasn’t been stolen, rather than that it has.”

Alexander almost seems to hint that a few more should be stolen. Both the Greens and the BNP have shown pride at the way their agendas have been taken up by government, but the Lib Dems seem too big a party for that, even if they remain far away from power. Nevertheless, being stuck out of power by an unrepresentative electoral system and an indifferent media establishment means many Lib Dem members secretly view stolen policies as satisfying evidence of political change emanating from the third party.

The tax policy is brilliant. Like a Picasso, it captures something bigger than itself perfectly. In this case, that thing is the strange politics of the Lib Dems. It is a tax cut, making it sound right wing. But it is aimed at the poor – and paid for by taxes on the rich – making it sound left wing. Ideologically it is entirely coherent. But in the world of snappy media soundbites, it can appear confusing and flimsy. There are similar problems with the cuts proposals. Although cuts – currently shaping up to be the issue the general election is fought on – have the potential to damage parties even more than their first cousin; taxation.

I put it to Alexander, that while all three main parties now support cuts to public spending, the international consensus is pointing the other way. Many economists believe cutting in the middle of a recession is a tragic mistake, whatever the deficit. But the Lib Dems are now as tied into what is essentially a Conservative agenda as Labour is. His response demonstrates many of the problems in the Lib Dem message.

“Clearly we have to keep on supporting the economy until the recovery is established,” he argues. “That’s why starting to make savage cuts right now is not the right thing to do. What Vince has been spelling out – quite rightly given that these decisions have to be made in the course of the next parliament – is that it would be wrong for every party not to go into the election being clear about what they’re going to have to do in the course of the next parliament. But we do share the view that to start making savage cuts right now when the country is still making baby steps out the recession – if we’re getting out the recession at all – is not the right way forward. But we have to know what we’re going to do so we can start doing it as soon as that time comes.”

Again, the argument is entirely coherent. Again, it is too complex for an easy soundbite. And political campaigns are based on taking a simple message and battering away at it (think: ‘fixing the roof when the sun is shining’) until it’s locked in the voter’s shell-shocked brain.

With Labour damaged seemingly beyond repair by years of government and the Tories not yet loved, even if they are capitalising on widespread dislike of the prime minister, this should be the ideal moment for the Liberal Democrats to break the shackles of their past. And yet the Lib Dem message is not understood, and the party is yet to make any impressive gains in the polls. This is especially evident given the Lib Dems were by some considerable extent the party which emerged from the expenses scandal with the cleanest report card. What’s going wrong?

“I think it is very fertile territory,” Alexander concedes. “The Liberal Democrats have a huge opportunity. Labour is a complete failure as a government, as a party that achieves anything from a progressive point of view. I think people look at the Conservative party and are completely unconvinced by a party that has no idea what it believes in, what motivates it, what its governing values and beliefs are. And that’s a huge opportunity. With the ideas, the people – Nick Clegg, Vince Cable – and the ambition, we will exploit that opportunity to the full at the next election.

“I think one of the things you’ll see at our conference, I think the signature tune of the conference, if you like, is an enormous confidence that as a result of the political situation that we face and the distinctive policies we have, that we have a huge opportunity as a party to elect more Lib Dem MPs than we ever have before and to really change the future of British politics.

“People have a choice at the next election. Labour’s out of it. They’ve failed. Everyone knows they’ve failed. Do you want to have phoney change with the Conservative party or real substantial change with the Lib Dems?”

And there you have it. Their time is now, and the party expects to vastly improve their performance in the next general election – the campaign for which begins this weekend, for all intents and purposes, at their conference in Brighton. If they fail to expand the number of Lib Dem MPs in parliament this time, historians will look back at 2010 and wonder how they managed to waste such a golden opportunity. It’s an exciting, and dangerous, time to be a Liberal Democrat.