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Liberal Democrat Newswire #37
Welcome to the 37th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, which this time returns to the popular topic of the Liberal Democrat party's messages, looking at how the new one is panning out.
The party's search for a message
Back in Liberal Democrat Newswire no.27 (November 2012), I looked at the party’s search for a coherent and successful political message:
For the Liberal Democrats (and predecessor parties), one possible answer [to what the purpose of the party is] has been ‘to be the nice moderate people who take the edge off what the other parties want to do’. It worked great as an opposition approach at times over the last few decades, especially for the SDP. Yet facing the reality of being in power it works about as well as my dancing. Good in theory, unsuccessful in reality.Eight months on, how are the party’s efforts to find a message that deals with those issues panning out?
One sentence, two-thirds remembered
“A stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling every person in Britain to get on in life.” That is the core message adopted by the Liberal Democrats recently, under the heavy influence of Nick Clegg’s popular strategy advisor, South African Ryan Coetzee.
From a purely organisational perspective, it has been well implemented, featuring regularly across a wide range of party communications, from interviews with Nick Clegg through to straplines on local Focus leaflets. The consistency of its application is a mark above that of most previous party messages (and reflects the success, in this respect, of Chief Executive Tim Gordon’s reorganisation at party HQ, covered in Liberal Democrat Newswire No.26).
That is, if you take “it” to be the first two-thirds of the message. The last of its three points, “enabling every person in Britain to get on in life” is frequently dropped even though, as Paddy Ashdown has forcefully argued, it is the “enabling” part of the slogan that makes it distinctively Liberal Democrat by contrast with, for example, a typical Fabian-style top-down Labour approach focused on outcomes, not freedom.
The risk with simply talking about economic success and a fair society is that far too many politicians from across the political spectrum would sign up to, making it a message that doesn’t give people a particular reason to vote for the party.
It’s not just about the last third
When I’ve pointed out the weakness in this ‘tough but tender’ David Owen style approach in the past (see Liberal Democrat Newswire No.11), Nick Clegg’s advisers have argued that what can make the message effective as a reason to vote specifically for the Liberal Democrats is not only the last third, but also the difficulty the Tories have in arguing credibly for fairness married to the difficulties Labour have in credibly arguing for economic competence.
Instead, so the argument goes, only the Liberal Democrats can credibly put themselves forward as combining both of these attributes.
The pitch to the public is, ‘you want both a fair society and a strong economy, and only the Liberal Democrats are in tune with you in being able to deliver both’.
So far, the polling suggests that whilst those handicaps for both Labour and the Tories are indeed real, the potential upside for the Liberal Democrats has not been realised. It is no coincidence then that the economy features so heavily in high profile Lib Dem speeches, policy initiatives and campaigns then this year - not only because it is the top concern of voters but also because it is crucial to making the message work.
Social mobility sidelined, Community Politics discarded, radicalism silenced
There are three notable casualties from this approach.
First, whilst social mobility remains a passionate concern for Nick Clegg, and one which he is pushing hard in government, it is now getting almost no mention when he and other senior party figures talk about the ‘fairer society’ part of the equation. “Fairness” rather than “social mobility” is the phrase of the moment.
That is a good thing too, for the phrase “social mobility”, for all its familiarity in policy wonk circles, is poorly understood by the public, and there is even evidence that it is unpopular. By contrast, “fairness” is what the public repeatedly says it wants.
Second, Community Politics, never a favourite subject of Nick Clegg’s (and all but totally absent from his public utterances from his first day in the party), does not feature in the party’s message, despite Tim Farron’s calls for Community Politics to be a priority for the party.
It not only does not feature, but it is repeatedly implicitly rubbished as a result of what else Nick Clegg does regularly say. He and the party officially keep on hammering on about the importance of being in government in order to implement policies, without even a passing caveat about how people outside of political office can also achieve things. The idea that political parties should be all about winning political office as being the only way to bring about change is in a completely different political world from that of Community Politics with its emphasis on enabling people to take power over their own communities, working both within and outside the political system.
Third, the accompanying commentary alongside the main message not only implicitly repeatedly repudiates Community Politics, it is also keen on the centre ground rather than on radicalism.
The politics of one step, not ten steps, ahead
The idea of appealing to “centre ground” voters is now firmly part of the party’s official approach. It’s so heavily part of it that a recent internal briefing on electoral tactics managed to use the phrase 9 times in just 3 pages.
For some of the party’s activists, references to the centre ground are unwelcome as they repudiate the political spectrum (neither left nor right but forward, as the old slogan went) and prefer to talk about radicalism. For such critics, “centre ground” is often conflated with watered down liberalism, tweaking the views of other parties rather than setting out a radical, distinctive course.
A Lib Dem Voice survey of party members in 2011 found that party members prefer to describe themselves using phrases such as “progressive” and “radical” than “moderate” or “centrist”, although “pragmatic” was also popular.
Those views notwithstanding, the party’s messaging is headed very firmly towards the centre ground. Again, the influence of Ryan Coeztee and his polling is a key factor here. The picture it paints of people willing to think seriously about voting for the party (“the party’s market” in the current jargon of choice) is of a group large enough to elect 100+ MPs, but also not a group of people eager for radical change.
Superficially this is at odds with the emphasis from both the man and the figures on the importance of building a larger core vote for the party. This is being reconciled in an approach that is about being 1 step, rather than 10 steps, ahead of where the party’s market is. Equal marriage rather than disestablishment of the Church of England, for example. By being 1, rather than 10, steps ahead, the party can move the country in a more liberal direction whilst still appealing to a wide enough tranche of voters. That requires, of course, the party to be strong enough to influence political decisions consistently over a long period of time, so that all the 1 steps cumulatively add up to 10 steps, eventually.
So where do the activists come from?
A classic problem for political parties of all sorts is that the attitudes which attract and motivate activists can be significantly different from those that attract voters.
Outside politics, the idea that the internal communications to your staff major on different points from those you use to win over customers, is of course quite normal. Political parties, however, often find such a difference a difficult tension, and many politicians have made a career out of rubbishing the idea of respecting the differences - and instead expecting activists to subordinate what interests themselves to what interests the wider public.
This has traditionally been less of a problem for the Liberal Democrats than for other parties – and currently it is such a serious problem for the Conservatives that it may even wreck their ability to win an overall majority on their own for decades to come.
Yet it isn’t an problem the Lib Dems can afford to ignore. It’s instructive to look through the book Why I am a Liberal Democrat and see how often the reasons people give are issues the party didn’t concentrate on in its public campaigning at the time.
The politics of being one step ahead of the centre ground on its own is not enough to recruit and motivate an enthusiastic group of party activists, especially if you wish (as the party should) to have a core of activists who have something more than their dislike of potholes and their love of pointing in common.
In originally winning the party’s leadership election, Nick Clegg skilfully understood this need for a dual approach with his promise to go to jail rather than accept Labour’s planned mandatory national ID card scheme. He understood that opposing ID cards was not a huge vote winner with the public, but was an effective way of winning the support of activists. As indeed it was – which is why one of the key players in the leadership campaign calls it the best decision made during the campaign.
As with the leadership contest, so now again civil liberties may provide part of the answer – important in their own right and effective at mobilising activists, even if of limited vote winning power.
To do that, however, two things will be necessary. First, to find a way out of the huge internal party dispute over the government’s policy on secret courts. Second, to come up with a bountiful list of further civil liberty reforms now that so many of the party’s previous policies (e.g. on ID cards, DNA databases and libel reform) have happened during this Parliament. So far, the signs on both fronts are only of limited progress.
What next for the party’s messaging?
A ‘themes document’ will go to the party’s autumn conference in Glasgow. Drawn up by a committee chaired by David Laws, it will set out both those parts of the coalition’s record the party wants to claim as successes for itself and also the broad themes for future polices.
The appointment of David Laws provoked debate about whether there would be a lurch to the right. This however overlooked that the drafting body’s membership is carefully balanced and the Federal Policy Committee is also closely involved with the document.
More of an issue, ironically, is of the party ending up like Gordon Brown – that is with a determination to change society which gets played out with lots of micro-meddling - a regulation here, a little bit of extra spending there - rather than clear, bold policies.
That is because of both a shortage of money to spend on big projects, and also a shortage of Lib Dem policy. As I put it previously:
Performers who make the leap from stage show to the TV very often run into a simple problem: TV eats up material at a fearsome rate. A stage show can be repeated around the country for months with only a few tweaks as events or audience feedback requires it. TV, however, requires completely new material each week.On the latter, as I have recently been appointed to the new Liberal Democrat policy working group on public services, I will only have myself to blame if that situation is not improved by the time I next look at this topic...
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