Last week I talked about the role reversal facing the Liberal Democrats, with the party’s traditional stronger record at political tactics than strategy having been flipped around. In that, and the subsequent post Part 2 of the Nick Clegg reshuffle, I highlighted some tactical communication needs the party must get better at. Given my own habit of pointing out that people should not just criticise but should also offer solutions, here are my own suggestions.
Middle-ranking ministers need to communicate more
The large majority of Liberal Democrat ministers are not in the Cabinet. However, the departmental communication structures are set-up to talk almost exclusively about what Cabinet ministers are doing. Not unreasonably, civil servants in a departmental press team work most and hardest on stories that are seen to be of the greatest importance to their department’s work, and that almost always means the issues that land in the lap of the Cabinet member.
Yet what is important to publicise from a department’s perspective is not the same as what is important to publicise from a Liberal Democrat perspective, especially as many of the most clearly Liberal Democrat decisions that are being taken in government are coming from middle-ranking ministers.
Courtesy of the online world there are numerous channels for such ministers to promote their work (particularly to a Liberal Democrat leaning audience) – emails to party members and supporters, postings on the Liberal Democrat Facebook Page, tweets, blogs, guest posts on sites such as this one and so on. Combined they get to a very large proportion of the party’s members, donors and helpers. They also get to a good number of journalists too.
Some of the onus for doing this rests with the ministers. Too many do not seem to see communicating in this way as part of their job – and perhaps unsurprisingly given that the record was pretty patchy before we got into government, when diaries were not quite so manically busy as now.
Certainly it’s fair to look to Nick Clegg to provide a clear lead on this (especially as he now has far more power of patronage than ever before – in the ultimate case he can sack a minister). But it’s a common failing in the party to identify something that should be done and then talk about how someone else should do it.
Getting more communications coming out from ministers can also be achieved by the rest of us asking. For even the most quiet of those middle-ranking ministers often respond when asked – whether it is to make local or regional party visits, or write an article for a regional or local mailing, or pen a guest post for a blog. So we can – and should – ask more ministers more often. (Yup, I include myself in that – and have sent off a batch of emails asking for further guests posts for this site in the middle of drafting this piece.) It’d be nice if all the ministers were wonderfully proactive, but if there are plenty who are only reactive, the answer is to make them react.
And where a minister is coming to a local Liberal Democrat event to speak, there is much scope for local parties to promote these events more widely, not only outside the ranks of their own members to local helpers and donors to but also letting other near-by local parties know too. Orkney and Shetland have a good reason for not expecting people from neighbouring parties ever to come to their events; not too many other parties fall into that category.
Activists are a different audience from the media
The Liberal Democrat media operation, both in the form of the much-reduced Cowley Street Press Office and in the guise of Special Advisers, does a good job handling journalists. There is the occasional grouch, of course, but no pattern of complaints about slowness or lack of response.
However, the coalition is deliberately trying to avoid jumping in response to each day’s headlines. It’s one of the lessons people have drawn from Tony Blair’s early days – an over-obsession with short term media worries gets in the way of making decisions and leaves you looking back afterwards regretting that more was not done. I think that’s the right reading of the Blair early years, but it leaves the party activist audience poorly serviced.
For the general public, who pay only passing attention to politics much of the time, numerous stories come and go each week without making much of an impact on overall political perceptions. (Indeed, it’s quite scary just how little political news filters through to quite how many people.) However for activists stories do not wash over them in the same way. Rapid and robust communications are needed to avoid a drip drip accumulation of negative views based on one-sided or incomplete stories. Sometimes of course the substance is controversial and communication will not change that, but think how slow and limited the party’s communications have been over the Internet Modernisation Program, despite there being a positive story about the excesses of Labour being rejected and the party vigorously arguing the civil liberties line within the coalition.
Wanted: one MP
Servicing the party activist audience requires quicker, more detailed responses, especially online, than is suitable for the media. The way this has worked best for other parties, both in this country and in others, is to have one or a small number of prominent front-line politicians active on social media day in, day out. Sometimes it’s more than one person and sometimes it is senior staff rather than elected public officials. Realistically from where the party is starting, having one MP regularly and prominently engage in day-to-day debate across the full range of government is the sensible short-term target to aim for. That would give activists the steady flow of relevant information (and in return, be a good way of feeding back views) that is crucial to the long-term health of the party.
Who should the MP be? Well, that partly depends on the outcome of the Party President election. If Tim Farron wins that contest then this would be a natural fit for how he’s talked about wanting to do the job. Susan Kramer’s priorities for the job would fit less well so if she is elected it may be more sensible to look elsewhere. Either way, it should be someone. And if such a person does step up, then I’ve no doubt that in amongst the many questions and criticisms there will also be many offers of help to make communications flow more smoothly by helping amplify the message.