As I wrote in the immediate aftermath of Nick Clegg’s conference speech, the party was much better at saying what it was not and what it was against – not the Conservatives, not unhappy, against tax cheats, against overpaid under-performing company directors and so on – than what it was for.
In theory the answer should have been found in the conference packs handed out to people on arrival at the Birmingham ICC, for inside them was not only an “In government – on your side” leaflet but also three others from different Liberal Democrat ministers, all promoting the party’s work in government.
Even those simple numbers give a hint of the problems to come when you look at the leaflets in detail: why three other leaflets? Not one per minister, or one per ministry with Lib Dems in it, or one per Lib Dem Cabinet member. Instead three: as if it was a random rather than carefully thought out plan as to which ministers should have had dedicated leaflets. (It was Paul Burstow, Chris Huhne and an Ed Davey – Vince Cable double-header that made up the trio.)
Across the four pieces of paper, there are also four different designs and styles. There is not even a common colour scheme to them all. Three do have a predominant yellow colour but contrive to use a different shade in each case. No common slogan either.
The best of the four is the general “In government – on your side” leaflet. Care has been taken over the detail of the artworking – note the use of at least semi-action photos, the range of people in the photographs, the use of clear headings and short paragraphs and so on.
But whilst the artworking of the leaflet was done to a high standard, it clearly was not done to a common message agreed across the different leaflets. When you compare the text in this leaflet with that in the other three leaflets – and speeches given at conference, not to mention Nick Clegg’s article in the conference agenda booklet – a lot of inconsistencies arrise.
Banning wheel clamping on private land gets a prominent place in the leaflet, understandably given that it is one of the policy moves which has generated the most positive media coverage and public reaction. However, it went almost completely unmentioned across conference (or indeed in other party communications since the original announcement from Lynne Featherstone). If it is seen as a strong policy to promote, why is it missing from elsewhere? And if it isn’t, why did it make its way into that prominent place?
The problems go on – such as the way the two key green policies mentioned are not one and two in the list on Chris Huhne’s leaflet or the use of a different apprenticeship figure from that regularly used by Nick Clegg. Ed and Vince’s leaflet then throws us a third figure. (I think they are all correct as they are all counting different things but three different numbers is not the way to a clear, consistent message which the public starts noticing.)
Most baffling of all, the main leaflet mentions taxes on banking but does not mention the massive issue of banking reform. Even the keenest anti-wheel clamper would, I think, put bank reform first.
Without belabouring the point with more examples, and even recognising that the presence of such leaflets is a step forward, the message is a simple one: there isn’t a message. That’s a problem.