Today, via email and YouTube, Nick Clegg has sent out his New Year message:
Barring some unexpected major political event, it will be his last national political statement of the year, so how does it measure up against the various points I’ve used to praise or criticise the party’s messaging during 2011?
A major problem with the party’s messaging in 2011 has been its inconsistency, as I highlighted with the autumn Liberal Democrat conference pack where even within one enclosure there were different visual designs, different choices of message – and even different numbers quoted for the same basic point. The main policy points in Nick Clegg’s New Year message are familiar ones which could be the kernel of a consistent set of policy points to be used during 2012. Given the variation during 2011, of course it would not have been possible for any message to be wholly consistent with the previous year, but the message does provide a benchmark against which to judge future messages.
(Update: As The Spectator has pointed out, Lords Reform makes for a curious omission given the importance attached to it in Clegg’s previous speech, though I think this is a case of curious drafting rather than curious policy shift.)
Hope for the future
A second problem with the party’s messaging during the year has been it being back to front:
The political messaging cliché is that you talk about how bad the past was and then offer hope for how good the future will be. The party, however, has slipped into doing the opposite: talking about how good the past was, in the form of 2010 [e.g. getting three-quarters of the Lib Dem manifesto into the government’s program], and how tough the future will be, in the form of deficit-cutting.
On that score, the message repeats the same mistakes. Even allowing for the natural structure of a new year message being talking about the past, it is a message resolutely in the past tense rather than a positive picture of the way in which 2012 is going to be different because of what Liberal Democrats are doing in government.
A political narrative
Nick Clegg’s New Year message has a clear political theme running through it – we’re clearing up the mess Labour left by taking the necessary tough decisions.
However, it misses out on several of the key elements that lift an organising theme for a speech or article into a powerful political story. It is all very flat and impersonal, as the text about the pupil premium illustrates:
It was the year more than a million children got a fairer start in life, with extra support at school through our Pupil Premium and free early years education for toddlers – because I believe that helping the youngest take their first steps in life makes all the difference.
The way in which so much of your future life is set in those precious few years, the delight you can see in children’s eyes when they are receiving a good education, the horrors that drag down people’s lives when their schooling goes wrong, the myriad of individual personal stories that turn bare statistics into an imperative to act – education of young children provides plenty of raw material for a moving, personal and emotional account rather than these sentences fresh out of an ultra risk-averse dry-as-dust writing textbook.
The message of the email is back to the David Owen ‘tough but tender’ territory. I have criticised that in the past as not being distinctively liberal, for all parties over the decades can argue (and, at various times, have successfully argued) that they are the party which can deliver this combination. Nick Clegg’s advisers counter that whatever has happened in the past, currently both Labour and the Conservatives have huge baggage which prevent them from doing so and that there is therefore a distinctive gap for the Liberal Democrats.
I’m not 100% convinced by that but in fairness, the New Year message does count as distinctive if that is what you believe.
There is also a smidgen of a stronger liberal emphasis with the phrase, “fairer, greener and more liberal country”. “Liberal” hear harks back, in more voter-friendly language, to the recent open society speech from Nick Clegg, “greener” sits well with the party’s traditional environmental concerns and “fairer” is a concept that works extremely well with the public even though some activists love to hate its political use:
[A] YouGov poll for Policy Exchange asked people what values they most want a political party to reflect. “Economic responsibility” came out top with 59% mentioning it and “fairness” was not that far behind on 50%. No other possible value was mentioned by more than a third of people. Amongst Liberal Democrats, fairness was rated even higher. For example, amongst those who voted for the party in May 2010 it just pipped economic responsibility by 60% – 59% (given the margins of error, this is a statistical dead heat).
In other words, it is a promising trio – if it becomes more than just a trite trio and instead becomes central to a powerful story about the sort of society Liberal Democrats want.
Finally, on my oft-raised question of treating supporters as active participants in the struggle for liberalism rather than just passive spectators, the message is – unfortunately – pretty much a complete failure. The email comes with the standard footer offering opportunities to donate and the like, but it does not positive push any interaction or participation. Yet with the time having been put into creating a YouTube clip, there is the raw material there for people to go and share, promote and push the message online. Instead of asking us to go and click ‘like’ on YouTube (a very effective tactic when I tried out similar options in emails for the party back when I was at HQ), the email ends.
Some promising ingredients, not there yet
Overall then the message is mostly a missed opportunity – some promising ingredients but little imaginative in their choice or presentation.
UPDATE: Neil Stockley does his customarily excellent narrative analysis over on his site:
The message says a lot about what’s right with the Liberal Democrats’ policies in government.
It also says a lot about what’s wrong with the party’s communications.