Political

Nick Clegg turns media weakness into media strength

Ask a Liberal Democrat what they think about the British media and chances are you will hear a complaint about how media habits developed during years of a two-party political system that generated one-party governments die hard. That makes today’s speech by Nick Clegg on tax policy a smart move, turning those habits from a hindrance into an advantage.

In a country used to coalitions, having the leader of one of the parties in government talk about their tax priorities a few months ahead of a budget would not be remarkable. With the British media habits, it had made today’s speech from Nick Clegg to banner news – lead story on the Today program’s news headlines, front page banner headline in the Daily Telegraph, a wide range of TV interviews and more.

Nick Clegg and his team have not stinted in their media push – heavy pre-briefing of the media, that large round of interviews (trailed in advance on Twitter) and a crack of dawn email from Vince Cable.

That email even leads readers through to a web page on the party’s website which contains a personal story illustrating the party’s views on tax:

Imagine a mum who works 3 days a week as a teaching assistant – earning £10,000 a year or just over £190 a week. Under Labour she paid more than £1,000 in income tax and national insurance. Although she wanted to work more days a week she knew it was not financially worth it. Under Labour; once tax, tax credits and housing benefit has been deducted, for every extra pound she earned she was able to keep just 10.5p.

Under our plan she would see her income tax bill cut to zero making her £700 a year better off.

For anyone in communications, the use of such personal stories is a standard way of simplifying complex details and giving the message more emotional impact. That has made the frequent absence of such stories a cause of complaint from party members such as political narrative expert Neil Stockley in the past. Key phrases to trigger the right emotional reaction (to Lib Dem leaning voters) are also scatted through the page, including “super rich”, “hedge fund managers” and “ordinary workers”.

The speech itself also serves up a made-for-media soundbite which, as the very best ones do, contains a clear sign of the party’s priorities and beliefs despite its brevity:

Every politician now has a simple choice: do you support a tax system that rewards the hard-working many? Or do you back taxes that favour the wealthy few?

Overall the traditional media work has been more sure-footed than the new media work. Nick Clegg’s press team have got several key items right – not just heavy coverage for the speech, but a positive attitude in the stories, in contrast with Ed Miliband’s recent big speech whose coverage was dominated by the question of “is he up to the job?”. The message has also in part been trailed by David Laws’s own media work in recent days, both reinforcing the message and a reminder of his continuing key role in the party’s senior circles.

Bullet points and decimal points don’t make a good message

There are some rough edges on the new media side – the timing of the Vince Cable email was not good for the email to actually be read and the web page it linked to is dominated by bullet points and decimal points.

The story of the mum might be on it, but a photo of Nick Clegg with mothers isn’t.

Moreover, given the party’s email list does not contain every party member who is on email, neither the message nor the page do enough to encourage people to pass on the message to others. And that key soundbite? Short, but not short enough to become a tweet that could go viral.

Tim Montgomerie is impressed

On the digital up side, however, Clegg’s speech has won favour with a Conservative who carries significant clout online: Tim Montgomerie. He’s been writing and tweeting positive reactions to the speech before it has even begun:

It is regrettable that the Tory leadership has allowed Nick Clegg to make the running on this issue…

My fear is that the usual Tory MPs will fill the airwaves today to attack Nick Clegg and reinforce the Tory toff problem…

Reports of the Lib Dems’ death might have been exaggerated.

Resolution Foundation is the winner

Whatever the eventual political impact of the speech, one sure winner is the Resolution Foundation, hosts for today’s speech. This savvy outfit has become the venue of choice for politicians wanting to talk about people on low and middle incomes.

UPDATE: Here’s my one-pager summary of the substance of Nick Clegg’s Resolution Foundation speech, in handy sharing-friendly format.

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