Liberal Democrat Newswire #27: the Liberal Democrat search for a message

Liberal Democrat Newswire #27 looks to have gone down particularly well with readers. If you’ve missed out on the special edition about the party’s search for a message, you can now read it in full below.

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Mark Pack

Searching for a purpose

Welcome to the 27th edition of my newsletter about the Liberal Democrats, a special looking at the Liberal Democrat quest to find a compelling message about what the party is for and what it is achieving.

Thanks for reading,


The problem: A party in search of a purpose

What’s the purpose of the party? It’s a dilemma all the main political parties have wrestled with at different times in recent years.

In Labour’s case, it was the juddering, painful transition from answering ‘to serve the working class’ to the New Labour mantras that finally meant it could appeal once more to close enough to a majority of voters to win elections. (Courtesy of our electoral system, talks of appealing to the majority are mere flights of rhetorical fancy; almost every government gets elected with a minority of the votes, let alone of the electorate. Majorities of the public are mostly unreachable and always unnecessary.)

For the Liberal Democrats (and predecessor parties), one possible answer 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.

Making things a bit less worse, or on a good day even a bit better, isn’t that much of a rallying cry – especially when (as the party has painfully discovered post-2010) you need some strong, motivating and positive achievements to have a chance of balancing out the inevitable tough and at times unpleasant compromises required if you are the smaller party putting the leader of a larger party into 10 Downing Street.

Nick Clegg has offered two answers as to what the party’s purpose is in recent speeches, both rather better; better than dreadful however does not make them a triumph. His answer has been to say the party is about producing a liberal society and/or promoting social mobility (take your keynote speech of choice).

Both are good. Both are worthy. Both are even right. But both are also not vote winners, and he’s the leader of a political party that fights elections, not the author of a political book seeking nice reviews.

Social mobility suffers from the triple burden of being a phrase the public outsider the Westminster bubble don’t use; when asked people say they’re not keen on it (yes, really – as people associate it with Z-list celebs who get rich quick for having no talent); and it doesn’t address the big political question: is aiming for equality of opportunity enough or should you also try to directly decrease inequality of outcome?

As for a liberal society, I’m all for one. But what is a liberal society? It’s open to a myriad of interpretations, and the experience of the Liberal Democrats in government hasn’t helped winnow them down to a clear understanding, communicated to the public, of what it means to the party.

So what’s the solution?

Advertising interlude: 101 Ways To Win An Election

101 Ways To Win An Election - book cover

Its 308 pacy pages cheerfully zig-zag between marketing manual, self-help book, and campaigning A-Z — with dollops of political history, pop-psychology, and behavioural economics thrown in for good measure – Stephen Tall

101 Ways To Win An Election is available from Amazon (paperback and Kindle editions).

For Apple fans it is available on iTunes as an iBook for iPad, iPhone and iPod.

Users of Kobo readers are also catered for with the Kobo ebook version.

The solution: what has been tried so far

A variety of other different answers to what the party is about have flitted across the Liberal Democrat radar since 2010. One has been community politics, something I am keen on myself. However, Tim Farron’s enthusiasm for using the phrase, and Gordon Lishman’s emphasis on the need to update its underlying thinking, has not produced much in the way of substance or progress. It’s still treated rather like the Bulgarian Atrocities – something from the past where the party did good rather than a useful guide for the future.

At a more tactical, day-by-day, level in government the party’s 2010 manifesto is in many ways the party’s purpose, both because that and the Coalition Agreement are the civil service’s starting point and also because Nick Clegg’s Chief of Staff, Jonny Oates, is wont to wave the manifesto at Special Advisers, reminding them that they must concentrate on implementing it.

Then there was Collette Dunkley’s relatively brief period at party HQ, as Director of Marketing. As I reported in an earlier edition of this newsletter, that did not turn out successfully and the post was wound up.

Now there is the new JEET mantra, again something covered in an earlier edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire and standing for Jobs, Education, Environment and Taxation. This was used as the theme for the four main days of party conference in September running up to the day of Nick Clegg’s speech. One day per acronym letter.

The four elements are well chosen, with jobs not only very important to the public but also the emphasis on policies such as the Youth Contract playing well with the party’s swing voters even when they are not directly affected by it. They still like to see the party acting on such issues.

Education gives an opportunity to emphasise one of the headline policies from coalition, the pupil premium, and environment is the policy area where the party continues to poll best. When the public are asked which party has the best policy on different areas, environment is the party’s strongest one. Finally there is tax – the area where the party has made the most progress over the last year and which is starting to come through in the party’s polling.

In autumn 2011 I wrote that,

During Liberal Democrat conference someone watching it from home texted me: “I now know what the Lib Dems are against – bankers, top rate taxpayers, tax cheats generally, overpaid directors and energy companies But, with the single exception of gay marriage, I’ve got no idea what the Lib Dems are for.”

Some will – rightly – quibble over the ‘against’ list in that but the essential point is a fair one. Liberal Democrat conference has been a lot about what won’t happen or isn’t the case: the coalition isn’t going to end early, the Liberal Democrats are not the same as the Conservatives and so on.

One year one, it would be at least gay marriage and tax. That’s still rather short of a full and vote winning answer to, “What are the Liberal Democrats for?”.

It is no wonder that both party campaign staff and Special Advisers have been grumbling that there still isn’t a clear picture of who the party views as the main people it is appealing to and what the messages are to direct at them.

Comedy interlude: cabbages

Another great piece of political satire from the Australian duo Clarke and Dawe:

The latest hunt for a solution

So what’s the party’s latest attempt to fix all this? It comes with the recent appointment of Ryan Coetzee to replace Richard Reeves as Nick Clegg’s strategy adviser and with the restructuring of party HQ under Chief Executive Tim Gordon (details of which were in the last edition of this newsletter).

The new integrated communications team at party HQ is running alongside the party’s much improved electoral database software, Connect. It is based on the same NGP/VAN software as being used for Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign.

It allows the party to start catching up on the sort of targeting of the most effective issues to the most important voters in marginal seats which were such a successful part of the 2010 Conservative campaign:

The Conservative party key seat operation, heavily funded and influenced by Ashcroft, made skilful use of the data benefitting from two advantages the Liberal Democrats did not have: good integration in both its computer systems and between its policy and campaigning teams…

Having closely integrated policy and campaigning teams meant policy plans (and analysis of opponents’s plans) was boiled down to knowledge about who would benefit or lose the most, and then linked to data about where such people were most likely to live in different target seats across the country…

[As Michael Ashcroft wrote,]”When the 10p tax band was abolished in the 2008 Budget, we used Mosaic to identify the people most likely to be directly affected, and who fell within one of our target tiers. Battleground Directors pinpointed the polling districts where these people were likely to be found, and within a matter of days volunteers were delivery half a million leaflets explaining the effect of the Chancellor’s decision and setting out Conservative plans.”

What worked for the Conservatives on that occasion wasn’t just the campaigning infrastructure. It was having a clear policy on a topical and high profile issue – and one which fed into the overall perception of what the party is about, in a good way. In this case it was ‘Tories want to cut your taxes; Labour want to raise them’ and it worked well. But as their troubles at other times showed – and continue to show – to be successful parties need to manage this more than occasionally, they need to do it continuously.

Can the Liberal Democrats manage that? Watch this space, as they say.

Lib Dem federal committee elections: Q+A

A few questions are repeatedly coming up about the elections currently being held for various Liberal Democrat federal party committees. So I’ve put together an unofficial Q&A which you can read here.

I’ve done my best to make it factual and neutral. A declaration of interest nonetheless – I am running for the Federal Policy Committee.

Campaign buttons available for Lib Dem websites

Campaign buttons exampleI have resurrected the old and, in their time, very popular and successful Liberal Democrat ‘campaign buttons’, which made it easy for people to add the party’s latest news and campaigns to their website.

The new service is already up and running on various Lib Dem websites around the country and is free to use.

Prater Raines is testing out making the buttons available to users of its popular website service and ALDC will be following suit shortly for its MyCouncillor service.

You can get details of how the buttons work and how to add them to your own site here.

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Best wishes and thank you for reading,


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