Liberal Democrat Newswire #30 is out: the new Liberal Democrat message

Edition #30 of Liberal Democrat Newswire came out last week, looking at the party’s new political message. You can now also read it in full below.

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Mark Pack

New year, new message

Welcome to the 30th edition of my newsletter about the Liberal Democrats, this one looking at the party’s new political messages.

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Thanks for reading,


New year, new message

Nick Clegg’s New Year message saw the first public outing for the party’s new attempt at finding a coherent and vote-winning overall message:

What I can tell you is that, whatever 2013 throws at us, the Liberal Democrats will continue to anchor this Coalition in the centre ground. And we will hold firm to our key purpose in this government: the Liberal Democrats are building a stronger economy, in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.

We will stay the course on the deficit. We will cut income tax bills and help with childcare bills. We will invest in boosting jobs and we’ll reform welfare to get people into work.

A stronger economy. A fairer society. Where everyone can get on.

That’s what we’re about. That’s what I want 2013 to be about.

As I wrote back in Newsletter #27:

For the Liberal Democrats (and predecessor parties), one possible [message] 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.

(That newsletter is still well worth a read for the background to what follows. Plus for the jokes about cabbages.)

The new message, accompanied by a detailed ‘message script’ sent out to MPs, council group leaders and others at the end of December, is an attempt to remedy that. It is based on detailed market research the party has been undertaking into people who might be willing to vote Liberal Democrat, quite deliberately looking to carve out support amongst a subset of the population rather than trying to appeal to everyone.

A new message, yet also one that looks rather familiar…

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David Owen rides again

The ‘new’ Liberal Democrat message may sound familiar because the message is, once again, the “David Owen message” of tough but tender. Economically competent, socially caring. Though this time with the nuclear deterrent not being on the tough side of the equation (Owen often clashed with others over his support for it), but on the caring side (the party now wants to free up money for other uses by dropping expensive Trident replacement plans).

The David Owen approach has been toyed with all through this Parliament (see Liberal Democrat Newswire #11). Now with the backing of the market research, and with Ryan Coatzee in place as Nick Clegg’s new strategy adviser, it is getting a much more serious outing.

Supporting the new message is a major internal reorganisation to make the party’s communications more consistent and effective. Chief Executive Tim Gordon has shaken up the party’s London HQ, with an integrated communications team under Tim Snowball that includes not only those who deal with press releases for journalists but also those who deal with leaflets going through letterboxes. Both press officers and those who deal with marginal seat messaging are now in the same team. (For more on this, see Liberal Democrat Newswire #26 and the messaging mess that was the Autumn 2011 conference.)

The intention is to be “on message, in volume, over time”: that is, repeat the same message again and again and again.

The real test for that will be to be consistent without being tedious; repetitive enough to be noticed by a public that happily lets most political news pass it by without being tritely wooden in the recitation of the same phrases. (An issue which is, ahem, covered in 101 Ways To Win An Election.)

Front page of the 2010 manifesto revisited

Three of the four priorities put on the front page of the Liberal Democrat 2010 general election manifesto feature in Nick Clegg’s New Year talk and in the party’s new messaging: fairer taxes, creating jobs by making Britain greener and improvements to education.

That makes particularly interesting the three other policy areas which appear in them but were not 2010 manifesto front page priorities. First, the introduction of the “triple lock” to ensure decent rises in the state pension each year. Pensioners are very heavy voters. Enough said. (In fact, turnout amongst pensioners has barely moved in the last fifty years. Declining turnout was about non-pensioners.)

Second, improving access to child care. As with the state pension changes, this combines a policy area where the Liberal Democrats have been able to make significant progress in government with a strong electoral appeal – in this case to women. Although child care issues affect men too, their political potency is particularly strong amongst women, who it is often forgotten are a majority of the electorate.

Third, and most controversially, welfare reform. The party’s official message talks about reforming welfare to get people off benefits and into work. Again it is an issue that has particular saliency with a key group of voters, in this case the ‘low earner Liberal Democrats’ who have been so important to the party’s success against Labour in the past. It also reflects a belief amongst Nick Clegg’s advisers that, as the Autumn statement saw, some curbs in welfare spending are inevitable (especially if you treat pensioners well at the same time) – and that therefore some sort of alternative vision of welfare reform is better than piecemeal opposition to Tory cuts.

Goodbye, political reform

I said three out of the four priorities from the 2010 manifesto front page have made it into the new message. The missing one? That would be political reform. No surprise really after the AV referendum and the fate of House of Lords reform. There is still some life in party funding and lobbying reforms, but this is no longer seen as a major area to boast about.

That is logical, although its absence from the new party messaging is part of a more general omission: the absence of the sort of hot button issues which really fire up activists and make them committed and active supporters of a party, even at 5am on a rainy polling day morning. Issues, that is, such as civil liberties.

It was one of the party’s successes under Paddy Ashdown to combine issues which really motivated (would-be) activists, such as fair treatment for Hong Kong residents, with ones that were near the front of the public’s mind, such as 1p on income tax for education. So far, the party’s new messaging does not pull off that same combination.

Where is the liberalism?

There is a second important omission. A strong economy and a fair society may be the Liberal Democrat message. It is also a combination that any party can (and most do) say they want. It isn’t a message with a distinctively Liberal Democrat, or even liberal (whether of the social or economic flavour), component either in ends or means.

When I have put this criticism to Nick Clegg’s senior advisers, there response has been that it is a combination neither the Conservatives nor Labour can credibly carry off. The fairness part runs too much against the grain of the Conservative Party’s image and the economic credibility party runs too much against the grain of Labour’s record in office, they say. Instead, the argument goes, only the Liberal Democrats can carry off this combination.

Whether that argument holds and whether or not it is enough is likely to be one of the main debating points within the party over the message. Does it have enough liberalism for a Liberal Democrat message?

Comedy interlude: awarding honours

Shades of 2005

The lack of a clear liberal thread running through the new party message also risks a repeat of the 2005 general election problem.

In 2005 the Liberal Democrat general election message was a list of 10 policies, all individually popular but which did not add up to a convincing overall narrative. Cue post-election all sorts of analogies such as how the party got the ingredients right but failed to come up with a tasty recipe to use them.

This current message risks the same culinary-metaphor-bedecked fate. What brings together its different elements? The hope is that it is the combination of credible economic policies with making the country fairer. That also requires the hope that neither of the other major parties manages to make the same pitch successfully. It’s a significant gamble.

Better, certainly, to be taking the gamble with a consistent, properly researched message, than to have continued without one. But a gamble nonetheless.

Watch Nick Clegg’s New Year message in full


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