The latest Populus poll contains a potentially confusing message about the Liberal Democrats’ branding and messaging.
People were given a number of phrases and asked which party best fits them. The one where the Lib Dems did best by far, with a 20% rating, was “the party of fairness”.
“We’re already doing it,” I hear you say. Well, the message is not getting through, at least, not yet. The Lib Dems were 6% behind Labour and just 3% ahead of the Conservatives as “the party of fairness”.
There's a bigger point though. The word “fairness” is much more vague and subjective than “the party of sound economic management” (Lib Dem rating 6%) and “the party of the NHS” (Lib Dem rating: 7%). On its own, “fairness” is not a brand or a story. All of the parties have used this word at some point in the last few years. Who says they’re anti-“fairness”?
The fuzziness of the party’s image remains a key weakness for us. At party conference time, Populus tests each party against a number of phrases. Last September, more than two respondents in three agreed that “the Liberal Democrats are basically a protest vote party because realistically they have no chance of ever forming a government” and that they “seem decent people, but their policies probably don't really add up”. Both figures were up on the previous year. Let’s not do anything that makes this any worse.
In September 2006, the last time Populus offered it, the phrase on which the Lib Dems had a clear led was “understands the way people live their lives in today's Britain”. The next best was “is for the many, not just the few”, where the just Lib Dems pipped Labour. (Why didn’t they ask about these in 2007?!) Through all the ups and downs of the party’s fortunes, the Lib Dems are usually seen as being more empathetic, more in touch with people. These figures show, in general terms at least, how the party should be pitching its story. But just saying “we’re for fairness” is not enough.