Monday, 2 June 2008

Nick Clegg offers new snapshots of the Liberal Democrat narrative

In The Independent’s “you ask the questions” today, Nick Clegg offers some really good snapshots of the Liberal Democrats’ developing narrative. He also shows where we have some work to do.

Try this:

“I just don't believe it's about left or right – the old divisions are breaking down, political loyalties based on class are fading away. The new divisions in British politics are about fairness, about over-centralisation, civil liberties and security, the international rule of law, environmental sustainability, and identity at a time of rapid change. Anyone who wants a fairer, greener Britain in which real change happens to our clapped out political system should vote for the Liberal Democrats. As the Government collapses and David Cameron promises nothing dressed up as everything, we're the only party offering real change.”

The last sentence is a story and Nick sets it up by framing the political choices in a liberal (and slightly wordy) way. As I have argued previously, this is surely the plotline of our story for the next general election.
We also need to explain what it is “real change” and how does it tie in with what people are feeling about the country? What does a “fairer, greener Britain” look like? Next we need a good story for that, with set up, characters, a series of happenings, a plot, a drama or conflict, emotional content and resolution.

Nick is asked what the Lib Dems are saying that’s different from the other parties. This question demands a list but he still gets in good effective stories and frames (I’ve put examples of both in bold):

“We're the only party that will cut taxes for low- and middle-income families, scrapping council tax and reducing the basic rate to 16p. We're the only party that will tax polluters. We're the only ones who've stood up to the energy companies about rising prices and fuel poverty, and the only party that will deliver fair pensions for women. We're the only party that will change the NHS so that if you can't get treated on time, the Government will pay for you to get treatment elsewhere. We're the only ones talking about the shameful neglect of mental health patients. We're the only ones committed to civil liberties, pledging to stop storing innocent people's DNA and stop fingerprinting children in school. We're the only party with a clear, rules-based foreign policy, speaking out against dodgy arms deals and human rights abuses in countries like China and Saudi Arabia.”

Addressing the allegation that he’s a Cameron clone, Nick starts with a story.

"We are roughly the same age, but that's where the similarities end. He became a foot soldier for Margaret Thatcher just as I was repelled by her bleak vision of "there's no such thing as society". "

But then:

"[Cameron] is wedded to an insular hostility to Europe, I believe we can't make sense of the modern world unless we do so together with our neighbours in Europe. I believe in a fair tax system which helps the needy, His sole firm tax commitment benefits only 6 per cent of the richest in Britain. He talks the talk on the environment, I lead a party that walks the walk . . ."

Now, let’s hear a story of when it came to the crunch on the environment and Cameron talked the talk but Nick and co walked the walk. Like in the last few days, over energy taxes, for instance . . .


Joel said...

Neil - another excellent post. Your blog is without a doubt required reading for every libdem watcher!

Linda Jack said...

Agree with Joel!

Re telling the stories, as I have said before I would like to see us developing some party political broadcasts based on telling the three stories, the Labour World, the Tory World and the Lib Dem World. When we are up against the big boys we need to find a new way of explaining the difference.

Charlotte Gore said...

Hmm Neil I'm not sure I see the 'frames' in the way that understand them. 'Fuel Poverty' is, and 'Tax Polluters' is. I wonder if you have a different meaning for frames, i.e, not the Lakoff one?

Neil Stockley said...


You may like to check out my previous posts on framing. I have described it as being:

"about giving people a way to think about political issues. This is usually done by using a model or structure or question. A strong frame enables you to push your best issues to the fore and help people to see the political choices in your terms. This way, it should help you to deliver a compelling narrative."

I think "tax polluters" is (or uses) is a frame, as is the reference to rules-based foreign policy, etc. The fuel poverty and NHS references are, essentially, stories. The fuel poverty one is stronger though, because there is a "good guy" and a "bad guy".

Bethtopia said...

Hey Neil.. you left a comment on my blog:

"That means understanding what our target audiences think, rather than talking at them."

How do you feel about that in the context of the policies we've been seeing recently? Who *are* our target audience?

Neil Stockley said...

I think our target audiences are, very briefly, much the same as in recent general elections: “liberal” and “progressive-minded” voters in particular constituencies who, for whatever reason, no longer think that the major parties meet their needs or represent their views. There some debate about whether a “model” Lib Dem voter exists but the phrases “middle class” and “above average education” usually come up in this regard. Also, I agree with John Curtice that the Lib Dems can now make a much stronger effort to win support from various types of disillusioned Labour voters [see his article in the Political Quarterly 2007 special on the Lib Dems]. I understand that the party is making efforts to hone all that down much more precisely.

My real point is, whatever the audiences are, it is they and not us who determine their brand perceptions of the Lib Dems. The voters decide how they perceive us and their brand perception is set when they think we have(n’t) satisfied their wishes or needs.

All of this may be only indirectly related to “policy”. Russell and Fieldhouse showed in their study of the Lib Dems and the electorate that “winning the policy arguments” with particular voters doesn’t, of itself, necessarily translate into votes. (And we win some seats in spite of our stance on Europe) Also, brand perceptions are also about matching up with the emotional needs, values and beliefs of target voters. Here I think we have a way to go, as you will have seen from my blog. Stories seem to be the effective way to connect with those needs etc.

I have commented a bit on my blog about how voters might perceive us. The Populus research for the 2007 party conference season is also very useful here (on their website).

I assume you are talking about how our transport green tax policies might help / hinder our brand perceptions? I suspect they matter very little either way, in the short term, though in the longer term being seen as the “greenest” party is more than likely a positive feature of our brand.

But we need more debate about this – and, more than that, more hard data.