Wednesday, 30 July 2008

At last, the Liberal Democrats are finding some frames

Don’t faint! The Liberal Democrats are starting to frame our policies and messages in ways that will encourage people to vote for us.

What’s framing? Framing is 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. (For more details, see here.) It’s something the Liberal Democrats have been slow to latch on to.

Check out Nick Clegg’s summer message, especially the part where he talks about what the Liberal Democrats are offering.

Rather than using terms like “renewable energy” or “sustainable energy”, Nick promises to promote “clean energy”.

The frame is obvious: who is against anything that’s clean? According to, American market research has found that consumers, not to mention policy makers, are confused by all the words used to describe renewable energy; the term "clean energy” polls best with focus groups. And Nick avoids talking about “green energy”, a frame that has been hi-jacked by the nuclear industry.

Rather than promising to spend more on public transport, Nick promises to “invest”. That’s accurate if you read our transport policy. But everyone knows that you have to work hard, “save” and “invest” in order to “get results” and "get ahead".

Rather than talking about windfall taxes or social tariffs, Nick promises “help from the energy companies with your fuel bills”. When you help someone, you rescue them or give them a remedy, relief. And Nick promises to make “the energy companies” do the remedying and relieving. (But will everyone get help with their power bills?

And rather than promising “tax reform” or “tax cuts”, Nick promises “tax relief”.

The American linguist George Lakoff has explained it like this:

“First, you have the frame for "relief." For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add "tax" to "relief" and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain.”
(The full interview is here)

OK, Lakoff was talking about how George W. Bush framed his tax cuts. We have not adopted Bush’s tax policies. But we need to acknowledge that the Lib Dems are in a new, unfamiliar frame now – that is, a different political space – on tax matters.

And there’s another big frame-change: Nick mentions “family” / “families” four times in just a few minutes. That will also put the Lib Dems in unfamiliar space and some new policies for families will be needed.

But the point is, more progress is being made towards building a Lib Dem political narrative - a story with frames, of our own creation.


Toby Philpott said...

Well spotted that man!

It has also been noticeable that the narrative of the party has changed a little over civil liberties. "Protecting our cherished freedoms" and variants on this appear to have been used more and more.

Neil Stockley said...

Yes - that's a better frame. I think it ties into the public's value system a lot better than "civil liberties".

Helen Duffett said...

Did you spot a little frame from Chris Huhne today on our new Youth Justice paper(A Life Away from Crime)?

He mentions the "old parties" and their ineffective approach before balancing it with "it is time for a new approach". Implicit in this is the frame that we are a "new party."