Tuesday, 9 September 2008

On show in Bournemouth: the REAL Liberal Democrat narrative

Every so often, for instance in the pub after Federal Policy Committee meetings, in restaurants, or at train stations, Liberal Democrats (some of whom I know personally) come up to me and say something like, “hey Neil, are we any closer to finding our narrative?”

I’ve made a few suggestions (click here). But there may be a better way to find out. It doesn’t involve asking me or any other member of the party.

That’s right. Like all politicians and parties, we Liberal Democrats don’t control our own brand. All parties can try to shape their brand and sometimes, they succeed. But none of the parties ever own it. The voting public, not us, decides how they see the Liberal Democrats, or Labour, or the Conservatives. Their brand perception is set when they think a party has(n’t) satisfied their wishes or needs.

In making this decision, voters are influenced by an array of stories, messages, images and symbols. Those are presented by other parties, interest groups and commentators. One story can be drowned out by other counter-stories, especially if the latter are simpler and more deeply rooted in the audience’s core values or prejudices (which are usually stories). Of course, the media’s role as filter and interpreter is pivotal. And the Liberal Democrats have even less control over (or access) to the media than the other parties.

We still don’t know enough about those guiding values and prejudices and what people expect of us. And the party on its own can’t ever know for sure what conclusions people have reached. So, unless we want to make like the town cryer, shouting “hear ye, hear ye” in the town square, listing off policies, we need other people to tell us.

With these questions in mind, two fringe meetings at the forthcoming Liberal Democrat conference look as if they’ll be especially interesting. One is being run by BBC Radio 4 and the Royal Society of Arts at 1800 on Sunday 14 September at the De Suite, Royal De Vere Bath Hotel. This will feature fresh data from Ipsos MORI on what voters really stand for. As well as Ben Page from MORI, Chris Huhne MP will be one of the speakers.

To the best of my knowledge, of all the opinion polling organisations (apart from the party’s own), Populus has done the most research on how voters perceive the Liberal Democrats. Populus research in autumn 2005 found that most voters thought that the party was more united, cared about ordinary people’s problems and “[understood] the way people live their lives in today's Britain”, more than the other parties did. On issues, we scored better than the other parties on “improving the NHS” and “improving standards in schools”.

On the evidence available, the Lib Dem brand has become somewhat weaker since then. In 2006, Populus found that the Lib Dems were seen as the best party for caring about ordinary people’s problems. We had a slight edge for being “for the many not the few”. To my knowledge, they didn’t ask those questions again last year. Populus did find, however, that "median" voters saw the Liberal Democrats as well “to the left” of themselves (yes, another frame!)

Now for the hard part. For the last three years, Populus found that clear majorities saw the Lib Dems as being “made up of decent people but their policies probably don’t really add up” and “basically a protest vote party because they have no chance of ever winning”. In 2007, seven voters in ten (a record) agreed with both of these statements. Whatever message people were getting, it wasn’t the one we wanted!

At 1300 on Monday 15th, at Restauant 1812 at the Royal Exeter Hotel, Populus (with The Times) will present their latest findings on what voters think of the Liberal Democrats. I understand that there will be new material on the party’s overall image, as well as how we are doing on the issues people care about most. Vince Cable MP will comment on the findings.

For once, I won’t be at the Populus event, having agreed to chair another fringe. I will have a good look at the findings though and urge all Liberal Democrats to do the same.

In trying to go forward and tell the voters a story, we need to start where they are.

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