Over the past week, there have been signs of major progress in the Liberal Democrats’ efforts to communicate with the outside world.
Let’s start with Framing Science, who cite a new survey on why people are planning to vote for either Barack Obama or John McCain. Obama voters are motivated by the promise of “change” more than anything else. McCain supporters are most likely to explain their vote with references to McCain's experience and qualifications.
Where the candidates stand on policies and issues came way down both lists. For instance, just 1 per cent of voters cited the environment or global warming as the main driver of their vote.
Framing Science says:
"It's often heuristics based on personal characteristics and narrative that matter, rather than the issues."
A heuristic is like a mental short cut. A couple of years ago, Dr Claire Robinson of Massey University in New Zealand, who specialises in political marketing and communications, explained how it works, in an e-mail to me:
". . . Narratives act as heuristic cues for low awareness voters. When people lack motivation or ability to decipher an issue, they rely on peripheral cues. "
She then talked about the part played by affective narrative – a story or brand that works at an emotional, intuitive level – and the crucial role of a party leader.
"Affective narrative[s] operate as a peripheral cue when people aren’t knowledgeable about an issue or party; they enable voters to follow gut feeling. Leaders also act as heuristic cues. If is often much easier for voters to relate on a personal level to ‘real’ people than abstract policies, especially if there’s some kind of narrative attached to the person as well. "
Dr Robinson stressed the importance of reaching ‘low awareness voters’, who are more likely to decide who to vote for late in a campaign.
"They are more likely to invoke heuristics . . . that enable them to reduce the time needed to process complex political information and make their voting decisions without much effort. These heuristics are frequently found in advertising messages, news stories, newspaper headlines, and billboard slogans. "
She has also found evidence that campaign communications are more likely to have an impact if the campaign is more intensive, competitive and receives more media coverage.
As I have argued many times, the Liberal Democrats have traditionally been muc better at providing detailed policies than these kinds of narratives and shortcuts -- though Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy both, in time, became electoral assets for the party. Having a lot of words is part of the party’s communications culture. Changing it will not be easy.
If a leader is a key heuristic, can Nick Clegg be an asset for the Liberal Democrats, just as David Cameron is an asset for the Tories and Gordon Brown is liability for Labour?
Last weekend, in a bloggers’ interview session, I asked Nick how he might embody a party narrative that is becoming centred on the concepts of “fairness” and “social justice”, as well as “changing politics”. Nick replied that he didn’t try to hold himself up as a “paragon of virtue” and added that he and his wife both earn well. Then he explained that he is not a typical Westminster politician. Nick was confident that people will be able to relate to him as a “real person” (my words not his), outside the political context.
Embodying a narrative is not really about being perfect manifestation of it; you simply need to illustrate or reflect the story in some way. It could be easier than Nick may think! In Thursday night’s edition of Newsnight, the American focus group meister Frank Luntz showed how our leader might embody the Lib Dem narrative. A focus group of floating voters saw Gordon Brown as indecisive and confused and David Cameron as Blair Mark II. But when they were showed clips of Nick speaking at conference about the “messed up” tax system and Gordon Brown’s lack of vision, the scores on the people meters shot up. Almost everyone had a positive reaction. Many said they will consider voting Liberal Democrat.
The comments that Luntz took from some of the floating voters about the clip on tax were especially interesting:
"It’s as if he didn’t have an angle to it – what he said, I believed him.”“A lot more credible. He seems to be talking at a level people on the ground can understand.”“. . . About the normally people basically paying more tax than the rich people. . . I really agreed [with him].”“We don’t have any preconceptions . . . we’re starting from neutral ground . . .”“. . . Whether he can ever deliver it is a different matter.”
There may not be an Obama-style story attached to Nick, but he could provide people with a quick way of understanding what the Liberal Democrats offer. Compare the above comments – yes, from just one focus group – with the findings of the 2008 Times-Populus conference poll on the Liberal Democrats, released last Monday, during conference.
On five out of eight measures of the main characteristics of parties, the Lib Dems are now regarded more favourably than either Labour or the Conservatives. For instance, 63 per cent say the Lib Dems are “for ordinary people, not just the best off”. Three voters in five say the Lib Dems care about the problems faced by ordinary people; a similar number see us as honest and principled. A majority say the party understands the way people live their lives. All of these ratings have leapt up in the last year. But two in three agreed that “it doesn't make any difference what policies the Lib Dems put forward because they have no realistic chance of ever putting them into practice, so ultimately they'll always be just a protest vote party at national level.”
So a Liberal Democrat narrative is taking shape – or, perhaps being re-established. It’s about empathy, understanding ordinary people and being honest. (Note how this is not the same thing as simply using he word "fairness" a lot) And it seems that Nick Clegg can embody the narrative.
There are two cavils, apart from the obvious counter-story, that we can’t win. One is that the party has a natural tendency to list issues and policies, rather than telling a story in interesting ways. There was a bit of that when we saw Nick Clegg last Saturday. The party’s post-conference party political broadcast, on Thursday night, was really anoter litany of policies. If we have a compelling story, we should take every opportunity to tell it.
The second is Nick’s low profile and, as he told the blogger-interviewers last weekend, that may take time to solve.
But at least there’s a story and someone who can tell it, in a way that people will listen and believe. That’s no mean feat.