Let’s face it, 2008 has not exactly been a bumper year for the Liberal Democrats. Some of the counter-stories against the party have been self-inflicted. The worst was, surely, Nick Clegg’s gaffe in an interview with Piers Morgan about how many women he slept with before getting married. The car crash over the Lisbon Treaty is up there too – though I still think that, in all the circumstances, Nick salvaged the best outcome that anyone could have. The reported plane conversation about senior colleagues was mainly heard in the Westminster village, but didn’t help. The toughest counter-story of all has been that the Lib Dems don’t matter; invisibility, obscurity, anonymity. Nick and the party don’t have much control over that.
You’ll notice I didn’t suggest that Chris Fox should turn up at Cowley Street with a narrative for the Liberal Democrats, gift-wrapped and with a nice card. The reality is that only a party’s leader can provide its story. Just like Barack Obama, Nick has to own the story in order to tell it and be credible to voters. He has to be the story as well; unless the leader embodies the narrative, it won’t seem real to people.
A few times this year, Nick has started to use the sort of narrative that the Lib Dems need. At spring conference, for instance, he spoke of the two “establishment” parties’ failures to meet peoples’ needs. He promised to work for “a new political system, that empowers people not parties”; and argued that would be more likely to provide decentralised public services and give people opportunities to improve their lives. Vince Cable added in a call for fairer taxes.
By party conference in September, the party’s poll ratings were little better (but not far down) than they were at the time of spring conference. Nick Clegg’s conference speech and media appearances, and the Make It Happen “themes” paper, featured a new, sharper twist on the spring narrative. He promised a fairer Britain and said “the Liberal Democrats will make it happen . . . Labour can’t. The Conservatives won’t”. Unlike the establishment parties, the Liberal Democrats had real plans for a “a fairer Britain,” “a greener Britain” and to “make politicians listen to people”. OK, there was a row about tax and some us find the stuff about “fair” and “green” a bit vague and clichéd, but Nick had a political narrative.
More important was the story that voters were hearing (after all, that’s what the narrative really is). The Times-Populus conference poll suggested that the Lib Dems’ brand image had recovered from the doldrums of 2006-07. For instance, 63 per cent said the Lib Dems are “for ordinary people, not just the best off”. Three voters in five said the Lib Dems care about the problems faced by ordinary people; a similar number see us as honest and principled. A majority said the party understands the way people live their lives.
As for whether Nick Clegg could embody the narrative, things seemed to be looking up there too. Straight after conference, a Newsnight focus group of floating voters used words like “indecisive” and “confused” to describe Gordon Brown and “Blair Mark II” for David Cameron. When those attending the group 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. The voters in the group listened to Nick and believed him -- once they found out who he was. Many said they would consider voting Liberal Democrat. All very promising.
Then came the global financial turmoil, the banking drama and big bail outs, and the UK's steep slide into recession. If the media didn’t exactly make Gordon Brown their darling, they worked up a new meta-narrative: Gordon tells the Americans, the continentals and the rest how to save their economies; Gordon the economic wizard, champion of the new “Keynesianism”, Brown lauded by the Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman; David Cameron is a lightweight; the opinion poll chasm between Labour and the Tories closes; the race is on; and, now, talk of a general election in 2009.
It may have been bad news for the Conservatives, but the Liberal Democrats have also been overwhelmed. In October and November, Nick seemed to disappear from the media, who quickly decided he didn’t fit into their meta-narrative. The party has been squeezed in most of the opinion polls. The UK Polling Report Polling Average now shows the Lib Dems on 15 per cent. According to Populus, Nick’s personal ratings have fallen in recent months.
“But what about Vince Cable?”, I hear you ask. I have long been one of Vince’s biggest fans. But his accurate predictions and informed commentaries have not translated into more credibility for the Liberal Democrats. However wise Vince’s words, people have not been hearing an economic story from the party itself. He is a brand in his own right and maybe the public wants to receive big messages on big issues from the party leader.
For some of the elements of what we need, look at Drew Westen’s description of a major speech by Barack Obama, in September, about the financial crisis:
“The speech is effective in both its narrative coherence--it tells the story of how we got to this point, who was responsible, and why McCain could not possibly be the one to lead us out of it--and in its emotional resonance. It begins with magnanimity and a sense of fairness, not attempting to blame the entire crisis on McCain but making clear his complicity in it and his ideological commitment to the causes of it. . . . It took the abstractions of a Wall Street meltdown and a credit crisis and turned them into the experience of everyday people: "You feel it in your own lives," he told his listeners . . .. You can picture the people he is describing, and they could
picture themselves, their parents, and their grandparents.”
This is where Chris Fox can assist – by helping the party to get its policies and analysis into a simple story, that will engage with voters’ feelings.
Over the last few weeks, things have got a bit better. Nick Clegg has started to tell a story about who is responsible for the crisis, blaming the government and the bankers. (See, for example, Nick’s tv reply to the Queen’s Speech) His contributions at prime minister’s questions are focussed and framed on what government has (or hasn’t) done are being framed more in terms of the impact on people and families.
Nick has started to develop another, parallel story – the need to secure the economic future, starting by investing in green infrastructure. That could become a distinctive message and it plays to the party’s strengths as the “greenest” party.
There are still some big challenges for next year, starting with the coherence, credibility and consistency of the Lib Dems’ stories. Chris Fox can’t make an anxious and weary electorate buy the stories. But he can make sure -- probably through “smoke and mirrors” -- that Nick and the rest of party’s communicators and top campaigners stick to them. The party also needs to take them to the logical conclusion in terms of policy development -- always a tough one for Lib Dems.
And our success in pushing up our poll ratings and morale is tied up with how (much) voters see Nick Clegg, and whether they perceive him as being the Lib Dems’ story. That’s where Chris Fox really comes in.
His real task is to be the strategist, not the story writer, the impresario, not the magician, who makes sure that voters hear the right story from Nick and the party.
Oh, congratulations and happy new year, Chris!
* I have known and been friendly with Chris for many years.