In his spring conference speech on Sunday, Nick presented an updated and improved version of last year’s almost-narrative. Labour had presided over economic collapse and were now a "spent match". But the Conservatives would be no better. He slammed the Tories' plan to cut spending in a recession as "madness".
More importantly, Conservative and Labour prime ministers, from Margaret Thatcher to Gordon Brown, were to blame for our economic problems. Sticking with the same “never-ending cycle of red-blue, blue-red government [that] got us into this mess” would offer no solution. The two old parties just wanted to "cling to those old 80s ideas with a tweak here, or a nip and tuck there".
So, a plague on both your houses. Grimond, Steel, Ashdown and Kennedy would all recognise that story. Nick also said that the crisis had “opened the door to a genuinely new way of doing things”. What the Liberal Democrats offered people, he said, was a choice between “policies to patch up the old order, or policies to build a new one”.
The archetype used was that of a fresh start, a new dawn, the phoenix rising from the ashes; a new dawn. Here, Nick’s rhetoric became more interesting. He cleverly grounded the narrative in historical stories and symbols: Christopher Wren who “looked beyond the pain and dreamed what might come next” after the Great Fire of London, Beveridge and Keynes after World War II with their new ideas for healthcare and insurance for all; and Monnet, Schuman and the founders of the European Union.
What Nick Clegg told on Sunday was the outline of what Annette Simmons calls a “vision story”.
“A vision story raises your gaze from current difficulties to a future payoff that successfully competes with the temptation to give up, compromise or change direction.”
[Whoever Tells the Best Story WINS (2007)]
This could work -- if Nick can show voters what the “future payoff” would look like. Perhaps we could see this as his story’s “happy ending”.
When he spoke of “not just . . . sticking plaster solutions – [but] a new, better approach,” Nick offered a bit more substance than previously. Reforms to split investment and retail banking; barring board members of failed banks from holding other directorships; forcing high-street banks to give up risky, casino-style lending, with their bosses banned from receiving short-term bonuses of any kind; and allowing investments that took risks and hit problems to fail. On Saturday, Vince Cable provided some more economic detail. (He also told the conference a familiar, plausible morality tale: that a decade ago Brown and Blair “made a pact with the Devil” – “the financial aristocracy” – and now it’s collapsing, leaving Labour exposed and without a soul.)
But first we need unity and cohesion around the policy messages. If Liberal Democrats are going to call for a “new order”, we’ll need to project a clear and consistent idea of what it looks like. Talk of a more radical approach could bring forward a wide range of messages. Compare, for instance, the tone and content of Vince Cable’s “responsible boldness” (my description, not his) with the way some leading “social liberals” perceive the new dawn. [Click here, here, and here] Other people will have suggestions too. Let’s not forget, for instance, the new world will need to be built on sustainable, low-carbon foundations.
The Lib Dems’ revamped story also will need to strike a chord with our target voters. Annette Simmonds explains:
“A good vision story makes otherwise ambiguous promises for future payoffs come alive with carefully crafted sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings that eclipse the work we do for tomorrow’s payoff. Overwhelming obstacles shrink to bearable frustrations that are worth the effort.”
Nick and the rest of the party needs to show what the “new order” would look and feel like for voters (and for that matter, how credible is it?). For instance, James Graham has pointed out that Nick has been arguing some time that a new economic order would need to be based on a new political order. I have blogged previously that in promising a better sort of politics, we are not really talking about what most people are most interested in. They will want to see and feel what it would mean for them, in their daily lives. As the American pollster and political strategist Frank Luntz says:
“Political messages should emphasise bottom line results, not process.”
[Words that Work (2007)]
And Nick will need to embody the promise of a “genuinely new way of doing things” in his actions and appearance. In his 1995 book Leading Minds, Howard Gardner stressed that leaders need to embody their own narratives in order to seem authentic and credible.
I’ll finish with the same optimistic point that I made this time last year.
No-one ever said the Lib Dem narrative was going to arrive, gift-wrapped, in the post. It didn’t work for Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair – or, for that matter, for FDR or Ronald Reagan. But at least Nick Clegg – the only person who can provide the Liberal Democrats with a story – is on to it.