It looks as if the debate over the Liberal Democrats’ need for a narrative – a story – might be kicking off again. [click here and here] One element we talk about too little is the leader’s need to embody the party’s narrative, in order to make it more real, more authentic to voters.
In today’s quasi-presidential politics, voters use the leaders as quick ways to assess the parties, for good or ill. If you don’t believe me, look at the Newsnight pre-party conference focus groups. Media coverage of Newsnight's focus groups and quantitative research and the Populus and Ipsos Mori pre-conference work has been dominated by voters’ views of the party leaders.
So, here’s a quick round up of what the above research tells us about voters see Nick Clegg. [For more on the points made below about the Lib Dem brand narrative, click here.]
In some very positive ways, Nick embodies the party’s narrative. One of the Lib Dems’ biggest advantages is that voters see us as the most “honest and principled” party. According to Ipsos MORI, Nick (narrowly) came first out of the three main party leaders for being “more honest than most politicians”. Likewise, in the Populus survey, he edged out David Cameron for “meaning what he says” as opposed to “saying what he thinks people want to hear”.
The strongest feature of the Lib Dem brand is that we are the party seen as most “for ordinary people, not the best off”. But Populus don’t ask exactly the same questions about the leaders as they do about the parties. When they asked whether each leader was “good” or “bad for you and your family”, Nick had a net “good” score of plus 7 per cent, very close to Cameron (plus 10 per cent) and much better than Gordon Brown (minus 25 per cent).
Another big positive for the Lib Dems has been the way voters perceive us as the most empathetic party, understanding “the problems that ordinary people face” and “the way that people live their lives”. Populus did not ask this question about the parties, as they have before. But Nick scored quite well for being “in touch” as opposed to “out of touch”. His net score was plus 14 per cent, versus Cameron’s plus 28 per cent and Brown’s minus 39 per cent. And in the Ipsos MORI survey he was less likely than Brown or Cameron to be seen as “most out of touch with ordinary people”.
Now for the ways in which Nick may embody weaker aspects of the Lib Dem narrative. There were some indications in the pre-conference research that the party is still not seen as quite “serious” or “substantial” enough. This may be due to the old “wasted vote” counter-story and the perennial problems the party faces in getting media coverage. Many voters feel they don’t know the Lib Dems well enough.
In the Populus leaders poll, Nick came last for being “up to the job of being prime minister”, “likely to get things done” and “substantial”. Yet he was seen as “stronger” and more “decisive” than Brown.
The “invisibility” factor was very important here. When they were asked specific questions about each leader, voters were much more likely to say “don’t know” about Nick. And the Newsnight poll found that while thirty six percent had a favourable view of Nick, an equal number said they had never heard of him.
Voters in the Newsnight focus groups found it hard to get a handle on the Lib Dems. They also showed how much the profile and image of the party are bound up with those of the leader. In many parts of the discussion the voters seemed to treat Nick / the leader and the party as the same thing. “I didn’t know who he was” . . . “I never see him” . . . “he’s never on telly” . . . “they’ve had so many changes of leader you feel like its not really investing the time in them because the next leader could be around the corner.”
This may, eventually, provide the solution to the Lib Dems’ low image problem. When people in the focus groups were shown a clip of Nick speaking, they liked him. Some made positive comments about him. The Populus work showed that some of his key ratings, for instance “in touch / out of touch” and “good / bad for you and your family” have improved markedly since July 2008. A drop in numbers saying “don’t know” provides part of the explanation. And I have argued a few times that as the public gets to know Nick, they like him more. This augurs well for the general election campaign, when the Lib Dems can expect to gain much more media coverage.
Some of the risks are obvious. A lot is riding on one person and the party’s ability to mount (and fund) an effective campaign. Other risks may have not have been thought through. For instance, Nick could follow through on the findings above by being brutally “honest” about the need for fiscal rectitude. But recent talk of “savage cuts” and “progressive austerity” may jar with people who expect Nick and the Lib Dems to be “good for themselves and their families”. We’ll need to start telling a story about how the party’s solutions for public debt will be better for ordinary people over the long term.
Sounds too hard? Well, OK, we could have a bit less of the hairshirt and try bundling up a few popular-looking if expensive policies as “fair” and “for people”. But what if most voters simply didn’t believe us and took all this as further proof that the Lib Dems are decent people whose policies don’t really add up? Or worse still, they got the idea from somewhere that after all his talk about the need for economic responsibility, Nick was not really being straight with them – not “honest” or “sincere”? To coin the jargon, Nick and the party would no longer embody their narrative. I wonder how many seats the Lib Dems would win then.