Saturday, 2 January 2010

On the party leaders' new year messages

Over the last week, the three main party leaders have given their new year messages.  Usually, I pay these comments little attention.   This time, however, I think they offered some strong clues about the stories the leaders will try to tell in the general election campaign, and, just as interestingly, how they might be tripped up.


The main opposition party’s theme will always be that “it’s time for a change” and, in telling a story, the obvious archetype is about “the rot at the top” that must be stopped.   In a clever message, David Cameron didn’t stick to the obvious.  He spoke about  our “broken politics”, but used an unexpected frame: “a new kind of politics”:


". . .  let's make sure the election is a proper argument about the future of the country, not some exercise in fake dividing lines.  Let's at least recognise the good intentions of our opponents. Let's be honest that whether you're Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, you're motivated by pretty much the same progressive aims: a country that is safer, fairer, greener and where opportunity is more equal.  It's how to achieve these aims that we disagree about - and indeed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats there is a lot less disagreement than there used to be  . . .


“ . . .  let's make 2010 the year for a new politics.  Let's be positive about our own policies as well as pointing out the consequences of our opponents' policies.  But above all, let's be honest about the problems facing the country and how we can solve them.  Yes, there will be an election this year: that much is certain.  And we can be certain too that the arguments will be fierce.  But let's make it a good clean fight.  And once the battle is over, we will need to rise above our differences and come together because that is the only way - strong, united leadership is the only way - we will sort out Britain's problems, halt our decline, and give this country the success that I know we can achieve."


[Thanks to Iain Dale for the text]


Some media commentators saw this as an attempt to “love bomb” Liberal Democrat voters. Cameron's motive was obvious: to win more seats from the Lib Dem and, perhaps as importantly, to squeeze the third party vote in Labour-Tory marginals.   What I found more interesting was the rhetoric that Cameron used.  The appeaIs to the national interest, shared values and a united Britain, above and beyond political argument and division, have long been one of the Liberal Democrat’s strongest appeals to voters. The Liberals and Liberal Democrats have often used “Punch and Judy” glove puppets to represent squabbling Labour and Conservative politicians. 


I believe the “unity” frame and rhetoric were also set up to give Cameron safe passage through the campaign and beyond.  He expects to be prime minister after the general election and to face a difficult time in government.  So he needs to establish himself in advance as a force for unity, who can bring the nation together.  But can Cameron and his party live up to the expectations that are being set and embody the narrative? 


If the main opposition party’s usual message is that it’s time for a change, the incumbent’s is “no, it isn’t, not yet”.  Longer serving, battle-weary governments asking voters for another chance are more likely to use a frame based on risk: “you may not like us very much but the other lot would be much worse”.   The Conservatives’ campaigns in 1992 and 1997 are good examples.  One worked and the other did not. 


In the most quoted part of Gordon Brown’s New Year message, he tried to tell a story about the dangers that the Conservatives present.


"There are some who say we must plan for a decade of austerity. If that happened it would also be a decade of unfairness where, while the privileged few can protect themselves, the majority lose out.


"I believe we can create a new decade of prosperity with opportunities fairly shared amongst all those who work hard and play by the rules. That is why we are fighting so hard to secure and sustain Britain’s recovery."


Brown is using a familiar playbook here. Incumbent left of centre parties are more likely to make urgent, if not desperate appeals based on their core values.  Jimmy Carter’s campaign for re-election in 1980 was a good example.  So were the NZ Labour Party’s campaigns of 1990 and 2008 and the Australian Labor Party’s effort in 1996. On all four occasions the gambit failed.  And Brown has a particular problem with this message: voters do not necessarily see Labour as the most “compassionate” or “socially egalitarian” party. At conference time, Populus found that the Conservatives were seen, albeit narrowly, as the party that have the best interests of ordinary people at heart if they had to cut public spending. Labour had a clear advantage when it came to “ensuring that the most vulnerable in society don't suffer” from any cuts.  But in November 2009, ICM polling showed that David Cameron’s Conservatives enjoyed a 1% lead as the party best placed to bring people out of poverty.


Longer-serving governments mired in recession are also inclined to promise “go for growth” strategies.  That’s to be expected.  They need to get a clear advantage as the best party for economic management.  They also have to project a sense of optimism and show voters that they have not run out of steam.  Sure enough, Brown promised to publish the first part of a "prosperity plan for a successful, fairer and more responsible Britain", including investment in high-speed rail, aerospace, the digital economy, clean energy and other "industries and jobs of the future".  But this message also runs straight into a brick wall: most voters now clearly prefer the Cameron-Osborne team over Brown-Darling to deal with Britain’s economic problems.


As the third party leader, Nick Clegg might have been expected to invite voters to cast a protest vote against both Labour and the Conservatives (“a plague on both their houses”).   Sure enough, he started with a story about “looking round the House of Commons during another Punch and Judy session of Prime Ministers Questions” while big problems mounted out  “in the real world”.


Nick invoked the archetype of the “rot at the top” – both the major parties.


"I don’t blame anyone for feeling a sense of despair about our clapped out political system. You are being taken for granted by the people in charge. Big money is hollowing out politics with some rich donors not even bothering to say whether they pay full British taxes or not. And to top it all the expenses scandals exposed some MPs as spivvy property speculators and tax evaders rather than public servants."


And then:


'This whole set-up has to change. That’s what 2010 should be all about. Big, permanent change for the better . . . 2010 must be the year we press the political reset button.  But that will only happen if we do things differently. More of the same won’t produce anything new. Of course both Labour and the Conservatives have learned to parrot the language of change. But where’s the proof they mean it?


'. . . If you like what the Liberal Democrats stand for, vote for it. If you want real change, not phoney change, vote for it. If you think things should be different, vote for it.”


Nick’s first challenge is to tell stories about “doing things differently”, offering specific outcomes that strike a chord with what voters think and feel, so that they see the Liberal Democrats as the party best placed to “clean up politics”.   They don’t at the moment.


Carrying on the “plague” / “rot” theme, Nick’s message used another interesting frame: the politics of belief.


". . . If we as Leaders want people to turn out to vote at all at the next General Election, we have got to show people our convictions, not just dividing lines, our beliefs, not just soundbites.


". . .  So as the countdown to the next General Election finally begins, I have a simple question for the other party leaders: what do you believe, really believe?"


Nick described his own over-riding belief as “fairness”.  That may well click with the Lib Dems’ brand image.  But it doesn’t work as a frame, let alone as a story. After all, what does “fairness” really mean?  How do target voters relate to such an abstract concept?  Nick referred to some specific policies, on schools and on taxes.  That’s a list, not a story.  If the politics of belief is going to be a success, then the Lib Dem campaign needs to tell some stories that link the policies up and explain what the party means by “fairness”, so that voters can see the benefits for them, their families and their communities.