[On 24 November 2010, I was pleased to be the guest speaker at the Hackney Liberal Democrats’ AGM. Below is an edited version of my speech, “rebuilding the Liberal Democrats’ identity”]
We should start by being clear about the Liberal Democrats’ brand image – what it is and how it has developed. Just what are we trying to “rebuild”?
In the run-up to the last general election campaign, the Liberal Democrats were seen as the nicest, most caring party - “for ordinary people, not the best off” and the most “honest and principled” party. [click here]
But most voters saw the Liberal Democrats as being “made up of decent people but their policies probably don’t really add up” and “basically a protest vote party because they have no chance of ever winning”.
There were other signs that the party was still not taken all that seriously as a contender for government. When it came to having “a good team of leaders” and being “competent and capable”, the Lib Dems had indifferent ratings, according to Ipsos-MORI. The party was still seen as a “wasted vote” in many parts of the country.
As we all know, the Liberal Democrats’ poll ratings went into the stratosphere during the general election campaign, especially after Nick Clegg’s performance in the first two leaders’ debates. Ipsos MORI found that voters tended to see us as the party that best represented all classes as well as the most moderate choice. We were seen, along with the Conservatives, to have the most sensible policies.
But as we found out on the night of 6 May, this new support was soft and unreliable. There are two, related explanations for our vulnerability to “late squeeze” messages from the other parties. In September 2010, Populus asked voters, who considered the party but did not vote for us: “what was the main reason you decided in the end not to vote Liberal Democrat”. The most common answer (from 24%) was “a minority party / didn’t think they could win”. And Ipsos MORI found that the Lib Dems did not win any of the arguments on issues that mattered most to voters.
More than six months into the coalition with the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats’ polling ratings collapsing, some of these perceived attributes have changed and some have not. In mid-May, YouGov found 17% of respondents agreeing that “the kind of society [the Lib Dems] want is broadly the type of society I want.” By early December, that had dropped to 10%. In May, 23% agreed that “Even if I don't always agree with [the Lib Dems], at least [their] heart is in the right place. By early December, that figure had also fallen, to 16%. The Lib Dems may have lost a bit of our “compassionate image” as a result of being in coalition with the Tories.
Just as likely, the public is finding it ever harder to get a handle on us. In May, 24%, agreed “[they] seem to chop and change all the time: you can never be quite sure what [they] stand for”. By early December, 35% agreed.
But being in government has certainly not fixed the weaker aspects of the party’s image. According to YouGov, our ratings for being “led by people of real ability” and having “leaders [who] are prepared to take tough and unpopular decisions” are still stuck in single figures. So are our ratings on the policy issues that are of most concern to voters. The Liberal Democrats seem no more credible than we were six months ago.
This data does not suggest that the party’s brand has been sent into reverse. Rather, the positive aspects of the Liberal Democrats’ image have started to fade. They are being subsumed into the Coalition narrative. And the perception that the Conservatives are making most of the decisions in the Coalition government persists, and has increased since June. According to Ipsos MORI, nearly two voters in three (63%) now believe that the Conservatives are making most of the decisions in the new government, compared to 51% in June. A little over one in four (26%) think that decisions are made jointly between the parties.
None of this should come as a complete surprise. New Zealand has had coalition and multi-party governments since adopting MMP, a proportional voting system, in 1996. Every junior coalition partner or support party has seen its share of the vote fall sharply at the next electoral outing, largely because of major problems with maintaining a distinctive identity. As the veteran Kiwi political commentator, Colin James has said, “tails on governing dogs get smaller, not bigger”.
The question is, how to stop the Liberal Democrats losing their identity altogether, and facing disaster at the next general election. Lib Dem ministers are aware of the need to re-assert the party’s identity and values by promoting their achievements. E-mail bulletins seem to go to party members every day. That’s a start but I have previously argued that the party risks becoming – once again - the town cryer in the square – “hear ye, hear ye, here’s a big list of policies”. We have learned many times that the town cryer doesn’t persuade people. Ministers should be telling people stories about what Liberal Democrats in government are doing now – what they set out to do, how they did it – and who benefits as a result. [For more, including my suggestions for a way forward, please see here]
One word of caution. The Liberal Democrats could try to reclaim those parts of the pre-election image – “the nice peoples party” etc. – that fall within their comfort zone. But with the advent of the coalition and the public spending cuts, politics has moved on hugely in the past six months. We cannot pretend that the coalition has not happened or that Liberal Democrat ministers have been unwilling participants.
The public’s expectations of the Liberal Democrats may be harder to pin down now. Voters are concerned first and foremost with the state of the economy and jobs. Liberal Democrat voters are more likely than the “average” to see the economy as the number one issue facing Britain. Lib Dem voters are also somewhat more prepared, so far, to give the government the benefit of the doubt over the case for spending cuts [Ipsos-MORI] and whether the effects of tax rises and spending cuts are being spread fairly, though it must be said that Lib Dem voters seem about evenly divided on the latter. [Populus]. “Going back” is not as simple as it might look.
Nick Clegg tried to go forward with a new “narrative” in last month’s Hugo Young lecture. He presented a set of political themes that were more in keeping with his own take on liberalism: making state activity and public services more effective, promoting local decision-making and reforming politics. But he did not tell a story, with characters, set-up, conflict, resolution and an underlying morality.
The speech had some of Stephen Denning’s specific elements for successful leadership storytelling. For instance, Nick tried to “externalise” Labour and his other political opponents, branding them as “old progressives” But there was no simple illustration of how his proposed liberal future will unfold or how we will get “from here to there”. His speech did not stimulate or reinforce the desire for change.
Politicians and parties can never control their own narratives. But the Liberal Democrats’ have an uphill climb that is steeper than ever. In the wake of the tuition fees debacle, the party is being been hit by sledgehammer counter-stories: that our ministers and MPs lie and break personal promises and, now, that they are divided and indecisive over tuition fees. It now seems that some will back the government’s plans, some will vote against and some will abstain. Over the longer term, the only story that has any chance of breaking through will be about the Liberal Democrats delivering in other areas that matter most to voters – the economy, jobs, education and (for Lib Dem voters) the environment. That is the huge challenge facing the Liberal Democrats in 2011 and beyond.