Lib Dem poll ratings have plummeted. We are not winning some crucial arguments within government. Many of our best councillors have lost their seats. It certainly doesn’t feel good being in this vicious circle.
The answer is not to panic, but equally we shouldn’t stick our heads in the sand either. That means recognising that whilst it’s way too early to say our time in government has been a failure, it’s not too early to say our communications have failed to hit the mark.
Some people think our polling slump is due to people punishing us for forming a coalition with the Tories. The timing of our ratings collapse doesn’t support this though. Remember the Rose Garden press conference and the weeks that followed in the spring of 2010? No one could have been unaware that we were in government with the Tories then. But our polling figures held up throughout the spring and summer and only dropped to the low teens when the narrative of “Lib Dem broken promises” got traction in the autumn of 2010. The lesson from this is that pretending we agree with 100% of government policy is bad communications and counter productive.
Let’s not forget also, our communications failures started during the general election campaign itself. There were points when 30 to 35 per cent of people were going to vote for us, not in mid term, but just days before a general election. That terrified the Tories and the right wing press, so of course they started attacking us. Daily Mail lies about a crazy Lib Dem induced flood of immigrants sucked the life out of our mid campaign poll leads. And what did we do? Nothing. Nothing effective anyway. We simply did not rebut those attacks enough. Admittedly having a “regional quota” policy that took 15 minutes to explain did not help, but a rapid, vigorous and effective rebuttal effort was clearly lacking. Our opponents’ arguments were made, repeated and allowed to stand, and hence they became the “truth” for millions of floating, centrist, common sense voters, who just days before were going to vote for us.
If we thought the attacks on us in April and May 2010 were hard, they will seem like playtime compared to what’s coming in 2015. In fact, the Tory attacks have started already. They are now starting to say the UK’s lack of growth is due to Lib Dems vetoing their desire for a reduction in workers’ rights. Even George Osborne nodded in this direction on the Andrew Marr Show last week. The problem is the economy could easily still be bumping along the bottom in 2015. Without a massive improvement in our ability to rebut attacks, the Tories will blame us and the voters will believe them.
So how do we cure our communications ills? The answer is we need to rebut, persuade and project.
We must start rebutting all significant attacks on us, quickly and effectively.
We must be much more persuasive with our communications. This means developing messages and then testing them to see which ones can actually persuade people to support us.
I suspect our recent attempts to be seen as simply “different” from the Tories are not enough. Surely we should be trying to improve perceptions of our common sense, honesty and integrity. This would point to fewer off-the-record briefings and more straight forward statements about what we believe in. Simon Hughes belatedly did this last week by admitting that Lib Dems in government didn’t actually want to cut the 50% tax rate, but that on some issues the Tories will get their way.
There is nothing wrong with even our cabinet ministers being this open and clear. We’d surely win plaudits for our honesty, and Labour would find it harder to pin the “liers” label on us. These are all tricky messages to get across though, hence the need to do some real testing with real voters first. I met the late Philip Gould and although I didn’t agree with his politics, he was a formidable man in terms of understanding which messages work with the electorate. Our comms teams could do worse than read some of his work.
Finally, to get those persuasive messages across, we need to hugely up our game in terms of projecting them. Our ministers and spokespeople need to get out into the TV studios far more often, both to rebut attacks on us, and to project those tested and persuasive messages about what we stand for.
Rebut, persuade and project. The sooner we start this medicine, the healthier our poll ratings will get, the more influence we’ll have in the Government, and the better our prospects will be for 2015. It will feel a whole lot better being this kind of virtuous circle.
* Simon lives in East Cornwall with his wife and two children and works in Truro as a senior manager in the NHS. He stood for the Lib Dems in Croydon South at the last election, lifting us from 3rd to 2nd place. He was educated in Devon and at University College London and more recently studied Energy Policy at the University of Exeter.