I came across an old Liberal Democrat Voice post the other day. In May 2007, Nick Clegg called for the party to develop a “narrative” to accompany its policies. Just over six months later, Nick was elected Lib Dem leader and was thus in the best possible position to make such a narrative happen.
During the leadership campaign, his abilities as a communicator were the most frequently heard point of “the case for Nick”. So, after two years as leader, how is he doing?
Well . . . there were more misses than hits in 2009. Nick’s early campaign broadcasts for the May elections failed to grasp a number of opportunities to tell the party’s political story, though this was partly redeemed later in the campaign.
The Lib Dems’ pre-manifesto, A Fresh Start for Britain, tried to update “a plague on both your houses”, the staple political narrative of third parties, for 2009. (“Labour let us all down . . . The Conservatives say they want change but all they really want is to keep things the way they are . . . Only the Liberal Democrats have the ideas, the energy, and the ambition to provide the new hope the country needs . . .We carry the torch of progress now.”)
But the document was as dull and uninspiring as any the party has produced. And “the plague” story was quickly drowned out by a counter-story about whether the Lib Dems’ policy to scrap tuition fees would make in into the manifesto.
Worse still, the whole thing became bogged down in arguments about party processes and who said what at which meeting. Any story about exactly how the Liberal Democrats would make a “fresh start” was lost. But then, maybe there wasn’t one. For instance, what are the party’s simple, concrete, credible ideas (1) for “building a sustainable economy”? For creating a fairer society?
(Nick’s own work, The Liberal Moment, published on the eve of autumn conference, was much a more interesting offering but was not, in itself, a political narrative.)
These problems spilled over into autumn conference. Nick’s talk of “savage cuts”, the less than compelling attempts to explain why the tuition fees policy is too costly (no stories) and media tales of colleagues’ grumpiness about Vince Cable’s failures to consult colleagues over the “mansion tax” did not convey the sort of narrative that the party would want. Only at the end of conference did Nick urge the party to campaign on the promise of “fair taxes” and explain what this means. Overall, a big opportunity was missed.
However, none of this distract us from a basic truth: the party’s brand (another way of saying its “narrative”) is in very good shape under Nick’s leadership.
First, Populus research conducted in mid-September in the run up to autumn conference showed the Lib Dems perceived as the top party “for ordinary people, not the best off” as well as the most “united” and the most “honest and principled” party. On all three of these tests, the Lib Dems scored better than last year, and miles ahead of where we were in 2007. And the party’s image has kept its green tinge. We are seen as the party best able to “tackle the problem of climate change”.
Second, Nick now embodies some of the things that voters like about the Lib Dems. 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”.
In the Ipsos MORI pre-conference poll, he came first out of the three main party leaders for being “more honest than most politicians” and was less likely than either Brown or Cameron to be seen as “out of touch with ordinary people”. Populus found that he also scored well for being “good for you and your family”, and for being “in touch”.
Slowly but surely, day by day, week by week, with the things he says and the ways he says them, Nick is conveying what the party is all about.
There is also strong evidence that, as they get to know him better, the public are warming to Nick. This month, YouGov found that 28% of those polled “don’t know” what sort of job he is doing as leader of the Lib Dems. That figure is much higher than for the other leaders, but well down from 39% a year ago. YouGov gave Nick a spread for “doing well” of plus 12%, a big turnaround from minus 6% in December 2008 (2). Lack of awareness, not lack of popularity, is the main challenge.
What all this tells me is the Lib Dems could be up for a very successful general election campaign in 2010 – if we to play to our strengths (see above).
But to do that, we will need to put forward some more simple, credible suggestions about what the “fresh start”, standing for ordinary people and not the privileged, caring more about environmental issues than the other parties, would look like. And, above all, Nick needs to tell people some stories about the solutions that the Lib Dems offer. People seem ready to listen.
* Neil Stockley is a public affairs consultant and active Liberal Democrat, and was the party’s policy director in the mid-1990s. He blogs here.
(1) See Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House, 2007)
(2) But the spread was better over the autumn. Click here.