A messaging mess: what Liberal Democrats are achieving in government

As I wrote in the immediate aftermath of Nick Clegg’s conference speech, the party was much better at saying what it was not and what it was against – not the Conservatives, not unhappy, against tax cheats, against overpaid under-performing company directors and so on – than what it was for.

In theory the answer should have been found in the conference packs handed out to people on arrival at the Birmingham ICC, for inside them was not only an “In government – on your side” leaflet but also three others from different Liberal Democrat ministers, all promoting the party’s work in government.

Even those simple numbers give a hint of the problems to come when you look at the leaflets in detail: why three other leaflets? Not one per minister or one per ministry with Lib Dems in it or one per Lib Dem Cabinet member. Instead three: as if it was a random rather than carefully thought out plan as to which ministers should have had dedicated leaflets. (It was Paul Burstow, Chris Huhne and an Ed Davey – Vince Cable double-header that made up the trio.)

Across the four pieces of paper there are also four different designs and styles. There is not even a common colour scheme to them all. Three do have a predominant yellow colour but contrive to use a different shade in each case. No common slogan either.

The best of the four is the general “In government – on your side” leaflet. Care has been taken over the detail of the artworking – note the use of at least semi-action photos, the range of people in the photographs, the use of clear headings and short paragraphs and so on.

But whilst the artworking of the leaflet was done to a high standard, it clearly was not done to a common message agreed across the different leaflets. When you compare the text in this leaflet with that in the other three leaflets – and speeches given at conference, not to mention Nick Clegg’s article in the conference agenda booklet – a lot of inconsistencies arrise.

Banning wheel clamping on private land gets a prominent place in the leaflet, understandably given that it is one of the policy moves which has generated the most positive media coverage and public reaction. However, it went almost completely unmentioned across conference (or indeed in other party communications since the original announcement from Lynne Featherstone). If it is seen as a strong policy to promote, why is it missing from elsewhere? And if it isn’t, why did it make its way into that prominent place?

The problems go on – such as the way the two key green policies mentioned are not one and two in the list on Chris Huhne’s leaflet or the use of a different apprenticeship figure from that regularly used by Nick Clegg. Ed and Vince’s leaflet then throws us a third figure. (I think they are all correct as they are all counting different things but three different numbers is not the way to a clear, consistent message which the public starts noticing.)

Most baffling of all, the main leaflet mentions taxes on banking but does not mention the massive issue of banking reform. Even the keenest anti-wheel clamper would, I think, put bank reform first.

Without belabouring the point with more examples, and even recognising that the presence of such leaflets is a step forward, the message is a simple one: there isn’t a message. That’s a problem.

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This entry was posted in Conference and Op-eds.


  • Lynne did trumpet it in W.Mids.
    We could do with a single piece of artwork for one side of a leaflet.
    If we all do our own, and we can, the media will unlock it
    Wheel clamping ought to feature on it as well as banks and tax measures.

  • Liberal Neil 23rd Sep '11 - 12:53pm

    Yup. We need to work out what our three main achievements so far are and start trumpeting them consistently.

    And we need simple artwork to help us do it.

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Sep '11 - 4:05pm

    The party’s communications operation is utterly incompetent.

    If you want hard evidence just look at the party’s website.

    Tony Greaves

  • Being less than impressed by the effectiveness of this party’s communications strategy, I have to agree with Tony Greaves about the party’s website.
    The hard evidence he mentions exposes the web team, in particular, to ridicule: any journalist wishing to contact the Media Centre at the top of the official website’s home page and who then clicks on “Media Conference Information” is today presented with this information which I have cut and pasted:-

    “Media Conference Information
    The next conference the party is holding is Federal Spring Conference in Sheffield, 11-13 March 2011.
    For general media queries related to conference, please contact the Media Centre.”

    Whatever the messaging mess, Mark, I think you may want to bring this example of incompetence to the media team’s notice, especially as journalists will have been visiting the site around the time of the conference. ( You know, the one held in September, 2011.)

  • Stephen Donnelly 23rd Sep '11 - 9:46pm

    So True. At the very least we must explain to the electorate why they should vote for us. Our low poll rating is at least partly attributable to the fact that we are not doing that.

  • Actually, I suspect that the problem is that much of what is produced is done by volunteers, or in a spare hour, but LDs are in govt now and need to learn that presentation does, alas, matter.

    This article should provide a good wake-up call.

  • Patrick Smith 24th Sep '11 - 12:23pm

    There is time for bridge building on campaigns and to design one coherent and reforming Liberal Democrat Message in Government.

    Clearly only the best in `Team Work’ and highest ambition in Government for all L/D Minsters will do as they are the main leaders and harbingers of Liberal Democrat Policy implementation until 2015.

    Let`s have one coherent Policy in the making presentation next time? Having said that all L/D Minsters were visably excellent in Government in their Conference speeches and Q and A listening skills and totally convincing and signed up for Liberal Democrat progressive policy across their piece of governance.

    The L/D message must be understood and communicated in words of one syllable to our Electorate.

    There was also clear Conference evidence of L/D Ministers listening to the policy making wisdom and nous of Lord Ashdown and Baroness Shirley Williams on Foreign Relations including the `Arab Spring’ and `Liberal Internationalism’ and NHS Reform.

  • The Voice – I am one person with my own name and I suspect your reminder about respecting LDV’s moderation policy may have been prompted by the tone of my agreement with Tony Greaves about the party’s communications operation.
    In providing the necessary evidence that will hopefully lead to a crucial page on the party’s official website being corrected I hope I am being neither off topic nor repetitive, never before having criticized the site. In fact I will be surprised if the error I referred to for constructive reasons hasn’t been corrected in a few day’s time, won’t you.?
    If it is simply the case that “incompetence” is too harsh a description of a major oversight for the press team to bear, then this certain sensitivity (though admirable in many walks of life) may explain why the Lib Dems are forced to take so many punches but seem to land so few blows in their own defence.

  • I have heard this criticism before about Lib Dem leaflet design from a journalist friend, who pointed out that there is no colour scheme and no universal design in any of our leaflets. Currently in vogue in Scotland at least seems to be the use of yellow, red, blue and a horrible turquoise/teak colour scheme, which, frankly, looks unprofessional at best and slapdash at worst. We could do worse than following the example of the Greens who have a simple colour scheme – green on white – and stick to it. I personally have always thought we overdesign our leaflets anyway in a bid to get too much information on. A fundamental redesign from top-down is needed, including the website as Tony Greaves pointed out. Having said all that, I’m surprised no mention has yet been made in the comment threat of the infamous bar charts.

  • I have to say that I agree with Tony & others in saying that the website does nothing at all for the Party. It is boring, cluttered, nothing ever changes except the top news story coming at the top of the list in the middle section.

    There is too much clutter on the right and left hand columns. I have given up going to the website for information. As for is giving out a clear message to possible or prospective voters – it doesn’t. The only message which they will get is one of despair at the lack of true information on what we are about. If I was searching for a Party for which to vote and was seeking information which is clear and concise, our website does not give it.

    I am at least pleased to see that, for the conference at least, we have gone back to our gold colour. Whilst I love the teal colour, on its own it is cold and uninviting.

    Can we please get the website sorted out for starters? The issue of leaflets is a different one – there are plenty of good examples of templates at the ALDC site if you are a member. Download these and use them – why re-invent the wheel. They give you options for personalising for local people, issues etc.

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