Opinion: The Lib Dems need a better communications strategy

An opposition party can only be truly effective via the media. Government has its own spin and PR, but the opposition must cultivate this through good press stories for them and bad ones for the government.

Blair understood this better than anyone and used it to great advantage in the dying days of the Major administration, mostly through the fanaticism of Alastair Campbell.

Fast forward to today and a small party perpetually in opposition is now in government. When in opposition, projecting a clear party line was a key goal. For the Lib Dems in government, this seems to be proving difficult. The Lib Dems’ head of communications, Jonny Oates, has been subsumed into Andy Coulson’s media operation in Number 10.

Every time I see a Lib Dem cabinet member giving interviews it is to defend Tory policies. Concurrently I find myself praising liberal home and justice secretaries, both of whom happen to be Tories.

Coincidence? It seems to me that this is the perfect government communications strategy. The ‘fluffy’ Lib Dems dish out the bad news so that people can’t say ‘same old Tories’. The Tories preach about civil liberties and prison reform so that the right-wing press can’t screech about the ‘loony liberals’. Perhaps we’re all Liberal Conservatives now.

But what of the party? Without a clear voice, how are the public to know which policies are Lib Dem and which are Conservative? This is a duty we owe to the electorate.

Simon Hughes clearly has an important role here. As deputy leader, but not in government, he can speak freely about our difficulties with government policy. But I would argue that a divided message should be coming from the heart of government, with all the resources that allows. Clegg and Cameron are proclaimed as an equal partnership, but this requires a presentational equality: Coulson and Jonny Oates must be on an equal footing.

Lib Dem cabinet members should be told that in every interview they give, they push the Lib Dem aspect of each policy announcement. On budget day the airwaves were full of Lib Dems embracing the VAT increase, rather than correctly identifying it as a Tory policy. It fell to David Cameron to insist that Lib Dem voters should be proud to see their policies in the budget.

A coalition government and collective cabinet responsibility are not easy bedfellows. If differences are highlighted, the media screams “splits!”. But it is only by highlighting the differences between the two parties that we can save ourselves from political irrelevancy. Just look at the polls: the Tories are up and we are down.

I have read the coalition document and can list our early victories in government: less tax for low earners, higher capital gains tax, restored link with pensions and earnings, no ID cards, no detention without trial. It is a list to be proud of. I can explain this list to everyone I canvass in Elephant and Castle. But I would appreciate some help from the government.

* Ben Johnson is a Lib Dem member in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, and was an (unsuccessful) council candidate in East Walworth, London Borough of Southwark, May 2010.

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32 Comments

  • It’s not your communications strategy which is your problem: it’s your political strategy which appears to suggest that being a door mat for for the Tories to wipe their feet on is a perfectly respectable position to take up. Why don’t you have a word with Charlie Kennedy about it?

    http://politicalscrapbook.net/2010/07/charles-kennedys-division-lobby-absenteeism/

  • absolutely right. I have been shocked at how timid we seem on Newsnight and question time in dealing with Labour attack dogs.

  • But its not going to happen and being associated in the public’s mind with the likes of Zac Goldsmith is doing the Lib Dems tremendous damage

  • ” the Lib Dem leadership need an open discussion with the Conservatives about how to approach this. How the coalition presents itself is not a minor issue. It needs to be tackled, urgently.”

    To waste government time on discussing how you look in order to increase your electoral appeal, at a time when you assure us we face a major national crisis which requires severe pain for many, would be obscene.

    Stop worrying about presentation and get on with government.

  • Tony Greaves 17th Jul '10 - 4:16pm

    You haven’t got used to this government malarkey, have you? They are government policies for which all members are collectively responsible.

    You haven’t got used to this coalition malarky have you? (And neither has most of the world including most our our ministers).

    The line should be “That is a Tory policy which we have unfortunately had to accept as part of the give and take of coalition. A Liberal Democrat government would do things differently – and that is…”

    They will have to learn. But I hope they don’t leave it to the last few weeks before the next General Election or they (and we) will all be slaughtered.

    Tony Greaves

  • David Morton 17th Jul '10 - 4:19pm

    To my lay persons eye it looks like someone, somewhere is trying to run the entire Lib Dem participation in the government as a ” Yes” campaign in the AV referendum but doing so with a very narrow view of what that referendum will be about and what may make people vote “Yes”.

    If the AV vote is a de facto vote on the principle of coalitions, this coalition “works” and “works” for a government is “strong” government then ergo being seen as a “strong” government will engender a ” Yes” vote.

    There is something in this but trying to exhorcise a pre ordained list of demons from the public mind over a single topic we are ignoring a growing list of other phantoms , namely the lack of distinctiveness.

    This dilemma is time limited till next May when the AV issue will be out of the way. However a year is a very long time in politics. Everyother aspect of the party’s identity in office will have been fused in the public mind by then with very little that can be easierly done to alter it.

  • Paul Griffiths 17th Jul '10 - 6:28pm

    @Jon Walls

    Sorry, Jon, but I find your analogy weak and your argument unpersuasive, if not impenetrable.

    We have an 84/16 Coalition government. Of the two parties of government, the Tories have 84% of MPs and we have 16%. It’s not “dissing” the Tories, or playing political games, to point out the policies of a 50/50 or 16/84 Coalition government would be different, still less a 100% Lib Dem government. The public do want politicians to work together but they also understand that that doesn’t entail complete agreement.

  • Gillian Simpson 17th Jul '10 - 7:37pm

    Regarding reformation of the NHS. Get all the management out. They do not know what they are doing and are making decisions about peoples lives i.e. critical drugs are being denied to some people because of the costs, but the heavy costs are high salaries paid to the incompetent management. I saw this with my own eyes as I used to work for them. Most of the management are trained bullies which is their idea of management. I am all for the GP’s and Consultants taking over the reins of funding. This should put a plug in the waste generated by these managers. It is also a disgrace that the letters dictated by the Consultants are going out to India. What is going on when there is high unemployment in this country. This so called management are then justifying their jobs by getting nurses, doctors, adminstrators and porters out, whilst they are sitting pretty and still in work.

  • Barry George 17th Jul '10 - 8:01pm

    @ Ben

    Interesting article, it is a relief to see some consistent acknowledgement from the contributors to this site that the Liberal Democrat’s have a problem.

    Constantly seeing Lib Dem ministers defending what is clearly Tory policy is weakening the soul of the party and the patience of the electorate.

    I am not offering solutions , I am merely pleased to see the denial shifting away.

    The first thing you need to do when you have a problem is to acknowledge it exists. We are starting to do that now and I for one commend it.

  • all I have to say 17th Jul '10 - 9:50pm

    @Tony Greaves – this is how that would work:

    interviewer: So, you say this policy is “unfortunate” – so you mean it is wrong?

    Lib Dem: errr, no

    Interviewer: So it’s right?

    Lib Dem: errr, no.

    Interviewer: So you are saying that a policy adopted by your ministers isn’t right?

    etc, etc

    Ending in either the resignation of the Lib Dem or worse.
    You are in government, there are no half-way houses with this: you ave to defend the policies of the government.

  • “Stop worrying about presentation and get on with government.”

    Actually, I don’t agree. I think our presentation is awful because our position in government is awful. It follows that if people want to improve the presentation, they will eventually have to admit they need to improve our role in government.

    Jon Walls points out that “If (a better communications strategy) relies on dissing the Tories while talking about how wonderful things would be if we were in the driving seat, I doubt it would do us any favours.” Absolutely right. We can forget about the idea of routinely relying on a “don’t blame us for this one, guv” line. It would only make us look ridiculous.

    George Kendall’s alternative is: “We might go for something like the following: ‘As you know, we proposed something different at the last election. However, we’re in a coalition, and we’ve come up with an excellent compromise, which is Y. And this will be beneficial in the following ways…’ ”

    Now that sounds a lot better, because it promises something positive that we Lib Dems have achieved. The only trouble is, we then need to find something to boast about which looks important to the general public.

    What have we done for Lansley’s health policy, or Gove’s schools policy, or Osborne’s benefits policy, that anyone outside our own circle will believe is worth a row of beans?

  • David Morton 17th Jul '10 - 11:31pm

    Cui Bono ? The article and the thread responses seem to assume that whati going on is a bad thing. However that’s only true from a certain point of view. If you are a partisan for either

    1. a long term centre right realignment on the CDU/FDP model

    2. A Conservative majority next time round

    then all of this looks wonderful so far. Before assuming its an accident you should ask whether its design.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 17th Jul '10 - 11:50pm

    David

    Interesting idea.

    If Nick Clegg had been a Tory mole, could he have acted more effectively to destroy the Lib Dems as a political force?

  • David Morton 18th Jul '10 - 12:28am

    We are running the ” Torquoise ” strategy ” which recognises that as a very junior partner one way of influencing the much greater whole is to blend all of our distinctiveness. It’s a matter of taste as to whether or not the resulting visual change is worth the collective self extinction that forming the blend requires.

    The alternative, that seems to have been deliberately rejected in the coalition architcture, is to keep the big blue square, but use our limited amount of paint to slash a thin but bright yellow line right across the canvas. We may only occupy a small piece of canvass, we’ll have to acknowledge how much is blue but people will really notice the yellow bit such as it is.

    What ever you think of it the coalition architecture is very deliberately crafted and from my judgement made of reinforced concrete.

    1. Lib Dem influences over policy here and there but almost no distinctive complete wins or “wedges” where a single distinctively, ” Jesus, the Tories would never have done that” policy shines through.

    2. Actually rather a lot of Lib Dem ministers, 22, but spread right across government and with only 2 proper cabinet jobs and neither of those in big bread and butter departments.

    There are of course many advantages to having so strongly gone down the “Torquoise” route – I’ll leave it to a proponent of the coalition architecture to set them out. However I don’t see how people can credibly say they like being in the coalition in general buit just don’t want all the down sides
    that come with the deal. From the ” Gay Wedding” press conference in the rose garden onwards there has been a strong ” Visual merger” aspect of all of this, its been deliberate, and at this stage unmizing the two colours of paint will be almost impossible.

  • David Morton 18th Jul '10 - 1:34am

    Benjamin,

    You are right to raise on the ground campaigning – a topic that has recieved an astonishing lack of comment as the implications of the coalition sink in – but that is where this is all going to get really, really interesting. In my experience Focus is about

    – establishing a local brand to compensate fort the fact we have a vague or not existant national brand. ” where we work we win “.

    – running campaigns against things. Evene successful controlling council groups all to often act like oppositions. Even when campaigns are for something positive and specific the sub text is that its an opponent that won’t offer it.

    Being in national office will remove the premise of the first point. We are getting loads of air time and profile. The ephocal nature of the changes we are making to the public expenditure profile will blast conciousness of the nature of the government down to the lowest of low infomation voters.

    The second point gets harder as well. Once you have your photo taken on the steps of Downing Street you’ve made it and at least some of the buck stops with you. It will be interesting to see how oppoositionalist campaigning is framed against such a stark and powerful national brand.

  • John Fraser 18th Jul '10 - 8:41am

    @ Tony Greaves
    The line should be “That is a Tory policy which we have unfortunately had to accept as part of the give and take of coalition. A Liberal Democrat government would do things differently – and that is…”

    Thanks mate I was starting to think that I was the only person who thought we should be doing this AT THE VERY LEAST. I can’t believe that the ‘Stepford Wife’ syndrome ( where minor coalition partners have to become robotic overnight hypocrites going back on everything they stood for a few weeks ago) , is the norm in European Coalitions > I am genuinely interested to find out if it is or is not the norm ? Does anyone know ???

  • This article is spot-on. If the Liberal Democrat party does not get this right, we shall reap none of the rewards our appointed Ministers are fighting so hard for, and that we deserve: we will end up the losers in this coalition.
    The Conservatives have no reason to trumpet our successes. We seem to need a stronger, better-directed Press department.

  • Yes, of course that said by Tony Greaves, John Fraser etc is right – but it is difficult to put the responsibility for “getting it right” all on our PR people. They have come in for a hard time in the past! Deserved in some cases, eg Mr Littlewood, who appears now to be off the scale in terms of right-wingery! Before going into a coalition, we should have had time to think clearly about what the implications were likely to be for party principles, organisation, campaigning at different levels etc. It is particularly difficult with the Tories – not just “because we have fought them for many years”, but because the principles of the Lib Dems – as expressed in the Preamble to the Constitution, are so entirely opposed to Tory thinking in many areas. It is difficult to envisage just going ahead as if nothing has happened. It could not be possible, surely, that parts of our leadership are ready to throw out the party’s carefully negotiated constitutional principles and the values that underpin them, could it?? It has been especially important in recent years, since NuLab, to ensure our support for public activities, and the public sector. It looks as if our leadership has now ditched this principle.

  • I’ve been saying this for weeks now. I’ve even messaged a fair number of our MPs about it and largely they’ve agreed. Communication has to get better. It’s all well and good people keep saying ‘cabinet responsibility’ comes into play etc but if we are actually trying to change politics then honesty, debate and disagreement has to be projected as a good thing and we have to stop running scared on the national press and broadcast media. Everyone’s frightened they’re going to shout ‘split’ and everything will come tumbling down. Well it’ll only come tumbling down if we let it. I want to see some real leadership here Nick. And whilst I’m supportive of the coalition, I do feel somewhat leaderless at the minute. That has to change! We need to see and hear more of you!!

  • Ben Johnson 18th Jul '10 - 9:47pm

    I’m glad that this piece has triggered some debate!
    I think the game has changed. In the early days of the coalition I heard Theresa May calmly explaining to John Humphreys why certain Tory policies were left out of the coalition agreement. She explained, very eloquently, that a coalition was about compromise and that the government would also enact libdem policies.
    This is all I ask. That libdems follow the example being set by May and explain to the public that this or that policy was not in the libdem manifesto, but that we are enacting policies from both parties.
    The public want to know why they should vote libdem. The only way to convince them is to explain what we have achieved in government for our voters. It is self evident that most policies will come from the majority Tory coalition partner, so we need to speak even louder about our achievements.

  • Paul Griffiths 21st Jul '10 - 10:53pm

    Jon, I think you misunderstand my position. I am certainly not advocating that Lib Dem ministers and backbench MPs spend the next five years with their arms folded, grumpily saying that it wasn’t their idea. And I am pleased to see that few if any are doing so. On the contrary, they are already using what you rather unfortunately term “tricks” to highlight the liberal aspects of Coalition policies. They should continue to do so.

    But that approach will only take us so far. The fact is that in an 84/16 Coalition there are inevitably going to be some policies that the 84% want but with which the 16% won’t be comfortable. The public aren’t stupid – they know this, even if some journalists and pundits haven’t cottoned on yet. And they won’t respect Lib Dems “playing the coalition game” if it means (as you seem to believe) endless dissembling and spinning.

    The Coalition partners, especially the Lib Dems, must be able to express these differences in an open, honest way that doesn’t damage the Government.

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