Opinion: We’ve stopped setting the agenda

In Mark Pack’s generally excellent piece the other day entitled Role reversal for the Liberal Democrats he suggested that, love it or hate it, we have a long term positioning strategy in place at the moment but we’re missing out on tactical battles. On the long term strategy bit, I beg to differ.

I worry we’re being taken to the brand cleaners at the moment.

In the commercial world, brand owners try to turn their ordinary everyday brands into brand icons. They do so for three reasons:

  1. Icon brands tend to have a huge range of appeal stretching far beyond their traditional consumer.
  2. They tend to command a premium.
  3. Most importantly, they set the benchmark and the agenda for all the other brands in their sector. They also tend to start out as challenger brands. Think of Apple or Virgin and you get the picture.

Back in May, we – finally, finally, finally – exhibited all the qualities of an icon brand. We’d stretched our appeal far beyond our traditional base, our MP’s votes in any potential coalition were certainly commanding a premium in the market place, and most significantly we were setting the political agenda. Has everyone forgotten ‘I agree with Nick’?

Why haven’t we been able to capitalise on this? It’s because we’ve stopped doing the most important part of the icon equation – setting the agenda. When brand leaders (and in the last election result, that was the Tories) spot someone is changing the rules, they can do one of two things. They can play the new game (which they know they won’t be as good at), or they can get the new challenger to play their game.

And that’s what happened to us. By not setting our own agenda within government, stating our own beliefs, or pushing the radical progressive policies that we have intellectual ownership of, we lose our identity, and are judged by the rules of the perceived brand leader in the sector. We’re seen as playing the Tories game.

Now, I am pro-coalition – I like having people who believe in the same things that I do in government. But as a branding and communication professional I hate this ‘not a cigarette paper between us’ approach. It’s only by retaining an individual, radical and heartfelt agenda of our own – and taking ownership of that agenda – that we can allow people to judge if they believe more in our values than anyone else’s. Otherwise, at the next election, we can have the most radical, progressive and liberal manifesto ever written – and we’ll still be called Diet Tory. And I don’t want to be anyone’s artificial sweetener.

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16 Comments

  • Dominic Curran 1st Nov '10 - 2:07pm

    exactly, richard. there is no harm in saying ‘i don’t agree with this, but i have to vote for it. if it were up to me, if enough of you voters had voted for us, this is what i’d do differently…’. we’d get respect, then, instead of dogshit through letterboxes.

  • William Summers 1st Nov '10 - 2:08pm

    Great article, and totally agree. Of course we have to be realistic about the practical difficulties of power, but becoming a silent and agreeable partner to the Tories is neither going to help our election chances or, more importantly, going to ensure we wield a real influence over policy.

    We need to differentiate ourselves and fight for the things we believe in. The coalition will not fall apart just because we disagree with the Tories and make that disagreement known, as long as we do it in a constructive way.

  • Ed Maxfield 1st Nov '10 - 2:17pm

    I think you are right to a point, Richard.

    But I think you are being too pessimistic.

    It is an issue of phasing. The Lib Dem brand is in the process of being repositioned and the next election is five years away. What is vital is to have created that new brand image (fresh, dynamic, new ideas but not as bonkers as you feared) in time for the next election. There is every chance that it will be much sharper than it has been in the past thanks to our record in office.

    And dont forget that the other parties will have to go through the same experience. Cameron will be pulled right by his awkward squad. Labour seems to have fallen willingly back into the arms of the left.

  • Ed, I suppose that depends where you sit on the spectrum. It is a “viewer – subjective” thing as well as an objective thing. I assume then, you accept the Richard Grayson thesis about an Orange Book takeover. That’s what you meant by “repositioning of the Lib Dem brand”?

    Surely that comment is a bit like someone who proposes an amendment to a motion having the effect of turning the motion on its head? I agree with you a bit, but we don’t like the brand image that people out there all liked, so we’ll change it, and hope either they don’t notice it, or there will be sufficient who can just about tell what the new image is (you described this as ‘sharper than in the past’).

  • Sam Cannicott 1st Nov '10 - 3:02pm

    You can’t have a situation where the Lib Dems say “we don’t agree with this, but we have to go along with it”. If that happened the party would look pathetic. The Government has to position itself as a unified force and the Lib Dems can’t set a separate agenda within it.

    What I think Ministers could be making more of, is how difficult coalition Government is, the negotiating is tough and reaching a consensus takes time, precisely because the LDs and Tories are two very different parties and approach their politics in different ways.

  • Richard Morris 1st Nov '10 - 4:02pm

    @ Ed Maxfield Thanks – I suppose my concern is both why are we are being repositioned, and how we are being repositioned. Why – after we secured our largest share of the vote since the days of the Aliance – do we feel the need to reposition – shouldn’t we be making more of the psoitioing we already had (I go back to ‘I agree with Nick’).. And why is that repositioning apparently ‘Diet Tory’.

    @ Sam Cannicott – I don’t think being in coalition means supporting every Tory policy; we should have the debate, where we reach a compromise we can both live with we should support it, when we can’t, we should abstain – allowing the government to govern but maintaining our own principals. Otherwise, when we come to writing the manifesto for the 2015 election, we will either lurch to the right (with all that entails) or say we are going to undo some of the things we voted for in government (which is a losing strategy!).

  • Ed Maxfield 1st Nov '10 - 4:05pm

    I think the point holds whatever your take on ideological positioning, Tim. Although I agree it looks easier if you are of the small state persuasion.

    My point is that the brand image is in the process of potentially dramatic change but we shouldnt despair because that leads to a loss of support in the short term. It applies whether at the next election our brand is encapsulated by ‘we’ve been sensible for five years now its time to splash the cash’ or whether it is ‘we’ve been sensible for five years and we rather like the feel of tight belts.’

    In the past the Lib Dems have suffered organisationally (but not necessarily electorally) by having little ‘brand definition’. As Richard suggests, at the last election that situation changed, although I think it was the culmination of a process of change that stretched back to the mid 1990s and Paddy Ashdown’s decision to end equidistance.

    Richard points to ‘I agree with Nick’ as an example of this but unfortunately that turned out to be something of an electoral souffle.

    Like it or loathe it the party has already transformed its image by joining a coalition with the Tories. The same would have happened if we had formed a government with Labour (an outcome that would have left us longing for the sort of poll ratings we are getting now, I suspect). The only way we could have preserved our brand image would have been to have sat on our hands- unfortunately that would have preserved the worst of the brand image of the Lib Dems being rather woolly and incapable of making decisions.

    But that’s ancient history. The government is in a consolidation phase. Mark was right in his original article that we need to figure out how to get the tactics right. Richard is right that we also need to get the strategy right too. I’m just not sure I agree that being more uppity in the short term is the right strategy to adopt.

    One concrete suggestion I would make is that we need to invest a great deal more resource into developing an understanding of who our potential customers are. ‘Vote for us coz we’re against stuff’ isnt going to cut it in 2015.

  • I broadly agree with the poster.

    However I think another problem for the LDs in 2015 will be that we will have to defend EVERY action of the coalition as well as reposition ourselves within the electoral market. That could be extraordinarily tricky, For example: the Federal Policy Committee states that our policy is still to abolish tuition fees. Our two candidates for the party presidency still want us to work towards abolishing tuition fees, and yet we will have to defend a record, the only governing record the LDs have ever had, in which we raised tuition fees. Now, in such a circumstance, would the electorate be wrong in thinking, ‘ignore what they say, look at what they do’?

  • Richard Morris 1st Nov '10 - 5:12pm

    @mpg. My point exactly.

  • David Allen 1st Nov '10 - 5:21pm

    “The Lib Dem brand is in the process of being repositioned and the next election is five years away.”

    Too complacent, I would say. In most human relationships, patterns of dominance and submission are set very early and don’t change much thereafter. Everybody understands human relationships, and everyone can see that the Lib Dem brand has already been repositioned. In five years time we shall still be the Tories’ poodles, unless we the party members change the people who lead the party.

  • Dominic Curran 1st Nov '10 - 6:40pm

    @ sam cannicott
    “You can’t have a situation where the Lib Dems say “we don’t agree with this, but we have to go along with it”. If that happened the party would look pathetic. The Government has to position itself as a unified force and the Lib Dems can’t set a separate agenda within it.”

    People aren’t stupid, sam. they know that we and the tories had (have?) wildly different positions on key issues. Some of these have been kicked into the long grass, on some we seem to have reached an uneasy consensus, but on others people know that we do not believe the same as the Tories. The problem is that, on these, we appear to be putting the need to show unity as a government above the need to show unity with our previously expressed views. That makes us look at best inconsistent and at worst downright liars and hypocrites. In other countries coalition partners say that they disagree on some issues (i accept that to poitn out disagreementas and divisions on everything woudl undemrine the whole thing) and th epublic accept that because they know that there are two (or more) different parties involved. We, sadly, appear to look like one party. And it’s not the Liberal Democrats.

  • I agree with the importance of the “brand”, but a big problem is that liberalism has no real friends in the media, so the “brand” does not get that much positive exposure. The media is dominated by the statist left and the conservative right. Both sides of the media have a tendancy to use the word liberal as an insult at times. The left using neo-liberalism as an insult, and the right using liberal as a byword weak/wishywashy metropolitan socialite. The Guardian and Independent may claim to be liberal but I would say that their ethos sit more comfortably with traditional Labour in reality.

    I think we need a liberal magazine or something, so that liberalism can have a voice in the media, without having to share with socialism or conservatism when the New Statesman or the Spectator on the odd occasion they decide liberalism would be a nice optional extra to have.

  • “In five years time we shall still be the Tories’ poodles, unless we the party members change the people who lead the party.”

    This will be the same “poodles” who many Tory members believe have pushed Cameron in far too Liberal a direction, will it?

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