The party’s back to front: why our political messaging is wrong

Hearing both Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg speak several times at local Liberal Democrat events over the summer, something not quite right about their speeches was nagging away at the back of my mind.

It was not the delivery, for both have speaking styles which are excellently suited to the semi-formal audience of between 20 and 100 which is common at such events.

Nor was it about the consistency of message: without either lapsing into robotic repetition of the sort that served Ed Miliband so badly in his notorious public sector strikes interview, both in their different ways were echoing the same main themes. They managed that tricky balancing act of being consistent in the main messages without boring the audience or making the mistake Miliband made.

Nor was it about ideology, for both – rightly – talk often of the importance of having a strongly liberal approach to government and the need to fight for that within the constrictions of coalition government. Moreover the form of liberalism they espoused in these speeches was an inclusive one that people across the party could be comfortable with – and, to judge by the questions and reactions afterwards, not only could be but were.

So what was wrong? The problem is that the party’s message – as consistently laid out not only by Nick and Danny but also by others – is back to front.

Four key Lib Dem manifesto commitmentsThe political messaging cliché is that you talk about how bad the past was and then offer hope for how good the future will be. The party, however, has slipped into doing the opposite: talking about how good the past was, in the form of 2010, and how tough the future will be, in the form of deficit-cutting.

The individual elements are all justifiable. 2010 was a good year for the party, with a coalition agreement negotiated that puts 75% of the Liberal Democrat manifesto into practice. For all the pain of some of that missing 25% – not to mention some of the Conservative Party’s policies that have gone into the coalition agreement – it is worth remembering that means in 2010 we got a majority in Parliament signed up to implement more Liberal Democrat policies that have been implemented in total across most of the previous century.

But talking about how good a result the coalition agreement was is talking about the past. It was signed in 2010, in the past. Talk of our major policy achievements is also largely of the past. Yes, the pupil premium will bring much needed help to pupils for years to come, but getting the pupil premium started is a story of 2010. So too for the big increase the basic income tax allowance and plans to increase it further. There will be news about that each budget for several years to come, but at heart it’s a story about the past: it is what we got the Conservatives to agree to in 2010.

The list goes on. It is an impressive list of policies, but it is a list where the high-profile, attention grabbing events and decisions were in the past, not the future.

The future instead, as painted by such speeches as those I heard, is about tough decisions and unwelcome policies.

That too was the message at the party’s Birmingham conference: lots about what the Liberal Democrats have done in the past (in fact too much, so that we ended up with too many things mentioned once and not enough concentration on a few key points that might start sinking into the voting public’s consciousness) and little in the way of positive vision for the future.

It is right to be tackling the deficit and to be frank that even in the most watered down Ed Balls’s version of deficit reduction there would be huge cuts that Labour shy away from talking about. Tough but necessary is not, however, a picture of a hopeful future.

So the party’s strategic messaging is turning convention on its head: talk up the past, be downbeat about the future. Yet this is a case when conventional wisdom has it right.

There is, to be fair, a hint of optimism for the future when Danny, Nick and others talk about what those tough decision will mean for how the public views the party. The hope is that the Liberal Democrats end up being seen as more economically credible than Labour and more socially fairer than the Conservatives.

It is not a bad image to be aiming for, save for one problem: you could aim for that image even if you do not have the slightest liberal bone in your body. Fairness is a good value to aim for, especially given how highly the public values it in parties. But talking of fairness is something that non-liberals do just as much as liberals. Our visions of fairness may be very different, but it means talking of fairness does not in itself give people a reason to go for a liberal party. The same too applies of course to having economically credible policies – that too is something people of all ideologies can try to lay claim to.

What the Liberal Democrats are missing, then, is a hopeful vision for the future that is distinctively liberal. The answer lies with community politics. Giving people real power to shape the futures of themselves, their families and their communities is such a vision. Taking power away from existing elites and helping people shape their own new local power structures separates community politics from its pale cousins of localism and Big Society.

Of course there are some overlaps between all three, but when done right – when done with the original vision of changing our power structures firmly in mind – community politics is very different, very Liberal Democrat and very optimistic.

A slightly shorter version of this piece appears in the latest edition of Liberator.

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27 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Nov '11 - 11:44am

    Mark, I have argued many times now why this over-optimistic message you want to see put, with the “75% of Liberal Democrat policies” implemented line being at its heart, is DAMAGING us rather than helping us. Could you perhaps answer the points I have made previously on this issue instead of repeating yourself robotically?

  • Problem is with your suggestion of Community Politics – that has really been stolen by the Conservatives and rebadged as “Big Society”

    Whenever we do anything locally – the local Conservatives just say “Ah Big Society in action”

    For example in my ward I helped a group get set up to look after the local park – both picking litter and deciding what improvements are needed – apparently that is Big Society

    Setting up neighbourhood groups to look at planning – Big Society

    And the press – both local and national – agree that it is Big Society

    It almost stops you wanting to encourage voluntary groups as the Tories have managed to take the credit for anything that they can badge as Big Society – Almost but not quite.

    So I think that that particular horse has bolted!

  • Don’t blame the advertising. Blame the product!

  • Considering that about 75% 0f every party’s manifesto has the same aspirations “Mom and apple pie” it’s hardly surprising that a large majority of such ‘promises’ can be deemed ‘achieved’….However, let’s look at the ‘trade-offs”…You remain silent on those….

    For example..You you make great play of the £430 pupil premium…What happened to the £560M EMA?

  • paul barker 24th Nov '11 - 1:39pm

    Going slightly off topic but still on the Optimism/Future theme –
    Ive totted up the Vote shares in Council Byelections for the last Month, the results are Con 30% Lab 28% Libdem 21%.
    They dont look much like the Voting Intention Polls that obsess the MSM but they are closer to The Leader Approval Polls –
    Averaging over the last Month again for Yougov
    Con 42% Lab 27% Libdem 23%
    Ipsos-mori have had one poll in the same period
    Con 40% Lab 34% Libdem 30%

    Putting all the available facts together we have a lot of reasons to be cheerful.

  • Tony Dawson 24th Nov '11 - 1:42pm

    @Mark Pack:

    “2010 was a good year for the party, ”

    No, 2010 was a lousy year for the party, where Cleggmania rescued an otherwise fractionally-less-than-mediocre election campaign and we ended up in a rather hurried coalition due to the irreversable logic of electoral arithmetic rather than any virtues on our own part.

    But Mark is spot on about community politics being the foundation for any Lib Dem recovery. As long as it is honest and not just an electoral tool. He is also right about the fairness agenda. I would go further. The public will not believe that we ‘own’ any of the good parts of the coalition’s output unless we (including our Cabinet Ministers) are prepared to say, repeatedly: “We stopped the Tories from doing XXXX” and/or “We pushed ZZZZZZZ through despite Tory opposition.”. Yes, this might lead to a little frostiness in the Cabinet room but, in the absence of such messaging, the tabloid press are already deciding what to tell the people of Britain we’re stopping or promoting, irrespective of the truth, so it’s not as though it would be a strange phenomenon for this sort of dissonance to be voiced. it would just be being done honestly.

  • Tony Dawson 24th Nov '11 - 1:46pm

    @paul barker:

    “Con 40% Lab 34% Libdem 30%”

    104 per cent before the Ulstermen, Greens, Nats, BNP and UKIP!

    PLEASE stop quoting useless leadership approval figures.

    @Libby, ‘Big Society’ is nothing at all to do with community politics and sounds more like ‘Big Brother’. It has mostly gone down like a lead balloon.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Nov '11 - 1:53pm


    community politics: Giving people real power to shape the futures of themselves, their families and their communities is such a vision. Taking power away from existing elites and helping people shape their own new local power structures separates community politics from its pale cousins of localism and Big Society.

    Actually, I think it’s more about encouraging people to use the power they already have. The real point, I think, is to demonstrate that existing elites owe their power more to the inertia of others than because they are fixed in place by law. In particular, it was oriented towards oiling and getting running again democratic mechanisms we have but which have become stuck by lack of use or the defeatist “we can’t change anything” attitude that is so common – more so now than ever. It might involve imaginative ways to get people thinking about the situation they are in, to shake them out of complacency and defeatism.

    So, I don’t actually think “community politics” is about policies. Rather it’s about doing politics in a different way, which is another matter entirely. And not one which the current leadership of the Liberal Democrats has much productive to say about.

  • Matthew Huntbach……Ref your first post…I tend to “Dip in and out of here” so I haven’t read the post to which you refer…Please, where/when was it posted?

  • jenny barnes 24th Nov '11 - 4:38pm

    “existing elites owe their power more to the inertia of others than because they are fixed in place by law.”

    Maybe. they certainly have no difficulty using the police more or less illegally to throttle any serious attempt to change things. Taking power away from existing elites…just how is this to be done? when the elites clearly include people like Bob Diamond (geezer) and most of the millionaire public schoolboys in parliament?

  • Ed Maxfield 25th Nov '11 - 6:34am

    The party wont get its messaging right until it stops obsessing about political processes and instead defines a distinctive position on issues that voters actually care about. Chris Rennard spent years trying to teach us that one.

  • Bill le Breton 25th Nov '11 - 9:07am

    The weakness of relying on what has been delivered is that it is not ‘news’. News is what’s new. It is what we are doing (not saying) about the issues of the day that matters.
    Ed is spot on. Where do we stand on those big issues and are we campaigning (that is building a movement among people in support of that stance)?
    Checklist on what is making the agenda this week:
    On housing? Siding with the big developers to build more ‘slums of tomorrow’ little boxes on green field sites and selling council housing.
    On employee rights? Siding with bosses by giving them the facility to use people as ‘temps’ for an extra year.
    On planning? Siding with a centralised command approach against our local councillors who are speaking for local people in their communities – more green field sites in jeopardy.
    On the public sector strike? – are we facilitating agreement or assuming a Thatcherite mantle of confrontation? While Alexander was put up to attack teachers, health workers and all public servants who are wrestling with the dilemma of what to do, (and using the ludicrous half billion figure), the Chancellor was talking of new infrastructure projects. Oooops.
    Finally on Europe – siding with Cameron in turning our backs on the fellow Europeans of Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and soon France, and thereby increasing the scope for xenophobia in those countries – remember the Bulkans and where Ashdown led us.
    The hardest thing to do when ‘in power’ is to keep to ones fundamental principles, but it is the most important thing to do.

  • What is more relevant – the percentage of the manifesto that gets implemented or the percentage – impactwise – of what the coalition does and says that we would have done were we governing alone?

  • First of all – to echo Bill and my earlier post – if the product is rubbish, better advertising won’t rescue it.

    Secondly on the advertising question – We’re seeking to get credit from the public. That’s unrealistic. The public hasn’t given a politician credit for anything since the Falklands War. The public only doles out blame. All any politician can really hope for is to minimise the blame.

    We’re all into hyperbole, into maxing up our huge contribution to what the Coalition is doing, into claiming that the programme is 75% ours, etcetera. In other words, we’re asking for the lion’s share of the blame. And a generous public is giving us what we are asking for.

    A humbler leader, who claimed only to be able to knock a few rough edges off the Tory juggernaut, who had called the Tories the lesser evil, who had been ready to draw lines in the sand beyond which Cameron could not go without wrecking the Coalition, would have preserved our self-respect and our public respect. But we don’t have one.

  • Mark – its probably heretical to ask this but is there much evidence that local decision making produces more democratic outcomes? Where I live, 40 out of 42 councillors are Tory and there appears to be no functioning democratic debate locally – the Tories get more opposition from Independent Tories than from us or Labour. I suspect there are Labour areas with a similar problem.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Nov '11 - 10:08am

    jason

    Matthew Huntbach……Ref your first post…I tend to “Dip in and out of here” so I haven’t read the post to which you refer…Please, where/when was it posted

    I’ve made this point so many times in so many places that I couldn’t say exactly where. I believe that this endless trumpeting of the line “75% of our manifesto into practice”, which top bods in our party seem to have been ordered to say, and lower down robotic bods just repeat because they do what they’re told, is DAMAGING us.

    First of all, I have NEVER seen any of these bods give an explanation of the figure. That in itself is an issue of a concern. As a scientist, I would never use figures like this without some explanation of the methodology. First of all, what does it mean for a policy to be “into practice”, secondly how is a policy counted as being a proportion of the whole? The figure is almost meaningless without these explanations. I know there was some paper which gave this 75% figure, so perhaps those using it could reference that paper so that those who are dubious about the figure quoted could check it to see what it really means. Sure, political rhetoric is not like writing an academic paper, so I wouldn’t be so concerned if this 75% figure was a one-off in one speech, but now it’s being repeated time and time and time again by almost every leadership-loyal Liberal Democrat, so I do think if they are going to make such use of it they do need to say more to explain it.

    Secondly, but leading from this, it sure doesn’t FEEL like we have a government of the sort many of us have been working for over all these years when we’ve put our efforts into promoting the Liberal Democrats. It feel like we have a pretty right-wing, at least in economic terms, Conservative Party government. As a result, that 75% figure just looks dubious, I rather think the reaction from most people hearing it – particularly from all those people who used to support us but aren’t happy about the coalition – will be “typical lying politicians”. Unless the figure is backed up by very strong argument explaning it – which it isn’t by Mark Pack here, as it isn’t by most leadership-loyalists who bandy it about – it will most likely cause former supporters to turn away from us in disgust because they just won’t believe it, they will see it as a sign of what they fear – that we have had our brains transplanted by Tory brains, and are fooling them by pretending all these Tory policies are somehow “Liberal Democrat”.

    Thirdly, while I appreciate that it does not really mean this, it will be interpreted by most people hearing it, subconsciusly if not consciously, as “75% of the current governmen’s policies are Liberal Democrat”. That is, they will believe that the Liberal Democrats are fundamentally a right-wing Conservative economics party, because that is the government we have now. That will DISGUST many of our former voters, it will lead them to believe we lied to them over the years, that we took them for mugs, that what we said when we wanted their votes was not what we really believed.

    This constant use of this “75%” figure is just repating the fundamental mistake our party leadership and those surrounding it have been making since the formation of the coaltion – over-emphasising our influence over it and thus making sure we get the blame for Conservative policies.

    The reality is that this is a government which is mostly Conservative. The Conservatives may have had less than twice the number of votes we got in the general election, but they won over five times as many seats. That is how our current electoral system works, and the people of Britain voted overwhelmingly this year to support that electoral system and to reject even the slight change we proposed. In that way the people of Britain gave a massive vote of confidence in this government, they rejected the idea that it was unfair because the Conservative Party had more dominance than its share of the vote should have given, they said – this was the main feature of the successful “No” campaign – that they would rather have an extreme right-wing Conservative government even though the Conservatives received less than two in five votes than one with more Liberal Democrat influence, because such a distortion leads to more “decisive” government and this is good thing.

    Well, fine, I think the people of Britain have it wrong, but that’s democracy, you have to accept what the people voted for. The result of the referendum is that the main argument against this government – that it is illegitimate because the people just did not vote to give the Tories the power they have in it – falls. But I think our party should be saying that. It should be saying that, yes, the balance of MPs in the Commons meant a Conservative-LibDem coalition was the only stable government, but due to the distortions of the electoral system the Liberal Democrats would have only a small influence on it. We can get through a few policy details, but the broad thrust of this government is inevitably that of the Conservative Party and not that of the Liberal Democrats. Had we been putting it this way from the start, I think the people of Britain would be much more understanding of our position, we would not have had the huge drop in support in the opinion polls which we have had. But instead our party leadership sems determined to put it the opposite way to this – to exaggerate our influence rather than downplay it. This constant repetition of the “75%” figures is part of that.

    That’s my opinion, I’ve expressed it many times. Even if you, jason, have not see it before, I’m sure Mark Pack has seen me making this point many times. And yet, here he goes again, just repeating that “75%” figure as if just saying it ends any argument about our party’s currenty stategy, not bothering to give me the courtesy of any sort of reply to the concern I have raised so many times about the “rejoice – 75% of our manifesto in place” line.

  • Tony Dawson 26th Nov '11 - 5:15pm

    @Mathew Harris:

    “I don’t see it as being the main thrust of a national party’s pitch in a General Election.”

    The Liberal Democrats have NEVER had an effective ‘national pitch’ in a General Election. They are far less likely to do so in the next General Election. With very few exceptions, the Lib Dem MPs who have been elected so far have been voted in as a result of a mixture of their own talents and the strength of their local teams.

  • Matthew Huntbach: well put. I challenged the figure when originally quoted. 75% of what? Manifesto lines? Policy items? Gross expenditure? Principles?

    You are spot on about the way the public read this – they see it as saying 75% of govt policy is Liberal Democrat, which scares the heck out of me seeing what the govt are doing.

    I see elsewhere that we have called in the branding experts to create our brand and help us win over voters. So can we expect to become New Lib Dem and start referring to each other as Prety Good Guys? Ditch our principles and bring something more saleable to market?

    We have made huge errors. Forming the coalition wasn’t one of them, but most else has been IMO. From breaking the pledge over tuition fees to being the human shield for every bad news story to being seen to agree to every attack on the poor to failing to publicise at least some of the background arguments between us and Tory ministers to confusing our version of Localism with Tory “small government”, time after time we got it wrong.

    Get back to basics. We are a party with strong, proud principles and a real proud heritage. We risk having no future if we continue on this blind path of chasing image and marketing.

    The message we should sell is the ills of the past (Labour excess; Tory then Labour failure to regulate banking; rising personal and national debts; etc), the real influence we are having in the present, but then point to a future of Liberal Democratic difference.

    The real problem is that the damage done since 2010 means no clear thinking voter would give us that second chance at the moment…

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Nov '11 - 9:28am

    Thanks Jason, it’s good to get support like this. I spend so much of the time I devote to thinking about politics thinking “Am I stupid, because I’m seeing people doing or saying some thing which to me seems obviously stupid, yet they are people paid a lot to do what they do and I am just me thinking for myself and what I come up with seems to be different from most other people?”. I gained a little courage to be more forthright in public when around 2005 my main “Am I stupid?” thought was “We seem to have an economy based on the idea that house price rises are a money-making machine so no-one much needs do any real work, we have a government claiming it has ‘abolished boom and bust’ yet it seems to me we are in one big Ponzi-style boom which is bound to bust soon”, and a couple of years later it turned out I really was right and people paid millions to run the banks, as well as people paid somewhat less to be Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition etc were wrong.

    It seems to me to be stark-staringly obvious that this trumpeting the 75% figure is a wrong-headed strategy for our party, yet ever senior party figure seems to be doing it. I’m sorry I get so angry about this sort of things that a large number of the things I post here get removed. And I note Mark Pack STILL hasn’t replied to my point …

  • Dave Orbison 28th Nov '11 - 3:34pm

    I don’t quite follow the logic of the article. It seems that both Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg are being congratulated as ‘communicators’ yet criticised that they are wrongly formulating the very message they send out.

    If this is the case then presumably there are one of just two explanations. They are simply figureheads and not to be credited with the ability to think for themselves. I don’t subscribe to this explanation which leads me to conclude that perhaps it just maybe that there is nothing per se wrong with the communication or how it is delivered other than people just don’t like what they hear.

    Somewhere in the comments someone has stated that the joining the Coalition was the right thing to do but it’s just they don’t like what the Government is doing.

    Of course politicians from all Government’s make the mistake of defending the indefensible, no matter how popular or successful they have been. Sometimes they just don’t say or do the right thing. The skilful politician is the one who recognises this and is nimble enough to perform the ‘dreaded’ U-turn. Though often leaped upon as being evidence of political folly, it has always seemed to be infinitely more preferable than the painful spectacle of a cornered politician defending the indefensible and claiming that ‘black really is white’.

    And so it is with this Government. I am prepared to believe that the LibDems genuinely thought they could make this Government successful and liberal. But just look back at what is happening. Even IF 75% of LibDem policies have been implemented is that really good enough to justify what is taking place?

    It is hugely disheartening to see Vince Cable reduced to banging on about reducing employment protection rights as if these could seriously be the cause of our ills. Now we have a Government in the name of Francis Maude and Michael Gove foaming at the mouth at the prospect of ‘taking on militant union leaders’, and loyally following in their wake is Danny Alexander. Apparently it is OK to have the right to strike provided you don’t exercise that right. We can perform all sort of logical distortions to justify our position but considering the LibDems were prepared to support voting reform irrespective of the size of the vote, the logic of these attacks on trade unions just do not stand up to scrutiny.

    In their death throes the Tory Government’s focussed on their message and style of delivery. In the end they missed the point – the brand had become toxic. Some say history repeats itself. Time to take a hard look at what is going on. A rabid right-wing Government with a poor economic policy scapegoating the poorly paid, unemployed and disabled. Offering no hope to students. Yes, one hell of a product that is. Perhaps you should offer two for the price of one.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Nov '11 - 5:00pm

    Dave Orbison

    I am prepared to believe that the LibDems genuinely thought they could make this Government successful and liberal. But just look back at what is happening.

    Yes, but this is assuming that there was some sort of choice in the matter, as if the LibDems chose to go into coalition because they thought this to be the case. As I have explained, there was no choice. It was either coalition, or minority Tory government which would manipulate things to get a new election and win a majority shortly afterwards. The reality is that however horrible the Tories are, they ARE what the people of this country voted for – in the May 2010 general election and again in the May 2011 referendum when the victory for “No” closed down the argument that the current government is illegitimate because it was put in place by an electoral system which distorts the results and so gave the Tories more power than their share of the vote deserved.

    My objection is to the way the Liberal Democrat leadership is playing the result of this, not to the formation of the coalition. I do hold to the position that if someone is forced to take an unpleasant action because all the other options were even more unpleasant, it is unfair to criticise them for that – but it is very fair to criticise them if they pretend they are enjoying the action or try to make out it was something they did because they wanted to.

  • Tony Dawson 29th Nov '11 - 6:51pm

    “My objection is to the way the Liberal Democrat leadership is playing the result of this, not to the formation of the coalition. I do hold to the position that if someone is forced to take an unpleasant action because all the other options were even more unpleasant, it is unfair to criticise them for that – but it is very fair to criticise them if they pretend they are enjoying the action or try to make out it was something they did because they wanted to.”

    Totally correct. In Contract Bridge terms it is as if we have bean dealt a part score hand, partly mis-bid it but still being left with a makeable contract, presented it as a slam. We have then been gaily handing out points for undertricks. And we cannot blame it entirely on the blue Dummy.

  • All people really want is the truth and to be dealt with fairly. They don’t want to see the rich getting richer and the poor being sent to the wall! They want to feel that their vote has counted for something – it is no wonder people have stopped voting, they are not getting what they signed up for.

    Voters want a fair deal – they are not getting it! Everyone should be treated equally and with equal respect, whoever they are.

    Tell the truth and play fairly!

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