Time for a fresh start

My former boss, Tim Farron, was frequently heard to say that a party never lost a general election because its manifesto wasn’t long enough.

The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto process, whilst very democratic, has one fundamental weakness.  It starts from the bottom up with dozen of policies on top of which the party will then attempt to impose a central message, rather than with a core narrative, which it will then illustrate with a series of eye-catching retail policies.

For the European elections the party communications staff very successfully circumnavigated this difficulty by ignoring the content of the manifesto altogether and simply plastering “Bollocks to Brexit” across the cover.

But the challenge of making a general election manifesto short enough to win an election still remains.   The devil has all the best tunes and there is no doubt that the Conservative message of “Get Brexit Done” seriously resonates on an emotional level.  We are seeing it in their steady climb in the polls and in the willingness of nineteen Labour MPs to endorse a Withdrawal Bill which they surely know is even more deeply flawed than Theresa May’s.  And we see it in the Labour party’s ambivalence both to a general election and to opposing the Withdrawal Bill outright.

At the same time, the Lib Dem message seems to have lost some of its emotional appeal.   It is still a vow to ‘stop Brexit’ but it feels more resigned “We will fight on” but lacks an imperative for the public to support it.

So what should be the Lib Dem equivalent to “Get Brexit done”?  The attractiveness of the slogan is that it speaks to the overwhelming sense that this has all dragged on too long and that we are all just desperate to make it stop.   Of course, getting the Withdrawal Agreement Bill passed would in no way “make it stop” – it would merely just trigger the next stage in the negotiations which would drag on years.

What the Lib Dems need to be shouting from the rooftops is that the only way to “make it stop” is to revoke or overturn the referendum result. Whatever way you look the sense is that the last three years have been an unmitigated disaster for Britain: whatever way you want to go we are currently headed in the wrong direction with politicians at war with each other and ignoring the people.

But “make it stop” is not enough.  It is an instruction not an impulse.   Instead, the sentiment that most attunes with people’s emotional need to rewind and start again is a fresh start.

Jo Swinson personifies a fresh start.  It is increasingly apparent that she will be one of our strongest assets in the forthcoming election and as a young Scottish woman set against two ageing white English men she embodies a difference which need to be tied the party’s central narrative.  

And the party’s core policies for the forthcoming illustrate the need for a fresh start in other ways too.  Yes, the party will “Just make it stop” but it will also 

  • Reunite Britain – replacing the violence and anger which is now widely felt with an inclusive open, liberal society which will address the real root causes of the Brexit vote
  • Start investing in Britain, with some headline capital investments  which will make a real difference to real people’s lives and
  • Sort out the rules that govern our country so we can fix broken Britain and this can never ever happen again.

The Lib Dems have plenty of policies that talk to each of these themes but overarching them is the need to make a fresh start.

In the 1980s I took a course on political marketing, which talked about the difference between telling, selling and impelling.   “Telling” is unemotional – stop Brexit, we will fight on – while “selling” offers an external imperative to buy – make it stop.   In contrast, “Impelling” comes from within: it is when we do something not because we have been told it will be good for us but because we truly want to do it for ourselves.   

The opportunity to wipe the slate clean has strong emotional appeal for remainers but it also offers potential relief to leave voters.  Was it really all that bad?  Do we really think leaving Europe is going to make things any better?  Isn’t it time to make a fresh start?

* Ben Rich is Chief Executive of Radix, the radical centre think tank. From 1992-95 he was Lib Dem Deputy Policy Director and from 1997-2001 Vice Chair of the Federal Policy Committee. He was Tim Farron’s Leadership Campaign Director and his interim chief of staff from 2015-16 and senior adviser to the Lib Dem Business & Entrepreneurs Network until December 2019.

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  • Cllr Carl Quilliam 23rd Oct '19 - 12:12pm

    ‘A fresh start’ was the message I drafted for us in Merton in 2018 and we achieved a record result – against a backdrop of 8% in the polls and what were very mixed results across London.

    You’re exactly right that it gets to the heart of people’s exasperation and offers them a chance to think about a future they want that isn’t dominated by Brexit. It’s also very easy to visualise when you have a young dynamic new leader.

  • David Evans 23rd Oct '19 - 1:00pm

    A very interesting article which does point to one of the fundamental weakness in our approach – It is all much too wordy.

    My message would be “Stop the chaos.” With the simple narrative – the Conservatives wanted Brexit, but have wasted three years making a total mess of it. They have no idea what sort of Brexit they want, how to get a Trade deal or anything. Brexit will not be over until our big trade deals are sorted. These will take at least another five years, and probably much longer.

    So when they say “Get Brexit done” they really mean Carr on with the Chaos. Do the British people want that?

  • Only revoke gets Brexit done. Voting for Brexit moves you onto Brexit II the search for a trade deal. Perhaps that needs to be pointed out. There will be a lot of disappointed Brexiteers a few days after Brexit say ” Wot we still have to deal with the EU. Wot we still need to agree a deal with them, but I thought Brexit was over”.

  • David Evans 23rd Oct '19 - 1:13pm

    Of course I should have said “Carry on with the Chaos.” Which to an older generation conjures up images of Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Terry Scott etc. and all the opportunities for suggesting which Tory is which Carry on incompetent.

  • George Hackforth-jones 23rd Oct '19 - 1:13pm

    Totally agree.
    I actually made a film for the party with exactly this messaging back in august for party conference in prep for general election but couldn’t get them to use it.

    Send us your email, would love your thoughts on it.



  • Richard Underhill 23rd Oct '19 - 1:41pm

    ” the willingness of nineteen Labour MPs to endorse a Withdrawal Bill which they surely know is even more deeply flawed than Theresa May’s.”
    The Speaker called our Leader at PMQs today, but coverage on BBC2 had ended at that stage. There was still coverage on the Parliament Channel.
    Perhaps the priorities of the Speaker and/or Deputies, could be asked in any review of the duties of the Speaker, to follow more closely the order of preference between the parties.
    At the next general election Lib Dems will stand in more seats than the SNP and will hopefully have more seats in the next parliament than the SNP.
    Jo Swinson knew that Boris Johnson had a meeting with Jeremy Corbyn this morning, 23/10/2019, before PMQ, which was apparently fruitless.
    Boris was patronising. He should show more respect for female MPs, as a female Tory MP asked him today.

  • @ Richard Underhill “” the willingness of nineteen Labour MPs to endorse a Withdrawal Bill which they surely know is even more deeply flawed than Theresa May’s.”

    Funny you mention that. Some bloke from Eastbourne did just the same.

  • Yes he did David, but he isn’t a Labour MP, they still are and are likely to stay that way. Neither by the way is the bloke a Lib Dem MP he left the party. Somehow I don’t see the Labour Handmaidens leaving Labour anytime soon, well apart from the Antisemitism Tsar, I think he probably will.

  • Anthony Acton 23rd Oct '19 - 2:33pm

    Thanks Ben Rich for an article of concentrated good sense. To take a lesson from the past – Paddy’s penny on income tax for our schools was a simple message and it won the party a lot of voter support – Nick’s Pupil Premium was and is vastly more significant but the phrase “Pupil Premium” is not a catchy expression and never got to the voters in the same way. No other party can offer “a fresh start” and I think that’s a great way to badge up the Lib Dems’ leadership and policy agenda at the election.

  • Bollocks to Brexit is a great slogan. The second part is to focus on Tory lies. If you trick me once, shame on you, if you trick me twice, shame on me. Don’t let the tories trick you twice. The key is to reframe the debate. The Tory “frame” is that they will deliver. Our frame is that you cannot trust liars. The messages then show numerous examples of Boris’s lies eg “no border in Irish Sea” etc. Once someone accepts both those points, we’ll get their vote. They look up the100 pages of policy on the website.

  • Fresh Start is good, another suggestion would be “Take Charge in Europe”

    I would say take control in Europe but we can do better surely than borrow the language of the opposition. Take Charge in Europe conveys empowerment, a reprise of our former importance in the EU, countering the feeling of oppression and resentment expressed by not wanting to be ‘pushed around by a Kraut’.

  • Andrew McCaig 23rd Oct '19 - 5:26pm


    As far as I am aware, Stephen Lloyd has resigned the Whip, not left the Party


  • Tony Greaves 23rd Oct '19 - 6:25pm

    For God’s sake stop it now.

  • David Allen 23rd Oct '19 - 8:05pm

    The problem with the “Fresh Start” slogan is that it makes light of the problems. It makes it all sound too easy.

    It is now clear that the Benn Act has failed to take No Deal off the table. On the contrary, if we Brexit and then have an election, we face endless transition-phase negotiations which can certainly end in No Deal – and, however well we Lib Dems do in the election, we cannot actually then stop Brexit.

    If instead we have the election before Brexit, Johnson can bring back No Deal if he wins, as polls currently predict. I think he would do that. His Irish Sea Border Deal is a completely impractical customs muddle which would fall apart if tried. So Johnson will prefer No Deal.

    “Stop the chaos” is a better slogan. It enables us to point out that it will not be easy, the chaos will continue whatever we do – unless we Stop Brexit.

    We also have to make Stopping Brexit look practicable. The Newsnight analysts pointed out last night that Johnson can confidently beat Labour and the Lib Dems if those two parties show themselves incapable of co-operating.

    Labour, it’s got to be a referendum not an election, are you listening? Lib Dems, it’s got to be a referendum not a meaningless “revoke” pledge, are you listening? Lib Dems and Labour, if you hang together and get that referendum, you can win it, and then both surge in the polls. If you prefer to hang separately, then that’s just what you’ll do.

  • Mark Blackburn 23rd Oct '19 - 8:14pm

    Bollocks to Boris. Same DNA, same simplicity, same clarity. Bollocks to Boris – all his lies, all his bluster, all his hypocrisy.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Oct '19 - 8:43pm

    David Raw 23rd Oct ’19 – 2:27pm
    I was one of the campaigners who lived within one hours drive of Eastbourne for the bye-election won by David Bellotti. I backed him to hold the seat, but he did not and became a councillor in a ruling group in Bath with a budget of £x,xxx,xxx.00.

  • Martin Land 23rd Oct '19 - 9:07pm

    My proposal for the GE is that every time we mention Boris or the Tories policies, we should have an asterisk and a corresponding message at the bottom of the page “Terms and conditions apply. Subject to approval by Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Democratic Unionist Party”

  • @ Richard Underhill I gather Mr Bellotti was none too popular with the supporters of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club.

  • Frank Bowles 23rd Oct '19 - 10:57pm

    I think putting happiness and wellbeing as the priority of Government is pretty radical but the fact that no one mentions it means it hasn’t really landed I fear.


  • Richard Underhill 23rd Oct '19 - 11:00pm

    David Raw: After ceasing to be an MP he stood for MEP, fourth on the list, two elected in South East region then (now three). I met him again at federal conference.
    He is now history, with thanks from Paddy Ashdown on the Today Programme.
    With hindsight, probably the poll tax was an issue. We killed it at Ribble Valley, a bye election which was caused by the then PM, as advised by Con. Central Office.

  • Innocent Bystander 23rd Oct '19 - 11:07pm

    How can this oped seriously include
    “overturn the referendum”
    “Reunite Britain” ?
    They are mutually exclusive.
    I fear that the two extreme camps of overturn the result and no deal departure have taken us into a darker place than we think. I feel that the EU is not the bone of contention any more but even worse, we are dividing into two camps – them and us, where “us” are fighting for freedom and justice and “them” are obsessive and evil fanatics.
    Of course, both sides see themselves as the “us”.

  • My slogan would be: Stop Brexit, Move On. It says what we want to do, and also underlines the benefit of our revoke policy – stopping Brexit altogether allows the country to ‘move on’ to deal with other policies. So you could have lots of different sub-headings on the posters under that main bold slogan (…’to Schools,’ ‘to Hospitals’ etc.)

  • Another slogan could be GET BREXIT DONE – SCRAPPIT.
    The public want an ending, more than another start.

  • John Marriott 24th Oct '19 - 9:48am

    Here are a few suggested slogans for a General Election:

    “Let’s finally sort out Social Care…because it doesn’t have to be like this.
    Let’s ask the people whether they still want Brexit…..because it doesn’t have to be like this.
    Let’s have local government that actually delivers…because it doesn’t have to be like this.
    Let’s have fair taxes based on ability to pay….because it doesn’t have to be like this.
    Let’s train the doctors, nurses and teachers that we need…because it doesn’t have to be like this.
    Let’s make every vote count….because it doesn’t have to be like this.
    Vote Liberal Democrat. Because it doesn’t have to be like this!”

  • Who are we talking to here?
    IMO most of the working class leave vote is not going to identify with a rather optimistic message such as ‘Fresh Start’. I think we need to understand the mindset here. Most leave voters are pretty pessimistic and fed up. They were looking for something to kick in the first place and are still looking for something to kick. If you are looking to get to these people you will have to go for something much more aggressively satisfying. It’s hard because it’s not the way we are built but ‘Stop Lying’ is probably more emotive to this sort of person. Probably why Bollocks to Brexit went down a little better.

  • To Tony H

    Stop Brexit, Move On.
    That says it all Tony, great slogan. I’ll put it on my placard ready for the next march. Exactly right so let’s hope our campaign managers read Libdemvoice

  • David Garlick 24th Oct '19 - 11:47am

    Throw It Out!
    It enables a pitch to remainers and to those who just want it over and done with.

  • To P.J.
    Good point. People are angry now, leavers and remainers alike. Best slogan I saw on last weeks march was (do not go gentle into that good night), “Rage Rage against the Lying of the Right”

  • I can’t draw. But what about a poster like this:

    A portrait at the top, addressing the public with a jabbing finger.

    At the bottom, a reproduction of the old lettering “Your Country”
    Above that, in tweating or childish text, “I want”

    The portrait at the top a fat face with glittering eyes and thin orange hair: is it Trump, or is it Johnson? At his shoulders Rees Mogg and another. Perhaps a chlorinated chicken.

    Below the bottom, in our normal black and orange; VOTE LIB DEM.

    Or perhaps OR VOTE LIB DEM

  • A Social Liberal 24th Oct '19 - 1:25pm

    It doesn’t have to be like this.

    Fearlessly pinched from a poster above.

  • Thanks for the many excellent comments and suggestions here. I hoped to start a debate rather than finish it and I agree that my solution may not be as strong a solution to the problem I have identified as some of these other. I think perhaps the addition of Time to Move on to our existing Bollocks to Brexit might be nearer what we are looking for. I disagree with those talking about what connects to leavers – we need to focus ruthless on the low hanging fruit and we are still only winning just over half of all remain votes….

  • Leekliberal 24th Oct '19 - 6:21pm

    Hi – Sorry to break into this thread (Why don’t we have somewhere where we can comment on breaking news?) Apparently Boris will allow us a day or so extra to debate his seriously flawed WAB if we allow him a general Election on 12th December! But why do we not direct him to the nearest ditch and take hold of the Commons agenda to continue scrutinising and amending this appalling Bill for example to stop the No deal exit awaiting us on 31st December 2021 in the almost certain event of us not having a trade deal sorted with the EU by then?

  • Ben makes several important points.

    ”The [LDs’] manifesto process, whilst very democratic, has one fundamental weakness. It starts from the bottom up with dozen[s] of policies on top of which the party will then attempt to impose a central message …”

    Just so. And that’s a fundamental problem.

    I once heard Chris Rennard, then still Chief Exec, give a speech in which he described the mechanics of this. Voters’ top five or six concerns (identified by opinion polling) were selected for emphasis and for each some slogan – again identified by testing possibilities on focus groups – was selected for inclusion in the manifesto.

    IIRC he said that voters’ top concerns were the obvious – the economy/jobs, NHS, housing, education – and these were remarkably stable over time. Neither the EU nor migration was then among them.

    This is politics by numbers and it’s no more real politics than the painting by numbers I did as a child was real art. That’s why the LDs always were – and still are – primarily a party of protest that relies heavily on none-of-the-above votes.

    The place the process MUST start is with a deep understanding of the economy, how it works and how the bits fit together. Know THAT (however imperfectly) and you immediately begin to see where the gaps are. From there it’s easy to see what needs to be done – which policies are important and, beyond (or before) policy, what themes matter.

    I have some inkling of how that should look and it’s radically different from what anyone in politics is saying now.

  • Well said, Gordon. Especially if you agree with the first words of my Economics Prof at Bristol in 1962, Ronald Tress, introducing the subject to First Years. It went something pretty close to this; “Economics is the study of how a society arranges the production and distribution of the goods and services needed to satisfy the desires and needs of its members: it is not about Money.” ( I feel he may have included the parenthesis ” boys and girls”, but cannot now be sure. That was how it felt to me, and I was 24! )

  • I was brought up on the idea that “Plan beats No Plan” and I’ve found it to be true.

    On that basis, “Take back control” and “Get Brexit done” work because they offer plans that sound positive even though they’re only mirages.

    Conversely, “Bollocks to Brexit” offers no plan – it’s merely an angry shout.

    For me, Brexit misses the target. The EU is far from ideal but it isn’t the source of our undoubted problems – those are due to 40 years of Conservative misrule, some of it under Blair/Brown (a version with slightly better welfare and higher public investment) and some of it under the Coalition (let’s just say Cameron to elide the obvious complication).

    It’s also down to a Westminster bubble dangerously isolated from the rest of the country. Hence, among other symptoms, the SNP. Much of England would also vote to dump Westminster if there was a ready-made polity as there is in Scotland.

    I made this point a few days ago to a Conservative friend, an ardent Thatcherite back in the day and now a strong Brexiteer. It stopped him dead; he couldn’t argue that Westminster is working well since it so plainly isn’t – HS2 and Hinckley Point got mention as instances of failure (both bête noirs of Daily Mail readers BTW). I went on to point out that the real power in the EU resides with the Council of Ministers because the reality of the EU is that it’s a coalition of small to middling countries combining to stand up to the giants. That’s also why the EU Parliament has a subsidiary role.

    My friend left in a very thoughtful mood.

    In the past the UK has played a big role – e.g. pushing for the Single Market. So why has the UK, one of the big three powers of the EU, decided to view itself as a victim rather than to continue setting the agenda as it once did? The answer is, of course, that it’s part of the pervasive Westminster failure which will go exponential if/when we leave.

    There’s a slogan (or several) in there somewhere.

    The question for LDs is do they want to JOIN the establishment (as the coalition record suggests) or run against it with a better plan (always good politics). And, if the latter, where will they find the thinking to power their challenge? Not from the policy-making process, that’s for sure.

  • Bin Brexit, keep the UK.

  • Kenneth O'Connor 28th Oct '19 - 1:07pm

    Why not counter the ‘Get Brexit Done’ with ‘End Brexit Madness’. After all Brexit has driven division into the country but has no rational basis and would harm the economy, perhaps even end the UK. If that isn’t madness what is.

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