“We need to up our game.” As a Liberal Democrat, I endorse this message.

The Independent this weekend carried a brief article reporting that Nick Clegg’s aides are urging the party’s ministers to be more ‘out and proud’ of the Lib Dems’ successes:

Nick Clegg’s ministers have been told to go on TV and declare proudly “I’m a Liberal Democrat” in an effort to improve the party’s poll ratings. Party strategists are demanding better “messaging” from politicians. It includes using the phrase “as a Liberal Democrat …” at every opportunity, and regularly uttering the word “coalition”, which research finds is popular with voters.

Aides to the Deputy Prime Minister fear too many low-profile Lib Dems are viewed by the public as “little-known Tories”, and need to hammer home policy successes, including raising the income tax threshold and the Pupil Premium. … “Labour have done very well with their messaging in getting everyone to argue that the cuts are ‘too hard and too fast’,” said a Lib Dem source. “We need to up our game.”

All of which seems sensible, even obvious, advice. I recall when I was ‘media trained’ by the party when I was a councillor that we were given very clear instructions to ensure we clearly identified ourselves as Lib Dems during interviews — never using anonymous phrases such as ‘the council is’ or ‘what we’re doing’, which leaves the viewer/listener none the wiser about which party you represent (or indeed whether you’re just a council spokesperson).

Over at his Liberal England blog, Jonathan Calder identifies two possible causes of recent Lib Dem reticence:

The first is that we are not used to being unpopular. When you are the third party, being ignored is a far more familiar experience. … The second factor is that we are not really sure what Liberal Democrat economics look like. In the easy years under Charles Kennedy our policy was essentially to jog along, spend exactly the same as Labour only on slightly different things. Those who now claim they are Keynesians were not generally to be heard warning of the need to cool the economy. Meanwhile some of the brighter young MPs were developing an interest in a more free-market approach, but the debate between these two tendencies never really took place.

The latter point may also explain why, even though Vince Cable is held in high public esteem for his economic sagacity, his ratings have rarely transferred into confidence in the Lib Dems’ ability to manage the economy.

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25 Comments

  • Bill le Breton 7th Nov '11 - 11:29am

    I wonder whether these aides have ever succeeded in any campaign – party political or single issue?
    If you wanted spokespersons to ‘up their game’ you’d do it privately and not through a story ‘placed’ in the Independent.
    So, what was the purpose of this piece of goofy public communication which did not result in a single ‘positive’ in terms of either record or reputation being communicated.
    Nor, actually, do lists of achievements work – even in bolstering internal confidence.
    Campaigns do, so it was good to read elsewhere that Clegg is going to mount a campaign to safeguard the 5.2% inflation proofing of benefits and wisely got a good friend to writie publically inviting him to do so.
    As good council groups know, you can campaign while in office – in fact you have a special platform and opportunity while in office.
    Liberal Democrats should be the ‘people’s voice’ and the ‘people’s champion’: alongside them on the streets, on their behalf in Parliament and for them in their pivotal position inside the Executive.

  • David Pollard 7th Nov '11 - 12:58pm

    This is a no brainer. Have LibDems in government absorbed too much of the collective responsibility? I can’t see any reason that LibDems in government or an MP cannot say – ‘As a Lib Dem I would rather do this, but because we are in coalition we have agreed to do that in a spirit of co-operation.’ Also we ought to plug the fact that LibDems are gaining experience of government which will help us run the country when we get the chance.
    Keep getting up the noses of the euro nutters. Its splitting the Tory party in two and isolating Cameron.
    Finally – at some point Nick Clegg will have to apologise for signing the pledge on tuition fees. Sooner would be better than later.

  • Tony Dawson 7th Nov '11 - 4:45pm

    More agreement with Bill. The idea that these people who gossip with journalists consider themselves ‘Party Strategists’ is worthy of Fawlty Towers. I wonder how many of them were ‘Yes Campaign’ strategists.

    So, some people seem to think that shouting the message loudly and more confidently will somehow make things better on its own. .This is a question of branding and the brand which currently fits the Lib Dem parliamentary leadership is ‘people who want to be emperors but have no clothes’. Or, to be more fair, they have a few scraps of cloth but little fashion sense. It isNOT good enough to just proclaim that there are good Lib Dem things within the coalition. Unless you are prepared to say, at the same time, that there are some bad Tory things within the coalition. Yes, BAD things which you are having to go along with, because of the over-arching need to get the economy back on the road.

    Why is this branding neccessary? Because, most people are less policy-wonks than are your average Lib Dem MPs and activists, and they will mainly remember ‘defence of’ or ‘promotion of’ the coalition rather than specific ‘good’ Lib Dem matters within it. Which means that just trying to talk-up Lib Dem initiatives within the coalition ends up being largely seen as talking up David Cameron’s coalition, unless you have the courage to describe that coalition as it is or should be: hammered out between two groups of people who largely disagree on 80 per cent of things but are prepared to let each other have their way on specific matters in order to keep the show on the road for the one big important issue.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Nov '11 - 5:36pm

    The party should have made it quite clear at the start that what we have is a Conservative government with a little bit of Liberal Democrat influence; that we have that because it is how the people voted and how the distortions of the first-past-the-post electoral system translates that vote. There are over five times as many Tory MPs as LibDem MPs, and not enough Labour MPs to make a coalition with Labour viable even if Labour were willing to try it, consequently the only real pressure we can exert is that which Cameron is willing to accept because it suits him in his own internal party battles.

    The path chosen instead, of exaggerating our influence and looking and sounding very smug because we are “in power” has been enormously damaging. It simply feeds the notion that we are just a bunch of greedy politicians like all the rest, who’d do or say anything to get “in power” and never really meant what we said to get there. This path seems to have been followed because we were egged on to follow it by Tory commentators, and by a small part of the party that has little real experience of grassroots campaigning, but has the ear of the Tory-supporting media because it is the part of the party most like the Tories in its policies.

    One of the arguments given for it – that by 2015 the economy would be booming and people would be grateful to us for us putting in the Tories to make it that way – is quite obviously not going to work, and was only believable if you were already half-way Tory in 2010.

    I don’t know if there is a way out of this now, the mistakes made in 2010 have stuck in people’s minds, we are just wriggling on the hook. The crazy thing is that what we said in the 2010 election – that the Tories’ deficit reduction program was too fast and hence would be damaging is becoming more obviously correct and gaining wider support.

    I feel those of us who were prepared to support the coalition at the start, despite not liking the Tories one bit, because we could see there was not a real alternative given the party balances, have been very badly let down. A little bit of loyalty to us from the leadership would have gone down well. Instead, the leadership and those closest to it who have the ears of the media has continued to give the impression it regards us as expendable and wouldn’t mind if we dropped out.

    The more this continues, the more the only solution will be another “coup” to follow up what has been described (extremely damagingly to the long-term future of our party) as “the Clegg coup”.

  • Andrew Suffield 7th Nov '11 - 6:38pm

    One of the arguments given for it – that by 2015 the economy would be booming and people would be grateful to us for us putting in the Tories to make it that way – is quite obviously not going to work, and was only believable if you were already half-way Tory in 2010.

    I rather recall several people saying, in advance of the 2010 election, that the only thing worse than losing would be winning. We all knew going in that this government was going to take a pounding. There was no way it could not, given the economic situation.

    We just didn’t forsee quite how bad the eurozone mess was going to be.

  • Mike Barnes 7th Nov '11 - 8:28pm

    It’s not the Eurozone crisis that has the party polling 8%. That happened last year when you started waging war on students and public sector workers. And even if the economy was recovering, wouldn’t the conservatives be getting the credit for it?

  • Against all this heart searching and analysis it remains glaringly obvious that the prime reason so many Lib Dems remain “reticent” about promoting themselves and the party is the pain and embarrassment etched into their souls that they supported a party which knowingly lied to the electorate on a tuition fees policy that was completely unaffordable and which then ditched many of its principles and beliefs by agreeing to the terms of the coalition agreement.
    It will be a long road back to regaining the trust of many supporters who feel betrayed.

  • Lib Dem Member 8th Nov '11 - 9:30am

    Am I the only Lib Dem who is still pleased that the party is in power? It’s not just about campaigning, it’s also about communication – we need both. Party has a strong campaigns department and also ALDC and great local campaigners. These aides quoted in The Independent are arguably more on the communication side than on the campaign side, and their communication work is vital – and many of them are very good at it. If we are to project ourselves nationally, then we need to think about comms in the way that Lord Gould did for Labour.

  • LondonLiberal 8th Nov '11 - 11:23am

    @ LibDem member

    at the moment it feels more like in office than in power. we are getting all the blame for turning 180 degrees on a range of policy areas, ie the speed of deficit reduction, with none of the supposed credit for implementing tory polcies because, guess what, they are really bad policies that are not working.

  • @ Lib Dem Member
    “These aides quoted in The Independent are arguably more on the communication side than on the campaign side, and their communication work is vital – and many of them are very good at it.”

    Are they?

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Nov '11 - 4:47pm


    Am I the only Lib Dem who is still pleased that the party is in power?

    Lines like his show a blinkered way of thinking, which wants to simplify it all to a binary divide – either you are one of those woolly people who only ever wanted to be in permanent opposition, or you are 100% in favour of the current leadership and its strategy. The leadership itself seems keen on pushing this binary divide in order to promote the idea that anyone who is critical of them in any way is some unrealistic dreamer who doesn’t accept the challenge of power. That’s nonsense, it’s offensive nonsense and it’s undemocratic nonsense. Offensive because it belittles serious argument against the current leadership’s strategy, undemocratic because it’s promoting the idea that our party should have a top-down command structure in which members just obey their leaders rather than one where strategy is agreed by open debate.

    Firstly, of course the party is not “in power” in the conventional sense of that term, which implies a majority government of the party. The use of such terminology is all part of this smugness and exaggeration of our influence in the current situation which is so damaging us. We have a little influence which is helping push this government away from being the complete right-wing head-banging government it would have been had the Tories had an overall majority – and that is a good thing. Those screaming at us about the Liberal Democrats being unprincipled people who have betrayed their promises and so should be destroyed should recall that if they had their way and we did not exist, a right-wing head-banging Tory government would be in place right now. The “I’ll never vote LibDem again” crowd have already had as their main effect the revival of the Tories at local government level, since the Tories are the principle beneficiaries of our vote falling.

    The fact is that most people on the left as well as the right of our party could perfectly well see the logic of the formation of the coalition. It is a mark of the sensible nature of our party that this was so, that there was very little outright rejection of it. It is a pity that this sensible and realistic attitude seems not to exist anywhere outside those who are directly involved with our party. Sure, it’s predictable that the Labour Party would try to use the current situation to destroy us rather than build the bridges that might be needed to allow an alternative coalition to arise. But there are very few independent left-oriented commentators who have given us a fair coverage – most have joined with the “death to the evil traitors” crowd.

    A big part of the problem is that the right-wing of the Liberal Democrats has used the current situation to play factional politics within the party, rather than sensibly seen it’s a harder situation for those of us on the left to bear than those in the right, and so thrown those of us on the left some support in return for the support we’re giving them by letting them continue.

    I’m not asking for the coalition to be ended now, or saying that nothing has been achieved from us within it. What I am asking for is a different sort of presentation of our position which does not seem so smug and does not give the impression the whole party has converted to Thatcherite economics. I’m looking for a little less partisan attitudes at the top, so that we don’t have (as seems to be the case) a coterie of enthusiastic people on the extreme right (economically, not socially) wing of the party, who somehow seem to have achieved positions of influence and to be the ones doing all the talking to the media, without them ever having been voted to that position, or even having done much to work to get there though long-term active party membership.

  • Tony Dawson 8th Nov '11 - 8:36pm

    “Am I the only Lib Dem who is still pleased that the party is in power?”

    The Party is NOT in power. A very small number of its members, not particularly representative of its MPs, let alone its membership, have more influence than power. With no obvious method of the party regulating what they do or do not do.

    Please show me one single ‘aide’ on the communications side of our party who is good, let alone ‘very good’. Our Party’s communcations effort is, and almost always has been, lamentable. Compared to our electioneering department it is a delta to an alpha. The problem now is that they appear to be wanting to run faster communicating the losing message.

  • This is very true. Every floating voter I talk to thinks the Lib Dems have ‘sold out’ purely because of the tuition fees and are unaware of any other changes we have made. They express disbelief to me when I say we have implemented 75% of our manifesto. That is one statisic we should say more publicly and often.

    We face an uphill struggle. Not only do we need to point out difference between us and the Tories on current policy-making, which we are doing well at the moment, but we have to shout from the roof tops how we have delivered to our supporters and protected the poor and vulnerable in real terms more clearly.

    Voters only understand very simple messages and the majority see all politicians as ‘all the same’. We have improved our tactics in May and our poll ratings have improved slightly, but we need to communicate our achievements more clearly, as we have done a lot and they are impressive.

  • “They express disbelief to me when I say we have implemented 75% of our manifesto. That is one statisic we should say more publicly and often.”

    The trouble is that quite a lot of what’s been implemented was also in the Tory manifesto.

    It’s rather like the old Spitting Image joke about the Liberal/SDP merger. The leader was to be determined by taking one word from the name of the Liberal leader – “David” – and one word from the name of the SDP leader – “Owen.” 50% implementation.

  • Tony Dawson 9th Nov '11 - 8:24am

    @anon:

    “They express disbelief to me when I say we have implemented 75% of a our manifesto. That is one statisic we should say more publicly and often.”

    ……….f we wish them to run a mile from us. It is a huge turn off to voters. It make s lib Dems sound ‘up ourselves’. It is OUR manifesto, not theirs. Do you think more than 0.2 per cent of swing voters in the current economic and social climate give a monkeys what was in the Lib Dem manifesto, let alone whether it was delivered? Talk about this to political journalists or your mates in the pub if you want to, but leave the voters out of it.

    Anything said to voters right now should address theircurrent concerns and say how we, as opposed to the other lots, will improve things. Anything else constitutes an activity which we prefer not to mention on a family site before the watershed.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Nov '11 - 1:13pm


    This is very true. Every floating voter I talk to thinks the Lib Dems have ‘sold out’ purely because of the tuition fees and are unaware of any other changes we have made. They express disbelief to me when I say we have implemented 75% of our manifesto. That is one statisic we should say more publicly and often.

    With a sigh, since I have made this point many, many times recently, no.

    I have not seen the details of how this 75% figure was arrived at, and I rather suspect that most of those who go on about it for ask us to go about it haven’t either. I have not seen a single person who has quoted this “75%” figure approvingly give any more detail on how it was derived, on what exactly counts as “implemented”, on how some individual policy is counted as some proportion of our manifesto. Without such detail the “75%” figure is almost meaningless, and anyone who aspires to be treated seriously ought to realise that. It is a misuse of statistics I’d find embarassing in an A-level science student let alone someone who aspires to govern us. It perhaps indicates how badly our politics is served that we don’t have enough at the top with science backgrounds that so many at the top can’t see that.

    I suspect the reality is, since I understand it was a fairly serious analysis, that we have got a lot of little detail in, but the broad thrust is the Tories’ stuff. That is, the missing 25% is the most crucial stuff for us.

    Ordinary voters may not see it that way, but to them repeating the 75% figure makes us look even worse. They will see what is very much a firm Tory government, and think that if that government really has implemented 75% of our manifesto, either that manifesto was much more right-wing than they ever supposed, or that we are far too easily satisfied. Either way, IT DOES NOT LOOK GOOD!!!

    This suggestion that we keep on repeating this 75% figure seems to be coming from a few at the top of our party who even now seem to have the underlying belief that this Tory government is a good one, that all it needs is a little LibDem steer, and that the voters will come flocking to us at the next general election, grateful to us for having put in such a wonderful Tory government. Well, this was a poor line in 2010 when it was the underlying thought pattern that led to the idea we must “own the coalition” i.e. claim we were responsible for all its policies, and is an even worse one now when it is becoming clear the country will still be in an economic mess in 2015, apart from the super-rich who fund the Conservative Party, who are doing very nicely.

  • David Allen 9th Nov '11 - 6:11pm

    If you want to be credible, you need to say things which ordinary, nonpolitical people will believe are consistent with your position on the political spectrum.

    If you speak for the Coalition, and you routinely speak “as a Liberal Democrat” when supporting government policy, then your statements will be credible. Most people now understand that the Lib Dems have become strong signed-up supporters of Conservative policies on sharply reducing government spending, cutting benefits, and bringing private enterprise into education and health. They can see that some conscientious objections have had to be overcome along the way. They probably can’t, however, see many issues on which the Lib Dems have actually managed to get things done which the Tories really didn’t want to do – apart, perhaps, from building a few more wind farms and not being too beastly to the EU. So, the “as a Liberal Democrat” message is credible. But is it the kind of credibility that is wanted?

    If instead you follow Matthew’s recommendations, and you claim that our position on the political spectrum is to use a rather small amount of power to make bad government policies slightly less bad, then I fear that you will not be very credible. You will be jarringly out of line with all the triumphalism which Lib Dems have trumpeted since May 2010. Every time our leadership hammer Labour, while offering little other than praise for the Tories, they make it very clear which side we are now on. I don’t, of course, say this with any relish. Matthew’s line would have been a much better approach to have adopted from the outset, and would have saved us from a great deal of the derision and unpopularity that has come our way. But it wasn’t the approach we did adopt, and while we retain the current leadership, it isn’t an approach we can credibly adopt.

  • David Evans 9th Nov '11 - 6:24pm

    Absolutely Matthew. I have argued long that the 75% is a fiction, but there are many siren voices who want to believe something that sounds like good news. They even go on about “it’s been produced by an independent academic”. The sad fact is that as a statistic it is pants, as a rallying cry it is pants and as a basis for saying “Vote for us” it is pants.

  • Tony Dawson 9th Nov '11 - 10:30pm

    David Allan has a lot of points there.

    “Matthew’s line would have been a much better approach to have adopted from the outset, and would have saved us from a great deal of the derision and unpopularity that has come our way. But it wasn’t the approach we did adopt,

    Well, of course, it depends on your definition of ‘we’. 🙁 But, sadly, I know what you mean.

    “and while we retain the current leadership, it isn’t an approach we can credibly adopt.”

    Well, some of us can credibly adopt it because we are being consistent and true. But David is right that this confuses people who are mostly consuming the ‘Conservatives lite’ drivel being fostered by those who shall be nameless.

  • Tony Dawson 9th Nov '11 - 10:42pm

    The clotheless emperor tendency could do worse than look closely at the postings of Adrian Sanders and Bill le Breton up-thread. Adrian has survived in his constituency through several elections when he has been repeatedly written off by indiscreet with loud voices while others expected to survive have faltered and fallen. He understands what messages get through to swing voters more than most. Bill knows rather more about campaigning than any dozen ‘senior Lib Dems with the ear of Merlot quaffing journalists’ you could accumulate. What they are saying is not rocket science. It is, however, uncomfortable. The truth often is.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Nov '11 - 12:24am


    Matthew’s line would have been a much better approach to have adopted from the outset, and would have saved us from a great deal of the derision and unpopularity that has come our way.

    Thanks David. Anyone who looks back to my postings in these columns immediately post election will see I was urging back then that we take this line. So I cannot be accused just of having good hindsight. I have over time offered a great deal of advice to this party for free. Very little of this advice has been taken. Others have been paid handsomely for other advice which has proved to be bad advice. I may shout my mouth off from time to time, mostly because I don’t have time to smooth things our and put it in a more carefully considered way. Much of what I have posted has been so I can say later “I told you so”. Well, so I did. I’m sorry that coming from a working class background and not having the wealth and contacts and posh voice and manners other have to pursue a political career, I’ve got nowhere in the party. Still, I did at least try.

  • Matthew, at least you had a coherent set of ideas that might form the basis of a strategy. If the Lib Dem ‘leadership’ has any such thing, it might be nice if they had conveyed it to the membership so that it could, at least, be debated. Without such a strategy, what is the point?

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