Friday, 6 May 2011
Why the Liberal Democrats need to rebrand and communicate a new message
Communication should be at the heart of all politics. Communication isn’t a one way broadcast to the people. It’s a two way process where information flowing to the politicians should actually take precedent. They are the people’s representatives and are meant to represent their constituents.
At a local level, the Liberal Democrats have had a fine pedigree of taking on local issues, listening to the people and delivering a policy that won favour from the people. The local councillors probably paved the way for Lib Dem success at a general election level, particularly in by-elections.
It seems odd, then, that the party has been dogged by the national party and personality issues rather than the local fight on the doorsteps. In fact, it’s this variable message which has seen the party criticised over the years. The party is different in its grass roots policy making and it is this disconnection with the traditional Lib Dem members and the group of MPs that is making this worse.
In the weeks preceding the elections, the Lib Dem MPs were parading the party line as if there was no problem. People like Norman Baker and Sarah Tether were suggesting that the reports that grass roots supporters were unhappy with reforms to the NHS, tuition fees and the depth of cuts were untrue. Surely this tack was just sticking in the craw of potential voters and the results bear this out.
Norman Baker used to be the attack dog holding Governments to account through a ruthless search for factual evidence to undermine unfairness.
But why hasn’t this affected the Tory vote? Well, basically, their supporters are quite happy with the small government approach. There aren’t the issues which clash with the manifesto which the Lib Dem’s have. Equally, the party is not supposed to divert its attentions too much from the straight and narrow.
In areas like Chesterfield, a majority of 26 has turned into a Labour majority of 20 seats. In Barnsley, the Liberal Democrats had a lower share of the popular vote than the BNP. At the time of writing, the Party were approaching losses of some 500 councils. In Scotland the Liberal Democrats have a quarter of the seats they had last time.
So what are the issues which could have improved the situation?
Before the government was formed there were problems. The deal struck entwined the Liberal Democrats into the government inextricably. The coalition was a whipped single front with little room for dissent, disagreement or a clear division of responsibility.
Since then, the Liberal Democrats have been paraded when there’s bad news, the Conservatives when it’s good irrespective of who came up with the ideas to resolve the situation. The confusion has caused much negative press, often going against the impression voters had of their aims and objectives.
Had the Liberal Democrats taken a different approach, they could have followed the Northern Irish example. There, the coalition partners could not be more diverse and it works because departments are run by one party or the other, coming together as a cabinet. This means there is autonomy and clear accountability. It wasn’t us - the other lot run that department.
Second, the party has barely mentioned that they cannot influence the government fully. They have made some positive contributions to “toning down” the Conservative policy, but they also have less mandate and less people to push the points. If the Conservatives want to do something, they will. Rather than stand up and say this is a Tory policy we are supporting purely to get other policy through, they pretend to support the initiative.
Thirdly, they are not used to mudslinging. They put forward positive stories that have been swamped by negative focus on Nick Clegg by the Conservative supporting allies.
And finally, what makes the Lib Dem’s distinctive from the Conservatives? Because they are so entwined, the public don’t know what they stand for any more. Before the coalition, you might have felt the Liberal Democrats stood for Education and supporting the student. That group has been lost and there is no direct approach to win them back. Standing on a platform of no tuition fees and ending up trebling them, even if there are advantages to the system, could only lead to disillusionment.
So what should they do?
Listen – What are members and former members wanting.
Engage – Rather than blindly follow opinion, discuss the situation with key groups in, for example, the argument over the NHS reforms and make strategic alliances to force reform.
Differentiate – Put forward a policy document that shows voters what Liberal Democracy stands for in the coalition. It needs to be distinctive from the Tory view and show the divisions in policy making. It can’t be woolly and needs to be substantive, based on real action.
Claim Ownership – Take sovereignty over issues in the government or at least argue to be given power that makes it clear what difference they are making.
Ditch Clegg – It might not happen straight away, and it might not all be his fault, but it was he who agreed to a raft of policies that go against their own manifesto. He is the scapegoat who can hold his hands up, say mia culpa, and refresh the ‘old’ party vision.
And if they don't? Well the Greens are making some strong gains....