The top campaigning lesson from Ed Miliband’s speech: repetition is what you need

by Stephen Tall on October 3, 2012

“We are the One Nation party,” Nick Clegg will tell the Liberal Democrats in his speech to their spring conference tomorrow.

Remember this headline? Probably not. Yet it dates from March 2012, just six months ago.

So what happened? Two key things, I suggest. First, Nick’s ‘One Nation’ message was drowned out by the furore over the NHS reforms which dominated the party’s spring conference this year. Secondly, it was one line among many which was uttered and quickly disappeared, like a whispered greeting on a windy day.

There was some snarky commentary from journalists who heard Ed Miliband address the Labour party conference yesterday complaining that he used the phrase ‘One Nation’ 46 times in his impressively delivered, policy-lite speech.

They miss the point.

If Ed’s speech is remembered at all in a few months’ time it will be for two things. First, the feat of memorising an hour-long speech. And secondly, his naked grab for the ‘One Nation’ mantle David Cameron and Nick Clegg have both sought to make their own.

This lesson — that repetition is fundamental to getting your message across, and that it is only when folk close to you are bored with it that you know your primary audience, the general public, might have heard it even once — is one which applies to national and local campaigning alike.

A week ago, I suggested Nick Clegg should ditch the traditional leader’s speech — the 40-minute box-ticking exercise which riffles through all the major issues — and instead focus punchily on the party’s core conference message, Fairer taxes in tough times (which was actually a pretty good line).

Those of us who inhabit the political world are aberrations. We not only pore over all our own party’s campaign messages, we scrutinise our opponents’ also. How many potential voters do the same?

Lib Dems need more message discipline, to recognise that we need to stick consistently to a key message — not a vapid marketing slogan, but an easy-to-remember message which speaks to our values and policies — and repeat it time and time again.

All of which might sound a bit New Laboury for many Lib Dem tastes. But ask yourself how many of New Labour’s lines you can still, a decade or more later, remember: ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’, ‘traditional values in a modern setting’, ‘same old Tories, same old lies’, ‘education, education, education’. And then ask yourself, honestly, how many Lib Dem lines you can also recall.

To repeat my point: we need more repetition if we want our core message to be heard.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.