The Lib Dem narrative dilemma: forget about 2010, start looking forward to 2015

by Stephen Tall on June 12, 2013

your vote matters lib dem leafletWe Lib Dems are past masters of the squeeze message. “The Tories can’t win here: vote Lib Dem to keep Labour out”; “Labour can’t win here: vote Lib Dem to keep the Tories out”.

But since 2010 we have become the victims of a just-as-vicious squeeze message. Labour says: “Lib Dems are propping up a toxic right-wing Tory government pushing through disgraceful policies (which we will quietly sign up to later — viz cutting child benefit for wealthier parents — once we’ve capitalised on public anger).” The Tories say: “Lib Dems are stopping us from pushing through a full-throated right-wing agenda (even though when we do pursue it — viz cutting the top-rate of tax — we antagonise a large part of the electorate).”

(They don’t tend to say the bits in brackets out loud, though the more honest of them will admit it’s fair comment.)

That squeeze message has had two main, negative impacts.

First, it’s hit the party’s popularity. Attacked by all sides, and with a national press enjoying kicking us with the relish they once devoted to ignoring us, our poll ratings have halved. Those voters previously sympathetic to our message, but by no means hard-core Lib Dems, have peeled off, mostly to Labour because we’re in coalition with the Tories (the reverse would have happened if we were in coalition with Labour).

Secondly, it’s confused our message. We’re all of us still getting used to the idea that a party can be in government and not always agree with everything that government does. Instead we’re in the fuzzy world of percentages (“I agree with 65% of it so I’ll swallow the other 35%”) and trade-offs (“I think that policy’s deluded but at least we’re getting this one through”).

Fuzziness is a very pragmatic response — the only response possible, I’d argue — to a situation in which no one party can claim majority support. But it doesn’t make for crystal clarity.

It means that on many big issues I’m genuinely confused what Lib Dem policy is. Are we as a party in favour of the ‘bedroom tax’, or against it? Would we aim to reduce net immigration, or be relaxed about it? Would we cut legal aid, or maintain it? Would we repeal ‘secret courts’, or continue with them?

I know what the Coalition Government view is on those issues. And I understand that Lib Dem MPs may have to vote to approve such policies in the name of fuzziness. But I’m not sure what the Lib Dem position is. And I pay quite close attention to these things; a lot closer, certainly, than most voters will.

On some issues, most notably ‘secret courts’, there is a party position which the leadership has ignored. On other issues, like the ‘bedroom tax’, there is a leadership position on which the party hasn’t been given a say (yet). The unsurprising result of Coalition fuzziness is a fuzziness in our message.

For sure we all know the on-message-in-volume-over-time mantra by now: “A stronger economy, a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life.” But that’s not (as Neil Stockley would be the first to point out) a narrative. It’s fine as a slogan and I’m not claiming I could better it. But I strongly suspect that if you blind-tested it with voters they would be unable to distinguish it from the Labour or Tory slogans.

And in lieu of this narrative — and as a defensive reaction against the pummelling we’ve taken in the past three years — there’s a tendency for our MPs and ministers to default to a litany of facts-and-figures.

We cleave to the front page of the 2010 manifesto and tell people we’re doing just what it said. Tax cuts for the low-paid! The pupil premium! A Green Investment Bank! And, erm, political reform mumble mumble.

And then we’re disappointed in the voters that they don’t appreciate our efforts on their behalf. The public, eh? Why can’t they remember lists like we do?

Sorry, but it just doesn’t work like that. Our narrative may still be overwhelmed by the ruthless squeeze message we’ve faced these past two years. But we need to quit believing in our opponents’ narrative quite so much, and start believing in ourselves again.

We need to stop fighting the 2010 election in the rear-view mirror and build our own narrative… the lessons we’ve learned by being in government, the growing up we’ve done as a party, the resilience we’ve shown, our commitment to fairness and the national interest, a buffer against Tory heartlessness and Labour soft-headedness… that shows why people should vote for us in 2015.

* 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.