Monday, December 31, 2012

"On Message, In Volume, Over Time" - horrible phrasing, but a step in the right direction

So, tell me, why would a random floating voter put their cross next to the name of a Liberal Democrat next time they go to the polls? I can think of a few reasons:

  • they like the candidate, who may have helped them personally, or someone they know;
  • they like what we are doing locally;
  • they like what we are doing in the coalition;
  • they like what our state parties are doing - both Willie Rennie and Kirsty Williams have had a very good 2012 in Scotland and Wales.
On the way to the polling station, they will have had a barrage of messages, in written and verbal and video form, from parties who are much better resourced than we are, telling them that the Liberal Democrats are treacherous spawn of Satan. Much of that material is inaccurate and, actually, irresponsible scaremongering. 

While I certainly don't think we're going to come out of this experience in Government with a clean bill of health, I do think we need to shout about the good things we have done with a reasonably united voice. We also have to tell people why we've done them, what it is about our core philosophy that make us act in a certain way. That narrative has been so lacking in recent years.

Over the past couple of years, the party has been trying to develop that narrative. They started, last year, with "more compassionate than the Conservatives, more economically competent than Labour" which was ok as far as it went, but told you nothing about what we were about. That has now been through a few more rewrites and we now have this:
The Liberal Democrats are building a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.
This is followed by a list of achievements, plus a list of where we want to go in the future.How do I know this? Because I read it on Liberator's blog.  They printed the entire script, plus the covering memo from Party HQ and, of course, being Liberator, have slated it entirely.

They do make some good points. One of the top ways to make the red mist descend on any Liberal Democrat activist is to use phrases like "electoral market" and "stakeholder".  We tend to bristle at that sort of jargon so I'd say that the top New Year Resolution for the Communications Department in LDHQ is to start talking about people, what people who are prepared to consider voting for us are telling us they want to hear from us. They need to learn the language of the Lib Dem activist. Our local councillors, by and large, are very practical, hands-on people who have a very good understanding of the problems people are facing in their wards. Talking to them in marketing speak is not going to get them onside, even if we do have to take  some lessons from clever marketers in how to get our message across.

I bet you you could name a dozen advertising slogans from your childhood without even thinking about it. How many can you name from today? I hardly ever watch ads these days because I have better things to do with my life. When I was growing up, you had no choice but to sit through them. There were no video recorders then. Today people have so much more capacity to turn off from what you want to tell them that it's more important than ever to start where they are and not where you might necessarily want them to be.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that people are bothered about jobs, the economy and the cost of living. So a core message, repeated consistently, has to be centred round these issues. For the 2010 election, we were far too late getting our core message together. The Fairer Tax, Better start for every child, cleaning up politics and investing in green economy stuff didn't come out until January 2010. Given the need to swim up through a fairly difficult current, it makes sense that we're starting early.

I've never believed that you can sell politics like cat food or confectionery. True political engagement has to involve dialogue with people. Catchy slogans and jingles might help shift mashed potato or cigars, but you have to make a lot more effort to win votes. You do need  a consistent message as a way in, though. I've seen a lot of press releases coming out from our elected representatives over the years and I'd say that some, if not most, were pretty dire. Few, especially from parliamentarians, took the opportunity to tie in an action with a link to Liberal Democrat values. Now, it's more important than ever that we take every single opportunity to highlight what we're about.

I hope that nobody in LDHQ expects all our representatives to repeat the script parrot fashion. Liberator are right when they say:
this sort of wooden language is precisely the thing that turns people off because it makes politicians sound rehearsed, false and insincere. It sounds scripted because it is scripted. Indeed, scripting isn’t a solution – it’s part of the problem because it makes politicians sound more like Daleks than human beings.
HQ is knee deep in lessons from the Obama campaign at the moment. One of the key things is that the campaign encouraged their activists to get out there and tell their personal story as to why they were supporting Obama. It could be that their mother had had her live saved by Obamacare. They key is that it was something very personal to them, something that the people they are talking to could directly relate to. But these personal stories were heavily linked to key campaign messages - they had to be, else what was the point?

As far as our script is concerned, it might have been better to say something like: These are the ideas we need as a party to get across in the coming year. We have evidence that suggests that the more people hear these things, the more likely they are to vote for us. That will help you in your Council elections this year as much as it will in the General Election. We know you're clever people, so we don't expect you to repeat this like an automaton, but please find your own way of talking about these things, both on the doorsteps and in your leaflets.If you have any questions or suggestions, let us know."

HQ need to build a feeling of being part of our team, not behave as if they're giving a bunch of naughty schoolchildren a dose of castor oil, be more collaborative, not prescriptive. From the activists' side, we need to realise that we pay people to be experts in political communication for a reason. They will have something useful to tell us and, so long as they speak to us in respectful terms, then we should pay attention to them. They want to see Liberal Democrats elected as much as we do. Their jobs and livelihoods depend on it as much as those of MPs and councillors. We are all on the same side, here.

For all the issues I have with various parts of the Government's actions, I can see the logic behind the script that's been developed. My only criticism would be that it's missing the key "get on in life" elements. Putting serious money into ensuring that people get effective treatment for mental health issues is liberating for them and gives them their lives back. That has to be worth shouting from the rooftops, surely. Also treating parents like adults and allowing them to decide who takes what leave when a child is born fits into that category. Those will be elements that really, properly connect with people emotionally and we need to make sure we talk about them a lot.

I personally find the lack of talking about freedom quite difficult. Civil liberties, human rights, that's why I joined the party and it's a huge part of liberal and liberal democrat DNA. It's also quite important to be talking about tolerance and diversity and freedom as both Labour and the Tories really don't value these things anything like enough. When both of them scapegoat people, we need to be there standing against their intolerant and unpleasant language.

In terms of the positioning as regards the other parties, we're probably about right with the Tories. We don't need to say much more than they protect the rich and vested interests. I think we should have put more of our welfare reform gains in, though. Housing benefit would have been removed from the under 25s if they'd had their way, for example. On the other hand, while I agree that I wouldn't trust Labour to do my weekly shop, limiting their failure just to the economy when they took us into an illegal war and passed a whole load of authoritarian rubbish is missing an opportunity.

In terms of our future plans, I have a big problem with:
Reform the welfare system to get people off benefits and into work.
That needs a "while looking after those who are not able to do so" in there.

We could spend all day picking holes in what's been put out, and everyone will have their own perspective on it. Might it not be a better use of our time, though, to work out what we can use and how we can get these core messages out in a way that's authentic to us. I feel perfectly comfortable talking about delivering the biggest ever rise in the state pension and making the tax system fairer, about giving more money to disadvantaged kids at school, about how Nick Clegg's £1bn youth contract is getting young people into work. That doesn't mean to say I'm going to stop talking about my opposition to secret courts, or my concerns about the Work Capability Assessment, but I'm willing to give our good people in Government a fair go.

I think that there are things that our leaders, our communications people and our activists can all do in order to work together more effectively in 2013. The next year will be a success to me if by the end of it, there's a bit more mutual co-operation and understanding. It's no accident that four of the most popular people in the party, Alistair Carmichael, \Kirsty Williams, Tim Farron and Paddy Ashdown are spearheading the drive to motivate activists in the coming year. Campaigns Department and ALDC are working much more effectively together. These are good and positive signs. We need to add in some fine tuning in the way those in the Bubble speak to those of us on the ground. That way lies the success we all want.

1 comment:

Dubbieside said...

On the way to the polling station, they will have had a barrage of messages, in written and verbal and video form, from parties who are much better resourced than we are, telling them that the Liberal Democrats are treacherous spawn of Satan. Much of that material is inaccurate and, actually, irresponsible scaremongering.

The only message from the opposition needed going into the polling station is "we have all signed a pledge to oppose increasing student tuition fees"

Where will that be against your measure of "inaccurate or irresponsible scaremongering"?

Keep kidding yourself if you like but the future is lost seats and lost deposits, many of them.


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