Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blah blah blah fairness blah blah blah change

The Liberal Democrats are starting to publicise their election campaign material.

There is a slogan:
"change that works for you: BUILDING A FAIRER BRITAIN"
a logo....... and "four steps" to a fairer Britain:
  • Fair taxes: We will ensure no-one pays income tax on the first £10,000 they earn. 3.6m low-income workers and pensioners will be freed from paying income tax and millions more will have a tax cut of £700 a year. We’ll pay for it by closing loopholes that unfairly benefit the rich, a new tax on mansions worth over £2m, and ensuring polluters pay for the damage they cause.
  • A fair start for all our children: We will get every child the individual attention they need by cutting class sizes. We will spend an extra £2.5bn on schools, targeted at children who need the most help. The average primary school could cut class sizes to 20. An average secondary school could see classes of just 16.
  • A fair future: We will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs with a £3.5bn green stimulus and job creation plan in our first year in government, fully funded by cut backs elsewhere. We will break up the banks and rebalance the economy away from unsustainable financial speculation. And we will be honest about where savings must be made in government spending to balance the books and protect our children’s future.
  • A fair deal from politicians: We will introduce a fair voting system to end safe seats and make all MPs listen to people. We will ensure corrupt MPs can be sacked by their constituents and stop non-doms from donating to parties or sitting in Parliament. We will take power from Westminster and give it to councils and communities, with local power over police and the NHS.
I realize that the party's policies will be presented more effectively over the next few months, but I'm strongly of the view that everything needs to be much punchier!
There are serious problems to be solved and we're the ones to do it
... is getting lost.

The Slogan

So, first of all, that slogan. Trendy lower-case "change that works for you" that has the feel of a 1970s washing powder commercial, with the bold "for you" being a particularly naff touch. The antecedents of this phrase in Barack Obama's 2008 presidential election campaign don't help: Nick Clegg doesn't have the charisma of Obama to pull off this slogan in a speech, and American slogans have a habit of not translating well to a British context.

And then the SHOUTY UPPER-CASE BUT IT'S OK BECAUSE WE'RE USING A SMALLER FONT AND ITS IN A CURVE "BUILDING A FAIRER BRITAIN". As if Labour and Conservatives wouldn't lay claim to building a fairer Britain too. Indeed "Building a fairer Britain" was the subtitle of a book by the IPPR a few years ago, and was the theme of Gordon Brown's Commons statement in 2008 on the Labour Government's draft legislative programme. George Osborne, meanwhile, set out the Conservative Party's vision of fairness in a speech to Demos in the same year. Fairness is a disputed term.
So what really differentiates "change that works for you" and "building a fairer Britain" from what the other parties are proposing? This anodyne slogan doesn't sell anything.

The Logo
It's been pointed out that the logo doesn't indicate the name of the party... Hmm... Almost as serious is that the logo links the LibDems stylish bird of freedom with the naff slogan and a naff swirl.

The colour of the bird and the colour of the swirl don't look quite the same to me, but then my eyes are poor and candlelight isn't the best for distinguishing yellowy-orange shades.

The Four Steps

Now here's where things get really bad. I actually think there are some decent ideas and principles that have gone into crafting the LibDem's policies. But these four steps don't do anything for me.

Firstly, how do these four steps set a distinctive agenda? As noted above, why would Conservatives and Labour folk not also lay claim to wanting fairness? Indeed David Cameron said in December "Let's be honest that whether you're Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, you're motivated by pretty much the same progressive aims: a country that is safer, fairer, greener and where opportunity is more equal. It's how to achieve these aims that we disagree about - and indeed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats there is a lot less disagreement than there used to be."

Secondly, the details of each step allow the problems (e.g. "loopholes that unfairly benefit the rich", "unsustainable financial speculation", "corrupt MPs") to get swallowed up in the proposals. And some problems (e.g. climate change, the economic crisis, over-centralisation) don't get explicit name-checks at all. To get people to vote for you, you first need to persuade them that you understand the problems the same way you do. This style of presentation doesn't do that.

For you to engage with the idea of fair taxes, you first need to accept that taxes are somehow unfair at the moment. For you to understand what "rebalancing the economy" might mean, you need to understand how the economy might currently be unbalanced. The presentation of the Pupil Premium (the "Fair start for all our children") does not distinguish it, as it so easily can be, from the Labour sales-pitch of boasting about billions here and billions there. And just using the word "green" a couple of times really doesn't sell the LibDem's fantastic unique selling points in relation to the environment and climate change.

Of course this is rather unfair of me: there will be manifestos, websites and leaflets with the space to set out that kind of case in due course. But my feeling it that the campaign agenda needs to be set now, and it should be framed by the key challenges facing the country, not a set of anodyne slogans.

Thirdly, and this may just be me, but I'd do away with "A fair deal from politicians" as a campaign point. As I've suggested before, I don't believe there's any point campaigning for reform of politics. This is, somewhat perversely, despite the fact that reform is needed, and that proposals for reform need to be discussed. But these are not ultimately issues that will determine votes. I suggested that typical voters see these issues as secondary to their real concerns.

Easy to carp from the sidelines

I follow politics keenly, so my perceptions of what works as a way to persuade people who are not so keen are probably entirely unreliable. There are far more variables at work here - historical baggage, people's knowledge of the different parties, media reactions, finessing difficult arguments, what issues the electorate actually care about... So it doesn't work for me, but it might well turn out to be a brilliant campaign message.

And it almost goes without saying, but I should say it: it's easy to criticise; much harder to come up with something better. And without something better this blog post is just hot air.