Thursday, May 10, 2012

Communication difficulties for the LibDems

Simon Rix has a good opinion piece over at Lib Dem Voice about the Liberal Democrats' difficulties in government. He argues that "whilst it's way too early to say our time in government has been a failure, it's not too early to say our communications have failed to hit the mark."
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by Neil Wykes (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
He urges...
  • We must start rebutting all significant attacks on us, quickly and effectively.
  • We must be much more persuasive with our communications, by testing different ways of communicating our ideas.
  • We must do much better in projecting our messages, including being open and clear about where we disagree with the Conservatives.
As I wrote in a comment on the article, I think this is very sensible and timely advice.

However I have a few problems with Simon's point that...
"our polling… only dropped to the low teens when the narrative of 'Lib Dem broken promises' got traction in the autumn of 2010. The lesson from this is that pretending we agree with 100% of government policy is bad communications and counter productive."
Firstly, the challenge for effective communications is worse than having to counter "LibDem broken promises".

Without getting into too much detail on old arguments, it's clear that going back on individual signed personal pledges appeared to many of the public as worse than going back on manifesto commitments, regardless of the rights or wrongs of tuition fee policy. This fed into Labour's "LibDems are propping up Tories to get ministerial cars" charge. What made this even worse was that HQ had made "No more broken promises" as the central theme of the election campaign. It wasn't just breaking a promise; it was breaking a promise to end broken promises.

I'm not saying it's impossible, but even world-leading communication geniuses would struggle to come back from that one, whatever the quality of rebuttal, persuasion and projection of new policies.

Secondly, I'm not sure that the public believe we are "pretending we agree with 100% of government policy". Obviously collective Cabinet responsibility means it is more difficult to shout about clear dividing lines; but actually I think Nick, Vince and other ministers have done a good job in making clear many differences in priority and emphasis; and Tim Farron, Simon Hughes, Adrian Sanders, Andrew George and other backbenchers are making good use of their greater freedom to assert disagreements. I suspect the perception problem is less about pretending to agree and more about failing to stop Conservative proposals; and such a perception is simply an inevitable consequence of coalition.

Thirdly, an alternative lesson that might be drawn from the tuition fees episode is how it actually reinforces Simon's "rebut, persuade, project" points very well. LibDem ministers did a poor job at rebutting wild claims about what was being proposed; they failed to persuade the public about either the necessity of the tuition fee hike or the merits of the new fees system; and they decided not to project a vision for what a future LibDem-led government might want to do about this issue.

And similar considerations apply to the AV referendum, the Welfare Reform Act and the Health and Social Care Act.

The question then is not just about policy; but also how to get better at rebutting, persuading and projecting.

See also:

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