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Commentary 338 – March 2010
09 March 2010 (14:52:10)

SLOGANS THAT WORK FOR WHO?

Liberator hopes it is wrong. Maybe the coming general election campaign will be a stonking success. No-one knows what will happen, but the new Lib Dem campaign slogan, as satirised on this issue’s cover, bodes ill.

The Tories are using the slogan “year for change”. Labour has said it will use “A Future Fair For All.” The Lib Dems’ “Change That Works For You, Building A Fairer Britain” combines both the other main parties’ meaningless clichés into a new one that means equally little.

Its physical appearance hardly helps. The predominant colour is blue (when did you last hear someone say “look at that aqua-coloured” anything?), making it easily mistaken for a Conservative poster, since the slogan could perfectly well have come from the Tories.

These ludicrous failings are compounded by the absence of the party name or any identifier except a small yellow bird of liberty on a white background, a combination of colours that infant school children learn cannot easily be seen.

However, even if this slogan had been in bright yellow on black with ‘Liberal Democrats’ in letters three feet high, it would still embody everything we fear is going wrong with the party’s positioning.

With Labour and the Tories fighting largely on the same ground, the Lib Dems are doing precious little to distinguish themselves from this in the public mind. All the post-2005 efforts to find ‘a narrative’ have come to nothing as the party retreats into bland slogans.

Who, anyway, is ‘you’ in this context? Change that ‘works’ for one group of people almost inevitably does not ‘work’ for another, if only because they will be expected to pay for it. The whole approach reeks of ‘we can win everywhere’, of the party’s longstanding fear of inspiring any group of voters in case this offends another, and of its preference for opportunist gains over building a solid political base.

The slogan is better than the infamous ‘One More Heave’ of October 1974, but that is all that can be said for it.

What of the campaign that it fronts? That at least shows more promise, if it can be heard.

Nick Clegg has been absolutely right to close down speculation about a hung parliament as far as he can. General elections from 1979 to 1992 prove that you cannot ask people to vote for a hung parliament and that merely raising the possibility may frighten a large number of voters who believe it will lead to instability.

Thus when Clegg says he will not consider a coalition but would look to do deals on four key policies, he has given himself an escape route from the morass that engulfed his predecessors when faced with incessant media questioning about preferred coalition partners.

Of these four policies, taking four million people out of tax liability, and political reform to the voting system and parliament, will both be uncontentious in the party and widely supported.

The third, “rebalancing of the economy to put less emphasis on centralised banking and more on a new greener economy”, sounds good but may come apart under probing since it is unclear why the second part depends on the first, but again is likely to prove popular.

“Investing extra funds in education through a pupil premium for disadvantaged children”, the fourth, is the odd one out, a very specific policy amid three general aims. It is easy to see why it was chosen (“the polls show we’d better do something for families”) and it’s arguable that civil liberty, otherwise unmentioned, is subsumed in ‘political reform’ but it means that the pupil premium will be in the campaign foreground.

But as Jonathan Calder pointed out in Liberator 336: “If the pupil premium does no more than redistribute children between the existing good and bad ones, it is hard to see that it will be popular with voters or begin to justify the claims Nick routinely makes for it.” Let's hope this flagship does not leak copiously under the sort of examination the party has decided to court for it.

The coming election promises to be an unusual one – the first since 1992 that will not be a foregone conclusion – and not least because it is due to see the first televised debates between the three main party leaders.

These will give Clegg valuable equal time and status with the other parties, but also present a challenge to the ‘bland is good’ approach that the party is taking to the campaign.

It will be the first election since the expenses scandal destroyed public respect for MPs in general. If Clegg comes across as sensible, reasonable, but just another member of the political class and not particularly distinct from Brown and Cameron, the debates will not just have been a wasted opportunity but will actually do harm since they will make the Lib Dems look like just another establishment party.

Clegg can be bold and convincing when he wants to be. Will those responsible for 'change that works for you’ allow him to be?

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