The Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday are carrying stories about internal discussions on the Party’s identity and public profile. For the Telegraph this is a return to a theme first raised in March. The papers both carry a quote from an unidentified party spokesman acknowledging that this exercise is no secret and has been going on for some time. The correspondence between the stories in the two papers – the mention of Oxfam as an example of a clear “brand”, the need for a longer term vision, excavating the history of the party for ‘big wins’, the mention of Neil Sherlock – suggests that the rough outline of the story has something to it.
What is missing from both stories is any sense of how the members of the Parliamentary party responded to these sorts of proposals. And, of course, unless we are happy with trashing a fine tradition of grassroots democracy, it isn’t up to Nick Clegg and his cohorts to unilaterally rebrand the party anyway.
At the core of these stories is something which is indisputably true. The public is not clear what the Liberal Democrats stand for. That is something that has always been a challenge. It is a challenge which has intensified now that opponents and erstwhile supporters can write the party off as yellow Tories.
The Telegraph reports that:
the latest advice from outside experts is that MPs should rely on “short-term themes, straplines and soundbites” to put forward their political philosophy in a succinct way.
The experts used the example of Oxfam as a body which put forward a clear vision – to end world poverty and suffering.
In one sense there is merit in this. Oxfam clearly has a strong brand. People know what it stands for. Although the details of its activities on the ground change in the face of emerging global problems, it has stuck to its central purpose over many years.
Equally importantly, that mission requires regular illustration with specific examples of successful short- and long-term projects and activities so that the vision can be made real to supporters (and I write as a supporter who has been receiving news of such projects for two decades).
In that respect, there may be lessons for the party.
But Oxfam has a much more focused mission – it is almost a single-purpose organisation. The task is challenging, but probably easier than that facing a political party – obliged to have something to say on every issue.
I have always thought the preamble to the Party constitution, if a bit long-winded for a mission statement, sets out a pretty clear vision of what the party is about. But there is a struggle to ground that in more practical policies. In fact, even that isn’t the case. There are lots of relatively small-scale technical policy changes that do embody this vision. It is more at the meso-level that there is a problem: the narrative about how these small-scale policy changes connect to the overarching vision is weak.
The Oxfam example speaks to the need for consistency. It is about principle and commitment. It is about having a clear idea what your values and purpose are and sticking to what you believe in.
It does not rely on the sort of triangulated, focus grouped, tactical statements for short-term advantage in the polls that characterises contemporary politics. In fact, it is most probably an approach that is very cautious in embracing the sort of nostrums offered by “external brand experts” who have no real feel for the values that drive the organisation.
Maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Image: © kentoh – Fotolia.com