Sunday, November 27, 2011

A limited defence of rebranding the Liberal Democrats

This morning's papers are full of reports that we Liberal Democrats are to rebrand ourselves. According to the Daily Mail (I know, I know):
the parliamentary party was summoned to a meeting last week to be told that ‘external brand experts’ had been hired to try to boost the party’s prospects.
The Daily Telegraph adds some detail:
Party chiefs were concerned that the Lib Dem identity was being lost because of the coalition with the Conservatives. 
However, 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.
And we go back to the Mail for an idea of what that vision might be:
"To create the most innovative and socially mobile nation."
My heart naturally sinks at talk of rebranding. I have been in the party long enough to be deeply sceptical of people from outside politics who believe their claimed expertise is just what is needed for the party to make a breakthrough.

They were particularly thick on the ground during the Alliance years and then during the subsequent merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP. And in those years their claims were shown to be empty.

However, my longevity in the party also means that the culture and emblems of the Liberal Democrats probably have less of an emotional pull for me. The preamble to our constitution, for instance, still reads to me like an uneasy compromise between two parties and not as the statement of a settled philosophy. And I have rarely attended Spring Conference, in part because it still feels like an new-fangled idea to me.

Besides, we have already been rebranded many times. Take a look at the party website and you will see more aqua than orange, though I never recall that change was never discussed with members.

Even the Bird of Liberty has undergone a redesign, acquiring a thicker body some years ago. (Lord Bonkers, who described it as a "foul-smelling creature of uncertain temper", once let it spend a summer recess in the lush pastures of Rutland and admitted that it had returned to London "with a bit of a tummy on him".)

So the party is being rebranded all the time and I would not go the wall for many current Liberal Democrat regimental honours. What can we find in today's news stories to encourage us?

I would say that where the proposed rebranding exercise is right it is in the idea that the party lacks a clear and widely recognised vision. That has been a favourite theme of this blog since it started.

Innovation and social mobility are good, Liberal things. But we must recognise that out local campaigning often emphasises the costs of innovation and that people are generally keen only on social mobility in one direction. Particularly at a time when the economy is barely growing, there will be losers as well as gainers.

I would rather see an emphasis on liberty in our vision, though we have to recognise that Lib Dem MPs sometimes support other goods at the expense of liberty. And I would like to see it emphasise the small and the local and oppose giantism and centralisation.

But it would be good to have a debate in the party about just what the vision that unites us is. At present we can sometimes behave like ideologues without an ideology.

But a debate among the members is what is needed. A vision cannot be imposed from without by experts on branding, however eminent they assure us they are.

One other point in favour of this discussion of our vision is that we might learn more about Nick Clegg and what he stands for. Entering the last leadership election as the bookies' and the establishment's favourite, he fought a favourite's campaign and avoided saying much at all.

The time has come for him to take us into his confidence and tell us a little more about himself and what motivates him. Where there is no vision, the people perish.


Anonymous said...

I think the "most innovative and socially mobile" nation comes from Nick or at least perhaps best embodies Nick's vision.
I think a huge chunk of that vision includes localism and opposes giantism and centralisation. In order to be innovative, you need loads of people inventing things all the time. In order to be socially mobile, you need to allow the good ideas to go to the top and the bad to the bottom but you've got to have the rich and poor both being able and motivated and believe that they can make their innovative ideas successful.
There is a model for it to work in giant and/or centralised states but at the same time its got to come together.
For example, Apple was closed off to a lot of third party innovators (apart from app developers), highly centralised yet they were incredibly innovative.
Whereas Microsoft were very open, many computer companies run Windows on their computers and almost every company runs microsoft companies.
Apple's designs were sleek whereas Microsoft were less sleek.
Both innovative but they had a different way of achieving that.

Simon Titley said...

The basic point here is that the party needs to determine its values, vision and strategy - THEN decide how to brand and market itself.

The problem with the marketing document leaked to the Mail is that it starts from the standpoint of marketing. But then if you believe that politics is essentially no different to flogging washing powder, this approach must seem natural.

It's only when our politicians start arguing about fundamental ideological differences instead of competing to manage the same ideology more efficiently that we'll succeed in restoring meaning, content and popular interest in politics.

Frank Little said...

The party's values and vision are laid out in the first page of the constitution. There are some good arguments to be had about the strategy.