McCann Enterprise takes a look at the Liberal Democrat brand – Must centrists be middling?
Since the last Liberal government of David Lloyd-George in 1918 the party has struggled with two identities: the Creator and the Pragmatist. Creator brands are hotbeds of innovation and new thinking – brands like GE, Pixar and Lady Gaga. It may seem odd to think of a political brand in this way, but the Lib Dems and their predecessors have creative form: from the Great Reform Act to the foundations of the welfare state, to electoral reform, lowering the voting age, gay rights and the mansion tax.
The Creator is a useful brand persona to adopt at a time when rival brands are pretty dull – and arguably this year’s election is just such a time. But when one or more of the bigger parties decides to be interesting, the Lib Dems lose the distinctiveness Creator affords. In 1983 the Labour Party fought on a radical manifesto dubbed ‘the longest suicide note in history’ – and the SDP-Liberal Alliance scooped up votes because it was seen to be a safer, less radical party. They very nearly eclipsed Labour’s vote share – and this led to an identity crisis which has dogged the party ever since.
Increasingly they appear to be defined by the other two major parties. Representing a safe middle ground, tempering the instincts of others in taking a more cautious approach. This is the territory of the safe Pragmatist not the radical Creator.
The Pragmatist is practical, one of us, democratic, transparent, plain speaking and, crucially, open to compromise. “Whatever works”, says the Pragmatist. The Pragmatist despairs of ‘Punch and Judy politics’ and wonders why everyone can’t just work together to get things done. “I agree with Nick” was the power of Pragmatism over ego and ideology in 2010, leading to the party’s best performance in modern times – 56 seats and ministers in the Cabinet.
The decision to enter coalition, however, has made it difficult for the brand to remain a Pragmatist or a Creator. The Conservatives took credit for the Lib Dem ideas that became reality and killed the others, robbing the Creator of credibility. The Pragmatist was undermined by confusion over where guerrilla warfare ends and collective responsibility begins. “Vote for us because we argued against things that didn’t happen behind closed doors” is sophistry not simplicity, occlusion not transparency.
On the one hand, a vote for the Lib Dems in 2010 got more Lib Dem policies enacted than at any other time for the best part of a century. On the other hand, nobody got what they really wanted. The faithful wanted proportional representation and the scrapping of Trident, Labour switchers wanted a compassionate approach to the financial crisis and no tuition fees; what people got was an increase in the personal allowance and the Bedroom Tax. Neither Creative nor Pragmatic.
This election sees the brand struggling to find its character at a time when it should be in its element. Never before has the combined vote share of the two major parties been so low. Never before have so many voters been prepared to look at smaller parties. Yet the SNP, UKIP and the Greens all offer more interesting characters than the Pragmatist. The have positioned themselves as the steady, dull sidekick who will “give Labour a brain and the Tories a heart” if neither wins a majority – no wonder they are expected to lose half their seats. If ever there was a time when the Creator persona could pay dividends for the party that has ideas in its blood, it’s now. But first the need to remember they have a right to their own identity.
Tomorrow, the Green Party.