Lib Dems need a higher definition

As the Lib Dems struggle to keep their leadership contest clean, the party's former PR chief assesses the task of incoming comms director David Norman

Of all the new roles to envy in the world of PR, David Norman's is probably bottom of the list. He starts this month as the new director of policy and communications for the Liberal Democrats, a role he accepted before Christmas. I am certain that having moved from the campaigning world of WWF he will relish the challenge.

The fate of the party's leadership candidates, meanwhile, is in the hands of the 73,000 Lib Dem members. Whoever wins on 2 March will have a tough job on his hands following the flurry of recent revelations and dip in the polls.

He will need to demonstrate, and impose on the party, three priorities: clear definition, discipline, and above all, strong leadership.

Defining the party's vision is critical because no party has it yet in policy terms. If you went out on the street and asked Joe Public to define the difference between Labour and Tory policies on health you would not get a clear answer.  The same applies to education and the economy. But that is no excuse for the Lib Dems not to work to ensure they have clear definition.

Clarity of message and policy has real benefits. In the 2005 general election, polling for the first time revealed that some, admittedly a very small percentage of voters, were able to define a few Lib Dem policies.

What's the difference?
Part of the other problem for the Lib Dems when it comes to definition is that there is very little difference in policy terms between the leadership candidates. Maybe there is on tax, but when it comes to the war in Iraq, the environment and nuclear power, civil liberties and poverty, the variations are minimal.

This means that journalists and the candidates' campaign teams will be struggling to find where the real debate lies. And if the debate fails to ignite then the campaigns will degenerate into a question of character or personality, and no one wants a dirty campaign.

The Lib Dems are not helped in their quest for definition by the fact that every political party is now fighting tooth and nail to control the centre ground – although it remains hard to believe that David Cameron will be able to shift the majority of his party to this area without tension.

The second priority, discipline, will be an area in which Norman must have an impact. One always assumes that with an increase in the number of MPs, the ability to relegate them to the back benches should be a useful means of instilling discipline of message and approach. But as Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy have learned to their cost, you can only impose discipline of message on a willing team – something that any professional in HR or internal comms will know only too well.

So developing a clear message, and getting buy-in from the Parliamentary party, will be essential.

The Lib Dems are, by virtue of being the third political party, unique in terms of their approach to the media. It is hard to describe to outsiders what it is like to be a communicator in this situation. Your room for manoeuvre is limited by the fact that most broadcasters will naturally lapse into a two-party debate whenever the chance arises.

Talk to broadcasters and they will say time is their problem. The recent education debate is a case in point. With Cameron backing Labour, the only opposition TV journalists wanted to interview were the Labour rebels.

It is only where the Lib Dems stand out from the others that they automatically get a platform – such as MP David Laws's various attacks on the Government regarding its pensions policy. This means that the daily struggle, and the vast majority of effort, involves staying in the debate, rather than controlling quality in the way that Labour and the Conservatives traditionally do. This approach needs to change.

Despite being the third party, the Lib Dems need to improve their professionalism because their profile now is higher than ever. 
When Kennedy became leader, his clearest rival was Simon Hughes. At that point the Lib Dems were under less scrutiny and therefore Simon was able to compete without being constantly questioned about his private life.  This time round it is different.

Given the number of PROs among the Lib Dems it is somewhat galling to have watched the own goals committed so far. Indeed, before Mark Oaten became an MP he was a PR man, which goes to show how poor the party is at drawing up its own crisis strategies.

Finally, what the Lib Dems need over the coming months is strong leadership. There is a serious danger of a hung parliament after the next general election. Indeed, any Tory recovery would have to be seismic for the party to win enough seats for government.

Realistically then, the Lib Dems could become more, and not less
relevant, as they gain ground on Labour and the Tories.

But the last thing any leader of the Lib Dems should allow is a drive for a coalition, the kiss of death for any campaign, as Paddy Ashdown learned in 1992. Kennedy's own robust stance on this issue, distancing himself from Labour, gave the Lib Dems the necessary breathing space to campaign and increase their number of Parliamentary seats and councillors.

Call for guidance
In this volatile period a leader will need to hold his nerve, particularly against any eventual panicked response to Cameron's election as Tory chief.  Just a year ago the Lib Dems were being cross-examined on how they were faring in the shadow of Michael Howard's Opposition.

Kennedy's successor will need to show vigour and strength, and demonstrate that he is able to run a strong team and regularly take the initiative. As Norman will soon discover, you can run the best communications strategy possible but no strategy can be delivered without a figurehead – not in our 'presidential' political atmosphere.
While the frustration with Kennedy had been on a slow burner for many months, his lack of leadership at the party conference, in spite of the best efforts of the media operation, turned up the heat.
Some stalwarts in the party will recall the trial of former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe and say things have been worse.  But there will be others in the party who will welcome Norman, a senior manager with a brief across both the media and the policy arenas, in the hope he can bring new ideas to a somewhat browbeaten, and therefore receptive, audience.

So good luck both to Norman and the next Lib Dem leader. Hopefully, though, they will not need it.

Olly Grender MBE is a freelance PRO. She is former director of comms for the Lib Dems and aide to Paddy Ashdown

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