Sunday, 20 September 2009

Who Needs A USP?

It's LibDem conference week.

Andrew Rawnsley skirts round the main issue and comes close to giving an interesting answer. But in coming closest to describing the situation facing the LibDems as they head to conference he still manages to fluff the punchline.

In a way this is infuriating, but it is also inspiring me to write this post, so what the hell...

The perrenial question posed of any party outside the big two is how to grab the public's attention and hold it for long enough for the so-called 'opinion formers' to decide that the message of the day is relevant. Stuck in the purgatory between the real world and the corridors of power, close enough to touch both and in a perpetual coil of anxiety ready to jump, the life of a political journalist is a tantalising one. It is a rollercoaster ride between the highs and lows of being flavour of the month one minute and being given the cold shoulder the next. It is an addictive life and can be all-consuming.

So it should be no real surprise that the chattering class in on constant alert looking for their next hit of hotness.

And in politics this translates as the holy grail of a silver bullet - a unique selling point; some indispensible policy or intangible sense of being 'in touch' which is utterly compelling. Call it magic or stardust or something similarly mesmerising (though the x-factor may once have been an adequate description, that was before Simon Cowell got his hands on it).

All sorts of people have had 'it'; they might just have been in the right place at the right time, or have had a way with them which only hits you later. But this elusive quality is not only the stuff of legend it is also the stuff which pays the bills for all those in the intermediate trade of communicating it. And professional communicators such as journalists need a steady diet of it to survive in the cutthroat world they exist in.

Smaller parties than the LibDems don't need to worry about communicating what their identity is because they are essentially single-issue parties. The Greens are the party of the environment; The BNP are the racist party; The SNP are the scottish party; Ukip are the anti-EU party... you get the picture. Their problem isn't gaining definition, but breaking out of their self-imposed shackles and being taken seriously by the wider public on all the other issues which inform our voting choices.

Labour and Conservative parties don't need to worry about communicating their identity because they are composed of class-based factions and are defined by their opposition to each other holding the reigns of power, which in practice means exchanging it at regular intervals.

The LibDems are different. The freedom to be be judged according to one's own stardards is what sets LibDems apart.

So maybe it was a tactical mistake of news management for Nick Clegg to come out before conference and call for 'savage' even 'fierce' cuts.

It complied with all the accepted nostrums about grabbing headlines, but it also submitted meekly to the recieved truth imposed by the established powers that a party needs to show how it is different.

I believe you can only be yourself and then you have to let commentators describe what they see.

A smaller party doesn't need to actively go out and try to define itself with showy eye-catching initiatives, or not just. The wider substance of a complete, comprehensive and coherent picture must be allowed to emerge from the profusion of numerous different perspectives.

The old chestnut 'what do the LibDems stand for?' is a standard journalistic device which hamstrings anyone who represents the party - either they end up criticised for being wishy-washy and spouting platitudes or anything which is said is used to drive a wedge between the harmony of different factions who happily work together.

LibDems don't need and can't provide a single means of definition for lazy commentators to hang their peg on - that's just not what the philosophy is about.

And a general election campaign can't be won by offering just one single wonderful policy. This might pick up a few votes among people for whom that area is the most energising, but it's not enough.

Instead a party with ambitions of forming national government must be one which appeals to the widest number of people. And that means having a full manifesto and being able to link together the different strands into a consistent narrative.

Anybody can say they stand for 'prudence' or 'justice' or 'doing the right thing', what's really needed is practical policies which show all these things in action.

LibDems stand for all sorts of different things - electoral reform, law reform, tax reform, constitutional reform, social reform... the list goes on. And which of those does anybody seriously disagree with?

It's easy to get picky about the precise nature of deisred reforms, but the underlying issues are ones we are all anxious to deal with.

So why worry about having an informed and inclusive debate about what the details of those reforms should be when our opponents have already made up their minds on the basis of their preconcieved notions and prejudices?

LibDems need to fight against the recieved opinions passed down from on high - so when heavyweight political journalists such as Andrew Neil cry 'leaders lead', LibDems need to be able to respond 'yes, but our leaders don't dictate'.

No comments: