My former boss, Tim Farron, was frequently heard to say that a party never lost a general election because its manifesto wasn’t long enough.
The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto process, whilst very democratic, has one fundamental weakness. It starts from the bottom up with dozen of policies on top of which the party will then attempt to impose a central message, rather than with a core narrative, which it will then illustrate with a series of eye-catching retail policies.
For the European elections the party communications staff very successfully circumnavigated this difficulty by ignoring the content of the manifesto altogether and simply plastering “Bollocks to Brexit” across the cover.
But the challenge of making a general election manifesto short enough to win an election still remains. The devil has all the best tunes and there is no doubt that the Conservative message of “Get Brexit Done” seriously resonates on an emotional level. We are seeing it in their steady climb in the polls and in the willingness of nineteen Labour MPs to endorse a Withdrawal Bill which they surely know is even more deeply flawed than Theresa May’s. And we see it in the Labour party’s ambivalence both to a general election and to opposing the Withdrawal Bill outright.
At the same time, the Lib Dem message seems to have lost some of its emotional appeal. It is still a vow to ‘stop Brexit’ but it feels more resigned “We will fight on” but lacks an imperative for the public to support it.
So what should be the Lib Dem equivalent to “Get Brexit done”? The attractiveness of the slogan is that it speaks to the overwhelming sense that this has all dragged on too long and that we are all just desperate to make it stop. Of course, getting the Withdrawal Agreement Bill passed would in no way “make it stop” – it would merely just trigger the next stage in the negotiations which would drag on years.
What the Lib Dems need to be shouting from the rooftops is that the only way to “make it stop” is to revoke or overturn the referendum result. Whatever way you look the sense is that the last three years have been an unmitigated disaster for Britain: whatever way you want to go we are currently headed in the wrong direction with politicians at war with each other and ignoring the people.
But “make it stop” is not enough. It is an instruction not an impulse. Instead, the sentiment that most attunes with people’s emotional need to rewind and start again is a fresh start.
Jo Swinson personifies a fresh start. It is increasingly apparent that she will be one of our strongest assets in the forthcoming election and as a young Scottish woman set against two ageing white English men she embodies a difference which need to be tied the party’s central narrative.
And the party’s core policies for the forthcoming illustrate the need for a fresh start in other ways too. Yes, the party will “Just make it stop” but it will also
- Reunite Britain – replacing the violence and anger which is now widely felt with an inclusive open, liberal society which will address the real root causes of the Brexit vote
- Start investing in Britain, with some headline capital investments which will make a real difference to real people’s lives and
- Sort out the rules that govern our country so we can fix broken Britain and this can never ever happen again.
The Lib Dems have plenty of policies that talk to each of these themes but overarching them is the need to make a fresh start.
In the 1980s I took a course on political marketing, which talked about the difference between telling, selling and impelling. “Telling” is unemotional – stop Brexit, we will fight on – while “selling” offers an external imperative to buy – make it stop. In contrast, “Impelling” comes from within: it is when we do something not because we have been told it will be good for us but because we truly want to do it for ourselves.
The opportunity to wipe the slate clean has strong emotional appeal for remainers but it also offers potential relief to leave voters. Was it really all that bad? Do we really think leaving Europe is going to make things any better? Isn’t it time to make a fresh start?
* Ben Rich is Chief Executive of Radix, the radical centre think tank. Join Radix at their Monetary Policy Conference on Wednesday 27th November with Martin Wolf, Associate Editor of FT, Sir Paul Tucker, former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, and Sir Ed Davey: https://radixuk.org/events/what-next-for-monetary-policy/
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