[This is an edited and updated version of my speech to the consultative session on party strategy at the Liberal Democrat conference, 19 September 2010]
We Liberal Democrats need to think seriously about the party’s identity – but we need to understand how the voters see us, not about how we see ourselves.
Remember the Times-Populus polls we hear about year after year. In 2007 and 2008, clear majorities saw the Liberal Democrats as being “made up of decent people but their policies probably don’t really add up” and “basically a protest vote party because they have no chance of ever winning”. Many think that a vote for the Lib Dems was a wasted vote.
It’s not all bad, however. As Labour’s flame flickered and died, the Liberal Democrats were seen as the nicest, most empathetic party: “for ordinary people, not the best off”, the most honest and principled — as we’ve proved ourselves many times. By the middle of the 2010 general election campaign, Nick Clegg was perceived as, by far the most honest leader and the one most in touch with ordinary people.
But the 2010 British Election Study has found that we didn’t win any of the arguments on the policy issues that mattered most to voters. According to Ipsos-MORI, we weren’t seen to offer a credible team of leaders.
Then the coalition came. Now the big story people hear from government ministers is that they are to fix the crippling deficit that Labour left behind. By paying off our bills and living within our means, we will have fiscal redemption. It’s little wonder the familiar Lib Dem messages have been crowded out.
So we – all of us - have to get back into the persuasion business and start telling people about the difference we are making in government on the issues that matter. They’ll judge us on what we do, not on what we used to say.
No, that doesn’t mean being like the town cryer in the square – “hear ye, hear ye, here’s a big list of policies”. And no, it doesn’t mean dusting down the old manifestos, leaflets and slogans of yesteryear and pretending that the last coalition never happened. I’ve never met a liberal who thinks who you can go back.
What I’m talking about is telling people stories about what Liberal Democrats in government are doing now, giving reality to our values. Stories because that is the way people have communicated for thousands of years. Stories about the difference Liberal Democrats are making – giving the specifics. Most of all, stories about the people whose lives will be better as a result.
Here are two quick examples. I can remember Nick Clegg, years ago, calling for more money to be focussed on the most disadvantaged pupils. We worked up the idea and campaigned for the pupil premium at the election and now our ministers in government are making it a reality and thousands and in time millions of people will have a better start in life.
And we can’t forget the area where we have shown a strong commitment for decades, and reaped some political benefits: looking after the environment and tackling climate change. Chris Huhne and Vince Cable have reaffirmed their joint commitment to building a low-carbon economy that will meet our ambitious climate-change targets, deliver energy security for all of us and help our economy to recover. They are telling us how the Liberal Democrats government will do it.
So, let’s start telling people the stories.