Monday, 13 June 2016

Stronger Society, Fairer Economy, and Something Else Meaningless and Bland.

This is is an issue that has concerned me for some time, and one that has now been highlighted by Prof Roger Scully of Cardiff University in his excellent blog post Not Waving but Drowning. It relates to those soundbite slogans we Lib Dems, and all of the other parties, invent at election time to emblazon across all of our literature and media output. Remember 'Stronger Economy, Fairer Society' (and something about opportunity that we sometimes add on but not even we can really remember the wording of)? How about 'Look Left, Look Right, Then Cross', or that frankly weird thing about 'Unity' and something that suddenly appeared from nowhere?

We keep coming up with this stuff, as do all the other parties, but none of it means anything, and none of it actually tells anybody anything about what we stand for. Mostly it could mean virtually anything, and could be interpreted by any party as being what they stand for (and it uses the kind of 'politician language' that immediately makes people suspicious - we might as well have used 'Seasonally Adjusted, And In Real Terms'!). Even when it doesn't mean absolutely anything that any party might want to lay on top of it as an interpretation for their own agenda, as in the case of the 'Look' slogan, it still doesn't tell the public anything about or beliefs (and in that particular case, only serves as a target for people to quite rightly remind us that those who just walk down the middle of the road tend to get run over!). Even the above-pictured 'Working For You' - do we really believe that other parties wouldn't say that they are working for the electorate (even if we know that they very often aren't, or not in the way that we would be, at least)?

Why do we keep doing this? Well clearly someone somewhere has decided that it works. I've never been sure of that at all, though, and I do wonder about methodology that underpins that belief - are we taking the result of 'study groups' and the like and reading too much into them, or looking at them the wrong way? Are we showing people a slogan and asking them if they like it (and if it would help make them vote for a party that uses it), and then taking that to mean that it's a good slogan for us to use? I don't know - that's mere speculation on my part as to what lies behind it all. If we are, though, I think we've missed something - what we need to be asking is whether it actually tells them anything useful about the party and what we stand for, and whether it is specific enough that it separates us out clearly from what other parties are about.

We know that we have a perception problem in the Liberal Democrats - people don't know what we are for. They don't know what we stand for, or what we believe in, and we've spent so much time in the past emphasising that we're 'Not One, and Not The Other', and 'In The Middle' that most people don't think we really stand for anything (and will happily abandon anything we have said, because we don't really have any strong principles or convictions anyway). The common assumption for many years was that we were, in effect, a kind of wishy-washy 'Labour-lite' - that is something that hit us particularly badly when it came to announcing a coalition deal with the Conservatives - how could 'Labour-lite' ever contemplate such a thing? We'd never done enough to dispel that sort of myth, largely, I suspect, because of short-termism in our campaigning - it was winning us a few votes (particularly in seats where the main opponent was a Conservative), so we let it slide. It's understandable, of course, but in the longer term, that decision has has some pretty severe consequences. We need now to consider the longer term - we need to tell people who we are, what we believe in, and what we are for.

We can't afford to keep doing the bland thing in the hope of maximising our vote 'this time around' by being as inoffensive as we can to everyone in the hope that they'll consider us. In effect, we need to offend people who don't agree with what we stand for, or at least to not be afraid to do so. This is a simple democratic principle - the whole point is to stand up for what you believe in, try to persuade people that you are right, and try to persuade them to vote for your ideas. It shouldn't be about trying to be 'all things to all men' in order to get elected - I'm not suggesting that we've ever abandoned our principles, but just that we seem to have to many because they never knew what they were. We were too afraid to tell them in case it lost us their vote, so they made up their own interpretation, and had their own expectations that we then didn't meet. Much of that is down to this ongoing soundbite issue (although it isn't the only issue, it is, I think, a massively important one).

To return to Prof Scully, he has been looking at survey results from the recent Welsh election to see what was happening in terms of the public identifying which party belonged to which slogan. The results for the Welsh Lib Dem slogan, 'A Wales That Works For You’, were that only 3% of people realised that it was ours. That compares with 13% who thought it was a Labour slogan, 7% who thought it came from Plaid, and 5% who thought it came from the Conservatives (and 69% who didn't know who it came from). This is very clearly, I think, a very significant problem. I would suggest that it is clear proof that these slogans do not work. They do not capture the public imagination, and they do not help the public to identify the party and what it stands for.

The results are fairly similar for the slogans of every party - it's not just a Lib Dem problem. It's not surprising when you look at all of these different party election slogans together:

‘Together for Wales’
 ‘Securing Real Change for Wales’
 ‘The Change Wales Needs’
 ‘A Wales That Works For You’
 ‘A Strong Voice for Wales’
 ‘Shake Up the Senedd’

Now just ask yourself what any of that means? What does any of it say about anything? Can you identify one from another? I'm pretty involved and clued up when it comes to Welsh politics, and the positions and beliefs of all of the parties, but I admit that wouldn't have a clue. Indeed, after watching the election very closely and being involved in campaigning in it myself, I don't have a clue - I couldn't identify which party was saying which slogan, apart from my own (and I had to think about that one too!).

I'm going to put this in very blunt terms here - all of these slogans are meaningless bollocks.

Politics in the UK is obsessed with generating these kinds of slogans. They say nothing, they mean nothing, the public don't identify with them, they don't tell the public anything about policies or ideologies or what parties stand for, and they clearly don't actually work very well in an electoral context (even if some study somewhere has found that some people find a particular slogan to be 'quite nice' or something) because almost nobody knows who is saying them. 

It's much, much more serious even than that, though. Ever heard members of the electorate saying 'they are all the same'? Take a look through those Welsh election slogans above - can you blame them? We actually are all the same, or at least we are all constantly falling over ourselves to appear to be the same. We're all spending our election campaigns emphasising something utterly pointless and meaningless that could be equally applied to any other party. We are all giving every appearance of being engaged in a race to the bottom, seeking to attain a state of ultimate blandness so that everyone votes for us on the grounds that we haven't actually offended them in any way at all. And then we wonder why there's a general problem with political disengagement!

So how do we address this issue? Well the first thing is to accept that we have a problem, obviously, and that we need to give up our addiction to such bland and meaningless nonsense. We need to be democrats - we need to stop being afraid to lose the votes of those who shouldn't be voting for us because they don't remotely believe in what we stand for. We need to stop being so afraid to offend people. If people are opposed to everything we believe, we should be offending them at every opportunity - that is how we can attract those who do agree with us, and that is what we need to be doing, morally as democrats as well as electorally. If we are going to use any form of 'slogan' it should be clear an unambiguous - it should say what we believe, and be identifiably unique to us and our core beliefs.

Another thing we should do, I think, is stop being afraid to treat the electorate as having the attention span and memory of the proverbial goldfish (although, as a side note, the rumours about goldfish are apparently not true at all). We can use more than 4 words when we speak and write to them - they really aren't that stupid! Of course, if we use more words some people won't read them, but then since we know that they don't remember the snappy, meaningless soundbites (and they don't say anything useful anyway) even if they have read them we are hardly losing anything there. We do, as a party, have some quite nice statements about what we stand for - yes, they can always be open to a certain amount of interpretation, of course, but they are certainly a hell of a lot clearer and more meaningful than 'Stronger Economy, Fairer Society' (or what it 'Stronger Society, Fairer Economy'?!). We shouldn't be worried about whether they read and remember the words we are saying - we should be thinking about whether what they are reading and hearing actually enhances their understanding of the party and what it stands for.

As a former school history teacher once taught me, the important thing is understanding the issues involved, not just learning the dates parrot fashion - if you want to learn the dates, you can quickly and easily look them up in a book. The same principle, I think, should be applied to our political 'slogans' - the intention should be for people to gain understanding of who we are and what we believe, not for them to be able to recite the slogan itself - if they want to remind themselves of the exact wording, they can look it up easily enough on one of our leaflets, our website, or whatever. The main point of it is to carry real meaning, not just be appealing and memorable.

With this in mind, my personal suggestion would be to use one sentence on all of our literature and media output, as we do with our election slogans, but not just election time. One sentence that actually tells people who we are. We have such a sentence right at the start of the preamble to our constitution (it's even printed on membership cards):

"The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."

It's clear, and it says something, and it is unique to us. some may not read it, of course, but as I said we aren't going to be losing anything overall there. Some certainly will, and while the words might not stick in their minds the impression of what those words say might well do. Indeed, I would go further - while that is a great sentence to use on shorter leaflets and the like, when it comes to stuff where we have a bit more space to play with I would even include the rest of the paragraph, to read thus:

"The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives."

That is even more clear, and should give them an even more clear picture of who the Liberal Democrats are. It's not that long, and it's not that hard, but it actually tells people what we are about, so let's stop being afraid of printing something that a world of mythical parrot-goldfish won't be able to repeat back to us. Let's stop being so bland, and so afraid of offending someone who shouldn't be voting for us, and tell people what we are actually for. Let's treat the electorate like they are real, intelligent, capable, thinking people - that is not only the best thing to do and the right thing to do, but it is also the Liberal thing to do. It is for other parties and ideologies to think of 'the people' as something to be fooled, resisted and controlled - it is for other parties to think of the electorate as an amorphous beast that needs to be spoon-fed its politics. We should be the ones doing something different - crediting each individual elector with the intelligence to understand more than a few meaningless words of bland drivel.

Let's have the courage of our ideological convictions in the way that we treat the electorate.


  1. I must say I like "Freedom - Fairness - Justice" (an amalgam of a couple of slogans from the Charles Kennedy era) as it sums up what we are about, and is not likely to be duplicated by another party. This is a difficulty with short snappy slogans - for instance, Obama's "yes, we can" was previously used not only by a pressure group in the States, but also by Bob The Builder. My favourite example is one from Blair's New Labour campaign: "Freedom of Opportunity". It was previously Conservative PM Harold Macmillan's battle-cry.

  2. The problem with 'fairness' particularly is that no party will ever say 'we stand for unfairness' - it means different things to different people, and can be interpreted to justify almost anything depending on your point of view, so is effectively meaningless. It's also a classic 'politician' term that I think turns a lot of people off - one of those 'seasonally adjusted' or 'in real terms' kind of things.

  3. Perhaps it's a generational thing. Fairness certainly means something to me. It means council and private tenants being treated equally when it comes to housing benefit. It means big people as well as little people paying their taxes. It means redress under the law being available to everybody, not just those with money. I could go on.

    But I certainly agree with the penultimate paragraph in your original message.