Friday 28 December 2012

Stay “on message” or be EXTERMINATED!

This morning, Liberal Democrat HQ sent an e-mail to parliamentarians, PPCs, council group leaders and various other office holders about the party’s new ‘message script’.

This e-mail is highly instructive, though not in the way party HQ intended. It reveals much about what is wrong with the way the Liberal Democrats are being run and the state of British politics in general.

Here is the full unexpurgated text (the italics, underlining and emboldening are as in the original):

I hope you’ve had a very enjoyable Christmas.
Today Nick Clegg will release his New Year message to the media. You can see it here now.
This broadcast is the first full external use of our new Party message script – the product of Ryan Coetzee’s research into what works with our electoral market and also an extensive consultation with many Party stakeholders.
The full message script is below.
If you’re at a post-Christmas, pre-New Year lull over the next couple of days – please take a look at this script – read it, learn it, work out how to use it.
In communications terms, we know that if we as a Party don’t collectively communicate one message clearly, the public end up hearing nothing.
It is therefore absolutely critical that we all focus on this message in the New Year and make it the basis for every communication we make – whether it is in the media, online, in leaflets or when speaking to an internal or external audience.
If we all stick to and get some volume behind this script, by this time next year our voters will know that the Liberal Democrats are building a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life. That Labour can’t be trusted with their money, and the Tories can’t be trusted to build a fair society. And also just a few of the things we have achieved in government.
So, if you make one New Year resolution this year, please make it to help us be “On Message, In Volume, Over Time” and communicate from this script at every opportunity.
Many thanks,
Tim Snowball
Director of Communications (LDHQ)

Building a Stronger Economy in a Fairer Society
The Liberal Democrats are building a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.
That’s why we have:
1. Fixed the mess left by Labour. We have reduced the deficit by a quarter, kept interest rates down and created over a million private sector jobs.
2. Ensured that 24 million people will not pay any income tax on the first £9,440 of earnings, putting £600 back into their pockets from April 2013.
3. Put an extra £2.5 billion into schools targeted at the least well-off pupils, raising standards for everyone.
4. Created a Green Investment Bank that will unlock billions of pounds of private investment in renewable energy and create thousands more jobs in the green economy.
5. Got young people off the dole and into work through apprenticeships, work placement or training with our £1 billion Youth Contract.
6. Delivered the biggest ever cash rise in the state pension.
The Labour Party can’t be trusted to manage the economy. Labour borrowed and borrowed and nearly bankrupted Britain. In power they cared more about bankers, media bosses and union barons than they did about ordinary, working people.
The Conservatives can’t be trusted to build a fair society. Until the Lib Dems got into government, no one could stop the Tories from looking after the super rich who fund their party, while ignoring the needs of normal people who struggle to make ends meet. That’s why we have blocked Tory plans to:
1. Allow bosses to fire staff at will.
2. Let local schools be run for profit.
3. Cut inheritance tax for millionaires.
4. Introduce lower rates of pay for public sector workers outside of the South East.
Now, with your support, we want to keep building a stronger economy in a fairer society. Over the next two years we will:
1. Increase our tax cut for low and middle earners to £700 for 24 million people.
2. Dramatically increase parents’ access to child care so that it’s easier for parents to get back into jobs.
3. Reform the welfare system to get people off benefits and into work.
4. Create tens of thousands of jobs across Britain in the new, green economy.
Let’s never go back to the way things were, because Labour can’t be trusted with your money, and the Tories can’t be trusted to build a fair society.
Only the Lib Dems can be trusted to build a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.

Where to begin? Alarm bells start ringing in Tim Snowball’s introduction, which is littered with dreadful PR-speak (“electoral market”, “stakeholders”, “get some volume behind this script”, “on message”). The recipients of this e-mail are not political novices, yet they are treated like idiots by both the general tone and the didactic politics-by-numbers approach (“If you’re at a post-Christmas, pre-New Year lull over the next couple of days – please take a look at this script – read it, learn it, work out how to use it.”).

More fundamentally, there is the idea that we should all speak according to a ‘message script’ (moreover, a script that fails on its own terms because it contains far too many messages to achieve any focus or discipline, even if bits of it are written in bold type). For all “Ryan Coetzee’s research”, this sort of wooden language is precisely the thing that turns people off because it makes politicians sound rehearsed, false and insincere. It sounds scripted because it is scripted. Indeed, scripting isn’t a solution – it’s part of the problem because it makes politicians sound more like Daleks than human beings.

More fundamentally still, this set of instructions is the voice of a party in denial. The coalition government’s economic policy – the overarching policy of austerity that dwarfs everything else – is not working, for the reason the Liberal Democrats’ own 2010 manifesto said it wouldn’t. (More detailed explanation here). Because of a failed economic dogma, the economy isn’t getting stronger and the deficit isn’t being reduced. And this dogma means that the poorest people are paying the highest price for economic failure, so society isn’t getting fairer. All the Liberal Democrats have been able to do in government is ameliorate the situation – a valuable role but one that should not be oversold.

What we have here is an object lesson in how politics has been hollowed out and reduced to a matter of managerialism and public relations. It seems no-one at the top of the party has any intellectual grasp of the gravity of the situation. The global economy is in deep crisis and the problem cannot be reduced to facile slogans about “the mess left by Labour”. We are at an historical turning point where the global economy will undergo a fundamental transformation (as it has before in the 1880s-90s, 1930s-40s and 1970s-80s). This situation requires radical thinking and radical responses. Yet all the British political establishment can do is fret about staying “on message”.

And then politicians wonder why they continue to lose popular trust and support.

POSTSCRIPT (1): A perceptive response on Nick Barlow’s blog and an unbiased report by BBC News.

POSTSCRIPT (2): See the subsequent post on this topic.

POSTSCRIPT (3): The party has responded by trying to claim the credit for the media coverage of the leak.


  1. How do you expect the party to communicate it aims and objectives within the coaltion if the party speaks like it is at an Oxford Tutorial all the time?

    It maybe "wooden" as you speak but at least they would understand what is being said.

    1. Who is talking about “an Oxford Tutorial”? That is a straw man.

      You obviously haven’t read my post. The point isn't that wooden language is unintelligible – of course people can understand it. The point is that it sounds rehearsed, false and insincere, and people can understand that all too clearly.

    2. From back in Paddy all speeches and media appearances were to a large extent "rehearsed" so what you are on about tonight is nothing new.

      At the end of the day, I much go with the person who has actually had experience of managing coalitions day to day rather than someone who pines for the days of simplicity.

    3. More straw men, Matthew. Nobody is is "pining for the days of simplicity".

      Having previously suggested that the 'message script' is state-of-the-art, you now claim it is "nothing new". Right second time. The spirit of New Labour lives on.

  2. How does it help the party for internal memos like this to be made public ?

    1. The e-mail was circulated today to hundreds, if not thousands, of party members. Also, Nick Clegg's New Year message is now public and we are told in the e-mail that it is "the first full external use of our new Party message script". The message script is therefore already in the public domain and can hardly be considered confidential.

      In any case, the 'message script' is an attempt to impose a New Labour-style messaging strategy on the party. This is worthy of comment and criticism, surely?

    2. We live in a world of instant reaction brought upon by broadcasters and the internet, we could either choose to moan and get left behind or start to update ourselves.

    3. But Matthew, what makes you think this 'message script' will "update ourselves"? There is nothing up-to-date about it. It's the sort of heavy-handed media management New Labour was doing in the 1990s, and which nowadays is considered risible.

      If anyone is going to get "left behind", it is people who imagine this sort of messaging is somehow 'new' or 'modern'.

  3. Criticism is easy. What's your alternative message, given that the strategy it describes Is not going to change anytime soon?

    1. It’s not a question of an “alternative message”. As I explained in my original post, the problem is the underlying political strategy. So long as the Liberal Democrats (a) claim that there is no alternative to neoliberal economic dogma (contrary to party policy and the 2010 manifesto) and (b) defend every coalition policy, even bad Tory policies that were not in the coalition agreement, then no amount of messaging will help.

      The longer that that strategy “is not going to change anytime soon,” the worse the damage to the party will be.

  4. We don't need such messaging. We have a coherent philosophy behind us that is the touchstone for all we do. Haven't we?

    (And as for Nick's message saying we are anchored to the centre, hat is a drift to the right from the centre-left where I felt the party had always been.)


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