The Lib Dems have a problem. We have known about this problem for a long time and those at the top of the party have been trying to improve the situation with changes in strategy, a redoubling of efforts to show the Lib Dem contribution to the Government, and new messages. But we still have a problem. Now we have a new script – ‘not easy, but right’. But will this message win back voters?
The Guardian recently produced some very interesting statistics:
In every parliament in the past 30 years, governments that went on to lose the next election were already showing a slump in approval in the Guardian’s ICM series of polls by this stage of the cycle, compared with the general election which put them in power. After 2005, Labour was down seven points in the autumn of 2006 – and went on to lose in 2010. After 1992, the Tories were down 14 points by the autumn of 1993 and went on to be hammered in 1997. But in the parliaments of 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001, the government parties’ ratings were either steady or better than at the general election – and they went on to win. On Friday the Conservatives are on 37% with ICM, just as they gained in the last general election. The Tories are holding on to their ground.
But for the Lib Dems we are down and down a lot. We can see that we are not winning over Tory voters if they are holding onto their supporters while we haemorrhage support to Labour. So is the lost support recoverable? Clegg is a toxic brand to Labour supporters, with whom he has a rating of -79%. If the Lib Dems are to recover their polling position some of these supporters need to be won back.
So why does Clegg have such a negative rating among Labour supporters, or more importantly ex-Lib Dem supporters? Many put this down to tribalism but this is convenient and hides the reality of those potential voters. Ed Miliband sums up quite nicely their feelings/thoughts:
The Lib Dems have broken their promises. A year ago they promised to scrap tuition fees. But they trebled them. They promised to oppose a rise in VAT. But they voted to back the Tories in raising it to 20%. They also promised to protect the NHS. But they backed David Cameron’s expensive bureaucratic plans which put the founding principles of the heath service at risk.
It is easy for the Lib Dems to deny these allegations, find reasons why the decisions taken were necessary, or see this view as pure tribalism of the worst sort. ‘You don’t play politics at a time of national crisis’ Clegg says, showing self-justification. It may be correct that there was no other option, that these were decisions that needed to be made, and these were the sacrifices that we had to make. It may be correct that we have made the more difficult decisions better than they otherwise would have been. It may be correct that it was not easy, but right. But this doesn’t matter. That is not the point. If it were the point then people wouldn’t feel so strongly about it. The issue at stake here is trust and only by addressing the issue of trust will the situation improve. Giving people the reasons as to why decisions have been made will not build trust, in fact it only turns people away as the defensiveness just invalidates their feelings.
The relationship between Nick Clegg and the electorate is key for the Lib Dems and for the party’s situation to improve Clegg’s relationship with the electorate needs to improve. But anyone who has ever had difficulty in a relationship will know that defensiveness is a strategy for pain and ultimately a break up. The new defensiveness strategy is not going to work.
Trust means to believe. It means you have no doubt in your mind about their honesty, integrity and credibility. No relationship can survive without trust. Trust is the foundation on which a relationship is built. Clegg was not well known going into the 2010 General Election, so much so the campaign started with Clegg and Cable spearheading it as more people knew Cable. At first, as in the start of all new relationships, people believed Clegg without much proof needing to be given as to his credibility. We have all experienced this at the start of a new relationship.
But research into relationships shows that breaking trust early in a relationship can seriously damage the relationship in the long term and that it may never be completely right again. Questions start being asked ‘was he trustworthy from the beginning or was I fooled?’ Or ‘is he changing now?’ This kind of doubtful thinking causes tremendous strain in a relationship. We can all see that this is what is going on right now between Clegg and many on the political left; they see that he had breached their trust in him, and this has happened early in the relationship. Relationship research shows that it is easier to rebuild trust after a breach if you already have a strong relationship. So it is possible that the relationship may not be recoverable?
But if we are to have any chance of attracting voters back then we need to address the issue of trust. Before any trust can be rebuilt you must address how and/or why it was broken in the first place. This is the time for brutal honesty. Vince Cable has been good at this and has said that we would never have proposed the policy if we ever thought we would get into power. Embarrassing but honest and people love Cable so we should learn from him. It may be the case that a complete confessional of how the trust was broken should only be done when both sides ready to hear it, and that may not be now? But heartfelt apologies should be offered with indications of remorse and promises to not violate the trust again. Tony Blair broke the trust people had in him but he offered no way to bridge this broken trust with the electorate and it ultimately brought him down. Clegg has said that he will not offer an apology on the tuition fees issue because he does not see the point. The point is that it can start a process to build the trust again and if it isn’t, it will kill his political career and bring the Lib Dems down with him.
When trust is broken in a relationship many people recommend getting outside help such as with a counsellor. We should pay great attention to such advice. If Clegg wants his relationship to improve with those who used to vote for the party but won’t at the moment, or even new voters, then there needs to be some third party to broker a new trust with Clegg. A celebrity, a famous person, someone who has great influence with those we need to reach would be useful if they could give positive messages about Clegg. A conversation between Clegg and the electorate brokered by someone else could be a useful strategy. I know Clegg is going around the country doing Town Hall meetings and I think this is a great idea, but sometimes it is not the message, it is the messenger, and so the third person eases the message into people’s consciousness rather than it being filtered out because of the messenger.