Creating a brand: What are the Liberal Democrats for ?

Nick Clegg at the World Economic Forum

The Lib Dems must be prepared to form a Lib-Lab coalition in 2015 in order to establish a strong brand image: economically competent, yet socially compassionate.

British politics is dominated by two major parties. Why ? Because these parties above all others have a strong brand image with the electorate.

Voters associate Labour with compassion, but also inefficiency and over-spending. Whilst the Tories are associated with competence - but also elitism. These brand images, narratives with the electorate, are incredibly strong. Despite Conservative Party leader David Cameron’s 'detoxification' policy, in opposition he failed to disassociate his party from the Thatcher era. New Labour was more successful, but opinion has reverted to type under Labour's Ed Miliband - as the party is viewed as socialist and big statist.

The fundamental problem for the Liberal Democrats is the lack of a brand image. This has led the party to set their election pitch around single issues - Iraq war opposition, tuition fees or stopping local hospital closures. When asked what it is that the Lib Dems believe in, most draw an ideological blank. Asking party activists gains little: for it is often joked that with 6 Lib Dem activists there are 7 opinions. Until this structural issue is resolved, the Lib Dems can never claim to be a serious party. They will always be vulnerable to huge swings in public opinion as they don't have a core vote - because they aren't associated with a core message.

Simple! Build a strong brand image ? Easier said than done. The Conservative and Labour narratives have been painted into social consciousness through decades of government, as the actions of a party in government helps set that party's narrative. Repeated Tory competence on the economy, and Labour’s concern for the poor, has enshrined in stone the associated characteristics of these parties for the British people.

The Liberal Democrats face a tough choice in 2015, then. Although the party will wish to lick its wounds after the most-recent difficult election nights, the party must decide its future. Do they quit the coalition and retreat to opposition / and be all things to all men, but never be a serious party of government ? Or does the party remain in government, despite the costs to poll ratings, and attempt to forge a long term brand image ?

The current Lib Dem leadership, of course, hope to achieve the latter. It is the Lib Democrats' hope to associate their brand with the sweet spot of British politics. The spot where a party is on the one hand economically competent, but also socially compassionate. Hence the strap line 'a Stronger Economy in a Fairer Society'. This Blair-shape hole has been vacant since the New Labour architect stepped down in 2007. Attempts by Cameron to fill the void, of course, have been unsuccessful as he has been unable to break the Tory brand image of being the 'nasty party'. The Lib Dems, then, have an advantage - they at least have a clean slate.

Attempts so far have only been marginally successful. The differentiation project with the party’s current coalition partners has attempted to play into the negative image of the Tories being the 'nasty party', allowing the Lib Dems to claim that they represent the 'compassionate' side of government. This is born out in terms of policy, too. The Lib Dems have been championing tax cuts for the lowest paid, the triple lock on pension, free school meals for children and the pupil premium. Conversely, Tory messaging has been centred round deficit reduction, immigration, Europe and growth. Lib Dem attempts to sell their successes through the media, and the 16 Tory policies they have claimed they have stopped, has allowed the party to claim to be a brake on the Tories. Yet being a marginal restraint on a Conservative government is not enough to win votes.

The second stage of the brand image creation, therefore, needs to be stronger. In an interview with The Independent’s Steve Richards, Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, set out his priorities in a Lib Lab coalition in 2015. He claims his party would be the party of economic competence and fiscal restraint: 'There is just no doubt in my mind that if there were a Labour / Liberal Democrat coalition, we the Liberal Democrats would absolutely insist that government would not break the bank'. This is a blatant attempt to associate the Lib Dem brand with another characteristic of the sweet spot: economic competence. The Lib Dems have been associated with a government driving through tough economic measures to restore growth and restrain bloated public spending after a decade of Labour government.

By being part of a fiscally prudent government for 5 years, and then subsequently publicly restraining labour spending, the leadership would hope to establish economic competence and fiscal restraint as part of a vote-gathering Lib Dem 'brand'.