It’s election season in the UK, and the climaxing cavalcade of ‘Election Debates’ has given us the last opportunity to watch various grasping bastards simultaneously begging for our favour. I’m sorry but watching politicians trying to get their message across is particularly sickening for communications professionals, because the cynicism is even easier for us to detect. It’s a bit like marketing people and their ability not to fall for brands. Brands are for people who DON’T completely appreciate what’s really, insidiously, going on to take your money in exchange for guff.
But anyway – back to the politics. Before I go any further, I am not advocating any political party. I just wanted to point out the PR machinations surrounding one political leader, Nick Clegg. Let me also state that I did not vote Liberal Democrat in the last Election and see no reason to change this time around.
Clegg’s biggest communications mistake was not to contradict his previously ardent position on tuition fees by being part of a government who trebled them when he promised to abolish them. His mistake was to misjudge the press and public’s wilful ignorance of how a coalition government is supposed to work.
A poll in today’s Independent shows that 50% of undergraduate students will never vote LibDem because of Clegg’s infamous U-Turn. Only 6% intend to support Clegg’s party next month, compared to 23% who said they would before 2010’s General Election. The collapse in support is being egged on by the National Union of Students, which represents 7 million students, and recently unveiled a billboard campaign branding the LibDems ‘liars’ and ‘pledge breakers’.
Even the laziest student of political history would agree that coalition governments are very unusual in the UK, with the last few being necessary for the purposes of our total war against national annihilation. Following the 2010 Election, with neither Labour nor Conservatives willing to proceed with a weak minority government, the LibDems entered into a Coalition Agreement with the objective of assailing the nation’s imminent bankruptcy.
Coalitions are far more common in other democratic countries, where a broad spectrum of opinion and vested interests inevitably ends up being more or less fairly represented by a governing executive. It goes a bit like this: no one party gets to implement 100% of its manifesto commitments. Indeed, if a small party like Plaid Cymru (likely to return three or perhaps four MPs in the Election; 0.5% of the House of Commons) were to join a coalition government this year, they’d count themselves fortunate to have a single unique policy implemented.
It’s easy to forget just how much the public warmed to Nick Clegg during the 2010 Election. An honest, business-like antidote to Cameron’s “Little Lord Fauntleroy” and Brown’s awkward cheesiness, the big catchphrase was “I agree with Nick”. Indeed, if the LibDems had made “I agree with Nick” their campaign slogan, they might have returned more than 57 seats.
With the Conservatives represented by 47% of the House, and the Liberal Democrats by a little under 9%, the gruesome twosome could rely on a majority to implement an agreed policy programme.
Imagine you had voted Liberal Democrat in that General Election. In the vast majority of cases, your vote would have been unlikely to make a difference in your local constituency because of jealously guarded constituency boundaries and our arcane ‘first-past-the-post’ system. Despite the LibDems’ 6.8m votes putting them in third place behind Labour’s 8.6m votes, Labour won nearly five times as many seats.
And yet you could say that your horse won (sort of). Even if your vote had carried a local LibDem to Westminister, without the Coalition Government in place your voice would have been entirely incidental to change. Frankly, that number of MPs may as well have stood outside protesting in the rain for all the good their measly voting block would have done them.
A revised estimate for the yellow-coloured (i.e. LibDem) proportion of the Coalition Agreement put into action between 2010-2015 is 40%. In other words, despite making up less than 9% of the House, 16% of the Coalition Government, and 23% of the popular vote, the Liberal Democrats ended up managing to control around 40% of the government’s actions. By any standards, anyone voting Liberal Democrat in 2010 enjoyed an outrageous return on their support.
Having achieved an unprecedented political coup, Nick Clegg is likely to preside over a complete obliteration of his party’s fortunes in next month’s Election. Despite his obvious communications skills, and his clever PR spins in recent weeks about “Salmond, Farage or me” and the threat of “Blukip”, Clegg’s problem continues to be an inability to get his message across.
No newspaper or TV network supports the Liberal Democrats. Aside from the few impartial ones, each strongly favours Labour, the Conservatives or (in the case of the Daily Express) UKIP. This isn’t helping Clegg’s message succeed.
I don’t like the idea of £9,000 a year tuition fees, and neither do students. But the biggest pity of all this is that the brightest young minds of our generation can’t seem to understand the simple truth behind coalitions. The message is coming through far too faintly, and – regardless – they just aren’t listening.