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Cons-Lib coalition – the branding implications

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It’s been a very busy few weeks (freelancing, wedding preparations, even the odd weekend away), so I’ve not had chance to update this blog after the pretty astonishing traffic surge my last post created.

What’s more, I’ve been glued to the election coverage (on which point, it’s nice to see my earlier post questioning the role of social media in the election seems to have been on the money). It’s been an incredible few weeks in British politics, and from a branding perspective the creation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (ConDemNation, as it has quickly been tagged) throws up some huge issues.

First, what does it mean for the Tories? The interesting thing is that the coalition, though apparently a compromise born of necessity, may help David Cameron and the Tory brand in the long run. Cameron has been trying for years to reform the party’s image – he realised that a Conservative Party that appealed to the English shires could not win power on a national basis. But that message has not got through to huge swathes of the party. Cameron is unpopular in parts of the Conservative party because his leadership is based around a small clique; he does it that way because, frankly, he doesn’t trust lots of his own party. And you only have to look at what happened with Chris Grayling to see that he is probably right.

Cameron is a centrist that has tried to modernise the Tory brand with a new political positioning and a new ‘compassionate’ image (as well as that curious kids-drawing-of-a-tree logo). Yet he never quite managed to ‘seal the deal’ with the electorate because plenty of voters still didn’t trust the braying element of the party (or Cameron’s own posh-boy background).

So tying up with the Lib Dems, a centrist party with strong environmental and civil liberties credentials, is a masterstroke. It’s an astonishing attempt at partnership marketing, co-opting your partner’s brand strengths. If it works, it will detoxify the Tory brand, help make them a bit cuddlier, and make them far more electable whenever the next election takes place.

Then there’s the Lib Dems. It’s a much more complex situation for them. Arguably, part of their brand was their sheer powerlessness. They were the voters’ moral conscience, cash-strapped but high on principle, who could be employed as a protest vote either for fed-up middle class Labour voters or Conservative defectors. They were a way of reminding the big two parties that they couldn’t take their core vote for granted. A few years ago they veered to the left, and still have some pretty out-there policies, but for much of their existence they have sat neatly between Labour and the Tories.

Getting into power changes everything. Their left-wing credentials will be undermined by the fact they are propping up a Tory government. The hairshirt brigade, who previously could quite happily commit the Lib Dems to all sorts of crazy policies safe in the knowledge they’d never be put into practice, now find the party making compromises to get into power. This is a brave new world for the party, and one fraught with danger. There is a very real danger of a defection to Labour by some of its voters; to counter that, it must show voters of all persuasions who previously saw the Lib Dems as a wasted vote that the party has a role to play in power (and making that case will be easier if they push the Alternative Vote system through).

In short, what Nick Clegg needs to do is rebrand the Lib Dems. And the only way to do that is to be seen to deliver in government. If he fails, the Lib Dems could be wiped out at the next election, just as previous coalitions wiped out their predecessors, the Liberal Party. It’s a big risk – the Lib Dem brand could be completely undermined over the next few years.

Then there’s Labour. It actually polled better than many feared in the election, but it’s clear it needs a brand refresh. The departure of Brown and the end to the New Labour project means the party has to start again. For all its troubles, the New Labour machine proved one thing: to win elections convincingly it needs a credible, centrist vision. It took the Tories nearly a decade to work out it had to follow suit; can Labour now do it again more quickly? Bookies’ favourite David Miliband seems to recognise the scale of the challenge, but with the ConDemNation suddenly taking over the centre ground, Labour needs to find some new ideas. And it faces a core urban, working class vote the party has gradually alienated. For an intellectually and financially exhausted party, this rebuilding may take a while.

Finally, there’s the issue of the forthcoming spending cuts, which as we all know will be brutal. Mervyn King recently predicted these would severely hurt the popularity of the party in power, and that of course is possible. Cameron’s cuddly image may be compromised by the resurgence of the ‘nasty party’ in voters’ minds, and the Lib Dems’ role in the cuts will be under heavy scrutiny. But actually, I think Labour’s brand may suffer here too. The great realignment of politics in the 90s was built on two factors: the loss of confidence in the Conservatives’ ability to manage the economy in the wake of Black Wednesday, and the ability of Tony Blair to convince voters that Labour had moved on from its former financial recklessness. And for a decade, it seemed like Labour had buried its reputation for economic incompetence.

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will be hurt by having to make savage cuts. But if they make them competently and fairly, and if they actually show they can deal with the deficit, they may be given some ‘tough love’ credit. And assuming they spend the next couple of years blaming the situation on the former government, Labour may find it has a mountain to climb to convince the Middle England voters it needs of its economic competence.

The beauty about branding in politics is that it is always at the mercy of events and the foibles of individuals. That makes the next few years impossible to call, but fascinating to watch.

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