Rebranding or no rebranding, Clegg has ‘Ratnered’ the Lib Dems

Kevin Meagher takes a look at the Lid Dems' current electoral prospects, looking in particular at the leadership of Nick Clegg.

The Lib Dems’ response to months of difficulty in scraping double digits in the opinion polls is to embark on a radical rebranding of the party…

…Or so The Sunday Telegraph confidently reported last week. According to the paper this process is to begin in April, and may see the party’s much mocked ‘bird-in-flight’ motif replaced with a set of scales. There was even speculation the party’s name may be changed to include the word ‘social’, in order to emphasise the party’s battered centre-left credentials.

Only the party flatly denies any such move is underway. Lib Dem insider, Olly Grender, describes the story as “part-fiction, part fun” in the New Statesman. The Lib Dem blog, Virtually Naked, was more vexed, claiming:

“…there is no rebrand underway, at all.”

Of course, both amount to non-denial denials as The Sunday Telegraph’s story says the exercise will begin next month.

Nevertheless, from the Lib Dems’ perspective, a rebrand would be a canny move. The exercise could be used to offset the difficult slew of election results to local councils in England and the devolved bodies in Scotland and Wales. Already anticipating a drubbing, Nick Clegg would be able to use a rebranding exercise to show the inevitable relaunch of his party is already well underway.

If he waits until after the elections before beginning this process, it will look like a panic response to defeat; Grender argues that since the election and their decision to join the Tories in coalition, the Lib Dems’ branding:

“…is like a deck of cards that has been thrown up into the air – and the party needs to think about, and prepare for, where those cards will land.”

Coincidentally, April is the twentieth anniversary of another leader, like Nick Clegg, whose carefree strategic misjudgement destroyed his organisation’s brand.

He was Gerald Ratner, then CEO of his family’s high street jewellery business of the same name. Commenting on the quality of his company’s products in an ill-fated speech on April 23rd 1991, he infamously said:

“We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?” I say, “because it’s total crap.”

Overnight he remarks (and their inept handling) managed to wipe £500 million off the company’s share price. “Doing a Ratner” is now shorthand for an act of corporate suicide.

Nick Clegg has achieved something similar for the Liberal Democrats. He has presided over a trashing of his party’s brand by riding roughshod over the social liberalism of many of his party’s grassroots and voters, haemorrhaging public support in the process.

If his team are about to pore over colour palettes and font styles they need to understand this fundamental point: the Lib Dems’ problems are not primarily about image; they are about trust (as indeed, Olly Grender concedes). The difficulties they face centre on the reality of what they have done in office, not the ‘perception’ of it. They are the party that has now voted to treble university tuition fees and support the devastating cuts to public services.

The voters who have abandoned them steadily over the past 12 months have not done so lightly. Many feel mortally betrayed to see Nick Clegg in government with the Conservatives, presiding over the dismantling of the NHS and peddling retro-Thatcherite economic policies.

Nick Clegg’s protestations that he agreed to join the government last May for the “national interest” cuts little ice. Unlike the Lib Dems, the pre-election Tories were clear about what they would do if they took power. Their call for “an age of austerity” made plain their unreconstructed lust for rolling back the state. For their many disillusioned voters, ignorance of how things were going to work out is no defence for the Lib Dem leadership.

Mr. Clegg’s coalition partner was more prepared. Despite his own faltering rebrand of the Conservatives, David Cameron and his party are well used to being unpopular in government, even if that sees the return of their image as “the nasty party”.

The Lib Dems, in contrast, are now cast as “the lying party”, (as their doorstep canvassers can no doubt attest), unfamiliar territory for the supposed “nice guys” of British politics.

As a YouGov poll in Tuesday’s Sun pointed out, a slaughter of Lib Dem councillors in May’s local elections is on the cards, with the party set to lose control of 11 of the 25 English councils they control, wiping out 700 of their 1850 councillors in the process.

With their identity in disarray and staring at devastating electoral losses in a few weeks’ time, the reality of the Lib Dems’ predicament will perhaps dawn on even Nick Clegg’s small inner core of true believers. Those who thought that last May’s coalition deal heralded an age of amicable coalition politics and the return of the Liberals as a party of government now see their party and its brand “ratnered” by Nick Clegg’s fatal decision to back David Cameron’s neo-Thatcherites.

Their party logo may or may not end up as a set of scales, but it will be the harsh judgement of the electorate in May that matters most.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.