This should have been a defining week for the Liberal Democrats. Our last conference before a General Election. A chance to showcase our (relatively unknown) leader and to get across to the electorate one (or, at a stretch, two) clear, simple ideas.
But a conference that began with an assertion that we could replace the Labour Party, quite swiftly descended into a rapid volley of mixed messages.
The truth is that the wider electorate will not have received a positive impression of the LibDems from our activities this week. And much of the media pack were rolling their eyes in the sort of way that I’ve seen before. Most begin with a fairly open-minded view that they haven’t quite grasped what the party is saying, but fairly swiftly move to the conclusion that we don’t either.
I wasn’t wholly persuaded by the narrative in Nick Clegg’s DEMOS pamphlet – however, he was at least saying something vaguely interesting. But if you want to assert that you’re going to replace Labour on the eve of conference, to have as your first big story that you’re willing to make savage cuts in public services is a little bewildering. More worryingly, to try and row back and explain that Nick meant “serious” or “severe” and not “savage” is nuanced beyond credibility. (He was intending to say “severe”, but said “savage instead)
None of this would matter much if we had a draft script to work to. But sometimes it seems as if we’ve called in the cameramen, the producer, the director, the make-up artists and the lead actors and are asking them to make up the plot as they go along.
This might – conceivably – lead to the creation of a cult, surrealist masterpiece. But more often than not it just ends up with a lot of very confused people saying “Sorry, that’s bollocks”.
All is not lost – by any means – but if we want to put on 4% or 5% in a General Election campaign, we will need to make sure our communications strategy and our message are much better than this.