The Lib Dems’ branding crisis

A political party’s brand is more than a logo, it is its heart and soul.

The part-fiction, part-fun story in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph about the Lib Dems generated a bit of speculation about whether the party will change its name, logo or leader. It was the usual display of people who comment on politics but don't understand branding, and is nicely rebutted here.

When it comes to branding, I should declare an interest: my whole family is in the business. My dad was involved in briefing Rodney Fitch, the designer of the current Lib Dem logo. As far as brand and marketing people are concerned, those in PR/corporate communications (labels I have been given in the past) are "fly by night – no data to crunch". They are more polite than that, but that is their underlying meaning – and often they are right.

Understanding why people think, feel and believe something courses through the veins of the Grender clan. We were all virtually raised on it.

But when the word "branding" gets raised in the political arena, many who comment on politics – and, indeed, politicians – tend to lose the plot. Because they fail to understand what branding means. They typically think about colour, typeface, logo and the name of the party. Sometimes they make the critical error of thinking that opinion polling should even change their policies. Then we get the usual hackneyed comments, such as: "Changing your logo won't change your problem."

Well, that phrase is correct, but it also demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what a brand means when it comes to a political party.

For years now, the Liberal Democrats have struggled with how they are perceived and, therefore, their brand. There has been a fundamental split between perceptions of the party nationally and perceptions locally.

At local level, they are seen as the party that "rolls up its sleeves, fights for the forgotten end of the borough, gutsy, no-nonsense". At national level, they have usually been perceived as "bespectacled, slightly academic commentariat from the sidelines". Hence, Vince Cable polled high in the years leading up to the election but nobody knew he was a Liberal Democrat.

Combine that with the critical issue of the often-repeated phrase "I would support you, but you haven't got any chance of getting into government" and the Lib Dems have had an obvious branding problem for years.

Post-May and the coalition, however, the party's 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.

Because of the coalition, the critical issue is now trust. Will people believe that the Lib Dems felt they had little choice regarding such issues as tuition fees? For a political party, a brand can be underpinned by policies and by perceptions, particularly of the leader, but it is not the ultimate defining factor. A brand is like a person: it builds up over time. It must be reflected honestly and accurately, or it simply doesn't work.

Brand is important, but it will never be as simple as a change of logo – it is about the very heart and soul of the party. And I think we can all accept that that is currently in a state of flux.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.