The Information Commissioner’s Office has done the Liberal Democrats a favour by ordering them to stop using automated telephone calls in their campaigning. It has forced them to abandon a tactic that was setting them on the wrong road both politically and strategically.
It is not as if the party does not know better. The Liberal Democrats have a history of campaigning against nuisance telephone calls, and in 2005 – with an eye on other, better funded parties and the imminent general election – they set up a Stop Nuisance Calls website.
They built on this record earlier this year by launching their Faceless Britain campaign. This drew together a number of themes: the difficulty of getting through to benefits helplines, the closure of local post offices, the introduction of ID cards.
In other words, just the things that voters talk about but politicians rarely mention. Fertile ground, you might think, for the new leader of a third party hungry to break into the big league.
And Nick Clegg claimed it at the rally that launched the Liberal Democrat Conference last week:
Our Government just isn’t listening. It keeps the public at arms length with layers of confusing, impersonal and inefficient bureaucracy. Faceless Britain.
But all that was forgotten is his main conference speech.
The worry for ambitious Liberal Democrats is not just that the plan Clegg announced to cold call 250,000 people turned out to be an embarrassment: it is that those around him were so besotted with the idea.
It was trailed in the press release issued about the speech, yet a notably radical section on children — “One in three children growing up in poverty. A million in cramped and unsafe homes where they don’t get space to play. More children in prison than any other country in Western Europe” — went unmentioned. Wasn’t that more likely to have interested voters?
Those who attended the pre-speech press conference given by Clegg’s chief of staff Danny Alexander report that the cold calling scheme dominated the event and that it unravelled in the face of this scrutiny. In fact, they say, it is a tribute to Clegg’s performance that he received the favourable coverage he did.
Where did this enthusiasm for a cheesy marketing technique come from?
The independent Liberator magazine is the starting point for all Lib Dem kremlinlogists, and its latest issue points to the influence on Clegg of people from the advertising and public relations industries. It mentions John Sharkey, a former managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi UK, and Gavin Grant from Burson-Marsteller in particular.
All Liberal and Liberal Democrat leaders fall under this spell eventually; the difference with Nick Clegg is that it has happened in the early days of his reign. But there is always a tension between PR professionals, who see winning votes as a marketing exercise, and party members for whom it is a matter of policy.
The result can be barely disguised contempt on the part of the PR types. The “beard and sandals” stereotype is a good two decades out of date, but on the eve of the Lib Dem Conference The Times reported that Clegg’s tax plans would “horrify the Lib Dems’ corduroy jacket brigade”. I wonder who briefed them on that?
Yet Nick Clegg would have been better off listening to his wider membership. The humblest parish councillor could have told him that, even if it was legal, cold calling voters during Coronation Street and the Champions League was never going to make him popular.
The themes set out in the Faceless Britain campaign just might.