The ‘Big Five’ – Implications for the Lib Dem Brand


By Joshua Townsley

Joshua Townsley argues that the Liberal Democrats need to revisit the five key issue areas that have characterised its messaging since 1992. A direct, defined, and distinct message is the only way forward for the party.

In 1992, Britain’s third party embarked on a new chapter in their story. Following the turbulence of the Alliance and the merger that followed, the Liberal Democrats, under Paddy Ashdown, launched a policy paper entitled ‘Our Different Vision’. The aim of the paper was to lay out a clear and distinct electoral platform on which the party would fight going forward. The strategy was based on ‘owning’ five key issue areas using distinct policy positions in each to do so. These issue areas, Enterprise Economy, Education, Environment, Europe and Electoral Reform, became known as the ‘five E’s’, and guided the party’s messaging for nearly two decades.

It worked. Between 1992 and 2010, the party expanded its share of the vote from 17.8% to 23%, and its number of MPs from 20 to 57. With education at the forefront of the party’s five-pronged message assault, policies such as scrapping tuition fees, adding a penny on the pound of income tax to pay for schools investment, opposition to the Iraq war, and defence of civil liberties, all helped carve out the Liberal Democrat ‘brand’.

It was good while it lasted. Following sacrifices, compromise and u-turns, the party now lingers in single digits in the polls. According to YouGov’s Peter Kellner, of the 6.8 million votes the party gained in 2010, only 2.4 million remain. 1 in 5 2010 Lib Dem voters have now shifted to the ‘Don’t Know’ column. 3.2 million have switched to another party, with Labour gaining around 1 in 3 of these, and the Greens, UKIP and the Conservatives around 1 in 10 each.

It does not make for pretty reading for the party.

Currently polling in single digits, the Lib Dems now face one of their toughest tests yet- to reboot, redefine, and resell the Liberal Democrat brand. It is perhaps an apt time therefore, to revisit the five key issue areas. Indeed, the party high command has already shown signs of doing just this.

The ‘Enterprise Economy’ issue has always been difficult for the Liberal Democrats. As a valence issue judged by the electorate on past record, the party has often struggled to utilise this issue having no government record to tout. However, on issues of taxation, the party has been able to utilise the issue in a distinct way, previously advocating a populist 50% tax band, positioning the party to the left of Labour in 2005. Since entering government, the party’s most talked about policy, and one of its most popular in government, has been the raising of the personal allowance. This issue looks set to feature prominently in the next General Election as the party will likely advocate increasing the allowance to the minimum wage level to solidify its ‘ownership’ of the low income low tax issue. What is also set to feature in the 2015 campaign is a commitment to introduce a ‘Mansion Tax’ on properties valued over £2m. These taxation policies are popular among centre-left voters, and could provide the centrepiece issue in the party’s 2015 campaign. Furthermore, the party will be keen to gain some credit for the economic recovery taking place, seen through its “stronger economy, fairer society” message. These, combined with the low-income low tax issue of the personal allowance have been prevalent in the party’s messaging over the last year. However, while such policies are popular, they are not readily identifiable with the Lib Dems, as Labour also favour a ‘Mansion Tax’, and the Conservatives have supported the personal allowance increases. Therefore, the lack of clear blue water between the Lib Dems and the other parties in this area render it less effective in forming a distinct identity for the party.

On ‘Electoral Reform’, the overwhelming defeat of the AV referendum means changes to the voting system is likely to be off the agenda for some time. However, while eventually dropped, plans for reform of the House of Lords gained a majority in the House of Commons, showing there may be an appetite for another attempt at reform in the next parliament. Moreover, the Scottish referendum on independence may kick start some constitutional soul-searching across the UK. However, the lack of public interest in constitutional and political reform means it will remain a distinct, but minor issue for the party.

Likewise, the Environment will remain a relatively weak issue for the party given the sacrifices made in government. Fracking, nuclear power, and the badger cull have tainted the party’s credibility among ‘green’ voters, and the next manifesto may see an adoption of pro-nuclear policy and weaker opposition to fracking.

For the first time in recent years, the party vocally publicised its pro-EU stance at the Euro elections. Previously seen solely as an electoral ‘vote-loser’, the party deliberately polarised the EU debate between UKIP, the party of ‘out’, and the Lib Dems, the party of ‘in’. The radio and television debates with Farage exemplify attempts to define the Lib Dems with a pro-European message in order to recreate a distinct Lib Dem ‘identity’. Britain’s dependence on the EU in terms of jobs also gives the party license to relate the pro-EU message to more salient issues such as jobs and employment. This marked a more open attempt to appeal to left-leaning voters. In 2012, YouGov found that 61% of voters that describe themselves as ‘Very/Fairly Left Wing’ and 53% of voters that describe themselves as ‘Slightly Left Wing’ oppose British withdrawal from the EU. Labour’s fears about the unpopularity of being too overtly pro- European show its desire to position itself near the Median Voter on the issue of Europe, allowing the Lib Dem position to appeal to pro-EU Labour supporters. While this strategy did not do enough to save all but one of the party’s MEPs, with a likely referendum on the horizon, the issue is likely to be high on the agenda before long, and possibly represents the most well known Lib Dem position.

This brings us back to Education. Free School Meals, the Pupil Premium and increased opposition to free schools, represent the party’s fight back on this issue. The party will be acutely aware that its support among students, academics, university staff and public sector professionals formed the bedrock of its support prior to 2010. The Lib Dems need these voters. Education is the issue the party needs. So expect to see ‘education, education, education’ from Clegg and co between now and May.

Joshua Townsley is a PhD researcher at the University of Kent, specialising in political campaigning and electoral politics. For more information, see here:

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