A Big Tent Isn’t Always a Strong Tent

Lurked over an interesting Facebook exchange last night that started me thinking about the range of policy views within the Liberal Party membership. The key comment was that the weakness of the ALP has resulted in more Centre Left  youth moving into the left of the Liberal Party.

I’m not sure that it’s true. But certainly among the under-30s there is a cohort of fashionable-cause-following moralisers. That is to be expected; it’s what people just out of Uni become.

In my twenties I was of the Centre-Left and I joined the ALP – what I hoped for was the pragmatic ALP of  Peter Walsh and Hawke-Keating. I discovered that ALP didn’t exist outside the Federal Cabinet room of the mid-eighties. Over time I came to join the Liberals. So in some ways I’m an example of the Centre-Left flight.

Except I moved to the Liberals precisely to avoid the unionism, dirigisme and moralising that more or less define the Centre-Left.  There has always been a dirigiste, moralising edge to part of the Liberal Party; the core difference between them and the Left is in how they approach the market and unionism.  For that reason I don’t think the centre-left has migrated to the Liberals at all.

Rather, the floppy Left within the Liberals has stretched out over a larger range of policy positions and philosophic predispositions, particularly in the faddish areas that define whether or not you are a “good Liberal” in the eyes of the Left. From global warming to population, planning to heritage, welfare reform to refugee policy, CSG to fisheries, over the past two decades  the tent has got bigger.

Similarly, recent noises from other parts of the party on competition regulation, land use, trade, small business protection, planning and other areas indicate a kind of big government populism that hasn’t been a core position of the Party for a long time. It is reminiscent of the old Free Trade v Protectionist centre-right debates from the time of Federation.

This is making the tent even bigger. Throw in longstanding differences in views on social issues and the party membership is representative of almost  every non-union political view.

Which leads us to the basic issue of branding and political communication. Right now the Liberals clearly stand for policy competence, financial responsibility, and an end to the funding and stacking circle that runs across  people in the ALP-union-bureaucracy-academe-grant community-tribunal class. But with such a big policy tent, it makes clarity of further communication difficult.

When it is so difficult to get any political communication noticed at all, having such a broad brand concept is not a good idea. It just allows your opponent to define who you are. Which is what has happened to the Liberals over the past decades (with the help of a pliant and faddish mainstream media).

Lack of a clear policy branding is hurting David Cameron in the UK. It’s hurting Liberal Premiers in Australia. The lessons from selling products in a competitive market are instructive here. You’ve got to have a brand personality that is distinctive to engender interest, loyalty and a sale. There is one certain way to fail in a market: trying to be all things to all people.

You might gain electoral success on the back of the ALP self-destructing. But relying on a competitive product failing isn’t a marketing strategy, and it won’t bind people to you if any competitive product re-emerges.

It’s good to be in a big tent. But it can be too big.

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