Over the last few months, Lib Dem activists have been increasingly urged to emphasise the things we are stopping the Conservatives doing. We are told to make a virtue out of being the brakes, or at least the gears, that prevent full speed, full scale right-wingery.
It may be true. The problem though is that as a message this is rubbish.
I don’t mean that it’s not a good idea to restrain the Tories. Of course it is. I don’t mean that activists don’t like to hear this. Of course they do.
But the party’s key messages have to be those that are relevant to, and strike a chord with, the wider audience. And the wider audience will simply not be won over by this Tory taming narrative.
Let’s take a rather crude example.
Imagine David Cameron, George Osborne and the lot of them with a litter of kittens. The room is full of piteous mewing. But the Tories don’t want the pesky things. Imagine David is about to wield the knife and kill every single little one of them.
Nick Clegg bravely steps in. “At least spare some of the kittens” he says.
So instead of all ten going under, three are spared and scamper away somewhere.
The problem is most people, and certainly most of our potential voters, don’t want to kill any kittens at all. And we have just become complicit in felicide. What is more newsworthy, the seven dead ones or the others?
So the message has an obvious weakness.
But perhaps we can make it more relevant and appealing To do this our comms people would have to make sure that they took every possible opportunity to say just how terrible the Tories are. Making something that is quite bad a little less bad is not a strong message.
The worse things could be though, the more significant our putting on the brakes a bit becomes.
So in order to sharpen the message, we have to paint the Tories as really bad. And I mean really, really bad, evil, nasty. We have to paint them not just as wanting to kill the kittens, but intending to wipe out the whole cat population. The Downing Street cat had better hide somewhere sharpish!
OK so we tell everyone our Coalition partners are evil incarnate. But this message doesn’t work either. Any person with a brain will retort that if they are that bad, what on earth are we doing putting them in government?
I am not saying it was wrong to form the Coalition. I am not saying we are wrong to fight our corner within it. What I am saying is that we need to think more carefully about whether the Tory taming message is really going to work for us. And as it isn’t, we need to be honest about what we agree with and what we don’t.
Paula Keaveney is the former leader of Liverpool Lib Dems. She has worked in journalism and PR for more than 25 years. She lives in South Liverpool with one black and white cat, but sadly no kittens!
A version of this article has appeared in the Liberator magazine as a letter.