Nick Clegg’s apology for his party’s pledge – later dropped – to oppose an increase in student tuition fees, once again raises an important question in political communications – is an apology good PR that shows you’ve listened to voters, understood where you went wrong and shows determination to right a wrong? Or does it show weakness, a lack of judgement, too little too late and in today’s world of social media and viral content, is it a stick to be beaten with?
Looking at the reaction to Clegg’s statement (which came just days before his party meets in Brighton for its annual conference), you have to wonder what his strategy was. Countless tweets ask how sincere he was and, predictably, there are calls for him to overturn the increases in tuition fees if he really means it as well as many other calls for apologies on this and that. There’s even a spoof video doing the rounds which, although funny, ridicules Clegg and that is something all politicians fear. His advisers would have been split on whether he should do it or not, knowing that it would reignite a toxic issue.
The fact is though that Clegg was not apologising for being part of a Government that increased student tuition fees – he was apologising for making a pre-election pledge that he would never be able to see through, basically admitting that it was unrealistic. This might seem like a handy way of apologising without saying the current policy is wrong. But the trouble for the Lib Dems is that this confirms what many people think – that as a party unlikely to govern on its own, they can make populist pledges knowing that they probably won’t have to deliver them. By starting a debate on this now, less than 1000 days until the next election, he is storing up trouble for the future. His political opponents will replay this apology over and over and ask if we can trust him again and whether any promise the Lib Dems make to win your vote is likely to mean much if they do end up sitting around the Cabinet table.
In politics, sometimes sorry really is the hardest word.