Monday, 31 March 2008

Come see about me

Which matters most – personal stories or policies and issues?
It's a false choice.

Exhibit A. Matt Bai of the New York Times has tidily explained the main difference between the strategies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He relates it all back to their top campaign strategists.

Senator Obama is advised by David Axelrod:

". . . an advertising guy . . . who perfected the craft of encapsulating an entire life in 30 seconds, he has a gift for telling personal stories in ways that people can understand. Axelrod’s essential insight — the idea that has made him successful where others might have failed — is that the modern campaign really isn’t about the policy arcana or the candidate’s record; it’s about a more visceral, more personal narrative.

"This is probably a big reason why Mr. Obama has, from the start, focused almost exclusively on broad themes of “hope” and “change.”"

Senator Clinton is advised by Mark Penn:

". . . a pollster, and pollsters tend to look at campaigns as a series of dissectible data points that either attract voters or drive them away. Get a health care plan and an economic plan that 70 percent of people say they view favorably. Pay attention to words that move the dial in focus groups, like “real solutions for America” or “ready to lead on Day 1.” "

"Mrs. Clinton’s relentless focus on pragmatism and specificity, as well as her willingness to shift slogans, are not simply a result of her own personality but also of Mr. Penn’s strategic outlook, which values testable ideas and phrases over more sweeping imagery and themes."

Of course, Mr Obama does polls and Mrs Clinton has tried to convey a story. But their respective strengths leave no room for wonder that the campaign has been so closely fought. Matt Bai concludes:

"Mr. Axelrod’s storytelling has created a dynamic hero who sometimes seems estranged from the practicalities of governing; Mr. Penn’s data has created a credible platform put forth by a candidate whose theory of leadership can seem small. What voters love in one they crave in the other. "

Exhibit B. The New York Times reports this morning that the near-certain Republican nominee, Senator John McCain plans to use his life story and military experience to connect with voters. He is starting a Service to America tour, taking in key stops from his and his family’s careers in the forces, in an effort to introduce Senator McCain to a wider audience.

But Republican pundit William Kristol warns convincingly that “biography isn’t enough” because the American electorate doesn’t always show due gratitude to war heroes. He adds that this may reflect “a healthy hard headedness” and “a sensible pragmatism”.

He then argues that:

"Candidate McCain should be working overtime on a broad reform agenda — education reform, health insurance reform, tax reform, government reform, Wall Street reform. He could start by outlining an up-to-date, capitalism-friendly and transparency-requiring approach to regulating the credit markets. (He might also suggest taxing “carried interest” as ordinary income, if only to watch the fur fly among hedge-fund fat cats.)"

I think that a candidate needs both “personal stories” and “issues”; they need have to work in tandem.

OK, so that’s all about America and people on this side of the Atlantic tend to be more reserved. Politicians aren’t expected to spill their personal stories to the same extent. The conventional wisdom is that British elections are decided mostly on competence, party images and issues.

But UK party leaders still need to embody their parties' narratives. They need to tell personal stories, to make the narratives appear more authentic.

Remember John Major’s televised trip back to Brixton in 1992, which brought home the politics of opportunity and aspiration.

Or the youthful Tony Blair’s 1997 promise of a new Britain under New Labour. His physical appearance, a young man with a young family, sent a subliminal message. Labour's pledge card tapped into the concerns of his target voters.

Today, the leaders’ failure to tell powerful personal stories illustrate the weaknesses of their respective parties’ narratives.

Gordon Brown has not told a personal story that enables him to connect with the electorate. He thinks Labour’s narrative is about “opportunity for all” but nobody seems to have noticed.

David Cameron has told of his own family’s experiences of the NHS. But that doesn’t – yet – amount to the personal story. The vision and substance of the Conservative narrative is still a work in progress. But he’s a new face for an electorate that wants change.

Nick Clegg opened his speech to the spring conference in Liverpool by mentioning his grandmother, a Russian exile and his mother, who spent part of her childhood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia. “They found a home in Britain because ours is a nation of tolerance, of freedom, and of compassion.” But these stories aren’t about him. And the narrative that Nick Clegg is gradually building is about creating a better politics; and this co-exists alongside another about fighting for a more equal Britain, “the people versus the powerful”.

Let’s see who gets there first.

No comments: