Saturday, 1 March 2008

Waiting for the Obama-a-likes

The rise and rise of Senator Barack Obama is an epic event in the history of political marketing. Politicos everywhere should watch and learn.


Because a party 's appeal - its brand and narrative - sinks or swims with its leader.

And that's because it comes down to telling a story that clicks with what the people listening to it – the voters – are thinking and feeling. Engaging the emotions, especially hope and fear, are what it’s really about.

Someone has to tell the story and make the connection. That's usually the party leader. It all comes together when s/he embodies it and lends the story a sense of authenticity.

During World War II, Winston Churchill called on the British people to have courage and make sacrifices. He stayed in London during the blitz and exposed himself to the risk of physical danger. He visited bombsites in east London and elsewhere.

Margaret Thatcher spoke to England’s aspirational and provincial middle classes and preached the values of hard work and personal discipline as the path to national recovery. The grocer’s daughter from Grantham worked all hours

In the mid-1990s, Tony Blair offered middle England a fresh start, a clear break from the Conservatives and Old Labour. He looked and dressed just like the people he was speaking to.

So too with Senator Obama, the candidate of “hope” and change”. As I have said before, he offers Democratic voters the promise of renewal, a break from the past. Through his personal story, he embodies the notion that positive change can happen in America. Yesterday, E.J. Dionne jr. argued that Senator Obama is a “yes, we can” candidate who is so powerful because, just like Ronald Reagan in 1980, he gives all sorts of voters a sense of historic opportunity. They can change the political weather.

The Obama story is catching on.

Try this from New Zealand’s left-wing political pundit Chris Trotter. This week, he catalogued what he sees as the NZ public’s anxieties this election year and then said:

For months they’ve been waiting for [Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark] to acknowledge their unease, and, if possible, offer an accurate diagnosis of it.

They have waited in vain.

Miss Clark is no Bill Clinton: she cannot look her supporters in the eye and say, "I feel your pain".

At heart, the prime minister is a diligent and rather uninspiring policy wonk, who has never really understood that politics is not about the head, but the heart.

The voters are simply not in the market for "tonnes of policy". What they're in the market for are tonnes of empathy.

. . .

In their affinity for political managerialism, Helen and Hillary[Clinton] are alike. But, do [National Party leader John] Key's speeches echo our own electorate's hunger for "Hope" and "Change" in the way Barack Obama's echo America's?

Yes, in a strange way they do. Mr Key may not be as effective a speaker as Mr Obama, but his personal political narrative (poor boy raised by a solo mum, who transcends his humble origins to achieve remarkable success) is strikingly similar – and so is the way voters have loaded their deep longing for fresh explanations and new beginnings on to the young challenger's shoulders.

Chris Trotter may be a bit hard on Helen Clark, who has led her party for fourteen years and read the public mood well enough to win three general elections. The NZ electorate may want to see some policy substance from the opposition. So, I am sure, will the British. (Not as lists, though.) Both may be really after some new, younger faces at the top rather than a rendezvous with destiny.

The interesting point he makes is that a party of the centre-right may be about to take over the powerful themes of “hope” and “change”. It's easier when you have been out of power for nearly nine years, The NZ National Party also has a leader with a compelling personal story that could make their promise of an aspirational, centrist politics seem more real to floating voters.

Will it work in the UK? For “Helen Clark” in the piece above, you can easily read “Gordon Brown”. The Conservatives know that the public are deeply disgruntled after ten years of Labour and are talk about “change” at every available opportunity. (The Tory pamphlets coming through my door are even called “Change”.) But David Cameron is no Barack Obama and his origins were far from humble. Athough he is their most appealing leader in years, the Conservatives cannot quite define what David Cameron embodies and how it will click with the public mood. That's one reason they don't have a compelling narrative. Not yet.

1 comment:

jafapete said...

"may be a bit hard on Helen Clark"

No Neil, I think he's got it exactly right. Yes, Helen was able to cobble together governments after three elections, but look at her opponents! And then look at the winning margins! And if it wasn't for some quick-off-the-mark ex-Exclusive Brethren last election, we'd be enjoying the sour fruits of another round of neoliberal reform right now.

But I agree with the broad arguments here.

Yours, P