Saturday, 3 May 2008

Boris's victory and the power of political storytelling

If you want to see how political narratives really work, look no further than Boris Johnson’s successful bid to become Mayor of London.

It gives me no pleasure to say this –- and I was appalled at the number of Lib Dems who voted for him as their first or second choice -- the Tory candidate’s campaign came straight from the copybook of political storytelling.

In The Secret Language Of Leadership (2007), Stephen Denning argues that telling the story is the way to make a personal and emotional connection with an audience. It needs more than rational argument. Denning argues that a speaker (or leader, or politician) must: (1) get peoples’ attention, (2) stimulate the desire for change and (3) reinforce it with rational argument. You must offer solutions that are plausible and involve a happy ending.

Boris Johnson’s campaign was successful in crafting such a narrative. First, Johnson got the public’s attention because he is a very well-known tv celebrity and comedian, an established print journalist and columnist. In this age of celebrity, he was able to seem interesting, novel and above party politics, despite having been a Conservative MP since 2001. And for London politics, he was a new and interesting face.

Second, Johnson stimulated a desire for change. That was easy because after eight years in office, the Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone had made himself unpopular. Yesterday, the polling firm Ipsos-MORI published their ‘inbox’ for the new mayor. Based on 41,000 interviews for the London boroughs' and seven years of tracking data in the London survey, it shows that Londoners are satisfied with their city as a place to live. But they are concerned about the cost of living, housing, overall crime levels and in particular violent crime, traffic congestion and congestion charging. When asked which issues would decide their votes, respondents gave crime and policing, transport overall and healthcare as their top three. 

The Ipsos-MORI survey also showed that Livingstone had polarised the public over congestion charging and that people disliked his style and attitude. They thought that he had grown out of touch. 

Apart from healthcare, these became the top subjects of Johnson’s mega-message: Ken Livingstone must go.

Third, Johnson followed up his powerful “time for a change” theme with rational arguments. Nobody would ever call Boris a policy wonk but he had enough solutions on the big issues that were plausible to his target voters. Doubling the number of police on the buses, especially in outer London. Action on gang crime. Phase out bendy buses. Reform the congestion charge. Build more affordable homes. Stand up for Londoners on healthcare.  No, I wasn’t taken in and it will be fascinating to watch him try to keep all his promises.  My point is, policies do matter but it’s how you frame them that counts!

OK, Johnson sometimes floundered under questioning but the mood for change had built up. The media narrative was written – Ken out, Boris in.  The Tory campaign rammed it home by selling their man as the only change for the better. (I’ve seen that one used to great effect in Australian election campaigns. Just fancy that!)

Johnson embodied his narrative by being younger, newer and more approachable than Livingstone.  He is also a big personality but with a very different style and background to the outgoing mayor.  But he became serious and measured to the point of being dull, so it became harder to pin the “Boris the clown” tag on him.  As a tv celebrity, he could be engaging and compelling and this enabled him to discuss the issues in a way that struck a chord with disenchanted voters’ emotions.  Like most Londoners, he was upbeat about the city and its future.  Boris – for people usually refer to him by his Christian name only - seemed to offer voters a safe, unrisky change. A happy ending.

Let me be clear: I am sure that the ending won’t be happy, especially for some of those who live in the less leafy parts of London. 

I was pleased to vote for Brian Paddick for my first preference.  I appreciate that he was always going to struggle against the huge financial and media juggernauts behind the Labour and Tory candidates.  Also, it seems that Lib Dem supporters didn’t understand the voting system, but more on that later. 

We can’t let ourselves off the hook though.  The Tory story worked and we need to understand why.  Once again, our campaign had a meaty list of good policies.  But I don’t think that we told people a good story about why they should vote Lib Dem, for the Mayor or the GLA.

They responded accordingly.


Linda Jack said...

Excellent analysis as ever Neil! And yes, I absolutely agree with you about electorate not understanding the system. The usual first past the post system is so ingrained it is hard to get the message that people could still stop Ken or Boris, or even endorse them, by putting them second.

But really disappointing result for us.

USpace said...

YEY BORIS! Boris may be a buffoon, but at least he's not a communist one.

Bloody good news! Praise the Lord! Thank God! There is hope for Londonistan. What will Red Ken do next?


absurd thought -
God of the Universe says
elect a communist

someone who will work full-time
to destroy your country


Davidboyle said...

Neil, you are absolutely right. The Paddick campaign was not as completely empty-headed as the Hughes campaign, but it still lacked something to say. Lib Dems do not have the luxury of fighting a campaign on an empty-headed narrative, even if we can string together the right story - which we don't seem to be able to do. We need a convincing explanation of what is wrong, and we need to appeal also to the opinion-formers who will talk about it. That's the only way forward. Matthew Huntbach (can't remember where, sorry Matthew!) has quite rightly pointed out how poor we are at fighting PR elections, and this is why - to project ourselves on that scale we need something distinctive and coherent to say, we need a purpose and we need a story that pulls it all together. So far, we haven't managed to achieve that - but we will!