Sunday, 1 June 2008

Still story time for the Liberal Democrats

Last Wednesday night, I was pleased to be the guest speaker at the Islington Liberal Democrats’ pizza and politics evening. The subject was political narratives and how they work. This is the second time in six months I have spoken at such an event, so this storytelling thing may be catching on.

We had an interesting discussion, albeit with one or two diversions. Just as with the Lewisham and Beckenham North event in December, I was left with two major conclusions: (i) local party activists and campaigners seem to understand political narratives better and faster than some of the big wheels at Westminster and (ii) women seem to “get it” better and faster than men. (If I’m right, why might this be?)

Anyway, below is a slightly edited version of my speech. This serves a quick quide to my views about what makes a compelling political narrative. It’s also an update of the “Story Time for the Liberal Democrats” paper that I wrote for the Meeting the Challenge exercise in February 2006.

Neil Stockley
Edited speech notes for Islington Liberal Democrats’ Pizza and Politics evening
Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Tonight, I have a challenge for all of us.

The Liberal Democrats – the party of change – need to change ourselves.

We need to change.

We need to change the way we campaign.

We need to change the way that we speak to the voters.

I want to say to you that, as a party, we need a political narrative – or, to put it another way, a compelling storyline that encourages people to vote for us.

Too often, we give people lists of issues and policies, acting like the town criers in the square. “Fairer taxes”. “Invest an extra £2 billion for a universal personal care grant “ “Scrap tuition fees”. And, yes, “carbon neutral Britain”.

We keep describing our philosophies or values – “liberalism”, “empowerment”, “opportunity”, “freedom”, “fairness”. More lists. More rhetoric.

And, sure enough, most people keep telling the pollsters that the “Liberal Democrats are decent people but their policies probably don’t add up”, “basically a protest party with no real chance of ever winning” or “a bit of a nothing party”.

The lists and the litanies may all be valid but they aren’t helping us to get our message across.

We need to start telling people stories.

Like Labour used to.

Like the Tories are starting to.

The Liberal Democrats need what any good story has – set up, characters, a series of happenings, a plot, a drama or conflict, emotional content, resolution.

In truth, we are telling and listening to stories all the time – in the media, on TV, in our homes, our workplaces and communities.

People have used stories to communicate with each other for thousands of years.

If you don’t believe that they work in politics, look at how Senator Barack Obama has come from being the underdog to almost winning the Democratic presidential nomination.

I first noticed Barack Obama when he gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

He told the story of how a black man born in Hawaii to an immigrant father – who himself was born and raised in a small village in Kenya and “went to school in a tin- roof shack” - and a white, single mother struggled with a multiracial background and a broken home, gained a world-class education and went on to become the first black man to edit the Harvard Law Review.

This is a uniquely American story of identity and hope – it plays to the way that most American people see themselves and their country. Senator Obama personally embodies the notion that new things - change – can happen in America.

He understands that you convince people, persuade people by telling a story that generates particular emotions; you do that by tapping into familiar archetypes and genres. That’s how you convey a sense of genuine feeling about the values that people hold dear. Senator Obama tells stories that engage both the heart and the head.

His are stories of hope, aspiration and opportunity – “yes, we can.”

Another, closely linked archetype is a transformation, a cleansing by rejecting the "old" and tarnished (in this case, politics) in favour of the “new”.

“There’s not a black America and a white America . . . a liberal America and a conservative America . . . there’s a United States of America”)

Senator Obama’s story is that he can end the bitter culture wars, as embodied by the Bushes and Clintons, and unite the nation around a common purpose. He promises to “make change happen” by building a "bottom-up" movement to create a momentum for reform that would draw in even Republicans.

His rhetoric uses Biblical archetypes, of salvation and liberation.

By telling stories, of change, of a different kind of politics, of “yes, we can”, Senator Obama has tapped into the values and sense of identity of the Democratic Party and, I think, the American people.

He has started where the voters are – what they think of their country and its values - and understood their stories.

Senator Obama tells stories, about widening opportunities in education, expanding access to healthcare, about cutting taxes for low income people, to explain out his vision : “with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all”.

Senator Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has emphasised her experience, her policies, her political pragmatism. By failing to tell a story, or engage with voters’ emotions, she has lost control of her story, her brand.

Now, I have some idea what you are thinking! All this talk about archetypes and embodiment is just a bit too American.

But the most successful British leaders have done them all. Churchill. Thatcher. Blair. And now, Boris Johnson! I know of no politician who has succeeded without telling a compelling story.

Let’s stick with Margaret Thatcher, for a moment. [There was a sharp intake of breath from the audience at this point]

In 1979, she came to power promising to roll back the frontiers of the state, curb the power of the unions and better reward personal endeavour and hard work. Mrs Thatcher’s story, further developed throughout her years in office, was that after the Second World War, Britain had gone into a steep decline, in which successive “weak” Conservative and “socialist” Labour governments were complicit.

By the 1970s, this story went, declining respect for institutions and traditional values, runaway inflation and state expenditure and out of control trade unions were all symptoms of the rot. But she would make Britain great again – the “great island nation” - by personally confronting these challenges and ensuring that individual effort, thrift and success were encouraged.

Mrs Thatcher saluted small businesses and indeed all private enterprise and was adamant that people had to work hard and save in order to succeed; the role of government was to ensure they could do so. Her story contained powerful appeals to the aspiring, law-abiding individuals and families, symbols of values that are rooted in the Victorian era and took hold in the middle classes during the inter-war and postwar years. These celebrate the doughty Englishman and woman who simply want to lead a quiet, prosperous life with their families, in a strong, secure community where the law is obeyed.

For eleven years, this story enabled Mrs Thatcher to gain support for her ‘big ideas’ – cutting government spending and taxes, massive changes to industrial relations and privatising state-owned businesses. Hers was a bold, optimistic story and people, especially the middle class people whose support she needed, could identify with it and see where they fitted in.

Just like Winston Churchill before her, she saw enemies abroad who had to be resisted: the Soviet Union (at least until Gorbachev came along), the Argentinean generals who invaded the Falkland Islands and, as her premiership progressed, the bureaucrats, socialists and integrationists who were supposedly rampant in the European Community.

There were enemies within, too: the trade union leaders who had brought the country to its knees in the 1970s, the Tory “wets”, Arthur Scargill and the miners and, of course, the Labour Party and the SDP-Liberal Alliance who did not share her economic and social outlook. In this way, Mrs Thatcher’s story played on another narrative that is well-worn in English society – “it’s time to stop the rot”, which may be immigrants, asylum seekers, scroungers, fat cat businessmen, dishonest politicians, yobs or delinquent teenagers. Mrs Thatcher was never in any doubt where the rot was coming from.

We can see why this story worked.

Mrs Thatcher explicitly stood by some of the deepest-held, shared values of the British people – pride in Britain and its achievements, the ability to resist external threats, individual achievement and aspiration and reward for hard work.

By standing up for Britain, against its enemies, she helped their target audiences to develop (or confirm) a sense of who they were; they could reframe their thoughts and plans for the future: the need to reverse national decline.

Her story was very easy for people to understand – there was black and white, good guys and bad guys, villains behind every problem.

In every sense, she understood her audience’s story, its way of making sense of the world.

Just like Senator Obama, Margaret Thatcher embodied her story. She came from the very ‘little England’ she so revered. The grocer’s daughter from Grantham was very industrious. Her language and rhetoric often reflected Mrs Thatcher’s ‘black-and-white’, ‘us-and-them’ way of seeing the world.

Ok, maybe Liberal Democrats don’t want to emulate Margaret Thatcher.

But no one can deny that Mrs Thatcher’s story, however flawed and divisive it was, proved to be a vital ingredient in her long-term political success, just as it was in Winston Churchill’s inspirational leadership during the Battle of Britain. The reality is that what Margaret Thatcher achieved provides some clear lessons to show what kinds of stories will strike a chord with the public. Just like Winston Churchill in 1940; Tony Blair in 1997 and, yes, Boris Johnson in 2008.

Liberal Democrats need their own story that speaks to the narrative structures – the archetypes and myths - that people already use. Bill Clinton’s former labor secretary Robert Reich has described how these work in the American setting; I have described some of what I think the UK versions are. As Mr Reich might say, if Liberal Democrats don’t tick these boxes, someone else will.

The stories don’t have to exclusionary. Tony Blair started out by practising the politics of the “big tent”. Nor are the stories inherently conservative or self in nature: during World War II, Winston Churchill played another tune – that of the strong and purposeful community.

Liberal Democrats and our predecessors have used many of these stories before. For example, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s successive Liberal leaders strongly criticised the way Labour and Conservative governments had run the country and decried both their failure to rectify Britain’s long-term economic problems. In their narrative, the threat to the nation (the rot that had to be stopped) came from the top, the two major parties.

In 1983, the SDP/Liberal Alliance pledged to defend the post-war national consensus on economic management (shared national values) against the extremist threats from both major parties – the ‘monetarist’ policies of Mrs Thatcher and a Labour Party that was firmly in the grip of Tony Benn and his followers (the enemy within). David Steel and Roy Jenkins spoke in inclusive language and looked and sounded moderate, the tribunes of centrist politics.

In 1997, Paddy Ashdown and his colleagues slammed the Major government in its dying days for being mired in political sleaze. Ashdown’s pledge to “clean up the mess in politics” was really a fresh take on “stop the rot” - at the top.

The Liberals and Liberal Democrats have often used “Punch and Judy” glove puppets to represent squabbling Labour and Conservative politicians.

If the opposition party always says that “it’s time for a change” and the governing party says “not yet” and asks for more time, the third party invites voters to cast a plague on both their houses. The difference with the Liberal Democrats is that we add in particular policies and issues. Remember in 1997 how Paddy Ashdown told people that every vote we received, every seat we won was a vote for real change. He told people what those changes were and looked and sounded like a man of action.

None of these stories meant that we forgot our principles or betrayed our values.

Likewise, I think that Nick Clegg is now starting to build on the best features of the old archetypes to build a new Liberal Democrat narrative. Remember his speech to the spring conference in March when Nick deplored:

“a (political) system that swings like a pendulum between two establishment parties . . . tired of the same old politicians, the same old fake choices, the same old feeling that nothing ever changes.”

He asked:

“. . . . Gordon Cameron. David Brown. What's the difference any more? . . .”

Just like Grimond, Steel and Ashdown, his theme - his archetype - was “stopping the rot” – the rot at the top of politics, Labour and Conservative.

This leads into a powerful message: Labour may have failed, but a switch to the Conservatives would make no real difference. That needs to be stated more directly. But the end to the story must be that the best way to secure real change is to elect more Liberal Democrats to the House of Commons. This is an updated version of our 1997 campaign narrative, but with a Labour government apparently on the way out.

So: how do we tell a distinctive Liberal Democrat story about making the difference?

Part of it is Nick’s promise to clean up politics and work for a “a new political system for the 21st century.”

As a communications theme, that’s OK, as far as it goes. But in talking about political reform, Nick is really talking about process not results. People are more interested in results, what happens.

Nick may be on stronger ground when he promises public services that are “human-sized, personal in nature, and designed for real people.” A liberal take on stopping the rot at the top can also be used to frame innovative new proposals on localism and decentralisation of power, particularly in the public services. But we need to clearer about what those are.

Then there’s Vince Cable’s promise to make “the very well off pay a bit more in capital gains and income tax so that low and middle income families get a tax cut – 4p in the pound of national income tax” and to make the green tax switch, raising revenue for our package of tax cuts elsewhere . . .

We can tie both of those into the narratives of the strong and purposeful community and the aspiring individual.

We should also tell people stories about the economy. I suspect that fiscal prudence, whilst very important, is old hat now, the last that voters expect. In a time of growing economic anxiety, and a desire for a fresh start, with new, younger leadership, Liberal Democrats should tell stories – before David Cameron does – about securing Britain’s economic future – “the great Island nation”. For instance, how we would promote the new clean and energy-saving technologies can create new jobs and wealth whilst also saving the planet.

There has been progress this year- but there is a long way to go. As well as formulating a story, we need to look at how Nick Clegg can embody it.

I want to leave you with three, closely connected points about the sorts of stories Liberal Democrats should tell.

We need to tell stories about how Labour has failed and the Conservatives would do little better (“flaky” on policies, as Vince Cable would say); the Liberal Democrats are uniquely placed to offer real change.

We need to be sure that we are telling stories about the sorts of change that people are interested in; understanding their stories, where they are coming from.

Above all, we should always tell people stories about the future.

Thank you for listening to me.


John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher; Volume One: The Grocer's Daughter. (Pimlico, 2000)

John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher; Volume Two: The Iron Lady. (Pimlico, 2003)

Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (John Wiley & Sons, 2007)

Howard Gardner, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (Basic Books, 1995)

Jon Johansson, Two Titans: Muldoon, Lange & Leadership. (Dunmore Press, 2005)

Geoffrey Nunberg, Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte Drinking, Sushi Eating, New York Times Reading. Body -Piercing, Hollywood Loving, Left-Wing Freakshow (Public Affairs, 2006)

Robert Reich, “The Lost Art of Democratic Narrative," The New Republic, March 21, 2005

Annette Simmonds, The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling (Basic Books, 2006)

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