Monday, 3 November 2008

Narrativewatch: Chandila Fernando, candidate for president of the Liberal Demcocrats

When replying to Linda Jack’s invitation to assess the three presidential candidates’ attempts to craft a Liberal Democrat narrative, I commented that none had really done it and added that all three had been somewhat more successful in creating narratives to support their own candidacies. Linda then asked me to provide more detailed views on the latter point.

Before going any further, please note that I still haven’t made up my mind who to vote for (!) and will not do so until the last possible moment! Second, the observations are based on the candidates' election addresses, websites and e-mails to members. So, if they have answered any of these points at hustings or the like, it would be good to know. Please tell all of us. Third, as all Liberal Democrats soon learn, being the best candidate and having the best policies aren’t necessarily the same thing as having the best narrative!

Anyway, in the interests of encouraging more discussion about what is/n’t a good narrative:

Chandila Fernando – agent of change vs. the status quo seekers

In many ways, Chandila Fernando has the most straightforward story to spin. He is the “anti-establishment” candidate, the outsider who offers the biggest change. His story is that Liberal Democrats have become too bureaucratic, backward-looking and hidebound and need to change in order to be a “twenty-first century campaigning machine”; Fernando is the one to “turn it around” and transform the party into “a serious force in British politics”.

Political narratives work when they appeal to deeply-held values and emotions. Mr Fernando’s story should appeal to many members’ and activists’ sense of frustration that the party is not doing better.

Almost immediately, however, the narrative fades away. Stephen Denning sets out three essential story-telling steps for (putative) leaders who seek to persuade people to embrace change: These are: (1) get people’s attention; (2) generate desire for something different; and (3) reinforce the reasons for change.

Chandila Fernando has won some attention because he is different from the other candidates and previous Lib Dem presidents: he is young (30), involved in business and not a parliamentarian.

But he does not tell stories that show why and how the party needs to “change the way it operates and communicates”. The nearest that Fernando’s website comes is a number of rhetorical questions about the problems that members and activists may be facing.

Crucially, we do not get what Denning calls a “springboard story”. This is more likely to be based on something that has already happened. OK, this is always the hard part. But having made such bold statements about what’s wrong with the party, Fernando should at least try to offer us the proverbial story with a happy ending.

On the campaign website, there are a few – but only a few – specific examples of how the party should “modernise,” and “decentralise” -- but not of how it should “streamline”. Interviewed by Liberator (November 2008), Fernando says that a single federal committee should act as a board of trustees and that the party should move from being a member organisation to a supporters’ organisation. But those comments leave more questions than they answer. And there are no illustrations that explain how this candidate’s vision of change would play out across the party.

Chandila Fernando tries to embody his narrative by presenting himself as experienced in business: “the troubleshooter”. Perhaps he is. But we aren’t given any of what Annette Simmonds calls “why am I here” stories, that convey a sense of authenticity and explain why we should take notice of this candidate. For instance, given that most of us have never heard of him before, it would be useful to know what Chandila Fernando has done in business. What organisations has he “turned around”? How did he do it? When he has shot trouble, what lessons have been learned that can be applied to making the Liberal Democrats a better party?

The opportunity to tell a good "change narrative" has been lost.


Susan said...

A good series of blogs. Just might want to make up your mind before Wednesday and get that vote in the post!

Hannah said...

My humble musical letter to president Obama:

Hannah Friedman