Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Political storyteller of the year 2008

This is the time of year when people look back at the year, compile lists and make awards. So I’ve got an award of my own: which politician from any party, political persuasion or country, was the best story-teller of 2008?

It’s lean pickings from the Liberal Democrats, I’m afraid.

New leader Nick Clegg worked all year to tell a story: that Labour have had their day and can’t create a fairer Britain; the Conservatives won’t but the Liberal Democrats will make it happen. It was old third party wine in twenty first century bottles, but showed promise all the same. After the banks went bang, the media meta-narrative took a new turn: the government’s response to the recession and the “Brown bounce”. Nick's story was squashed flat. Ever since, the party has struggled to tell a story about the economy, as distinct from Vince Cable’s razor-sharp commentaries.

Ros Scott told a good story and thrashed MP Lembit Opik in the contest for party president. But it was an internal election, for an ill-defined job. Most of the previous incumbents have checked into the obscurity hotel.

And let’s not even talk about the Lib Dems’ campaign for the London mayor and assembly.

The Conservatives should have had an easier time of it. Telling their story – “it’s time for a change; Labour must go” – looks straightforward enough. But David Cameron has also been overwhelmed by the economic crisis. He has not told a convincing story about the crisis and, as the year closed, Cameron was losing the economic argument to Gordon Brown.

The Conservative politician who did the best job of telling a “time for a change” story was London’s new mayor, Boris Johnson. He doesn’t get first prize because, after six months, Johnson still hasn’t fashioned a “governing narrative” that helps Londoners to understand what he is trying to do. So far, in his honeymoon phase, that hasn’t mattered too much. It will in 2009, as a deep recession really hits a city that is well used to good times. If the mayor can tell a story and leads Londoners through the crisis, he will well on the way towards re-election.

Labour at last found someone who can tell a story: Gordon Brown! This must be one of the most ironic plot twists that British politics has seen in a long time. That’s partly because Brown’s failure to provide his government with a narrative has deeply frustrated Labour supporters.

There’s an even bigger irony: Brown had a narrative, that from his decade as chancellor: thanks to him, Britain’s economy was strong and stable and the years of “boom and bust” were over. The onset of recession and the reversals of financial economic policy should have finished him, for Brown no longer embodied his narrative. Yet telling stories has saved him, so far.

The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley said it very well on Sunday:

As the banks crashed, Brown bounced. This is partly because he has been brilliant at spinning the blame for the crisis away from himself. The international institutions failed. So said the man who had chaired the reform committee of the IMF for many years. The bubble economy in America was the culprit. So said the man who recommended an honorary knighthood for Alan Greenspan, the father of that bubble. It was down to the reckless gambling of the bankers. So said the man who indulged a lightly regulated City for a decade. The Tories howled, but largely to no avail. Polling suggests that most voters were, and still are, broadly prepared to buy the prime minister's account of the origins of the recession.

So far, the public also seems ready to buy his “active government, for the people” versus the “do-nothing Tories, for the bankers” story lines that have appeared over the last few weeks. Yes, you’ve got it: ‘the enemy over the water’, ‘the rot within’, even the strong community; the old ones are always the best ones.

Brown’s achievement is weird for another reason. As he saved the world the banks and showed other countries how to stave off disaster, he seemed authoritative, confident and in command. Above all, he looked more experienced than the “novice” Cameron. The PM embodied the rest his story: “I can fix what they have done; the other guy can’t”.

But he hasn’t brought it all together. In another inversion of the usual rules of politics, Brown embodies a narrative he hasn’t quite told. He is more actions than words.

The narrative can’t be judged a total success, because Brown hasn’t won an election, or even overtaken the Conservatives in the polls. The job losses expected in early 2009 may well blow the story away. So Gordon Brown is not the story-teller of the year either.

To find the best story-teller of 2008, we have to go over the ocean.

In the United States presidential election, a first term African-American senator with a lean CV and a liberal voting record defeated his own party’s “front runner” and then saw off the formidable Republican machine. The key to understanding those victories must be the story that Barack Obama told and the way he told it.

First, Barack Obama caught the attention of the Democratic Party, and then the nation (and not the world), with his personal charisma and his compelling life-story.

Second, Obama made the case for change, in a way that connected with peoples’ emotions. His campaign slogan, “change we can believe in” and the way he kept using words like “chance,” “hope,” and “dream” built up trust in a cynical electorate and stressed the potential for progress. [For the linguistics expert Noah Bubenhofer’s new study of Obama’s rhetoric, click here]. He struck powerful chords with the party’s desire for “liberation” from past disappointments and the public’s desire for a break from the past eight years of Republican rule (“McCain – Bush”) rule in the White House. The use of inclusive rhetoric - we,” “you” (plural) and “us” - created what Bubenhofer calls “a strong feeling of community and identification between [Obama] and his audience”.

Third, Obama backed up the case for change with emotional and rational arguments. The way he discussed, in specific ways, the daily challenges facing average Americans, such as rising energy costs, mortgage worries and healthcare premiums, enabled him to connect and empathise with voters.

The emotional appeals were fortified by solid policy details (stories): promoting innovation and upward social mobility; ensuring that more people can have access to healthcare; building a better “safety net” for poorer people; cutting taxes for low income senior citizens and repeal tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans; widening access to education and launching an Apollo project for clean energy and energy independence.

Obama embodied his narrative. We have learned 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: Obama embodied the notion that exciting new things - change – can happen in America.

The newcomer represented a generational shift, away from the baby boomers, the neo-cons and culture war politics and towards a new sense of optimism about America’s future.

And whatever was thrown at him, Obama held his nerve. In the general election campaign, his level headedness and sense of composure did a great deal to reassure floating voters that Obama could lead.

In all of these ways, Obama told brilliantly a story about how America could leave behind the divisions of the past and find a new direction as one nation, united behind a common purpose. An optimistic story, about the future. “Yes, we can” and yes, he did.

That’s why Barack Obama, who will soon become the 44th president of the United States, is my political storyteller of the year.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Neil, I have only recently come to read your blog but I love your take on political narratives. Do you know Michael White's work? I love this post and came across it while looking at Obama's use of narratives from a solution focused point of view. I wondered if you knew the solution focused approach? Anyway, just wanted to say that I love your writing and will keep popping back hoping to gain some inspiration. If you do know the solution focused approach I would love to hear your thoughts on its application to politics (which I am looking at the moment).