Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The Clintons as Greek tragedy

Political narratives work when they trigger familiar cultural stories, myths or archetypes in listeners’ minds. During World War II for instance, Winston Churchill used the narrative of “Britain: the strong island people” to rally the country against Nazi Germany. In so doing, he invoked an archetype that went back at least to the Spanish Armada.

There is much comment at the moment on Bill and Hillary Clinton’s dance with political death. The former president's attacks on Barack Obama have caused deep resentment in the Democratic Party.

An old story is there that people know well but can’t quite identify. Now, Gloria Feldt suggests that it is:

". . . the narrative of destroying that which one loves the most . . . one of humanity's most recurrent and heartbreaking tragedies, Greek or otherwise."

At the same time, Barack Obama’s narrative, based on renewal and a rejection of the old, is gaining more momentum.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

The politics of generations: baby boomers and after

I have just come across an article in Newsweek (21 January 2008) called Leaders for a New Age that contends we are now seeing the rise to political power of the post-baby boomers:

"men and women too young to have been shaped by either of the two major ideological contests of the 20th century—the battle against fascism and the long twilight struggle against communism."
The examples discussed include British foreign secretary David Miliband, Conservative Party leader David Cameron, Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, France's Justice Minister Rachida Dati, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of Denmark's Social Democrats and, of course, U.S. Senator Barack Obama, who has a chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination.

"Compared with the baby boomers, they are more technocratic, more global in outlook, more comfortable with technology, more idealistic and yet less ideological and less invested in old debates . . . Instead, the new generation has been influenced by the end of the cold war, September 11 and the Iraq War."
In terms of policies, the authors suggest a direction of travel: support for "the continued spread of democracy and liberalism, particularly to Muslim nations," optimism "about the long-term prospects of reining in Islamic terrorism" and general support for "globalization." According to the article, the new generation is much more focused than its predecessors on climate change as well as immigration and its challenges to cultural identity.

The article may speak too soon. A boomer has only just become president of France. Last year, Ms Thorne-Schmidt was defeated at the polls by another. Senator Hilary Clinton, queen of the boomers, may well see off Senator Obama. In other ways, it is too simplistic, glossing too easily over old arguments. On Europe, for instance, there is still a gulf between David Miliband and David Cameron. Britain's political argument over the future of work and pensions policy is unlikely to be reduced to:

"widespread support for a state-provided social safety net, coupled with a realization . . . that current benefits and the tax systems that support them have become overly burdensome and must be reformed."
Also, some boomer politicians, such as Tony Blair, hold many of the views described in the article.
Still, the generational divide in politics is overlooked far too often. Having been born in 1962, I am technically a boomer. But having been active in "progressive" parties in two countries, I have often noticed that the boomers involved have a different mindset from myself and many contemporaries. This has been most noticeable on matters economic. The liberal and left political boomers have tended to be less concerned about arguments over public debt and inflation, more interested in foreign policy and (in New Zealand at least) gender and human rights. Historically, they have also been more likely to prefer statist policies - taxes, spending, regulation - over market-based policies. There was usually common ground, however, over human rights, feminism and gay rights.
Personally, I put this down to the oil shocks and the great inflation of the 1970s, which produced different expectations in my age group and profoundly changed the intellectual climate in western countries. Liberals and social democrats who became interested in politics around this time arrived at a perplexing, uneasy turning point between the politics of values and money, equity and efficiency, ends and means.

In my experience, inside and outside of the political world, the twentysomethings, the true children of the market, are something else again: much less interested in party politics, less likely to see politics as providing solutions to problems like climate change, more concerned with packaged campaigns and causes (see Make Poverty History), more likely to perceive themselves as "consumers" with entitlements in all spheres -and therefore more demanding of personalised public services. They may also be more ambivalent about civil liberties and personal freedoms.

Yes, this is all subjective. So it would be fascinating though to see some detailed studies of the differing political attitudes of the differing age groups - say, the boomers, the Abba-Star Wars generation and the children of the market. I am sure they would present some big threats and opportunities for Liberal Democrats. Voters with a more positive, more outward-looking, more tolerant, more idealistic outlook may be more receptive to a liberal story, told by a new, post-boomer leader. On the other hand, what if (and this only a suggestion) most voters aged under 40 -- the groups where we have done well in recent general elections -- don't relate at all well to our version of social liberalism and essentially see schools and hospitals as goods that they purchase with their tax money? It would be useful to look and plan ahead, rather than seeing what happens and then reacting, as has happened all too often in the past.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Nick Clegg - the other story

Part of Nick Clegg’s political narrative resurfaced in one of today’s Sunday papers.

No, not the one he’s telling. It’s the counter story that others will tell about him. Watch for this over the coming weeks.

Take today’s Atticus diary column in The Sunday Times, claiming that Mr Clegg's new "image guru", John Sharkey has "ordered his new client to stop waffling".

Remember too the especially snide profile of Nick in the Sunday Times just after Christmas.

And just after Nick Clegg became leader, Peter Riddell captured the conventional wisdom of many Westminster commentators:

During his leadership campaign, he showed a tendency to waffle, to give rambling, well-intentioned answers that left viewers and listeners puzzled and unimpressed.

In his book Leading Minds, Howard Gardner showed that the ability to tell a story to their followers was a key factor in leaders’ successes. He also found that the stories of the leader must compete with many other extant stories; and if the new stories are to succeed, they must transplant, suppress, complement, or in some measure outweigh the earlier stories, as well as contemporary `counterstories. Gardner suggested that the simplest story usually won out, where it was fair or unfair, right or wrong.

The counter-story that he looked too old and had little charisma worked on Ming Campbell. He could not do much about them. By contrast, the “Bambi” and “Blur” tags that were thrown at Tony Blair during his early period as Labour leader did not last long because he developed a clear personal message and brand.

The lesson for Nick Clegg is clear: have a sharp edge; define yourself and where you stand very quickly, telling simple stories early and often.

I'm for fairness! And what else?

The latest Populus poll contains a potentially confusing message about the Liberal Democrats’ branding and messaging.

People were given a number of phrases and asked which party best fits them. The one where the Lib Dems did best by far, with a 20% rating, was “the party of fairness”.

“We’re already doing it,” I hear you say. Well, the message is not getting through, at least, not yet. The Lib Dems were 6% behind Labour and just 3% ahead of the Conservatives as “the party of fairness”.

There's a bigger point though. The word “fairness” is much more vague and subjective than “the party of sound economic management” (Lib Dem rating 6%) and “the party of the NHS” (Lib Dem rating: 7%). On its own, “fairness” is not a brand or a story. All of the parties have used this word at some point in the last few years. Who says they’re anti-“fairness”?

The fuzziness of the party’s image remains a key weakness for us. At party conference time, Populus tests each party against a number of phrases. Last September, more than two respondents in three agreed that “the Liberal Democrats are basically a protest vote party because realistically they have no chance of ever forming a government” and that they “seem decent people, but their policies probably don't really add up”. Both figures were up on the previous year. Let’s not do anything that makes this any worse.

In September 2006, the last time Populus offered it, the phrase on which the Lib Dems had a clear led was “understands the way people live their lives in today's Britain”. The next best was “is for the many, not just the few”, where the just Lib Dems pipped Labour. (Why didn’t they ask about these in 2007?!) Through all the ups and downs of the party’s fortunes, the Lib Dems are usually seen as being more empathetic, more in touch with people. These figures show, in general terms at least, how the party should be pitching its story. But just saying “we’re for fairness” is not enough.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

More learning from Barack Obama

Barack Obama’s abilities as a storyteller and their relevance to business leaders are noted by John Gapper in today’s Financial Times.

Mr Gapper notes that business leaders must convince shareholders, managers and employees that their companies can and should change. He says that Mr Obama, of all the presidential candidates, is the one from whom chief executives can draw the clearest lessons about leadership.

Mr Gapper discusses a number of Senator Obama’s attributes and then says:

“. . . he is a wonderful storyteller. This sounds like a second-degree talent, something it might be nice to have but is not essential. But it has helped him to overcome the obvious weakness of his candidacy – lack of experience – by reframing it as a narrative about the US.

“While more wooden candidates – step forward, Mr Romney – have exploited their status as Washington ingenues by rattling off the usual schtick about being strangers to backroom deals, Mr Obama talks about himself embodying a rare, but quintessentially American, moment when the social fabric shifts and a newcomer emerges.

“Unlike oratorical perfect pitch, narrative is a craft that can be learned. It is also a very important one for business leaders. Many CEOs stand or fall by their ability to frame a story, not only for investors or analysts about how they are turning a company around but for employees to engage them in making it happen.”

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Hillary finds her voice

Following her win in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, Senator Hillary Clinton told her supporters that “I have found my own voice”.

What Senator Clinton may really have found is the outline of a new political narrative. Rather than being the best qualified candidate, she is the agent of the people against the powerful – “the rot at the top”.

"One of the things Clinton learned from her defeat in Iowa, those around her say, is that her emphasis on experience and readiness was missing its mark. Her speech Tuesday night was less about her and more about the voters: the ones who have lost their mortgages, who can’t afford health care and can't get student loans. "Too many have been invisible for too long," she said. "Well, you are not invisible to me." Where she had begun the race declaring she was "in it to win," you could almost hear the gears grinding towards a new message as Clinton shifted her focus outward on Tuesday night: "We are in it for the American people.""

Exit polls show that women voters were instrumental in Senator Clinton’s victory. On Monday night, she was visibly emotional when speaking about her commitment to politics and this may have helped her seem more authentic, especially to women.

Senator Clinton also seems to be on to a counter-story against Senator Barack Obama. In Saturday's debate, she declared that "words are not actions" and sought to reframe the contest, away from Obama's compelling rhetoric and back to the question of how to deliver real change -- and who is better equipped to do it.

In short, Senator Clinton has started to inject herself into the change narrative, the most powerful in American politics this year.But the whole story still needs some work before it is simple and emotive enough for Democratic primary voters to fully embrace. That’s one reason the next few weeks will see a lot of hard slog by both Clinton and Obama.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Up the poll?

How much should we read into today’s Populus poll in The Times, which shows the Lib Dems on 19 per cent (up 3 per cent)?
Not much.
Populus suveys of this type usually have 1,500 respondents, which gives a margin of error around plus or minus 3 per cent. In other words, the Lib Dems could still be on 16 per cent, or perhaps up at 22 per cent! That, and the fact that polls are time specific, means that we really need to look at the trends in Populus and all the polls, probably over six months. But the media’s judgements will be well-formed in about three months’ time.

According to John Curtice’s “poll of polls”, the Lib Dems were on an average 16 per cent rating last year, compared to a national vote just under 23 per cent at the 2005 general election. I think that an average score of around 20 per cent over six months will be the generally accepted, minimum test of “success” or “failure” for the Lib Dems under the new leadership.

And how do we judge whether Nick Clegg has “succeeded” or “failed” as leader; the extent to which he is driving the party’s poll fortunes?

Not by looking at one poll, especially not today’s.

The Populus leader index measures “how good a leader”, on a 10-point scale. As Peter Riddell comments today:

“Despite the rise in Lib Dem support, the key finding for Mr Clegg is that about two fifths of voters do not yet know enough about him to take a clear view (compared with only 9 per cent for Mr Cameron and 5 per cent for Mr Brown). That is why not too much should be read into his initial leader index of 4.40, fractionally above the last one for Sir Menzies Campbell. But Mr Clegg’s rating among Lib Dem supporters of 6.5 is well above his precedessor’s last one of 5.63 in July. Mr Clegg’s ratings on leader attributes are below Sir Menzies’s but, again, up to a half of voters are don’t knows.”

Again, we will need to look at the trends over the coming months. Charles Kennedy’s highest rating was 5.18 (October 2003). His lowest was 4.68 (February 2004). Ming Campbell’s highest rating was 4.70 (May 2006) and his lowest 4.20 (May 2007). So I think that commentators will expect Nick Clegg to be scoring at least 4.90 (and, with Lib Dem voters near to Charles Kennedy’s rating of 6.55 just before he quit), with the number of “don’t knows” slashed right back, by party conference time.

Also, YouGov, ICM and Ipsos-MORI ask for job satisfaction ratings for each leader and these are documented on the very useful UK Polling Report website. Charles Kennedy’s did not go below +8 per cent (MORI, Feb 2005) and, at the start of the last election campaign, went up to +35 per cent (YouGov). Ming Campbell’s were usually in negative, single figures and, according to YouGov, finished in the negative 20s. I expect the commentators to quickly set a bar for Nick Clegg to usually hit double-digit, positive figures.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Mike Huckabee - message vs. narrative (and symbols)

This article from the Wall Street Journal backgrounds the novel, “pro-faith and pro-government” platform that former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is running on and how if would represent a paradigm shift for the Republican Party.
But it confuses Huckabee’s message with his narrative – the stories and anecdotes about himself and his family that he is using, very effectively, to sell to explain what he stands for. These stories have been explained very well by Dan Balz of the Washington Post. Says Balz:

“Some were tender and touching . . . others reflected less positively on his family . . . but all of them conveyed an underlying message of morality and responsibility that underscored why Huckabee's rise has been fueled by a desire on the part of Republican voters for a candidate who is both socially conservative and personally authentic.”

I am not signing up to the religious Right (anyway, for various reasons, they wouldn’t have me), nor am I asking you to. I am putting these articles up as illustrations of how political narratives work.

Also – you just have to watch this campaign spot, which I can only describe as awesome (!), to see how Huckabee is using uniquely American symbols.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Learning from Barack Obama

Can we learn anything from Senator Barack Obama's victory in the Iowa caucuses?
The answer is: yes, quite a lot.

Whilst it is far too early to predict that he will win the Democratic nomination, Senator Obama has shown us how political narratives can work.

He understands that a political narrative is a story that generates particular emotions by tapping into familiar archetypes and genres and engaging both the heart and the head.

In her books, The Story Factor and Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, Annette Simmons discusses three types of story: “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?” and “My vision”.

By telling these types of stories, Senator Obama did the best job of getting Iowa Democrats to have positive feelings about him.

In The Audacity of Hope and Dreams from My Father and his keynote speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention (that first brought him to national attention), Senator Obama set out his 'Who am I?' story.

We learn 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 embodies the notion that new things - change – can happen in America.

Obama’s '”why am I here?” stories explain why and how he would: promote innovation and upward social mobility; protect workers against the consequences of globalisation; ensure that more people can have access to healthcare; build a better “safety net” for poorer people; cut taxes for low income senior citizens and repeal tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans; and crucially, widen access to education.

By telling these stories, Obama sets 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”.

One archetype he taps into is a sense of possibilities – hope, aspiration and opportunity. 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”) 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.

Yes, politics in this country and in the US work differently. But both cultures rely on stories and archetypes.

So why do so many British politicians – and yes, I’m thinking here about Liberal Democrats - insist on giving us lists of policies instead of telling stories that would be so much more powerful?

Footnote: In this interesting piece, Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post says that "what was striking . . . was the pull of Obama's optimistic, inclusive message and the way his well-oiled field operation was able to translate that appeal into caucusgoers". She argues that Senator Obama and Mike Huckabee, victor in the Republican caucuses, both won because they talked about rising above partisanship to unite the country and solve its problems.