Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Narrativewatch: Conversations with Nick Clegg

Here’s a frustrating paradox about the Liberal Democrats. One of the main difficulties we face in putting across a narrative of our own choosing is that other people – viz. the media – filter what we say. OK, all parties have to cope with filters and the media are more likely to ignore us altogether. That means election broadcasts are a golden opportunity for the Lib Dems to tell our story. Yet the party doesn’t always use these broadcasts –- or Nick Clegg's obvious talents as a communicator -- to best effect. We don’t use them to tell enough stories.

[Before going any further: if you don’t know why stories matter, click here, or here, or just remember the words of US Democrat political strategists James Carville and Paul Bagela:

"Facts tell, but stories sell . . . If you're not communicating in stories, you're not communicating.”]

Conservations with Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems’ two-part broadcast for the European elections has a lot of good points, especially Nick’s delivery and the production values -- though I claim no particular expertise in the latter. But the broadcast could have been so much better if it had told some stories.

Part 1 starts promisingly, as Nick introduces his town hall-style meetings and explains that, by getting out of Westminster and talking to people, he might go some way towards restoring peoples’ faith in politics. Soon after, Nick presents a more voter-friendly version of the narrative from his spring conference speech.

“Labour has completely lost its way . . . I don’t think people think that things would really be that different under the Conservatives – so I think it’s a great opportunity . . . there is a chance for change.”

Nick goes on to explain two specific policies: abolishing tuition fees; and cutting taxes for those on middle and low incomes. The stories are not fully developed, however, and, on taxes especially, the explanation has almost no human element or emotional impact.

Compare that answer to Part 2, when Nick is asked about how he would go about rehabilitating ex-offenders. He explains how Lib Dem councillors in Chard successfully used community justice panels to bring reoffending rates down. Nick combines a challenge plot with what Annette Simmons calls a “value in action” story. The latter are usually deployed to influence group or individual behaviours. No matter, his story from Chard illustrates clearly how he approaches the issues around crime and social exclusion. The Lib Dems are innovative and, where possible, prefer community-based solutions that prevent crime. The story is credible; the viewer can “see” it.

The other questioner asks how Nick he will convince people of the benefits of the EU. He replies that “we have to learn to act together” in Europe, to address a raft of problems, such as international crime, terrorism, the international economic crisis and environmental destruction. But there is no story to show how “acting together” is to Britain’s benefit. Much more to the point, this was an opportunity to invoke a challenge plot about how Lib Dem MEPs address these big issues.

By the end, the two broadcasts have not, in themselves, conveyed a story. There is a set up at the beginning of both parts. (“People have lost faith in politicians . . . they don’t trust them; this [town meetings] is just one attempt to cut through that . . .”) I may have missed it, but there does not appear to be any sort of resolution.

I hate to say this but, by way of comparison, David Cameron’s first broadcast for the 2009 elections is a story in itself. “Ordinary”, disillusioned voters are seen showing up at Cameron Direct events all over Britain (well, in key marginal seats) and saying what’s on their minds. The carefully edited footage shows the Tory leader listening and engaging with them on today’s big issues. At the end, at least some of the voters said that they were thinking of voting Conservative.

So why can’t the Lib Dems tell more stories of our own?

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