Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Lessons from Gordon Brown's narrative failure

Liberal Democrats regularly beat ourselves up for “not having a narrative”. As I have argued many times, we always have a narrative but it’s not necessarily the one we might want. Yet our problems on this front are as nothing compared to Gordon Brown’s.
In today’s Guardian, Tom Clark describes the philosophical and marketing swamp in which the PM is now mired. He lists the worst of Brown’s abortive attempts to define what his premiership is meant to be all about, from the moralising of two years ago to last autumn’s promises to get tough with the bankers.
In each case, there was a cycle of failure that repeated itself. Brown issued bold statements of intent that were, in many ways, in line with the public mood. But they did not amount to a vision for government. Nor did Brown tell a clear story about what had happened and what was coming next. Most importantly, nothing came of them. Politicians in office are judged over the long term by their actions and achievement as by well as their words; all this forms part of their brand narrative. They have to make things happen and when action is promised but not forthcoming, the public has nothing tangible to latch on to; disillusionment soon follows.
Hang on - Brown has held high office for more than twelve years. He was chancellor for more than ten years – with an unprecedented amount of power over domestic policy - and has been prime minister for two. We should be able to see and believe what he stands for, where he wants to take the country; even if the PM has to help us. Just as we understood “Thatcherism”, we should able to see “Brownism” is about. But like Margaret Thatcher, Gordon Brown needs to tell stories to make it real.
The “ism” may be there after all. Tom Clark suggests that from all the micro-measures and ad hoc experiments, especially when Brown was at Treasury, we can identify his core values and principles:

“ . . . attempt to run a market economy with ruthless efficiency; then funnel as much of the proceeds as feasible to the very poor . . . with [a] strategic conviction that the state is vital in both parts . . . "

That’s a good summary but Brown has plainly not been successful in these aims -- though, it must be said, the global financial crisis has not helped.

When it comes to communication though, there’s less much room for debate. Tom Clark identifies the harsh reality:

“Brownism . . . will never be intelligibly defined by the man himself.”

I agree with Tom Clark. But read those words again, slowly. They go to the heart of why Brown has failed as a leader.

Political leaders have to tell compelling stories if they are to succeed. Leaders base these stories on a clear understanding of the people they are speaking to – their hopes, their emotions, their fears. Nobody else can do it for them. The leaders who do not tell such stories crash and burn. Think Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair – and Paddy Ashdown. Or Michael Foot, Iain Duncan Smith – and Ming Campbell. Brown seems destined to join the second group. (True, this is a big ask for a leader who has been a long time in government. Yet Australia’s former PM Paul Keating managed it well enough to win the 1993 federal election.) Tom Clark wants Gordon Brown to change his ways but I think it is too late now.
But there’s more. In order to tell powerful stories, successful leaders also know their own minds, understand their own values and are clear about what they themselves believe in and their goals for the future. Michael Deaver once said that one of the biggest lessons he learned from working with Ronald Reagan was:

“You've got to know who you are before you can communicate it.”

Love them or hate them, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher are two very good examples of leaders who knew who they were.

Maybe that’s the real problem with Brown’s premiership: he has still not really decided what Brownism is. And, perhaps, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have the same challenge.

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