Friday, 27 November 2009

"John Major the Movie": political narratives 101

I was interested to hear this week that the BFI is marking 75 years of party political broadcasts (PPBs). I don't think any of the parties has ever come up with a depth charge like the “Willie Horton” advert that helped destroy the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis or the New Zealand National Party’s infamous “dancing cossacks” in 1975.

Yet a few British PPBs are great case studies in political storytelling. One such is “John Major – the movie”, produced by the Conservatives for the 1992 general election. The Tories were the underdogs, after three hard terms in office, which had included the poll tax and a recession. The then prime minister was shown touring Brixton, where he grew up and lived as a young man, giving a low key exposition of his values and with some political homilies along the way. (“You can't cure unemployment with a short term stimulus . . . you do it by keeping inflation down.”)

Most importantly, the broadcast told voters a story – about John Major and his rise from humble beginnings, from Cold Harbour Lane to Downing Street. It was even titled The Journey! Major recalled his experience of being out of work. He talked about how the NHS had been there when his parents were aged and infirm. He had lived in multiracial Brixton and served on Lambeth Council. Major was projected as an unpretentious “man of the people”, meeting and chatting with people on the market. Many people said (and still do) that they were touched by his modesty and humility. The broadcast showed a leader who was connecting with voters and showing personal empathy with them. Major even concluded the broadcast by saying:

“. . . if you’ve done something or seen it or been it or felt it you can understand what it means and you can understand how it affects other people in their own individual lives.”
The broadcast enabled John Major to embody the Conservatives’ campaign narrative. They recognised that after years of Thatcher, British voters craved a change, to a more moderate, “caring” politics and a softer, more consensual style of leadership. The Tory story was that in dumping Thatcher and installing Major in her place, they had made already the change happen. And the low-key, ordinary, quintessentially English John Major -- “one of us – seemed a safer choice as PM than Kinnock.

The Conservatives were returned against the odds, gaining more votes than Tony Blair’s Labour Party in the landslide of 1997. Major stayed in Downing Street for five more years but his premiership was little short of a disaster, typified by the debacle of “Black Wednesday”. An “ordinary” leader wasn’t enough. And it’s unlikely that “Major the Movie”, on its own, won the 92 election for the Tories. (I’m reliably told that most of the feedback from the broadcast concerned the prime minister’s failure to wear a seatbelt.) Yet the broadcast did what all good political narratives should. It spoke directly to the emotional needs of voters in a clear and simple way; in this case, by simply allowing the leader to be himself – for better and for worse.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Climate change not our problem, say UK voters

Today’s Times leads with a new Populus poll that shows a high level of public scepticism about human-made climate change. Only 41 per cent of respondents believe that climate change is happening and that human causation is an established fact. A third of the public believes in the fact of climate change but remains unpersuaded that it is caused by humans. Nearly one in ten people believes that climate change is a purely natural phenomenon and blaming humans is propaganda put about by environmentalists. Fifteen per cent of the country simply do not accept that climate change is happening at all.

The figures underline the difficulties this government (and its successors) will have in persuading the public to accept tough policy measures – especially higher green taxes - to help in meeting Britain’s legally binding emissions targets.

OK, what’s new? Public opinion polls over the last three years have shown that a growing number of people in the UK are becoming increasingly sceptical of the impact of human activities on climate change or that they question the impacts of global warming on the climate. [Click here, here and here]. The British public’s suspicion of green taxes is also well documented [click here]. Yet today’s poll shows an increase in support compared with three years ago for new taxes on air travel intended to reduce the number of flights people take, and for raising the cost of motoring to encourage people to drive less.

Perhaps I protest too much. Politicos and ideologues of all stripes have become very tetchy over the past 25-plus years when I have tried to point out that opinion surveys show that most people don’t agree with them (or, to be more precise, that their pet issue won’t necessarily deliver scores of seats to the NZ Labour Party / Liberal Democrats). So I should tread carefully today and take the stark new evidence of public scepticism at face value. Today’s poll figures should concern all climate realists, especially after as the science has become steadily more pessimistic over recent years and received considerable media coverage.

Actually, I believe the gloomy science and media shock explain much of the public pushback. In today’s Times, Vicky Pope, head of climate change advice at the Met Office, is quoted as saying that growing awareness of the scale of the problem appeared to be resulting in people taking refuge in denial.

“Being confronted with the possibility of higher energy bills, wind farms down the road and new nuclear power stations encourages people to question everything about climate change,” she said. “There is a resistance to change and some people see the problem being used as an excuse to charge them more taxes.”

I agree with Vicky Pope but the denial syndrome goes even deeper than she suggests. This is a question of basic values and psychology as much as power bills and green taxes. The rhetoric used to discuss climate change usually revolves around threats and dangers, with “looming environmental disaster” the dominant frame. But we live in an aspirational, consumerist society and it’s hardly surprising that so many people feel defensive when they hear talk of apocalypse and demands on them to make personal sacrifices. Some of their core values, their ways of looking at themselves and their lives are being directly challenged. People are being asked to take personal responsibility for something that is not yet evident in their daily lives. Talk of climate catastrophe does not always fit with their worldview - their personal narratives - and so it’s easier to play for time, expect others to take the blame, or block it out altogether.

Either way, it surely doesn’t help that politicians, scientists (intellectuals) and green groups – hardly the most liked or trusted groups - are doing a lot of the ‘challenging’. [click here]

I take three lessons for climate realists from The Times poll. First, we should start to use more frames, storylines and rhetoric that resonate with the way most people see the world. No, not dodging the truth about the science but talking more about about green growth, green jobs and the need to preserve our national and economic security. [click here]

Second, we need a wider range of advocates –for instance, more young women and more people from community groups – explaining the issues and making the case for change.

Third, it’s time to engage more with strategies for social change, learning more about the psychology of climate change and finding out how and why people change their minds and act on issues. Some progress has been made on the research side [click here and here] but we quickly need to turn this an action plan. Time is running out.