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.

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