Sunday, 4 September 2011

The comeback cop: Brian Paddick's ground-breaking mea culpa story

Congratulations to Brian Paddick, who will be the Liberal Democrat candidate for London mayor in 2012. He is being re-used as a candidate, despite his poor campaign in 2008, when Paddick’s slogan, “a policeman, not a politician”, turned out to be all too true.

Now, in winning the Lib Dem nomination, Paddick has performed an epic feat in political storytelling. Announcing his candidacy back in June, Paddick gave us this carefully crafted mea culpa:

The 2008 campaign was a bitter and bruising experience. I had just left the police over the shooting by armed officers of the innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell. It was a case of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’. I was an uptight, politically naïve ex-police officer with no experience of party campaigning or working with activists. I got a lot wrong.

The campaign slogan then was ‘Serious about London’ . . . but I was far too serious about everything. I was terrified of Punch and Judy, of Paxman and Sopel and I had unrealistic expectations of what to expect from the party. I was, quite frankly, a bit of a pain! Towards the end, particularly in the televised debates with Comedy and Tragedy, critics said I performed well, but we need a candidate who gets it right from the start. Crucially I know my enemies from last time, up close and personal! . . .

Then, Paddick developed his theme of the “new me”.

. . . So what is going to be different? A few weeks ago I was in the office of a London MP who commented on how much I had changed since 2008. I am much happier, more relaxed, more realistic and more experienced now – I have even been spotted smiling in photographs! I have spent the last three years campaigning with ordinary members, delivering ‘Good Mornings’, knocking on doors, talking to voters, addressing rallies and speaking at fundraisers. I have attended every Federal Conference since 2008 and either spoken in debates or contributed from the floor. I know the Party now. I didn’t know the Party then
I didn’t go to any of the hustings, but by a number of reliable accounts, Paddick embodied his narrative but seeming cheerier and more focussed and confident than before.

Annette Simmons has explained how “mea culpa” stories work:

When you tell a “mea culpa” story about your own mistakes first, it cheats your adversaries of the opportunity to discredit your intentions and polishes your reputation at the same time.(1)

Until Paddick’s flash of genius, the best example I knew of a “mea culpa” story in politics was the one told by Bill Clinton - the original “comeback kid” - in 1982. Two years earlier, Arkansas voters had evicted the wunderkind from the governor’s mansion. They were angry with Clinton for putting up car licence fees and for seeming out-of-touch and inaccessible. No less than the rest of America, Arkansas was racked by an economic woes and a growing sense of unease in 1980. The state’s voters were hugely disgruntled with Jimmy Carter’s administration and the political toxins spilled over to Democrats in general.

Five months before polling day, several hundred Cuban refugees broke out of their resettlement camp at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Not long before the election, Clinton agreed to pardon dozens of violent criminals. The Republican candidate exploited these developments to associate Clinton with a sense of disorder and disarray – and his friend in the White House.

Early in 1982, Clinton was back, seeking once again the Democratic nomination for governor. At the urging of his campaign guru Dick Morris, Clinton made two campaign adverts, one apologising for the car license fees hike and the other apologising for pardoning the violent crims.

In his biography of Bill Clinton, David Maraniss wrote that:

In the end, Clinton managed to say that he was sorry without saying that he was sorry. He did by using down-home Arkansas language. When he was growing up, Clinton said, his daddy never had to whip him twice for the same thing. If the voters gave him another chance, he said he would never make the same mistakes again. He had learned that he could not lead without listening . . .

. . . What the public saw was that Clinton was chastened. Political observers had never seen anything like it – someone announcing for governor via a thirty-second commercial, and doing so with an apology. But the strategy was apparent: By admitting his mistakes and seeking absolution before the first tough question of the race could be asked, Clinton was able to say that criticisms of his previous actions were irrelevant.(2)

As we know now, Clinton was restored to the governor’s mansion in November 1982, after bitter primary and general election campaigns. The “mea culpa” ads bombed at first, but they eventually immunised Clinton against his opponents’ attacks.

Paddick’s “mea culpa” is in a different league again. Clinton was implicitly apologising for forgetting about the people who had elected him, and for making the wrong decisions. Annette Simmons’ suggested uses of “mea culpa” stories recall occasions in which people didn’t follow their values and principles, or when they failed to take up a challenge or to seize an opportunity. But Paddick was saying sorry (sort of) for not even being competent as a candidate when he last had the chance. Astonishing.

Still, failed ex-candidates and empty suits may want to think carefully before trying this one at home. The narrowness of Paddick’s victory suggests that other factors, such as the opportunities afforded him by “hackgate” and the August riots, were decisive too. Liberal Democrat selection campaigns for London mayor are strange beasts, as the party seeks out a mega-campaigner who can rally the troops and pull in more assembly members by his/her coat-tails. This time, the dynamics were mixed up even more by the entry into the race of the former Montgomeryshire MP, Lembit Opik. (In defeat, Opik had his own "comeback narrative" in which he compared himself to Nelson Mandela, but that’s just too dreadful to discuss in detail.)

For now, I’m left wondering once again why Liberal Democrats are so skilled at telling stories to win internal party elections [click here], but so poor at telling stories to “people out there”. Maybe Brian Paddick’s campaign for 2012 will confound me again.

(1) Annette Simmons, Whoever Tells the Best Story WINS (Amacom, 2007) p.70

(2) David Maraniss, First in His Class: a Biography of Bill Clinton (Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 398-399

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