Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Ed Miliband's narrative failure

Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers his speech

Every year, the media and the political class get themselves well and truly worked up about party leaders’ conference speeches.

They seem to forget that most voters hardly notice these performances. The party activists have almost always forgotten them by the time they get home. There are usually sound reasons why this is so.

Still, a leader’s conference speech provides the scribes with a quick and easy barometer of how well a party leader is performing. With luck, they and the activists will pick up some clear signposts as to where the leader wants to take the party next. More likely, the speeches typify how badly a leader is performing. Remember Iain Duncan Smith’s cringe-making declaration to the 2003 Conservative conference that “the quiet man is turning up the volume”.

Yesterday’s speech by Ed Miliband mattered, because he desperately needed to define his vision for the Labour Party and for Britain and, with dismal personal poll ratings, to present himself as a credible prime minister. The consensus in today’s media is that, not to put too fine a point on it, the speech was a dog. (See, for instance, Paul Waugh of PoliticsHome, Andrew Gimson in the Daily Telegraph, and Michael White in The Guardian.)

Some of the commentary is too harsh. Yesterday, Ed Miliband explained how he will try to reposition Labour. He sided with the "wealth creators" against the "asset strippers". There was a good, Clintonesque pitch to the “squeezed middle” -- "the people who don't make a fuss, who don't hack phones, loot shops, fiddle their expenses or earn telephone number salaries at the banks". Ed Miliband spoke of a tough, new stance on public spending. And it was back to Beveridge – yes, what Beveridge actually said- with talk of rewarding responsible people who work hard and contribute to society with higher housing priority and better benefit entitlements.

But there was no narrative. (If you want to know how I define a political narrative, and why I think it matters, click here, and here.) Ed Miliband says he knows what he wants – an end to the “something for nothing society” and a new type of social democratic prospectus. His ambitious speech tried to map out a long term project, to remake Britain’s economy, along continental “social market” lines.

The Economist’s Bagehot columnist says:

Well, those bold ideas were in the speech, if you knew to listen for them. But somewhere along the line, Mr Miliband seems to have lost the will to explain what he was up to, out loud and in full. . .

And:

These are bold ideas [on industry policy and taxes and dividends], and it would have been helpful if Mr Miliband could have spelled out more clearly what he really intends to do . . .

. . . There were a host of other areas in which Mr Miliband started to say something clear and bold, only to dive for the safety of waffle.

He’s quite correct. Much of the content was very tentative, and the Labour leader shied away from making specific ideas and proposals, and from telling stories about how they would work for people. You can’t have a story without an ending and in political narratives, the people listening want the ending to be a happy one. Ed Miliband showed yesterday that political marketing is not as divorced from belief-systems and policies and it may sometimes seem.

The second, admittedly more tentative, explanation for the speech’s failure concerns political values. Bagehot makes another interesting observation:

. . . Mr Miliband's speech was intended to hold up a mirror to the British public, and explain to them how their own existing values were his values. [This] sounded like a belief that the centre-ground of British politics had shifted towards Mr Miliband, merely described a different way.

The result was a lot of painful straddling . . .

. . . This was a left wing speech, in many ways, but sounded like a right wing speech a surprising amount of the time.

I have argued many times that politicians’ narratives only work when they speak clearly to the values of the people they are trying to convince. Bill Clinton’s much misunderstood “triangulation” is a good example. Bagehot may be right about Ed Miliband’s assumption, but the centre ground may not have shifted in quite the way that the Labour leader may think. That’s a discussion for another day.

There’s a more immediate challenge for the Labour leader. Ed Miliband didn’t sound completely confident yesterday about whose values he was speaking to - the values of the people in the hall, or those of the people watching tv at home. The end result was a sense of fuzziness, something a “defining narrative” can never suffer from.

The way Ed Miliband sounds, and the voters’ sense of him, brings us to the third and most brutal explanation of why his attempt at presenting a narrative didn’t come off. The public and the media simply don’t take him seriously. Last week saw the release of new research commissioned by the former Tory party treasurer Lord Ashcroft. The words focus groups used to describe David Cameron were "determined", "competent" and "ruthless". The word they volunteered for Ed Miliband was "weird".

In today’s Guardian, Jonathan Freedland says:

Put simply, my fear is that you can make all the speeches and policy statements you like – carefully devising a strategy on this and crafting a narrative on that – but what matters more are shallow considerations of looks, demeanour, speech patterns and biography. That, in short, it is personality, not policy, that counts . . .

. . . [This] is the problem for Ed Miliband. He is a decent, clever man but he does not look the part. He looks too young; he looks more like the speechwriter than the speechgiver, an adviser to the leader rather than the leader. That could change; he might grow into the role over the next three-and-a-half years.

Ed Miliband may know what he stands for, what he wants to do. But the counter-story about him is much, much more powerful and keeps on overwhelming the Labour leader's halting attempts to explain who is and what he is about. And, although Jonathan Freedland wants to cling on to hope, the counter story shows no sign of changing.

Posted via email from Neil Stockley's posterous

Saturday, 17 September 2011

"Competence with a conscience" - how well is Nick Clegg's narrative working?

“Competence with a conscience” sounds like a good, comfortable narrative for the Liberal Democrats.  But the voters don’t seem to be buying it.

 

Nick Clegg’s narrative to market the Liberal Democrats and our role in government was summed up in his speech at the National Liberal Club in May. The speech marked the first anniversary of the coalition’s formation.

 

At the next election, we will say that we are demonstrably more credible on the economy than Labour, and more committed at heart to fairness than the Conservatives. I am confident that by showing we can combine economic soundness with social justice – competence with a conscience – we will be an even more formidable political force in the future.

 

These themes are elucidated in Nick’s foreword to the Facing the Future paper, to be considered by the party conference this week.

 

For the conference season, Populus has produced its latest findings on how the parties are perceived by voters.  The results aren’t exactly encouraging for the Liberal Democrats. A useful summary comes from Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report:

 

Historically these Populus questions tended to show that the Lib Dems had the positive party image. That is no longer the case. They have the least positive score on every measure except being for ordinary people [with 45% agreeing it applies to the Lib Dems], where they at least beat the Tories [with 30% agreeing].

 

This is very important – and very worrying.  In the run-up to the last general election, the image of “being for ordinary people not the best off” was, with a reputation for being honest, one of the party’s most positive brand assets.

 

We have often heard the argument that being in coalition would make the party more credible to voters.  Once they saw us delivering in government and taking the hard decisions, voters would take the Liberal Democrats more seriously  – the “competence” part of Nick’s desired brand.  But Anthony Wells explains:

 

On having a good team of leaders [the [Lib Dems] are on 31% (down 13 since last year), on sharing peoples’ values they are on 36% (down 5), on being honest they are at 35% (down 6), on competence they are at 31% (down 10), on party united they are at 27% (down 13), on having clear ideas they are at 31% (down 11). In most cases the party’s ratings had already dropped sharply last year following their decision to enter the coalition – these falls are on top of that.

 

Then, Wells rams the point home:

 

In summary, go back a couple of years and people tended to give the Lib Dems the benefit of the doubt, there was a tendency for people to assume they were good, honest and caring people (even if other polls also suggested people rather doubted their policies would work or they had any chance of actually winning). That positive party image took a knock after the removal of Charles Kennedy, but was on its way to recovery by 2009. Since then it has fallen through the floor.

 

 

Posted via email from Neil Stockley's posterous

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 na├»ve 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