Saturday, 31 May 2008

Is "narrative" the new spin?

We know that the general public have a low opinion of politics and politicians. Paddy Ashdown used to say it was antipathy not apathy, and he had a point, although I would say it is both.
I would argue that everyone is a politician. Those who argue that they are not interested, or that they hate politics are in fact making a political statement, whether they like it or not. Not only that, in everyday life we have an attitude towards people depending on age, gender or ethnicity, and whether is varies between these groups or not is a political decision we all make. We cannot not be politicians.
However what we have to do is distinguish between politics and Politics. Politics in this case is the formal process of putting ideas into action through government.
So most people are detached from Politics. Many don't vote in elections, and those who do often have a vague impression about what they are voting for.
And so the argument goes we cannot simply present a list of policies and expect people to vote for us. Something else is needed.
I remember in the 1980s that David Marquand used to make the point, and no doubt many others as well, that we have to present what the party "stands for". To many people at the time the Liberal Democrats were a "nothing party", and in contrast Mrs Thatcher was very clever in encapsulating her politics at the time with some simple rhetoric from which people could understand what she intended to do. We had to do likewise.
"New Labour" got hold of this thinking in a very high profile way in a process called "spin". Spin had been around for a long time of course, but with the emergence of New Labour it quickly become the story in itself. This was actually a sign that the spin was counter productive. New Labour's "spin doctors" became household names, and stories about them were routinely negative.
The lessons have been learnt from that and hardly anyone knows who David Cameron's spin doctors are.
Spin is not necessarily a bad thing. Spin can have integrity, it really depends on the values of those who are responsible for it. Spin can be misleading, or it can correct common misconceptions. The definition of spin is "A distinctive point of view, emphasis, or interpretation". There is nothing in the definition that says that the interpretation is unfair. It can be of course, it depends on how it is being used.
However the word spin doesn't spin very well, and the new word on the block is "narrative".
Narrative does not equal spin. Narrative is more about stories. I would say that narrative is a subset of spin. I think that Liberal Democrats should consider spin in it's entirity, and that will include narrative.
I went to an Islington Lib Dem discussion on this recently with their invited speaker Neil Stockley (see He pointed out that Barak Obama has a good narrative, a tough upbringing, made good from humble beginnings. However you need to be careful. Every detail will be checked, and if anything is inaccurate, or at least can be spun as "a pack of lies", it will be.
That is where John Kerry lost out of course.
Ming Campbell potentially had a very good narrative, just as compelling as that of Barak Obama. The Lib Dems did try to project it, but somehow it didn't work. The message did not get out very well, and there was an incongruence between the exciting narrative, and Ming's unfortunate lack of charisma.
To date Nick Clegg's current situation is the opposite. He has charisma, but not much of a narrative. There is some scope for an interesting personal narrative, but I think we also need a narrative for the party as a whole. I liked Chris Huhne's narrative of the Lib Dem's being in opposition to the "conservative parties". Nick Clegg referred to them more apolitcally as "Tweedledum and Tweedledee".
The problem for the Lib Dems is that we need to make a compelling case to vote for a party that is currently third. We failed to do that in the recent London Mayoral elections. We had a good candidate, but not one who was going to beat Ken or Boris. And since beating Ken or Boris was the most important consideration, the Lib Dems got squeezed.
The last election was different because of our opposition to the war in Iraq. We had an opportunity to be distinctive again by opposing replacing Trident, but the party establishment was stuck in the politics of the 1980s and could not countenance such a policy position. It didn't do the SNP any harm however.
The mood of the electorate today is that they want to defeat Labour. The Lib Dems need to urgently find a good reason why they should vote for us instead of voting for the party who is more likely to defeat them.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Time is running out on the LIb Dem narrative

Although it is good to see once again the Lib Dems building on the number of councillors they have after the recent local elections, it is painful to see the Tories being the main beneficeries of Labour's nadir. Particulary on the issue of the 10% tax issue that affects the poor.
Labour is losing the image of the party of equality, but the Lib Dems do not have that association fixed in the voters mind either.
This was not so much the case when the party advocated a 50% tax rate on high income earners. We were reassured when this policy was dropped that the new Green taxes would in fact tax the rich even more. However we knew this would be a hard sell for the next general election.
The problem is that currently the electorate do not associate the Liberal Democrats with very much in the first place. The issue of Iraq has not really gone away, but in the minds of the electorate it has.
I believe the Liberal Democrats can be stronger on issues such as equality. We should have clear policies that tax the rich more in order to improve public services. The new narrative that replaced the old one is not working.