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.


Alasdair W said...

I've never heard Ming Campbell compared with Barack Obama. But you actually have a very good point! Thinking about it now I really can see the simularity. Unfortunetly our desperate attempts to project his voice failed and the media shouted him down. (Not the party!)
Your point about how people are sort of turned off by politics is very good. My friends at school find it very unitneresting, despite it being something that effects important things in their lives.

Left Lib said...

Thank you for your message Alasdair. I accidently clicked on delete when I intended to click on reply, so I hope your message sticks.
I think you will find that all your friends have political opinions, they just do not think of them is being political.
As I mentioned in my original mailing, you all need to decide whether you consider women to be equal to men, black to white, gay to straight.
This relates to the feminist slogan, "the personal is political."
5 years ago, school pupils were politicised by the war in Iraq. It can happen, although many considered that their stance was against politics at the time.
There are plenty of reasons why most people do not want to think about it. The problem is that they don't think about the alternative either; without democracy we either have anarchy or dicatorship. Look back in history, and people sacrificed their lives to get to where we are today.

Miguel said...

Excellent post - I agree with you on the importance of narratives (I like that term more than Lakoff's "freming" though they are to a degree equivalent) and with your analysis of the recent London elections. The Lib Dems seem to have squandered an opportunity to become the main government alternative while the Tories were in the doldrums for several years. Now that they are polling around 40% the momentum seems to have shifted.