I think it’s fair to say that opinion of the effectiveness of David Cameron’s leadership is divided, even within the Labour Party. Some see Cameron as a master of communication. A chameleon with the power to be all things to all people, a gifted tickler of the sweet spot of the British public. Since his election as Tory leader, comparisons to Tony Blair have come thick and fast, as often from Blair’s admirers than from his detractors. However, it is worth remembering that Blair peaked at over 70% popularity ratings as PM while Prime Minister Cameron has never got higher than the mid-40s.
Initially Cameron was indeed a breath of fresh air for the Tories – though not one that was universally welcomed in the party (when are changes in leadership and style ever universally welcomed in any party?). He had a few set piece moments – hugging a hoodie and riding a huskie, speeches without autocues etc. – that seemed to set him up as a relaxed and charismatic leader in waiting. Labour’s continued bungling and the sad tale of the Gordon Brown premiership were the perfect storm and until the financial crisis hit, the Tories were leading the polls by massive margins. Things were looking good for a remarkable under-scrutinised Cameron.
At the time there was a great deal of anguish on the left about this lack of scrutiny of David Cameron. But in the long run, I think it has rather helped to create the second and far less successful phase of Cameron: Complacent Dave.
I first started noticing complacent Dave at the time of the first leadership debate at which he was clearly and quite startlingly under-prepared. His grasp of the facts was woeful and he made completely unnecessary mistakes. He didn’t seem to be taking it very seriously, expecting to coast through on his performance.
This has become increasingly common at any event where Cameron is forced to interact rather than simply to broadcast or deal with reporters with whom he is relatively comfortable. For example, Ed Miliband has picked up on this and it has improved his own PMQs performance no end, going after Cameron with details and precision and exposing his non-answers for the sham they are. In fact it was Complacent Dave getting his facts wrong about the reason that Dr Howard Stoate is no longer an MP which caused the most obvious example of the side-effect of Complacent Dave – angry, bullying Dave.
The thing is, ten years ago, Cameron’s persona and tactics would have worked extremely well. When the way a Prime Minister set, moulded and managed the agenda was largely through set pieces and relationships with key journalists who set the agenda for the papers and commentariat, making speeches which were supported by on-message interviews from cabinet members all of which built up to a crescendo in time for the evening news. It was New Labour’s devastatingly effective tactic and it worked like a charm, right up to the minute it stopped working.
Whether or not we adopt AV, voters have come to expect – even to demand – a very different democracy. This change has been swift, and as it has been enabled by digital technology, it has in part been muffled by other debates around privacy and journalistic standards. But it is real and tangible. Increasingly, voters are more and more aware of the mechanisms behind the broadcasting of politics and are interacting with politicians in several different and increasingly challenging ways.
Firstly voters are much better able to challenge a politician on the facts. They have far more information and unlike journalists, who often rely on leaks, they don’t need a reciprocal relationship with politicians so are unafraid to push harder and challenge more. If a politician – any politician of any party – makes a statement that relies on a misuse of information, rebuttal is instant and widespread.
Secondly, voters expect politicians to engage with them. This is subtly different from the usual “politicians aren’t listening” message. Voters don’t just want the chance to ask a single question followed by a single response. They want a conversation. We expect them to stop arguing with each other and start arguing with us. We are joining in. Those politicians who get how this works, and who engage with both friend and foe alike, are those who are keeping their heads and successfully learning the new and subtle arts of modern politics.
I don’t want to force an over-reaction to this new reality. There is still a great deal of importance to be attached to a broadcast strategy. Adopting and understanding modern interaction mustn’t mean abandoning those voters who are not able, willing or bothered to become more involved. We aren’t yet anywhere near a place where those who do hold sway. But it’s a very foolish politician who doesn’t take these new realities into account, and is a very poor stratagist who doesn’t ensure Labour are using it to our advantage. Losing control is scary and we do know how bad it can be when handled badly (Mrs Duffy anyone?). Losing election is worse. And if Cameron remains an aloof, elitist broadcast politician, I strongly suspect he will learn just how bad it really is.