It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear

13th January, 2014 8:26 am

In their private discussions politicians and their advisers must ask themselves a lot of questions – how to develop policies, how to sell them, and how to maintain party unity while doing so. But if they’re honest there’s probably a couple of other questions they ask themselves too: is there anybody out there? Is anyone listening at all?

Look at Populus’ useful “top ten most noticed” stories data. The fraught political bust-ups that occupy minds in SW1 and cause a lot of energy to be spent rarely make it into the top five. Pick up the widely read Metro newspaper (1.3m copies distributed in the UK daily) – how many political stories do you see in there? (Clue: not many.)

Getting people’s attention is hard. They’re busy, possibly stressed, probably tired, and almost certainly sceptical. So-called “anti-politicians”, rather than conventional ones, seem to be getting a better hearing these days, at least in between general elections. John Harris reflected on Saturday about Nigel Farage’s populist gifts, and while I think Harris was wrong to be seduced by Farage’s seeming “challenge” to free markets (it was really just a demand for less immigration), he was right to acknowledge the UKIP’s leader’s success in getting his message across.

Something rather curious is going on. Professional politicians, experts, highly paid communicators are all struggling. It’s not clear that their techniques are working. The “Wizard of Oz”, Lynton Crosby, is making little perceptible progress with Conservative poll ratings. If anything, his stress on supposed core vote issues seems to have helped UKIP more than anybody else.

But for the most striking example of this crisis of confidence in the political class I refer you to Molly Ball’s remarkable profile of Republican focus group guru Frank Luntz.

In this piece Ms Ball reveals that Luntz was utterly downcast by the result of the US Presidential election in 2012. And while we should not mock anyone who has sunk into gloom in this way, you would have to have a heart of stone not to be amused by the prospect of this king of US focus groups finding the responses of his own interviewees so depressing.

“In re-electing Obama, the people had spoken,” Ball wrote. “And the people, [Luntz] believed, were wrong.” The people in his focus groups had absorbed the president’s message of class divisions, haves and have-nots, of redistribution – and agreed with it.

How awful to have to conduct all these focus groups and hear people playing back simple, clear messages that reject your own Republican world view. Still, I suppose he got paid well enough for doing it.


The May 2015 election campaign has started. We are promised a long, repetitive, arduous haul. Simon Danczuk expressed his preference for a less heavily scripted, more spontaneous campaign last week. He’s got a point. Not that George Osborne has noticed. He continues to repeat harsh, chilly rhetoric which promises “tough choices” and “hard truths” – for some people, anyway. Nick Cohen offered a brilliant response to that approach in yesterday’s Observer.

The Tory campaign group Renewal is doing its bit to cut through the tired language and reconnect the Conservatives with ordinary voters, but it’s not obvious that the party leadership, or Lynton Crosby, share these sentiments.

Politicians need to be able to speak clearly, and show that they understand people’s concerns. That does not mean a lurch into crass populism, or imply a policy of “stop the world I want to get off”. It does mean trying to be relevant, practical, and credible. Politicians have to describe a world that voters recognise, and come up with answers that can be believed and that have an appeal. It’s about cutting through the fatigue and cynicism, and talking like a real human being.

Or as EM Forster put it: “Only connect.”*

*  (“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.”)

  • EricBC

    On these times Labour should go forward with policies founded in ethics we all share. It will take time but the message will get through. The people want honest government.

  • ColinAdkins

    About time we accepted these communicators, experts and advisors have very average skill sets and ensure we do not elevate them in quite the way we have done in the past.
    I heard Alistair Campbell once described as a genius. A very good technocrat yes but genius no. Unfortunately because of the success of New Labour project there was a belief with presentation and media manipulation skills the Party could control the agenda. The medium became the message. This reinforced itself as New Labour entrenched itself in power.
    All political parties speak and act in a manner alien to most people. This needs to change if we are to get our message across.

  • Ben Cobley

    A nice light survey of the scene. As for an alternative, I see a lot of people in the culturally-dominant part of the left railing at “pandering to populism” (in this article we see “crass populism” which is reasonable because is by its nature…crass).

    But another way of saying ‘pandering to populism’ is ‘pandering to the voters': it is basic democracy in action. To me, the ‘disconnect’ between party politics and the public is a pretty simple issue: it’s that the parties have their own agendas which have become more about manipulating the public to vote for them so they can do what they want, rather than developing a political project which genuinely appeals to a large slug of the population.

    Let’s hope ‘One Nation Labour’ can be that project; at present it has more the character of an idea mixed with a slogan.


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