Hearts and minds
Liberator, June 2006
I had an unnerving experience during the local elections – which probably meant I wasn’t working as hard as I should have been. I suddenly saw them as the voters saw them, and it was rather unedifying.
Just follow me on this for a moment: put aside the heady smell of fresh printing, the thrill of the creaking garden gate and the letterbox draught-excluder, and look at the whole business of local campaigning from a non-political point of view.
Because we have all been on the receiving end of leaflets as well as delivering them. We know what they’re like: the unpleasant accusations about ‘lying’. The claims – by all parties – that they ‘work all the year round’. The patronising excision of anything approaching a coherent idea.
And let’s face it, I’m not just talking about Labour and Conservative leaflets here.
Such is the state of community politics 35 years on, and it isn’t a pretty sight. It meant a breakthrough for the BNP, of all people – only partly thanks to the efforts of Margaret Hodge. It meant the ejection of hard-working councillors simply because voters had no understanding of local issues.
It’s a problem because, although there are exceptions to this rule, most voters make their decision on the basis of who they hate the most at national level. There are decreasing rewards for good administration.
But, make no mistake about this, it will change. How do I know? Because, every generation or so, a new way of doing politics emerges – new techniques of getting alongside voters – and everyone has to follow suit.
The real question for Liberal Democrats is what that shift is likely to be – and I know that Ed Davey is in charge of seeking out an answer to this – because historically it usually is Liberals who develop it. And if it isn’t Liberal Democrats this time, because we cling too closely to the outward forms of habit, then we will be in trouble.
Luckily, I can save Ed the effort. Because, when you think about it, only one direction is possible. In the indeterminate future, political parties will:
Develop a different tone of voice
Political discourse in the UK now falls strictly into three categories. There is campaigning language: superficial, vacuous, patronising. There is journalistic language: focused entirely on personalities and Westminster gossip. And there is policy language, which occasionally escapes into politicians’ speeches, and which is overwhelmingly technocratic.
It is packed with statistics, but is almost entirely empty of passion or emotion. It assumes that people are small cogs in giant machines where the levers are in Whitehall, despite all the evidence to the contrary – the real message of decentralisation is that central management tends to fail. And it is staggeringly off-putting.
All the parties – except possibly the Greens – communicate mainly in this policy language, betraying the vapid reality behind the campaigning. But unfortunately, one of the few politicians in Europe who have identified and named the problem is a monster.
Jean-Marie Le Pen in France describes himself as the only opponent of what he called the ‘technocratic elite’. It would be a disaster if the only people who opposed this kind of technocracy were the Fascists.
Politicians will eventually follow modern advertising into developing a language which finds the heart in policy, which can genuinely inspire and communicate. It is possible, and we have to do it first.
Make training the central task of politics
Yes, the central purpose of politics is to take over the levers of power. But the beginnings of the realisation – that the central activity of political parties should be training – has already begun to happen as well. Professional training in the Liberal Democrats has grown out of all proportion over the past decade, and will do so even more.
Nor are we the only party to realise that training our own people in the basic skills of politics is an absolutely central task. But that is only part of it: we will see a massive expansion in both the range of what they train and the people they train.
If a major obstacle to sustainable local administrations is the failure of councillors to work effectively with each other – the constant irritation of personalities – then that is what they will design training to tackle.
The slow realisation that Westminster and Whitehall are almost powerless to bring about real change has implications here. It means that somebody has to train the tens of thousands of local representatives and activists who are going to make things happen, change public services, at local level.
This is a political activity – no amount of New Labour utilitarianism can pretend otherwise – so it makes sense for political parties to be involved.
Spread political skills as broadly as possible
But this training will also blur the distinction between people in the party and people outside it – just as community politics deliberately blurred the same distinctions. It will also blur the boundaries between politics, administration and personal development.
Local parties will be training organisations that set out to provide people with the skills and experience they need to transform their neighbourhoods and their own lives.
There is a limit, after all, to the number of people who will flock to political parties for door-stepping. It has to be broader than that: it has to be about the business of change.
Change is, after all, the central issue of our time – is it possible, personally or politically, can we avoid the bizarre paradoxes that leave you back where you started, can we find a grammar of change that makes it happen?
That is why political parties will find themselves providing people with the skills they need to take power for themselves – not just politically, but personally as well. They will become training organisations that help people get what they want – a skill sadly excluded from national curriculums of all kinds.
That is the future shape of local parties. The first party to develop a module along those lines, and roll it out to members and then beyond, and cascade it as widely as possible, is going to find themselves at an enormous political advantage.
The problem with the model of campaigning we have now is that it is often highly professional, but it is hollow – and obviously hollow to everyone outside. It is focused exclusively on getting votes.
It will succeed in doing that, briefly, but because everyone knows it has no depth – people feel that the leaflets they receive are written with that objective only – it lacks the authenticity it needs to convince heart and mind. In the long run – however professional the product – it is alienating.
I’m not suggesting that political parties of the future will somehow eschew elections or campaigning. Far from it.
But because they will find a new moral core – both a new kind of unpatronising language, and a central purpose that matches it – they carry more conviction and more loyalty. They will genuinely be organisations that very large numbers of people might conceivable join again.
Let’s face it, when national political parties manage to attract the same number of members as a modest women’s magazine can attract readers, something is wrong with the model.
I am not pleading for something different, I’m predicting what I believe is inevitable. And when it happens, we might genuinely and with conviction put on our leaflets: if we win, you win.