Whatever my own increasingly non-aligned sympathies, I can’t helping wanting political strategy to make a difference….
Adapting a gag of Stephen Fry’s, I sometimes tell audiences that the world is precisely and equally split into people who assert false dichotomies and those who don’t. When it comes to election predictions and explanations it also possible – albeit inexactly – to identify two camps.
In one camp there are the determinists, those who argue that election results are the result of big underlying factors and issues that don’t quickly change. Different determinists will focus on different things; demography, electoral geography, the paramount importance of leadership perception or economic trust. They tend to share a scepticism about established leaders being able to do much in the short term to overcome these factors.
When it comes to next year’s election the determinists are in quandary, for, while one set of factors – electoral geography and living standards – are good for Labour, another set – leadership standing and perceived economic competence strongly favour the Conservatives.
As a one time political strategist I am in the other camp. We are less interested in a static picture of current factors and more in momentum and possibility. We believe that strategies, and the narratives, stunts and policy ideas they involve, can make a difference. We live on tales of sudden shifts in voting intentions resulting from brilliant or disastrous strategy, conveniently ignoring how rare these unexpected turnarounds are. We never completely lose hope. I remember a Labour activist telling me with complete sincerity on polling day in 1992 that Labour was running the Conservatives close in Stratford upon Avon. Danny Finklestein has written wryly about how necessary self-delusion was for him to motivate his efforts for William Hague’s 2001 campaign.
Rather than any particularly strong political conviction, wanting to believe my life as a political strategist had some value makes me think it would be interesting if Nick Clegg were to get some kind of conference bounce (although this week’s by-election results are hardly encouraging). Also, aggregating various criteria including platform performance, clarity of strategy, courage and candour – the LibDem leader’s speech was just about the best creation, and we at the RSA like to believe that human creativity can move mountains.
As I am a soggy centrist and an admirer of leaders who resist the temptation to pander to their Party’s prejudices, it was not going to be hard for anyone to beat my assessment of Miliband or Cameron. Even before his speech many commentators spotted that the two main parties by reverting to ideological type had left a nice big space for the LibDems to try to occupy. Taking advantage of that opportunity Clegg duly and reasonably skilfully pitched his tent.
But to the determinists my or anyone else’s appraisal of Clegg’s performance is of limited salience: Indeed Conservative pollster Andrew Cooper was among those who tweeted to that effect. Their view is that voters made up their minds about the LibDem leader a long time ago. Short of Miliband, Cameron and Farage being found in bed together in a luxury hotel paid for on MPs expenses little will change Clegg’s gloomy destiny.
Beyond my insatiable need for self justification there may be one reason – a determinist reason indeed – for Clegg to have hope.
Even though vote loyalty is much less of factor nowadays the major parties can still rely on about 25% of voters to stick with them almost come what may. But as the polls have told us over the last three years, the LibDem hard core is tiny. Most LibDem voters are either Lab/Lib waverers or Tory/Lib waverers.
From the LibDem perspective the pessimistic view is that the former have gone determinedly red in disgust at the Coalition while the latter will be easily swayed by the inevitable Conservative election slogan ‘vote Clegg, get Miliband’.
All of which is true. But there is another scenario. Unless things change (and judged by the main Parties’ strategies I think this unlikely), voters in the next election will be more powerfully motivated by the result they want to stop than the result they want to see. The respective ‘anyone but Miliband’ and ‘anyone but Cameron’ camps are certainly bigger than either Parties’ stock of faithful followers. If this is the case Clegg may not need the LibDems to be popular, much less loved. That they are at least partially detoxified may be enough to convince enough people in the seats the LibDems hold and target to vote unenthusiastically for the third party to stop the first or second.
Time will tell whether Nick Clegg started the process of detoxification this week. In politics I believe anything is possible. Which to the determinists is exactly my problem.
Over the years I have written often on this site about leadership. With, arguably, little regard for realism I have from time to time urged politicians to be more authentic and honest. Now perhaps for one leader the clever thing is also the right thing.
Most public speakers secretly hope to follow someone who has underperformed. As David Cameron came after Ed Miliband he had a great start and he didn’t waste it. It was, as most commentators have said, a very strong speech, well delivered, with some good lines and a nice a balance of elements; ordinary bloke and statesman, self-deprecation and aggression, political ideology and seeming moderation.
However, there was – as people are also starting to point out – one rather big problem; it was dishonest. The idea that the next Government can take around £45 billion out of public spending at a time when various factors, most obviously population ageing, are driving up demand and when many agencies can hardly cope with the cuts they are now being asked to make is for the birds (and the Conservatives must know it). Ironically, Miliband got hammered for not mentioned the deficit yet Labour’s less ambitious expenditure reduction plans are probably more realistic (although still way, way beyond any actual cuts that Labour has outlined).
Miliband’s speech was a rallying call seemingly directed exclusively at existing Labour supporters, Cameron appealed to the nation at large but by avoiding reality.
The leaders of both parties are likely to be internally justifying their unconvincing plans on similar grounds: First, the hope that growth will eventually start delivering a fiscal dividend (although it hasn’t done so far); second, as long as the deficit is coming down, people and the markets won’t mind if it falls most slowly than forecast (just like the last five years); third, saying anything is justified if it helps win the election. Maybe the tactics will work, but it is hardly inspiring leadership.
Whatever his other issues and opinions, when it comes to courage Nick Clegg has a story to tell. He made the judgement four years ago that a Coalition was in the country’s interests and that being seen as a credible party of government was in the LibDems’ interests. Even if he didn’t predict how bad it would get, he must have known this was a decision that would win him a lot more foes than friends.
But leadership is about judgements well as bravery and if the consequence of Clegg’s actions is that he loses most of his MPs and finishes behind UKIP (both of which seem odds on) it will be the failure of the former not the strength of the latter that is his political epitaph.
All of which may be why candour is now Clegg’s only choice. Learning perhaps from his disastrous 2010 pledge on student fees, in his speech next week he could be the one leader who challenges his audience and tells the country the truth (or at least more of it). That would mean explaining to the LibDems, a Party no more inclined than others to face facts, that the future is about yet more hard choices but that the only hope of winning back support from the public is to trust them with the truth not try to blind them with false promises or easy enemies. He could say that he is closer to Ed Balls’ view when it comes to the maximum viable path for cuts but that as a liberal he rejects Labour’s all-consuming faith in the state. He could respond to the English question, not by ducking it as Miliband largely did or pretending there is an easy and popular answer as Cameron did, but committing to a profound shift of power from Whitehall to city regions (the RSA ‘s City Growth Commission will soon show how).
After the last two weeks there is certainly a space for a different kind of speech and a different kind of leadership. It is a big ask of Clegg but, really, what has he got to lose?
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA, Uncategorized
The RSA has a new way of thinking about the world and the impact we want to achieve. We call it the Power to Create. It was the subject of my annual lecture, of this RSA Short and of many blogs by my colleagues, for example this excellent recent post by Adam Lent (which prompted me to contribute to his crowd funding campaign). As we had hoped, when people approach a set of ideas positively but with different perspectives those ideas can develop in many interesting ways.
Over the last couple of days, speaking to various people now back from Manchester, I have questioned the tone and content of Labour’s conference, particularly the assumption that most people are victims who can only be saved by the benign power of the central state. In defending the conference and critiquing the Power to Create my Labour friends’ key argument can be summed up as; ‘that’s all very well, but what does it mean to a constituent with a badly paid insecure job or to an exhausted carer relying on ever more meager state support?’
Their issue is not with the idea that everyone can and should live creative lives but with the gap between this idea and the practical reality faced by millions of hard pressed people. How can Government help people live creatively when it is hard enough helping people survive? This is a serious point but I think it can be addressed.
As I have argued, the Power to Create takes a somewhat wary view of central Government interventions: social policy needs to be less about trying to change people or achieve particular outcomes for them and more about enabling more people to be able to take control of their lives. Civic engagement and mobilisation, often starting from the ground up tend to be more powerful tools for enduring change than merely pulling policy levers. Power should be decentralised to the lowest practical level. The experimental, iterative, user-centred approach of designers is more suited than traditional policy making to solving problems in today’s ever faster changing, ever more complex world.
To take three examples from the Miliband speech; more new homes, a higher minimum wage and more apprentices all sound like good things, but experience tells us the pursuit of the specific goals of 200,000 more houses, £8 an hour and equivalence with graduates may also have unwanted side effects. Might it be better to aim for greater parity between housing tenures, to focus on choice and quality in young people’s education rather than a quantitative target (other similar educational targets have had at best a mixed record of success), and to work with business and localities to develop a more flexible minimum wage reflecting industrial and regional differences?
None of this means we don’t need national policy, nor that it doesn’t matter what that policy is. For example, on the deficit I tend to agree with Labour that the Treasury should set a slightly less demanding target (excluding capital investment from the deficit measure), partly because the NHS and social care are close to collapse (although here again it is not clear why the Labour leader found it necessary to specify exactly how many jobs and of what types are going to be centrally mandated for the extra funds).
The Power to Create recognises that we need some big change to facilitate a world of many smaller changes. As Adam argues, the ideal of Power to Create demands a comprehensive policy for wealth and assets, redistributing hoarded and often unproductive assets at the top and using the receipts to help the third of people who effectively have no savings and thus too little opportunity to change the direction of their life. Equally, we need elected Government to use its mandate to tackle concentrations of corporate power.
So the right type of policy, directed particularly to increasing civic capacity and individual autonomy in poorer communities is important to the Power to Create. But progress does not have to wait for a benign national policy environment. There are many practical things we could do tomorrow to enable people to have more control and more meaning in their lives.
At the RSA we are putting ever more focus on institutions as how they work can be a big barrier to, or enabler of, human creativity. Organisations that are dynamic, mission driven and where employees are encouraged to work together in teams with significant autonomy succeed through generating the Power to Create in their employees. Given that only one in five British managers have had management training it is perhaps not surprising that over third of workers say their talents are not being used at work or that national productivity is so low (in my experience the way people are treated within the higher echelons of political parties and Whitehall all too often exemplifies bad practice).
And when it comes to public services, what matters to people is not just what is provided but the way it is provided. The RSA promotes the principle of social productivity – that public service interventions should be judged by the degree to which they enable people better to contribute to meeting their own needs. Jocelyne Bourgon and her colleagues talk about civic effects such as growing capacity in communities being as important as more traditional public policy outputs. Even if there was no national policy change for five years a more collaborative, creative, open ethos in national and local government could still reap impressive results.
Which leads to a final response to the charge that the RSA’s thinking is too abstract and idealistic. As well as suggesting a set of broad goals to pursue, the Power to Create also helps describes a set of principles to apply today. It means a commitment to live creatively and to see that potential in every other person, living up to our capabilities and trusting in the capabilities of others. Perhaps the most underwhelming aspect of Ed Miliband’s speech was that at no stage did he seem to feel he could trust his audience – in the conference hall or in the country – to deal with anything that was intellectually, politically or personally challenging.
Which takes me back to the beginning. When I made all these arguments to my Labour friend she replied; ‘but people don’t want challenge, they want hope’. To which my answer is this; it is not hope that leads to action but action that leads to hope. The party political model of change tells us to rest our hopes on the right people getting into office, the Power to Create is a call to action starting right now.
Although as the designated member of the Downing Street inner circle I once held what was arguably the most senior political strategy position in the UK – I suspect I’m not actually very good at it. On the one hand, I tend to be too rational, focussed on the head and not enough on the emotions. On the other, I am too idealistic, tending to confuse what I wish would engage the public with what actually does.
A couple of weekends ago, for example, a worried advisor to the Better Together campaign team asked me (in a personal capacity, of course) what I would do in their shoes. My advice was to abandon loud aggressive campaigning entirely and go unplugged: Stop making threats and holding rallies and instead get everyone to start having conversations with ordinary people. Let voters see Alistair Darling or David Cameron having an hour long conversation with a group of Glaswegian mothers in a cafe. This will make your campaign more human and humble but also imply your confidence that if only people would really talk through the issues they would share your conclusions. As we know, the ‘no’ campaign did precisely the opposite – cranking up the promises, the threats and the volume – and won a surprisingly resounding victory.
So in describing the kind of speeches I would like to hear over the next three weeks from the Party leaders I recognise that what I want is probably not how they should maximise their impact. What I want is a world view.
In a few days I am speaking to the Board of a charity. Reading their documentation they have a vision, they have a list of values and they have an approach. This is what we expect to hear from the leaders’ speeches; some kind of rhetorical vision of a resurgent Britain of happy successful people, a statement of their and their party’s political values (although these will almost certainly be hard to distinguish from one leader to another) and then a list of policies which are supposed both to symbolise those values and win votes.
The difference between this and a world view is subtle but important. A world view might start with a values statement – the ideal which inspires us – but at its core is an analysis of the future: given long term trends in society what possibilities could exist in terms of the attainment of our ideals? The world view thus connects emotion and intellect by connecting timeless values to the concrete possibilities of the future.
But the future will not simply happen, it will have to be created. The next stage of the world view is to explore the barriers to the inspiring possibilities just described. Having held out a tantalising account of possibility the audience is warned that this future could be denied. This then leads to the final element of world view – the promise and the call to action; what is it we must do to remove these barriers and seize the opportunities the future could hold?
Thus the world view conforms to the classic three part narrative structure that we watch over and again in TV drama and films – the set up (our values and the future context), the crisis (the barriers that stand in the way) and the resolution (our plan).
This is the structure for the RSA’s set of ideas: ‘The Power to Create’ which I outlined in my annual lecture and which will be available in a highly condensed, animated form tomorrow. The speech was twenty five minutes long but it turns out that less than four minutes is perfectly adequate to get across the core narrative. And this may be the reason why we won’t hear world views from conference platforms.
The narrative structure of the world view means that it is relatively easy to scale but quite hard to dismantle. But the primary purpose of a conference speech is to be the source for extracts for the mass media (the speeches are judged more than anything else on what is repeated on the evening’s news bulletins). A world view is like a story or a play – it is held together (or not) by its essential structure whatever its length. A conference speech is more like the performance of a football team – we will judge it by its highlights (and low points) even though – as anyone who has seen a match they have attended on Match of the Day can attest – these extracts may not actually reflect the whole performance.
Strong narrative structures are more meaningful, memorable and inspiring than slogans, assertions and detached pieces of rhetoric. If our leaders offered us such a narrative we would have something to engage with and something to argue about. Sadly, the combination of our unwillingness to invest the time in listening, the media’s unwillingness to engage us in depth and the politicians’ unwillingness to take risks means we will over the next three weeks hear some jokes, some attacks, and lots and lots of promises but probably nothing that amounts to a world view.
(Postscript after Ed Miliband’s speech: I didn’t watch, but the transcript reads more like a pop medly than a unified narrative. It has tonally distinct sections cut across with overlapping themes (life is tough, the Coaliton is to blame, togetherness is the answer and Labour has a plan). Some of the policy areas are welcome to RSA ears – on the self employed, devolving power and vocational education for example and, from everything I hear, the other Parties will have little choice but to follow Labour in promising more for the NHS. Having said which, however well intentioned, some of the pledges smacked of the top down over engineering that is so often counter productive in policy making.
There was one paragraph that set my pulse racing. Here it is:
‘the ethic of the 20th century was hierarchy, order, planning and control, rewarding the talents of just a few, then the ethic of the 21st century is co-operation, everybody playing their part, sharing the rewards and using the talents of all. Together. It’s time we ran the country like we know it can be run’
Sadly, this big idea wasn’t developed leaving the togetherness theme to feel merely rhetorical, albeit clearly heartfelt.
Generally in this blog I have avoided complaining about the impact of austerity. I largely accept the inevitability of the overall scale of cuts. I find the third sector’s favourite sport of semi-competitive shroud waving not only unedifying but counter-productive. In more and more places and services, the cuts really are impacting now but the public has, I fear, become jaded by years of hearing stories of doom and alarm. Indeed some sectors have managed to cope pretty well. In heritage, for example, local cuts have actually been accompanied by an aggregate growth of activity as organisations have been forced to be more innovative and entrepreneurial.
But for some reason when I read about what is happening in our prisons my capacity for a measured response disappears. I’ll try to explain why that is, but first the evidence of our prison crisis. There is more detail to be found here, here and here but in essence the picture is this: prisoner numbers are up, overcrowding is up, self-harm and violence are up, the number of failing prisons is up, while the number of prison officers is down, along with educational, therapeutic or rehabilitative programmes. For more and more prisoners – many of them serving short sentences for non-violent offences – their sentence means being locked up in a small shared cell all day, only to be let out briefly into a violent and dangerous prison environment.
So far public opinion remains unmoved. The minister, unsurprisingly, says there is no crisis. The opposition, equally unsurprisingly, thinks there are many more vote winning examples of austerity to highlight – leaving the Observer and the Guardian to rail against, well, what we all expect bleeding heart liberals to rail against. Penal reform organisations like the Howard League do their best but they were complaining about prisons being inhumane and counter-productive even before the cuts impacted.
This is part of what makes me so despairing about what our prisons have become. In our work over several years the RSA has walked a difficult and sometimes rather lonely line arguing that prison can work, but only if we take education, personal development and rehabilitation seriously. Our impressive Transitions project (which is in urgent need of funds) has explored in great depth and in very practical terms with prisoners, prison officers, and a wide variety of local stakeholders in the Humber region what a rounded human capital approach to rehabilitation – starting on day one of a sentence – could mean.
Whilst I won’t blame the cuts on Coalition indifference, in the case of prisons there seems to be an abdication of all responsibility. In particular, there has been no attempt to stem the flow of prisoners into prison. It seems ministers would rather tolerate rising prison death rates, the collapse of meaningful rehabilitation and the ever present risk of riot than face hostile tabloid headlines if they called for fewer custodial sentences. Yet when it comes to public safety, surely releasing prisoners who have been traumatised and brutalised by prison is a greater threat than giving a few more non-violent offenders community sentences?
The author’s statement that “you can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners” may sound like a cliché but it is one on we should reflect right now. Prisoners have been judged for their crimes but their punishment should be a loss of freedom not hopelessness, fear and squalor. On Dostoyevsky’s criterion it is ourselves we should be judging harshly.