If you didn’t already know there was an election on the way, you will know now, with the launch of the first election posters. The Conservatives were first up with a poster that the BBC described as ‘firing the starting gun’ for the election campaign, followed by a Labour poster quickly afterwards. I hope it went unnoticed by the majority of less-interested persons, but for those following politicians and journalists on Twitter the reaction to the posters was somewhat unedifying – with easy access to graphics software it is not hard to alter a poster to change the message – as famously happened in 2010 when Labour’s Ashes to Ashes themed poster was purposefully taken by the Conservatives and used to their own advantage. It does rather have the air of pantomime about it, with each party crying “Oh no you can’t” and “Oh yes we can!” in equal measure.
I was inspired to write this post after the Spectator took umbrage with both campaign posters and suggested that the picture they were presenting was not quite the whole truth. While political spin has been taken to a whole new level, especially in the era of Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, it certainly is not new – as long as humans have striven to persuade others of their own virtues and the faults of potential rivals they have carefully presented their facts, and not necessarily told the person they are talking to everything they know. Even use of statistics is a double edged sword – in an episode of Yes Prime Minister Jim Hacker’s media consultant advises: “You can use statistics if you like, but most people who watch won’t notice, and those who do won’t believe them!”
Quite conveniently, I had the opportunity to sample this recently. I had popped into a store resolved to make a purchase. While the customer service advisor was of course more than happy to help, he was strongly recommending I should instead purchase a different product. To sway me, he tried persuading me that it would be cheaper and more effective and therefore a better investment of my money. In the end it somewhat backfired for him – I ended up leaving the store to think it over and bought nothing! But it shows exactly what politicians are doing – they want to persuade Jane and Jack Voter that their policies are better than anything else on the ballot – talking themselves up, and if necessary highlighting aspects of their opposition that make them look favourable in comparison. We shouldn’t actually be surprised by this – no salesperson is going to admit “Well actually yes, our rivals sell basically the same product for a better price” – they instead will do all they can to persuade you that their product is better, knowing full well that their competitors will be doing the exact same thing. For the discerning consumer this is not necessarily a bad thing – as in commerce the problem more often than not is not what the seller is telling you, but what they are not telling you!
So the political pantomime season comes with a health warning – each party has set itself up with a ‘narrative’ – a key message that they will hammer home again and again – and rather like a hammer, it is a blunt and indescriminate instrument! The narrative is not meant to answer specific policy questions but instead ensure you have heard the one key message the party wants you to hear. So how can we best make use of this aspect of political campaigning?
Well for one thing, let’s give the media credit where it is due – their job is to ask difficult questions of all the parties. So long as they are doing that without prejudice (that is to say – being equally difficult to every party) they are helping to press the parties on the finer details of their policies and strategy. But there we must also recognise a potential weakness of the media – however much we love to think it is fundamentally neutral, media editorial staff will have agendas, and they are liable to attack or favour campaign posters to their own tastes. To which I would say: let the media ask the difficult questions, but don’t assume they are any less biased than the parties.
Which leads me to my concluding point – rather than try and pretend that there isn’t a pantomime going on before us, with the media unsure if they are playing Shakespeare or Punch & Judy, meet the political circus on their own terms. I am glad that the Conservatives are leading with the message of the recovery because it is our strongest suit, and the number one reason to return a Conservative government in May – I am convinced that this message of the need to be fiscally responsible is a much better proposition than any other policy offered in this election. But the role for all of us is to drill into that bigger narrative and find out what it means in practical terms – it is to challenge your local candidates and ask what the national narrative means for your community. For the voter, the narrative isn’t something to judge in isolation, but instead should be a springboard for you to challenge the party on what they have to offer the country. It should not be about whether you like what the party is telling you – rather like with a salesperson, it should be if their message is true, believable, deliverable, and best. The party that has the foundation of concrete policies to support their narrative, is the party that is worth your vote,