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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

How Al Gore can improve the Lib Dem campaign narrative

This article on the BBC website from 2010, found via the Twitter feed of the Welsh Lib Dem policy officer, offers an interesting insight into what exactly went wrong in the Clegg-Farage debates and some pointers about how the party can improve our performance for the 2015 general election.

The Liberal Democrats national message, that we are building a stronger economy in a fairer society enabling everyone to get on in life, encapsulates what we have achieved in government but it does not immediately grab you at an emotional level. To do that we need to fill in the details and relate them to what people feel and think. But, as the BBC piece says, we also have to avoid coming across as bunch of politicians telling people what is good for them:

If people vote against their own interests, it is not because they do not understand what is in their interest or have not yet had it properly explained to them.

They do it because they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best.

There is nothing voters hate more than having things explained to them as though they were idiots.
As the saying goes, in politics, when you are explaining, you are losing. And that makes anything as complex or as messy as healthcare reform a very hard sell.

The article references the book The Political Brain, by psychologist Drew Westen, who is an exasperated Democrat. He tried to show why the Right often wins the argument even when the Left is confident that it has the facts on its side:

He uses the following exchange from the first presidential debate between Al Gore and George Bush in 2000 to illustrate the perils of trying to explain to voters what will make them better off:

Gore: "Under the governor's plan, if you kept the same fee for service that you have now under Medicare, your premiums would go up by between 18% and 47%, and that is the study of the Congressional plan that he's modelled his proposal on by the Medicare actuaries."

Bush: "Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers.
"I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math. It's trying to scare people in the voting booth."

A clear difference in the type of language used, even though Mr Bush, too, went on to talk numbers:

"Under my tax plan, that [Gore] continues to criticize, I set a third -- the federal government should take no more than a third of anybody's check. But I also drop the bottom rate from 15 percent to 10 percent because by far the vast majority of the help goes to the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder.

"If you're a family of four in Massachusetts making $50,000 you get a 50 percent cut in the federal income taxes you pay. It's from 4,000 to about 2,000. Now, the difference in our plans is I want that 2,000 to go to you, and the vice president would like to be spending the 2,000 on your behalf."

Mr Bush won the debate. With Mr. Gore's statistics, the voters just heard a patronising policy wonk, and switched off.

Drew Westen highlights a known truism in politics, that stories always trump statistics, which means the politician with the best stories is going to win:

"One of the fallacies that politicians often have on the Left is that things are obvious, when they are not obvious. Obama's administration made a tremendous mistake by not immediately branding the economic collapse that we had just had as the Republicans' Depression, caused by the Bush administration's ideology of unregulated greed. The result is that now people blame him."

It was a truism that the Liberal Democrats forgot in preparing Clegg for his debate with Farage,.but also one that appears to have deserted the Labour and the Conservatives as well. The BBC quote another author, Thomas Frank, who could be describing the UKIP phenomenon:

He believes that the voters' preference for emotional engagement over reasonable argument has allowed the Republican Party to blind them to their own real interests.

The Republicans have learnt how to stoke up resentment against the patronising liberal elite, all those do-gooders who assume they know what poor people ought to be thinking.

Right-wing politics has become a vehicle for channelling this popular anger against intellectual snobs. The result is that many of America's poorest citizens have a deep emotional attachment to a party that serves the interests of its richest.

Thomas Frank says that whatever disadvantaged Americans think they are voting for, they get something quite different:

"You vote to strike a blow against elitism and you receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our life times, workers have been stripped of power, and CEOs are rewarded in a manner that is beyond imagining.

"It's like a French Revolution in reverse in which the workers come pouring down the street screaming more power to the aristocracy."

As Mr Frank sees it, authenticity has replaced economics as the driving force of modern politics. The authentic politicians are the ones who sound like they are speaking from the gut, not the cerebral cortex. Of course, they might be faking it, but it is no joke to say that in contemporary politics, if you can fake sincerity, you have got it made.

And the ultimate sin in modern politics is appearing to take the voters for granted.

This is a culture war but it is not simply being driven by differences over abortion, or religion, or patriotism. And it is not simply Red states vs. Blue states any more. It is a war on the entire political culture, on the arrogance of politicians, on their slipperiness and lack of principle, on their endless deal making and compromises.

And when the politicians say to the people protesting: 'But we're doing this for you', that just makes it worse. In fact, that seems to be what makes them angriest of all.

It is a lesson that all the mainstream political parties in the UK need to relearn if they are to counter the rise of the popularist right.
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