The need for greater authenticity in politics has become a truism, but is it possible?
With the rise of so-called ‘independent minded’ politicians such as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Alex Salmond and George Galloway it often seems that the new challenge should be to de-professionalise politics.
For those of us who are active doorstep campaigners, the single biggest phrase we hear is that ‘you’re all the same’. Finding a way of differentiating politicians and their parties therefore seems an obvious potential route to electoral success. Simon Danczuk MP wrote an article for PR Week at the beginning of January in which he said: ‘The premium currency that politicians should be looking to trade in these days is authenticity, and that means using stories and experiences to convey the message, not parroting slogans. It’s about showing character, imagination and a deeper understanding of people’s lives.’
Sarah Wollaston, one of the Conservative MPs selected by an open primary after the expenses scandal concurs. In an interview with the Observer, Wollaston said: ‘I think the public dislike the cardboard cut-out, the lobby fodder, the sycophantic [planted] questions [in the Commons] … they don’t like it’. The growing debate about boorishness and playground taunting at Prime Minister’s Questions underlines the worry that excessive party management is turning off the public. A recent Hansard publication ‘Tuned in or Turned Off?’ charts public disapproval with PMQS. 67 per cent of the public surveyed for the report agreed that ‘there is too much party political point scoring instead of answering the question.’
It is widely accepted that Labour had an image problem in the 1980s and the sharpening of its media message and professionalisation of the party’s operation has been credited with its success in 1997. But this appears to have been a double-edged sword. The notion that politicians look the same, sound the same and act the same has become ingrained in the public’s consciousness even though the reality is rather different. Indeed, Philip Cowley’s research has found that if anything, politicians have become more rebellious in parliament, not more, with Tony Blair’s governments seeing bigger rebellions than any previous governments.
This view of politicians forms part of what has been called the public’s cognitive dissonance – the holding of contradictory beliefs. On the one hand the public seem to favour independent MPs who speak their minds and challenge the party line, on the other, divided parties are rarely rewarded at the ballot box. Partly this is reinforced by the media who seek to expose any difference between the leadership and other party representatives. Recently, Will Martindale, a Labour candidate in Battersea was very unfairly strung up by the Evening Standard for articulating what many Labour members have said in public for a while, including Ed Miliband himself – namely that Labour should have prioritised more house building in our years in power. The Standard breathlessly reported that Martindale’s comments were ‘a blow to party leader Ed Miliband’s housing pledges.’
Understandably, activists are wary of causing headaches for their political parties and will bite their tongue in the interests of the greater good, recognising that they are just one part of a much wider movement with differing views. In some cases it is this loyalty which is a more authentic expression of someone’s political beliefs, though the public and the media (when they want a row) are less likely to view it this way.
I would suggest there is a better route to authenticity than ending up as a ‘speak your mind’ machine, and that is by embracing the community organising drive which has been set in train by Arnie Graf and pioneers before him such as Gisela Stuart’s team in Birmingham Edgbaston.
It is demonstrably proving your authenticity that represents the greater electoral benefit for Labour in 2015. If you can point to concrete examples in which Labour through its local candidates and activists has managed to respond to local people’s concerns, it is much more likely that residents will see your actions as authentic, and in turn you will be able to talk about your experiences more authentically. There have been some signs that community organising is out of vogue, but those of us who have run the community clear ups, legal loan shark protests, and save your local pubs campaigns can see the difference in public attitudes. Whether this translates into a shift in votes for candidates at the general election remains to be seen, though we know that those MPs who had a much closer relationship with voters at a local level in the 2010 election bucked national swing.
This is not to say that a shift in language used political activists isn’t necessary. I agree with Simon Danczuk that there is no harm in candidates and activists sounding more emotional, relating to people’s everyday experiences and trying to use common sense explanations for sometimes complex problems. Voters don’t expect you to agree with them, or the interviewer, every time and showing a robust sense of your own convictions is often rewarded rather than trying to kowtow to the audience. The one thing we all know is that the public sniff out artifice pretty quickly which is why Ed Miliband’s pledge to under-promise and over-deliver is so important.
Pure authenticity is impossible to achieve, even as an independent politician, but clearly there is scope for Labour to encourage its activists to ‘speak human’ as well as acting human by focusing less on the dividing lines we hear in Westminster, and more on the day-to-day concerns of people in their local areas.
This article was first published in the Fabian report ‘How Labour can change Britain: Ten priorities for a future government’, edited by Anya Pearson.