“Don’t be boring in your Parliament, Dad.”
Five-year old Sarah Mullin’s delightful advice to her father Chris on July 18th 1994 (related from his diary entry for that day), is something that the whole of our political class would do well to bear in mind once in a while.
The little girl’s point is even more pertinent for Labour in opposition – as indeed Mullin Snr and his colleagues were in 1994. Being boring should surely be the cardinal sin of mid-term Opposition, when it is difficult enough to get noticed even at the best of times.
Yet the blunt, unvarnished truth is that Labour is actually extremely boring at the moment – even for a political geek like me. Polly Toynbee’s comment about the “curiously bloodless Labour party” hits the spot. We seem to be drifting through a parallel universe in which uttering blandities to bored media interviewers and on panel discussions seems to be the party’s preferred means for impressing the public.
It is not particularly impressive.
As a journalist myself – albeit mostly in the business and finance arenas – the sheer aching dullness of our approach is numbingly familiar from many past encounters. The techniques of conventional business-focused media training, whereby an interviewee is given a script to read and reads it, whatever he or she is asked, are everywhere now, including politics. Not answering questions is par for the course all over.
These things are not completely new of course: for as long as a free media has existed, people being asked questions by reporters have preferred not to answer them.
What is most notable about the current approach to media relations in the political arena is a reflexive defensiveness; fearful and negative. Adopted across the political spectrum, this default position is divorced from the true purpose of media appearances and interviews, which is to project an engaging presence to the public, and maybe put forward a few interesting ideas as well.
Toeing “The Line”
Labour’s position in Opposition is different to that of the Government and coalition parties, but our approach remains highly controlled and constricted, seemingly based around that favourite of Malcolm Tucker fans – “The Line”.
To watch some of Labour’s spokespeople trying to pump The Line on TV feels strange at times – the urge to support co-existing with bafflement at what they are saying and a wish they would have something rather more interesting to say.
I have always felt a little sorry for such people: supposedly at the top of their profession, yet reduced to garbling pre-prepared “Lines” prepared by someone who has none of their responsibilities and sometimes little of the understanding they have.
It is a particular shame to see and hear new, intelligent and relatively eloquent Labour MPs seemingly become neutered after joining the Shadow Cabinet or being picked to go out in front of the cameras and microphones.
There is a decent case for arguing that this is a natural process whereby a new bunch of shadow ministers are learning the ropes. But I think it is more than this, and comes down to fundamental problems with The Line.
The Line is a decent tool in a defensive strategy box. When you are being attacked and wish to deflect attention away or just not make things any worse, having a Line to fall back on can be priceless: it irritates the hell out of journalists and viewers, but you will get away intact and with plenty of loyalty points from those you are protecting.
The trouble for Labour now is that we are in Opposition and, far from wanting to deflect attention away from ourselves, should be doing the exact opposite. It is fundamentally counter-productive to rely on Lines as we are doing: shadow spokespeople need to hone their skills of argument and conversation rather than perfecting the reciting of pre-prepared gobbledegook. If they cannot explain an argument using their own language, then either the argument is deficient or the person chosen should not be out there explaining it.
We should leave the gobbledegook to government ministers. The media has no choice but to pay attention to them, but the last thing it wants is to turn to the Opposition in the search of something more interesting and find the same obfuscation and failure to answer questions.
Journalists and producers will quickly lose interest in interviewing or inviting on people who have nothing to say and do not respond to basic enquiries. They will also look for something else to write about or display that is beyond your control and perhaps not much to your liking.
So, The Line is an overrated tool, particularly in Opposition. But what would a better approach look like? Here are a few thoughts:
- Due to extensive cuts in the media over many years, and also just natural pressure of work, journalists are often trying to juggle many things at once, and do not have much spare time for research and reflection. Some hacks are lazy or not very bright; others are struggling with hangovers (maybe gained in the process of getting a story off a bunch of Tories the previous night). Try to make life easy for them by appreciating the sort of things they might need to get a story done. The first thing is the basic storyline itself: who is doing what, and who is going to be happy or angry about it? For better or worse, conflict and confrontation generally works in generating interest in you (think of Tony Blair vs Clause IV, Occupy vs St Pauls and the Labour leadership election – these confrontations have all spurred interest beyond the basic confrontation).
- Take a long-term approach to winning voters around. It takes time for people to change ingrained ways of thinking. Trying to rush things and achieve immediate results in the polls could lead to short-termism, desperation in getting messages across and disappointment at apparently failing to achieve tangible results.
- Encourage spokespeople to relax and try to enjoy debate and answering questions, to show humour (if they can) and also to stand up for themselves when interviewers or fellow panellists are rude to them.
- Attempt to appeal to what are known as “the chattering classes” or “opinion formers” – chattering is after all about dissemination of opinion; the chattering classes are by definition experts at this and well connected. Bring these sorts of people on to your side and your support will multiply – a gift that keeps on giving.
- Be sanguine about gaffes. People make mistakes; if individuals are being recorded and filmed on a regular basis, these will be made public and could prove embarrassing to individuals and the party. But get over it; the public certainly will, and they may even quite like culprits for showing they are human beings and not robots (think of the John Prescott punch for example).
We need to be exciting the interest of these people and stirring their souls. Showing a bit of vim, vigour and humanity will go a long way.