Telling stories

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I’ve more or less given up on my attempt to blog the Meeting the Challenge paper – I found it too rigid a structure around which to frame my thoughts. But I did get stirred up by the plenary session at yesterday’s conference about narrative (more about which you can read here).

In short, I found this session a frustrating waste of time. A lot of the contributions were of value, but the discussion, as set out by Lord Rennard in the first five minutes, about about the party’s core messages which are not, as I understand it, the same thing as a narrative. Unfortunately there was no-one on the panel to give a countervailing view.

To be fair, I think the narrative idea causes a lot of confusion and I’m not sure I understand it myself 100%. But one thing I am clear about: there is no such thing as having “no narrative”. It is not an optional bolt-on to make you more electable. If as a party you choose not to think about crafting your narrative your opponents and the media will craft it for you.

For all our talk about being the “real alternative” in the last election (a slogan), our actual narrative in 2005 was this (or an approximation of it):

The Lib Dems are set to make gains in this election, largely due to Labour’s unpopularity because of the Iraq War and tuition fees. They hope to “decapitate” the Conservative Party by using tactical voting to get the desirable scalps of senior Tory politicians. They are the most high tax of the main parties, and will introduce a 50p income tax rate on incomes over £100,000. They oppose council tax and want to replace it with local form of income tax, which is criticised by their opponents for hurting middle income families.

Their leader is a nice man, a “fully paid up member of the human race”. But there are concerns that he is not up for the job. His wife is about to have a baby.

You might want to argue about the specifics of this, but my point is this: our narrative was a mixture of our message, our opponent’s message about us and media speculation. Talk of “decapitation”, “high taxes” and Charles’ personal problems were rather unhelpful for us, at least as far as some groups were concerned. Other bits were useful.

My very important point is this: we do not own our narrative, all we can do is influence it. Wanting to narrow the debate down to what our messages should be is to miss the point. And if we are on the subject of narratives, we should also be talking about ways we might want to shape our opponent’s narratives.

Secondly, to a certain extent now is the worst possible time to be talking about narrative as a large chunk of it will be crafted by the leadership campaign. The story of our leader will be part of the story of the party, and whatever else we want to say must be shaped with that in mind.

Ming’s story for example is that of the elder statesman. This is both a positive and negative thing. Andrew Rawnsley today veers towards the positive, and ekes out the other important point about Ming: he has a humble background and has pulled himself up with his bootstraps. There is a lot there that looks like a good antidote to the Cameron effect. But there is also the question of his age – already a major theme in his current media profile – which could seriously undermine him.

Simon’s story is that of an energetic inner city politician, a religious man with a social conscience, but with a reputation for chaos and for being a little dated. To me, there is very little in that that works in opposition to Cameron. He lacks the statesmanlike qualities of Ming and perversely, despite being 10 year’s Campbell’s junior, comes across as rather more old fashioned. On that basis, I think he would be a poor choice, but that isn’t to say we can’t find ways of countering if minus points in other ways. We do however, need to be thinking about it.

Leaving aside my personal opposition to him, Mark’s narrative is that of the professional marketing man with a photogenic family who wants to drive the party forward into the 21st century. And he is the loyalty candidate who stood behind Charles while others plotted against him. However, as far as the media is concerned he is a bit of an unknown quantity, and that perception shows signs of changing. His launch has been less than slick, contradicting his professional reputation. And his claims to be the loyalty candidate look less and less credible as it emerges that he cannot rely on more than a couple of MPs willing to actually support him and tempers calm as the party slowly begins to adjust to the post-Kennedy era. Indeed, I would say that of the four candidates, he is the one who most lacks a narrative, and that is undermining him quite severely.

Chris’ narrative by contrast is currently shaped not by reputation but a lack of it. Thus far it has been summed up in three words “dark green horse“. In many respects this very much works to his advantage because it means that his narrative will be shaped by the election itself. He has already been very successful at making the green agenda his own and has intellectual respectability. If he can demonstrate his political skills over the next few weeks, then he will have real momentum. While Campbell is the perfect “anti-Cameron”, Huhne is the perfect “conviction Cameron” – someone with a similar agenda to Cameron but with a track record that suggests he actually means it. That is a very tempting prospect and one reason why I am supporting (the other being that I happen to like what he’s actually saying!).

The point of this article is to make one very simple point: talking about narrative as if we have a blank slate to start and are in isolation to everything else with is futile. Our first step must be to identify, as clearly and honestly as possible, what the various narratives (our party, our opponents, the state of the nation) actually are, and then look at how we would want to change them. Our tools most certainly are our policies, our slogans and our messages, but this shouldn’t be our starting point.

14 thoughts on “Telling stories

  1. I should clarify at the end here that it is the existing narratives plus our principles that is our starting point.

  2. Rather faint praise for Ming, James. What he gives is credibility, assurance. Imagine that well up the list of issues out there for the next few years is gong to be Iran: isn’t he the man we want? (Question expecting the answer yes).

    Huhne – I think it is good that he is in the race. But can one go further? Not sure yet.

  3. Ming doesn’t give me assurance, although I know he’s supposed to be. That, crucially, is why I’m backing Huhne. With support peeling away, at the very least it forces Campbell to raise his game which can only be a good thing.

  4. I started off luke-warm, but I’ve been increasingly impressed with Ming in the last few days. His speeches have been good gut liberalism. And he was looking and sounding good on Sunday AM today. I will listen to Chris’s speeches with interest; but I will need some persuading.

  5. I am not allowed to comment on the individual candidates, but I do agree with your general comments on the nature of ‘narrative’. (Although I am still abit foggy about what it actually means!).

    Where we have perhaps been weak in the past is in adding to the negatives of our opponents. We managed it against labout in last year’s election, but mainly due to their own stupidity. We didn’t really manage it against the Tories at all.

    In response to Stephen, I think it is important that we look at each candidates record as well as what they put in their speeches during the campaign. All four of them will play the game of adjusting their message in order to maximise their support. I am far more interested in what each of them actually believes, as evidences by their record, and also how each of them actually goes about things, again based on how they have actually behaved in the past, not on how they now claim they will behave.

  6. James, I continue to be irritated by quibbles about Campbell’s age.

    If his age is likely to impair his ability to do the job, then fine. But there is little reason to believe that is the case.

    John Prescott is four years older than Ming, but no-one says he is too old for the job. The reason being that Prescott has a full head of dark-brown hair.

    The same applied to Ronald Reagan. He was 70 when he took office and 78 when he left it. His age was never very much of an issue because he retained a full head of black hair (and the USA is less ageist than the UK).

    Concerns about age are largely issues of perception. Ming is bald and the hair he has left is grey. He “looks” old. So people worry about his ability to do the job. Can you not see how irrational this is?

    A party which rejects ageism is a party which attracts people of all ages. If we elect a leader who is 64, then by the same token we should also be selecting candidates in winnable seats who are still in their twenties.

    An older man is perceived as having wisdom and experience. Those are attributes which Ming projects. And they are a counterbalance to David Cameron who tries to project energy and enthusiasm.

    Moreover, people of Ming’s age and older are a growing segment of the population. If people in that age brakcet are excluded from public office, then they are to a large degree disenfranchised.

    One of the reasons the Nationwide Buiding Society recently took the decision to employ people up to the age of 75 is that older customers often like to deal with staff of their own generation.

  7. My personal concern is less about his age than, as this post makes clear, his narrative which whether we like it or not includes innuendo about his age.

    It may well be less of a problem than the media present it as, but it is still what they are saying and Ming needs to address this. Thus far, I haven’t seen him do so and I remain very, very anxious about it since it is the leader of my party that we’re talking about.

    My problem with Ming in this campaign so far is that he has looked complacent and saying that image problems simply don’t exist doesn’t instill me with confidence.

  8. If I might say (and while I don’t agree with every word), James’ discussion of the narrative is
    the best I have seen yet. The point is, the narrative is not a campaign message, still less is it a
    list or an ideology.

    The point is that it has to be a story – incuding set-up, conflict, resolution, characters, logic.

    See the discussion of the Thatcher narrative in the MTC consultation paper. Also, the Liberal Party
    manifestos of the 1970s all started with a brief “story of post-war Britain”.

    I concur with James, that when we choose a new leader, we will also be choosing, in large degree,
    a narrative/story. This is because a lot of the party’s brand and image are summed in the leader – not just in his views, and
    the story he tells (more than anyone else in the party) but
    also in the way he tells it — his appearance, outlook, demeanour, clothes, everything. Though I think you
    sum up parts of the candidates’ images, you don’t quite get the narrative. Perhaps that because they’re
    all still early in the process of telling it to the party.

  9. Indeed. My stabs at narrative here were illustrative mainly and just a first stab at what the leaders’ stories might be.

    Thanks for the compliment!

  10. The interesting question I feel narrative pushes is the balance between the role of the politician and political party as the educator of the masses and the vote winning role of the reflector of public opinion.
    We should be proud to tell the public we disagree with them on some issues because we have reviewed the evidence (death penaly anyone) .
    Liberal Democrats believe in Europe, Social Justice, Immigration, Localism and environmentalism.
    The interesting question I feel narrative pushes is the balance between the role of the politician and political party as the educator of the masses and the vote winning role of the reflector of public opinion.
    Liberal Democrats believe in Europe, Social Justice, Immigration, Localism and fair tax.
    None of these battles have been won with the public or the media yet. We will get opportunities as events happen.
    Iraq gave us an opportunity to educate the public on internationalism and link the work of the UN as a “higher body” to the work of the EU where other member states shared the views of our party.
    Liberal Democrats believe in free education, a health service free at the point of use, recycling and pride in local areas
    All these views are shared by the public and we use our campaigning to re-emphasise them.
    2005 – ten reasons to vote Lib Dem was FAR too many – I didn’t even know a candidate who could tell me all ten.
    We need a realist as a Leader who will stand on principles and fight on our ground.
    The alternative is to follow focus groups and set an agenda on another parties ground claiming we are going to overtake Labour, or the Conservatives and claim we will win hundreds of seats and be doomed to failure..
    I think we are stronger fighting on our core beliefs and adapting them for campaign themes.

  11. Narrative can only be managed, never owned. You’re right to highlight how the media and opponents shape narrative. What is the most memorable phrase uttered by David Cameron? “You were the future once” – a blatant and well-aimed attempt to modify Blair’s narrative.

  12. James is quite right about the role of the media and our opponents in crafting a narrative for us. In tne past, it has been wholly negative. Admittedly going back a long way : the liberals have got no policy; wishy washy middle of the road; beards and sandals; dustbin for protest votes; say one thing in tory seats and something different in labour seats; soft on drugs and soft on crime; and so on. All of these things create an impression of what the party is and what it stands for. They help define the party in the minds of the electorate.

    We do need a set of core beliefs and specific policies, all of which hang together in a believable story or narrative. The one thing that was missing from James’ narrative was the set of core beliefs that tell the electorate who we are and where we come from. I think that ‘core belief’ is empowerment, power to the people, call it what you like, but a principle that helps define what our response should be in any set of circumstances, for example decentralisation and devolution of government decision making.

    I am old enough to remember the ‘People Count’ slogan of the Liberal Party. It represented a concern for ordinary people, it implied that our party would not take them or their votes for grantedand it reflected our core belief in individual liberty.

    I do think an effective slogan forms a key part – an essential part – of the overall narrative.

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