Yesterday the Yorkshire edition of the BBC Politics Show focused on the by-election in Barnsley. It had eight of the nine candidates present to answer questions. Labour candidate Dan Jarvis was by far and away the best performer (stay with me this isn’t going to be a partisan post).
He was also by far and away the worst performer. The problem is that Dan was just too prepared. I could easily have scripted his answers for him (in fact I have frequently scripted answers exactly like that). Watch it 50 minutes in:
Tim Ireland: Why did Labour fail so spectacularly on welfare reform?
Dan Jarvis: ‘Well I don’t think Labour did fail. I spoke to a pensioner on the New Lodge estate the other day and she tells me she’s really, really worried about her grandkids because this Tory government has cut EMA, they’ve cut the Future Jobs Fund, they’ve trebled tuition fees. For me, and for that lady on the New Lodge estate, that’s a direct attack on the aspirations of young people and that can’t be right.’
Did she Dan? Did you really come across one pensioner who raised all three of these issues with you without being prompted? Or perhaps she was a composite of what different people have said to you on the doorstep? Or she was a party activist? But that’s not such an emotive story, so it’s easier to make that connection with people if it becomes a real character that voters can empathise with.
But are people really convinced by this artificial sincerity? Wouldn’t Dan’s answer have sounded so much more sincere if he’d just said what he really believed. I’ve not met Dan yet, but those who have tell me he’s a great guy who genuinely, passionately cares about issues like EMA, the Future Jobs Fund and tuition fees.
Somehow by giving a perfectly scripted answer it sounded less real, even though the intention was to make it more real.
I’ve been guilty of helping candidates to ‘personalise’ the message. Telling them that ‘voters won’t relate to you if you just talk about policies or statistics so you’ve got to personalise it’. I tell them to make it relevant to their audience. It’s easy you just mention a local village or housing estate. You make it about a real person “Susan, the young mother I met…”
It was effective five or ten years ago, but I do wonder if we’ve moved past that and if we need to find a better way to do this.
I feel more than slightly guilty writing this post as I’m disappointed I haven’t made it to help-out in the Barnsley by-election. We’d (me and Karen) had intended to go this weekend, but then got swamped with some local council election campaigning in Rothwell.