Like millions of people around the world I’m horrified by the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. In the UK we’ve already experienced an election with even more horrific consequences when we voted to leave the European Union with absolutely no plans for how we’ll succeed in doing so.
The vote to leave the EU came as a massive jolt to my senses as I just couldn’t believe people would actually vote for something so insane. In light of this experience my surprise at Trump’s success wasn’t so great. I never shared the optimism of many of my friends, some of whom I enviously observed crossing the Atlantic to campaign for Hillary.
Failure of professional politics
I believe both events are confirmation of a trend I’ve been observing and thinking about for the last six or seven years. It is the failure of professional politics to acknowledge the fundamental changes that are reverberating around the globe. Neither the politicians or their professional advisers are willing to acknowledge the new reality. It’s partially out of self-interest. They just want life to go on as before, which means sometimes you win elections and sometimes you lose elections. They don’t get it’s so much bigger than that.
I say this with great dismay as I’m guilty of being one of those professional political communicators. I’ve advised very senior politicians and their staff in the UK, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Many of my friends and the people I admire are politicians or professional political operatives. This isn’t about the failure or success of left or right politics, but a general failure of the system itself.
I won’t pretend to have all the answers, because all I’ve got are half-formed hunches, ideas and a hunger to spend some proper time and money researching and developing those thoughts to come up with a better way of doing politics. It’s not enough to simply modernise what we’re already doing, as there are some people who are doing that quite well already.
Depressingly my own political party, the UK Labour Party, has been one of the slowest to acknowledge and respond to this change. Its response to electoral defeat hasn’t been to look forward and embrace a radical new way of thinking and doing politics, but to retreat into a past of tired, old political rhetoric and failed dogma from history.
Professional politics is rude and intrusive
In the 2015 general election the then Labour leader boasted about how Labour’s enormous ground campaign would deliver four million doorstep conversations. The reality was rude intrusions into peoples’ homes to demand to know how they would vote. The most important part of a conversation is listening and even if Labour’s doorstep activists did this there was no mechanism for capturing the insight they gleaned, let alone for acting upon it.
Doorstep campaigning like this is based on pure greed. The data the party gathers by knocking on the door is gold dust and by conventional wisdom essential to winning an election. But it’s greedy because there is nothing much in it for the poor person whose door has been knocked on, life interrupted and privacy violated.
Even worse many activists attempt to harass the innocent householder by challenging the householder’s legitimate opinions with ‘facts’ that argue Labour’s case rather than responding to the genuine concerns of the resident. Householders expressed concern that their son’s child couldn’t get into the local school because it was full of the children of immigrants. The activist’s response is to cite statistics that show the school is actually 96% white British or even worse that the shortage of places was the fault of the wicked Tory government’s austerity spending cuts.
We bombard and spam voters with leaflets, newsletters, direct mail, party political broadcasts and now digital and social media. But always with our insidious political messaging that says we’re better and smarter than you. This is our opinion. There’s nothing we like more than bashing the Conservative or Lib Dems, justifying it because that’s what they do to us. If we’re seen to be driven by nastiness, name calling and hate why should anyone listen to us or like us?
We’re treating the householder with contempt by ignoring their genuine concerns and firing facts intended to show we know more than them.
All we’re offering are facts and blaming someone else when people are angry, upset and in search of hope, vision and leadership.
So while I don’t have all the answers I do know some of the areas we need to question:
Authenticity and trust
People simply don’t trust the perfectly crafted sound bite generation politicians. ‘Spin’ was a response to mainstream media journalists distorting and perverting everything that politicians say. Spin was a way to combat this and beat the media at their own game. And for years it worked. But the public has moved on and politics hasn’t.
The public quite rightly detest Hilary’s carefully crafted, religiously rehearsed, marvelous messages. At least Donald Trump’s or Nigel Farage’s seemingly off-the-cuff gaffes seem authentic, even if ironically they are often lies. They appear more authentic and trustworthy than Hillary Clinton’s or David Cameron’s perfect truth.
It is much, much more than a fear of globalisation. We live in a multi-speed world where some people are getting left behind. But whatever the issue it’s never the same people left behind all the time. That’s why the crude demographics of yesterday don’t work anymore. People can be racing ahead in one aspect of their lives, and floundering desperately in another. We’ve got to be able to better understand the emotions at work.
Crude generalisations about ‘globalisation’, ‘neo-liberalism’, ‘elites’ and ‘austerity’, which you mainly hear from the left, don’t tell us nearly enough. They are the meaningless slogans of the intellectually bankrupt. Many people who are actually genuinely hurt by austerity still feel life’s pretty good as they are paying their mortgage or rent, enjoying a summer holiday and driving a nice car. Equally you have those who are actually doing okay, but believe all the negative narrative about how much they are hurting because of austerity, immigration and globalisation when in fact they might be benefiting from some of those things.
Political parties are still organised and run on very much the same lines as they’ve always been. The Labour Party’s rules and organisational structures have barely changed since its foundation in the early 20th century. Surely there must be a better way of organising in a world where the world’s biggest taxi company owns no vehicles (Uber), the world’s biggest media company creates no content (Facebook), the world’s biggest accommodation provider neither owns or manages any properties, and the world’s largest retailers own no inventory of stock or even physical stores (Amazon and Alibaba)?
Why is a structure based on geographical boundaries (we didn’t even decide) the best way to organise? Why is our organisation still based on ‘delegates’ to executive committees, campaign forums, regional boards, national policy forums etc. How does that possibly harness the enormous talents and enthusiasm of members? It doesn’t. All these things are relics from the dark ages of 20th century politics. Why can’t we have a 21st century political organisation? What does the ‘Uberisation’ of a political party look like?
Emotions beat facts
‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Take Back Control’ are simple appeals to powerful emotions. I can’t even remember what Hillary’s or Remain’s main message was. Anyone? The UK sends £350m a week to EU bureaucrats that could be spent on the NHS. Anyone remember the real number we send?
Senior UK politician and Leave campaigner Michael Gove infamously declared “people in this country have had enough of experts”. And so it seems is the case in the USA.
We live in a post-fact, anti-expert alternative reality.
Zoella has 6.8 million Twitter followers and 2.7 million Facebook page likes. The Sun has just 1.2 million Twitter followers and 2.5 million Facebook likes. If you’re a political operative or communicator who doesn’t know who Zoella is then shame on you. You’re fired.
Donald Trump has 14.2m Twitter followers. Hillary has just 10.8 million Twitter followers, but does have one of the best Twitter bios I’ve seen with wit and humour. But her tweets are truly awful. Perfectly crafted quotes followed by picture perfect photos. I challenge you to find a single Hillary tweet that comes close to the ranting, raw opinions you’ll sometimes find on Trump’s account.
It’s not just the power of social media personalities, but also the challenge of the social media bubble. People see an unrelenting tsunami of opinions and ‘facts’ that reinforce their own opinions and prejudices. There is no editor to provide the checks and balances of even the most biased mainstream media.
Mainstream media has failed politics for many years. And it’s getting worse.
First it created the phenomena of political spin, because it didn’t report fairly and accurately, but added its own spin, which in turn forced professional politics to counter-spin. Now there’s a constant race to the bottom to compete for clicks with the most outrageous headlines and torrid stories about personalities and scandals, because the tedious detail of policy doesn’t create unique views to sell to advertisers.
Professional politics can’t even grasp the simple truism that we’ve got two ears, two eyes and one mouth and they should be used in that proportion. It is most manifest in the arrogance of doorstep campaigning which makes political activists worse than the most aggressive doorstep peddler of unneeded services and goods.
We need to find a way to harness activists to actually go out into their communities (which isn’t where you live as communities are more complex than that) and listen in a way that means they can report back what people are feeling, to be made sense of and acted on. The danger is that the way activists hold these conversations inserts their own biases and prejudices into the data.
You just have to listen to anecdotes from Labour moderates like me who always find people critical of Corbyn, compared to Momentuum supporters who’ll find people fed up of austerity and desperate for Jeremy Corbyn’s new ‘authentic’ politics. Both of us are probably wrong and right, but not by intention, as that’s genuinely what we think we’ve heard as cognitive bias creates a subjective social reality.
Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, robotics, the gig economy, drones, blockchain are just some of the technologies disrupting the world. Some politicians are at least thinking about these things on a macro level – how they will impact society, the economy etc. However, they will also seriously disrupt the business of politics.
World of Watson was a global conference, based around IBM’s Watson AI/QA (question answering) technology, where 20,000 delegates gathered to talk about AI and data. As far as I know there was one non-IBM PR person there. Shift Communication’s Christopher Penn. I suspect there also wasn’t a single professional political operative or communicator. How many of them even knew it was happening?
Is only going to get bigger. We’ve seen some innovative uses of data for political communications, but I believe this is just the start.
The UK Conservative party used Facebook in the 2015 general election not just for crude targeted advertising, but analysed it to get insight that could be used in doorstep conversations. The Tories could never hope to match the quantity of Labour’s four million doorstep voter interruptions (let’s not insult anyone’s intelligence by calling them conversations), but they could focus on a far smaller number of targeted higher quality conversations (or interruptions, as I’m not familiar enough with Conservative activist doorstep behaviour to know which it was).
Trump used what looks like an innovative use of data dashboards.
Me, me, me
We’re in an always on economy where you can order almost anything you want from your mobile and receive it almost immediately, even customised to just how you like it.
People don’t see politics being about their country or community, but just for what they personally can get out of it. If all their friends in their social network agree with them then of course they must be right and everyone else is wrong. Their opinions are paramount. If they vote for a politician that politician must do what they say. They don’t want politicians to weigh up the possibilities and make decisions that involve compromises so they work for most people, but just to do what they think or want.
Voters are greedy and unreasonable. We live in an age where people demand “What can my country do for me?” They know their rights, but abdicate their responsibilities.
Questions and answers
So those are some of the questions. How are we going to find the answers?
Social democrats and the democratic left should be embracing defeat as it’s an opportunity for radical change. We can reinvent ourselves from the ground up. The democratic right is in power and it’s so much harder to do it from there. In power the right has to change the wheel while racing, in opposition the left can make a pit stop and build a new car.
My professional life is all about helping PR and communications professionals to understand and adapt to these radical changes. I go into companies and organisations and help them explore their own solutions to these challenges. I run training courses where PR and communications people can start to ask the right questions and think about the answers. I help people to campaign and communicate in new, better ways. Unfortunately there appears to be little or no way I can do the same in my political life.
If you know anyone who’d be interested in investing in researching and developing these thoughts then let me know as I know a talented bunch of people in the UK and overseas who I think would be up for the challenge of helping to look for the answers.
There’s too much doom and gloom at the moment so I’ve illustrated this article with a kitten gif from Reddit via Giphy.