Packaging political ideas


by Sunny
22nd June, 2007 at 10:03 am    

Writer Rick Perlstein has an interesting article in this week’s American liberal magazine The Nation titled Will the Progressive Majority Emerge?

His point can be summarised as thus: an increasing number of Americans, contrary to popular opinion at home and abroad, are increasingly ‘progressive’ in their views on various issues from unions to abortion. A steadily decreasing number see themselves as Republican (only 25%), and an increasing number should be voting for the Democrats. The problem is that people are not voting Democrat in increasing numbers because for some reason they don’t think the party is aligned with their views (even if it is). The broader point is about the viability of polling but there’s some interesting data about the increasing number of socially liberal Americans, who happen to be drowned out by ‘the God squad’, so to speak.

Two points spring to mind.

Firstly, the analysis seems to tally with the broad ideology of the netroots in America, who argue that the problem with the Democrats isn’t their stance, but that they’re not confident enough of their liberal-progressive credentials and do not market them well enough. Markos also argues in his book, which I’m currently reading, that there are other factors such a right-wing media machine able to drown out Democrat messages.

In a recent private conversation we had, Gracchi said the problem with the netroots is that they’re obsessed about marketing rather than ‘the truth’ about what should be done. I somewhat agree. But this article shows that sometimes marketing a political message can be as important as the content itself. No?

Which brings me to the second point. Someone else recently remarked to me that New Labour’s problem is that it had become too good at marketing itself to the electorate and positioning itself favourably, but in the process lost touch with its grass-roots and its intellectual heart. It had essentially become a giant marketing machine. I agree. The problem is that, as the old saying goes: you can fool some people all the time, fool everyone some of the time, but you can’t fool everyone all of the time.

Gordon Brown realises he has to sound so different to Blair that he doesn’t sound as if he’s in the business of marketing (or spin as we call it) himself. The problem is any more attempts at positioning himself as anti-spin will be seen as further evidence of spin. The only way out of that, as I see it, would be to do what marketers and spinners hate to do: admit they got it wrong.

So will Brown start his premiership with a series of apologies? He may do that with Iraq, and he would be right to, but we don’t know if he’ll go further. He could do a u-turn over ID cards too. That would sky-rocket his popularity in my view. The other point to make would be that New Labour should rely less on polls to figure out what the centre-ground is and more on delivering policies that work. That way it can move the consensus to the left rather than have to go over to the right.


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  1. Arif — on 22nd June, 2007 at 11:32 am  

    Whether an apology would help his popularity will depend a lot on how his apology is mediated by the press and TV.

    Whether any popularity from an apology helps him electorally is also uncertain – after all, Blair won in 2005 despite unapologetic support for the Iraq war.

    I think Gordon Brown and Tony Blair make it to the top of politics by playing much more complex games within their small circles, being prepared to be ruthless and dedicated towards their own self-promotion and recognising what kinds of information and change it is necessary to provide different constituencies depending on their institutional powers.

    The public is obviously a small part of the calculation, but – in comparison to, say media magnates, large corporations, overseas governments and financial institutions – the electorate as a whole can never be particularly informed or ruthless in expressing its various confused interests.

  2. sonia — on 22nd June, 2007 at 12:10 pm  

    arif makes some good points. regardless of what you say to the public , for example ed miliband or david miliband can say what they like to the public, in the party system, what matters in getting to the top is your fellow politicians, and getting to the top involves playing games. there’s a reason it’s called ‘politics’.

  3. Sunny — on 22nd June, 2007 at 1:26 pm  

    Arif, always good to have you back.

    But one point. Blair barely won in 2005, primarily because the Tories didn’t offer a suitable candidate and because for most people Iraq didn’t list as their most important issue.

  4. soru — on 22nd June, 2007 at 8:43 pm  

    The trick to winning elections is to split voters into a set of different groups. Then find a coalition of groups that:

    a: is a natural majority
    b: has no two sub-groups that dislike each other more than they dislike at least one group in the other coalition.
    c: can be talked to in such a way that a message intended for one group doesn’t unduly piss off the others (dog whistle politics, done properly, is a way of doing this, but it doesn’t work if the media spots what you are doing and translates the message to a frequency people can hear).

    New labour was a coalition of three main groups – middle class liberals, unionised or regulated labour, and ethnic and sexual minorities. At it’s most successful, it could appeal to all those groups simultaneously. And, at least once Militant were kicked out of the party, everyone in the coalition had someone outside it they feared more than anyone on their side: Tories and bigots and fat cats, oh my.

    Similarly, American Republicans were 4 key groups: religious conservatives (theocons), free marketeers (neoliberals), nationalists (paleocons) and interventionists (neocons).

    All of them hated hippies or liberals or big government taxes more than they hated each other.

    For a whole bunch of obvious reasons, on both sides of the Atlantic, that’s not really true of either of those coalitions. Maybe they will end up being replaced with something new.

  5. Laban Tall — on 22nd June, 2007 at 10:24 pm  

    That’s interesting stuff, soru.

    “New labour was a coalition of three main groups – middle class liberals, unionised or regulated labour, and ethnic and sexual minorities.”

    Now by its very nature, the gay and lesbian community is unlikely to grow dramatically over the next few years – unlike the communities of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage, who I’d suggest don’t have a huge amount in common with sexual minorities or middle class liberals but who are increasing in numbers due to high fertility rates. I wonder how long this coalition can hold together.

    I may be wrong, but I have a feeling GB is going to attempt the touchy-feely stuff that Blair was so good at – with disastrous results. Blair, like all the best con-men, believed what he was saying when he said it. That’s why he was so good.

    Don’t think GB is cut out for sofa politics. Could be entertaining to see him try – or embarrassing.

  6. douglas clark — on 23rd June, 2007 at 1:08 am  

    Soru.

    I agree with Laban Tall, that is indeed interesting stuff. What would be good to do would be to put percentages against each category. Y’know, compared to the total Labour vote.

    I think Tony Blairs idea, was to make a grab at the central ground, which is a broader group than middle class liberals, is it not? Are these not the swing voters every party is trying to address?

    He compromised massively in order to assuage these folk, agreeing as he did to Conservative fiscal policy as a quid pro quo for his victory. Against what could only be described as a rabble.

  7. soru — on 23rd June, 2007 at 7:06 pm  

    There’s not one simple middle ground, there are as many as there are pairs of groups on opposite sides.

    The gay city trader, the muslim small businessman, the local government employee who wants her children to go to a better than average achool.

    They are all middle grounds, all people who could be persuaded to vote a particular way, or scared off from doing so.

  8. Sunny — on 25th June, 2007 at 3:31 am  

    Nice analysis there soru, cutting to the heart of all the politics. I agree of course, apart from the last bit. Has the coalition fallen apart? Will it? We shall see… ;)

  9. douglas clark — on 25th June, 2007 at 5:03 am  

    Soru,

    So, what are you saying? People are not simple. Not even as simple as bi-polar.

    There could, I would hazard:

    be a trio of a personality, fr’instance science fiction loving, religion holding, astronomers.

    or quads, say ex Muslim, Bronte loving, bi-sexual, bankers,

    or quins, mad commentators on web sites who are Yuccans at the weekend, enjoy a macrobiotic diet, read Iain Fleming for recreation and believe in the great God Uthuru.

    Ad infinitum – mainly cause i don’t know what six it in that system.

    OK, the last one was too close to home, but you get the point.

    We are not bi-polar we are multi-polar.

    Our judgement and our reason are based around a lot of things, not just one state of being.

    It might amuse you to know that I actually consider the USA a beacon of progress for it’s astronomy and the bucks it puts behind it. That is a part of me, a very important part, but there is another part of me that hates it’s new imperialism. And there music is OK, especially Springsteen and Dylan.

    Conflicted, moi?

    Maybe, for most, they love Hollywood and hate the bombs, huh!

    What all us conflicted folk – if we are actually conflicted and not just rolling with it – have to do is to make a decision.

    Still means politicos will try to analyse us though.

    Fascinating stuff, soru. Thanks.

    If you take it, reductio as absurdum, we are all individuals, are we not?

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