The next General Election will be a replay of the 2000 US presidential election.
Like the US Republicans eight years ago Britain has a right wing party, bitter and angry at having been excluded from power, convinced that the last leader of the government was a fraud and a flim flam artist who survived only by political charm and that the current leader is, if anything, worse.
Like the Republicans, the Tories face one major problem- and it’s a biggie. Conservative policy ideas are unpopular. With a decent economy and strong employment, people don’t see the need for tax cuts to kick start the economy, especially when they suspect the tax cuts will go to the rich and hurt services they care about. They distrust free market nostrums and want to see more support for public services.
The US Republicans responded to this dilemma by doing three things- blurring the language of policy to make right wing ideas sound progressive and moderate; using personal attacks from licensed “free thinkers” to attack their new opponent; and being outright deceptive about who their plans would benefit, while relying on supporters from carefully crafted right wing groups to legitimise their case.
I believe the next Tory election campaign will work from the same playbook.
So what might a Tory pol with an election to win consider… learning from Bush and Rove?
First, try to blur the language.
If you control the terms in which your policies are discussed you make it near impossible to report what your proposals actually mean.
George Bush was the original “Compassionate Conservative”. He was a “reformer with results”. He was a practical moderate who wanted to see no child left behind, to involve churches and faith groups in providing education and lifting people out of poverty. He cared about the environment and offered a plan to help people pay for healthcare. His plan for Tax cuts was billed as a boon for families.
Of course, as Bill Clinton later said, the rhetoric was compassionate, the reality Conservative. In office, “faith based initiatives” were shelved, No Child left behind proved to be a piece of Orwellian double speak, Tax cuts benefited the top 1% more than the bottom 50%. His prescription drug benefit programme did little for the elderly, and he’s been steadfast in opposing attempts to extend health insurance to more children. Oh, and he did cut taxes, but he didn’t cut spending, so the US deficit is enormous.
Now British Conservatives are speaking the same language.
Cameron says telling people on incapacity benefit to take any job or lose all benefits is “helping people out of poverty”. Setting up a voucher system for schools that will favour parents who would send their children to Independent school is “freeing schools”. They’ve even started calling inheritance taxes “death taxes”. Oh, and they’re promising to cut taxes but not spending…
Draw your own conclusions about what would happen in office.
Second, focus on personality
The golden rule here is that if people are talking about personality, they’re not talking about issues. If your stance on the issue is unpopular but you can smile and convince journalists you’re charming, that’s a win.
How can you get the agenda onto personality? Well, we have a media forced to get attention from an ever less engaged audience, pushed by competition from bloggers, commentators and interactivity to keep storylines clear and simple (and also keen to cut the cost of boring things like research).
That means they are likely to focus on the minutiae of political campaigns- who’s happy, who’s sad, who’s mad, who’s bad. But there’s something missing, even when covering minutiae. It’s the “why”.
Personality politics give journalists a convincing “why” that’s accessible, explicable and self re-enforcing. It gives a storyline on which to hang any and all events that come into view. “Personality” is a way of explaining the motivations and concerns of a politician. So and So is doing his because they’re worried about being seen as an exaggerator, or need to show they relate to normal people, or aren’t a lightweight ort distant, or intellectual, or angry and bitter or engaging and confident. Personality provides the crucial element in any story- motivation.
If you want to know how it’ll work, it’s worth reading the Daily Howler, a US website which chronicled the way in which journalists, right wing commentators and a few internet “celebrities” worked together to re-enforce a series of intensely damaging messages about Al Gore- that he was odd, an exaggerator, fake, a nerd, a serial liar, abnormal, elitist and aloof and that by contrast George Bush was normal, approachable and likeable, if casual and lightweight. Then every story in the election came to be viewed through that prism.
This cuts both ways of course- the last days of the 2000 presidential election were dominated by a debate about Bush’s drunk driving and wildness, not Al Gore’s alleged character flaws, but the US evidence shows a long term, patient campaign of character assassination can pay dividends in terms of framing political debate.
How might this work in the UK?
The first thing you do to create an environment where the character of your opponent is clearly defined negatively. You make the most outlandish attacks on your opponent seem normal. Personal attacks work best when they’re pitched as funny, humourous, playful. That also makes them deniable.
You don’t smear your opponent in formal speeches or in interviews, but in jokes and in anecdotes. You state that everyone “knows” about some rumour or another. You make snide little digs that it would seem unseemly to respond to- then if they respond, you say the response shows over reaction, a thin skin and a sense of humour failure. You also make sure that your leader doesn’t get involved in the innuendo- he must retain clean hands while others do the dirty work.
Then, once you’ve established the concept, you stretch the boundaries. You can now get away with calling someone “psychotic” and still be taken seriously. You get journalists in more serious papers to use your interpretation of your opponents personality as the reason behind his policy decisions, (which both debases the policy and moves the debate back onto personality) and start using the underlying messages of personality as the mainstay of your political rhetoric. Your opponent is phony, or untrustworthy, or just plain odd, which is why he can’t be trusted with office…. You play against that, careful never to make a direct accusation, but always leaving the interpretation out there to be filled in later by willing helpers.
The truth is, If you can make the political battle about character, all you need to do is have a nice smile and willing cheerleaders to win.
The final tactic will be to go for the big one. You lie- and then game the media into not calling bullshit.
George Bush flat out lied, demonstrably, on several aspects of his policy agenda in 2000. He got away with it.
Bush said his Tax cuts would benefit the average worker, when over 42% of the defecit went to the top 1% of the population. He said his fiscal plan would lead to balanced budgets- it wouldn’t. He said he signed a hate crimes bill in Texas – He didn’t. He said he supported a Patient protection bill and the Patients bill of rights- he hadn’t.
The depressing truth is that you can get away with lying if the media don’t look at every detail of your policies, don’t understand economics, and have an alternative “personality” narrative to hand that is easier to explain.
All of the lies I mention above came out of the US presidential debates- but what was most reported, most remembered and most politically significant from those debates? Al Gore’s sighing.
Secondly, as long as you’ve got a network of on message outside “experts” willing to go on TV and back up your assertions, journalists won’t say that you’re lying, but will report a dispute over the issue. If you’re the one in the wrong, this is a win.
So for example, you say something like “Wisconsin style welfare reform lifted children out of poverty”. It didn’t and in fact it increased child poverty, but as long as you can produce someone from Policy Exchange or the Heritage foundation to argue convincingly for three minutes on TV and write op-eds, who’ll ever know? Certainly not British journalists, who’ll be reduced to trading quotes with a headline like “Parties clash over anti-poverty measures”.
So how might a future cynical campaign use this tactic?
You might say that your “more spending, lower taxes” plan would cut deficits- as long as you’ve got a pet economist to say they can make public sector savings or grow their way out of trouble, it might fly.
You might claim that cutting welfare for young mothers won’t impact child poverty rates- as long as there’s a Stephen Pollard or a Heritage institute stooge to stand it up, you might get away with it.
Or you might say that your Swedish style “Free Schools” policy isn’t a voucher system, then whistle and point in another direction when asked the vital question of how an “independent” school would chose its students or whether cash top ups of vouchers would be allowed.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the next Conservative election campaign will come straight from this dark and dirty Republican playbook. It’ll be new right policies dressed up in the language of progressivism, with a side order of personality politics and large doses of outright deceit.
If Labour is to counter this, we’re going to have to think carefully abut how you handle a campaign like Bush’s.
We’ll need to relentlessly bring the agenda back to policy and detail, focus on what lies behind the soundbite and make sure that every assertion, every glib remark from Cameron about how liberal he is, how prgressive, how caring… is challenged.
The final point I want to make is that if we allow the next General Election to follow this path it will be because we haven’t developed enough policy excitement of our own.
There’s no point whining about the media or your opponents, that’s the world we live in, like it or not. The thing about understanding their strategy is to use it to out-think them, not to complain about them.
I’m convinced that where the debate is on the merits, Labour wins, but if we are to wrestle the debate onto that territory, the biggest challenge we have is to make policy exciting and relevant again. We can’t allow ourselves to retreat into administration, not leadership.
If there’s one thing the party needs to do over the next two years, it’s invigorate and open up the policy development process. Gordon Brown recognises this- indeed he made it the centrepiece of his leadership campaign-, but I think too much of the party is comfortable with just administering the current system.
If we don’t make policy matter, the next campaign will be all about personality politics and misleading rhetoric; not about how politics affects real people– and that will only benefit the Tories. It’s our job to turn that around.