Sunday, 15 June 2008

Personality goes a long way

Compass is setting the terms of the internal debate within the Labour party about 'where next?' In a hermetically sealed Institute of Education yesterday, the Compass conference laid the path for the democratic left over the next few years. The statistic that was quoted ad nauseam was the fact that there are 15million Labour identifiers in the UK but only 9.8million of them vote. On this basis, Compass advocates a re-assertion of centre-left principles and policies.

They are on to something. A huge note of caution has be sounded however. Something that struck me yesterday is that while many of the policies and principles that were advocated will resonate, much of the language will not. Most outsiders would have been completely bewildered at much of yesterday's discussion.

But surely, politics is a battle of ideas? Well, yes, on one level. Modern politics is so much more as well. The left in the USA has been continually outflanked by the Republicans finding an emotionally connected language that tapped into people's concerns and motivations. Intellectually, the left has been ahead but politically the right have been out of sight. Read the analysis of the Bush-Gore debate on healthcare in the 2000 presidential election in Drew Westen's, The Political Brain, to see what I mean.

It was utterly dismaying to hear Douglas Alexander dismiss Barack Obama's presidential bid as the 'politics of celebrity.' In this, he is completely and utterly wrong. Obama has celebrity, he is overflowing personality, but he also has deeply considered policy positions and a first class and genuinely ground-breaking campaign organisation.

Alexander went on to say, "Politics is a collective endeavour, it is team sport rather than a spectator sport." He is right in part. Only in part though. This analysis completely misses an important aspect of politics in the modern age. Personality does matter, who delivers the message forms part of the message itself. People in this new media age relate to people. Politics is not just a dialectic battle of opposing political ideologies. It is a battle of communication also. We may not like it but do not misunderstand this for one moment or the consequences will be fatal.

This does not mean that only young, photogenic people can get elected. The Liberal Democrats completely misunderstood this aspect of modern politics when they elected Nick Clegg over Vince Cable. The latter is a far more effective communicator and far better in the modern media environment that his party leader. He is also considerably older and less good-looking I'm afraid.

In the words of Samuel L. Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction, 'personality goes a long way' (admittedly he was talking about relative merits of dogs and pigs at the time but let's leave that to one side...)

The message is part of the medium. So is personality.

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