Monday, 6 October 2008

The Dark Arts - Politics and preception

. So, like a Hollywood horror sequel, the ‘Prince of Darkness’ has returned to government; Peter Mandelson has returned from exile to the European Union to be Gordon Brown’s new Business Secretary. Of course, it is not his record of “getting things done” in the economic field that earned him his moniker but his reputation as Tony Blair’s ‘spin-doctor-at-large’. This probably was a secondary consideration for Brown’s embattled government which is desperately in need of a better public image.

Labour has been guilty of many things in power and I would be the first person to point them out. However, the notion that it somehow invented ‘spin’ has always seemed grossly unfair to me. It is as if no politician in the history of politics has ever tried to present things in a way that benefits them or their agenda. Of course they have and will continue to do so; arguably we are more aware of it now because of the proliferation of media into all areas of our life but to say spin started in 1997 is just plain wrong. Spin seems to me to be all about managing and changing people’s perceptions and whether we like it or not they do matter in politics. Tony Blair realised it and it looks very much like David Cameron does too; if you can change people’s perceptions then you are half-way to winning them onto your side. Perception is easily 8/10’s of politics.

Why are they so important?? Quite simply because most people don’t have the time or inclination to absorb politics in the way ‘politically interested’ ie, activists do; thus allot of their judgments flow from their perceptions of politicians; policies and parties. If they catch their attention for either positive or negative reasons then that impression can be hard to shift. If you are perceived in a certain way then few people will bother to investigate further purely for the reasons mentioned above. Letting your opponent define your image for you is a fatal political mistake. Once they do then you have effectively lost control of the argument and are well on your way to actually losing it. Assuming your opponent is savvy enough to chime with a preconception or create a perception then they can lead the debate in pretty much any direction they please

However, if your opponent doesn’t chime then they appear out of touch. This is why the Conservative’s ‘Demon Eyes’ campaign in the run-up to 97 never worked; Tony Blair had so successfully imprinted the image of a changed Labour Party on the public consciousness that it didn’t resonate with people. Often it takes a grand act, like the removal or Clause IV, to scold this imprint deep enough; one thing that may leave Cameron’s Conservatives vulnerable where Blair wasn’t is that there has been no discernible ‘Clause IV moment’.

Before perception comes preconception and these can be just as powerful in the collective imagination of the public. For a Liberal Democrat one of the most damaging preconceptions is that as a third party we are effectively impotent; that we can never form a government which means it is either pointless voting for us or weakens our arguments because people feel that we can say what we please without fear of ever having to make it into concrete policy. Saying otherwise, that we are ‘preparing for power’ may boost morale but frankly sounds a bit ridiculous to the average voter.

If we are going to combat this then instead of making grandiose statements we should focus on emphasising concrete achievements where we do have power; run councils or have MP’s. This will slowly alter people’s perceptions and they will come to see that we can govern and where we do we are effective.

However, the image problems of our party are nothing compared to the image problems of the wider left. Socialism in particular is seen as either at best esoteric or at worst conjures up images of Borg-style drones; gulags and collective farms. Of course, people will protest that this is not the case but frankly the state of the left does nothing to really destroy the myths. In fact, there is something of a culture of force-feeding people politics on the left which actually reinforces deeply held prejudice and alienates what should be natural allies.

Preconceptions usually foreclose any kind of dialogue because people have already made up their mind. Engaging them head-on is harder than changing a perception. However, this is something the left is defiantly going to have to do; especially in the current climate where people may well be angry with what is going on and the direction of capitalism but are in no way ready to listen to any alternative the left may offer. We may well lament the role that ‘spin’ plays in politics and feel in a puritanical way that it cheapens political debate but we have to realise it is a factor if we are ever going to have any hope of engaging with people and winning any kind of argument.

No comments: