Sunday, 18 November 2012

Relationship Breakdown between the Electorate and the Elected

Hopi Sen has presented me with a problem, he's said what I was thinking.

"....politics has been as much a struggle to prove to the voter that our politicians are smarter, stronger, fitter, better looking and have better hair than the other lot. Politicians? They were never sick, never confused, never half asleep, never just plain knackered. Always ready with the right answer, like some preternaturally perfect schoolboy genius.
 Worse, to convince voters that they were all-encompassing and all knowing, politicians had to convince themselves and all those who mediated between them and the public, from spin doctors to news editors that all this was true. They couldn't admit to flaws, couldn't admit to errors, couldn't admit to messing things up, to not being sure. That meant they could never be fully human. "

Hopi's style of pragmatic campaign experience plus clear-thinking appreciation of the issues facing Britain today appeals to me, almost as much as the fact-laden, timely posts from Stephen Tall or the new kid on the block, Mike Bird, who I find very good at pointing out elephants in many Liberal Democrat rooms.

The only thing that holds me back from full on Hopi appreciation is that he doesn't support the correct party, of course. Anyway, how to develop his point so as to have something new to say?

Lately, and for a few different reasons, I've been thinking about politics as a relationship between the electorate and politicians, as it is one. 

I've been doing a far bit of reading into books such as "The Road Less Travelled". Some of these do talk about the ingredients for a dysfunctional relationship: putting people on pedestals, unrealistic expectations, looking for other people to solve our problems and in the end, bitter, apathetic, arguments causing destruction and hurt.

This was on my mind when Stephen Tall and I had this twitter exchange (below left) the other day, after he tweeted about the reaction to the poor turnout in the PCC elections.

Some relationships don't work - which we accept and move on. Some could perhaps be fixed with effort on both sides and enough commitment. It's not quite clear what the British electorate wants - Dan Hodges thinks it's better public services but ignores the slice of the electorate that also wants lower taxes. EU nuts bang on about being out of Europe being our only salvation, but I'm always rather suspicious of anyone promoting panaceas 

Which brings me onto not believing the hype. I think this is the comedown from falling in love with New Labour in 1997. They shape-shifted and left us with a dour Gordon Brown rather than shiny Tony Blair, something I still don't think Labour really understand about their defeat - it's a bit unforgivable really.

Rather tolerantly, the British public gave Cameron a go, only to find he's a bit ....lacking in the domestic partner stakes as well, lack of commitment to any policy it seems, as well as to his pre-election (read pre-relationship) promises about Big Society, and all being in it together.

But, lets turn to us, the electorate. Far from being a battered partner, or a trophy one, we're an equal partner in this relationship. What are we actually asking from our politicians? 

I think we may well be projecting. Projecting, at the emergence of a new face - all our desires and ambitions for us as a country. Some know this and manipulate it, step forward Tony Blair and the New Labour project. Some look at it and attempt some of the moves in an attempt to seduce us, but without the commitment, retreat back to their old stomping ground quickly enough - why hello Mr Osborne.

And then, at the end of things, the destructive tendency appears. Our issues must be down to single factors, like immigration, or "benefit culture" or the EU. And demagogues like George Galloway arise like seductive, dangerous femme fatales (there doesn't seem to be a male equivalent!),  to tempt the supposedly pliable electorate away from the dysfunctional relationship (only to of course, drop commitment to their interests when the objective has been achieved, but I digress).

We then project our worst feelings about ourselves onto these self-same politicians - lying, deceitfulness, shame. When, as is often inevitable the cracks appear we go "see? Knew they were a bad un" - and the cynicism, apathy, anger and disconnect loom ever larger.

To fix it? To fix it we need commitment. We need both sides to want a better future. A lot of the left still seem to have hatred of Tories at their heart, which doesn't really take them closer to coming up with ideas. The Tories I find very selfish and concerned with their own interests above all : short sighted on Lord's reform, AV, using welfare reform to establish their vision of what a family should look like. Labour, too focused on re-distribution rather than equality of opportunity, like we are.

I still think I'm in the right party. I still think a lot of what we're doing is correct. I'm not sure the electorate wants a relationship with any of us right now tho. 

Hopi ends:

"Then maybe, just maybe, we can discard the worst, applaud the best and encourage the vast majority struggling along in the middle. If we do that, perhaps we can like politics for what it is, and not be asked to love it for what it could never be."
Therefore I think he's proposing we are friends with our politicians, rather than lovers. Maybe that is indeed, a good place to start. 

Friday, 9 November 2012

Politics as Sales

I had some great feedback from my last post here on Persuasion and Influence

Someone asked me what happens next :

"If one is good at persuading and getting ordinary people on board, the elite will put obstacles in the way, because they don’t want to change the status quo."

This is a reasonable point.

And the person went on to say  

"It’s almost impossible to reach out to the establishment at the same time, successfully.... without some conflict? And conflict is always risky..."

The way I've seen it having worked in in the corporate world a while is to know that somebody  usually wants to "buy" what you’ve got to "sell", be that a product or an idea (or a policy?), especially if the product/idea/policy is good enough. The trick is finding them, and asking enough people to find them. This is where contact helps, and of course that means knocking on doors.

But you don’t get anywhere in politics or sales, or indeed life, if you

a)     believe the customers are all cheap or in political terms the voters are all idiots

or, on the other side of the fence
b)    believing the sellers are all crooks looking to rip you off or  the politicians are all liars looking to get your vote and then do what they want

Humans are humans, neither angels nor demons. 

Someone in “the establishment” probably wants to make things work, but is as lazy, and bored, and judgemental as the most of the rest of us humans (i.e. probably a bit, but not all that much). it takes someone banging at their door to make them take notice.  

That takes courage. Courage to ask questions. Courage to make things happen. Courage to make mistakes, yes, and learn from them. That’s something that maybe the corporate world lets you do (not too often!) and learn from them, more than perhaps the political world does. 

There are horrible mean people in the world - but look around your experience, aren't they around about 1% of the people you meet or come into contact with? It depends where you spend most of your time, but I do believe most people are not stupid or mean - they occasionally do stupid or mean things however.

Back to conflict always being risky. 

I don't know why, but when I'm trying to get things done - I think it's a good sign. Conflict generally means someone is threatened, and if someone is threatened, you're generally onto something. And sometimes, if you listen, they might be right! 

I do however, see conflict as a sign to step back, and try another tack. What I have learnt is not to be a bull in a china shop, just when someone raises objections, to look at why, what the reasons behind the objections are, and, like a sale, attempt to meet them.

Politics as sales came up again when someone debated with me about hating the "I don't do politics" line. 

 I don't hate it. I find out why they feel that way, and what matters to them (education, tax, roads, jobs, whatever) . I call it politics-not-politics.

Anyway, talking to people who "don't do politics" -  I guess I think of it like a sales conversation. They will have views, as everyone generally does have an opinion on the way the world is run at some level, the part we play as activists is to find them out and work out if the Lib Dems can help them, i.e. we can't help a BNP supporter for instance, and then demonstrate how the Lib Dems' policies can help them with their needs.

At the end, if and when they are bought into what we can do for them, we can maybe point out we just had a political conversation.

It's all about our attitude.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Persuasion, Influence and Why We Should Care

Persuasion and Influence, the first a sublime novel by Jane Austen, the second a very interesting reflection on the psychology of persuasion. Both to be recommended. 

They, are also, two of the most important tools for a politician, alongside charm and reputation, in my view.

And yet, so many get it wrong.

Case for the Prosectution, m’lud, is Terence Blacker's piece on statistics from a study that he doesn't deign to link to, This is a man who probably at heart, starts with a good point 
" When those educated up to degree level were presented with the question, “Politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me cannot really understand what is going on”, a mind-bogglingly 36 per cent concurred. The figure rose to 65 per cent among those who left school at 16

But he concludes in the wrong place, 

It is difficult to explain this degree of cheerful ignorance with any degree of charity." 
due to a complete lack of… well, heart. If you're put off by the tone of the article, then I don't blame you - it’s cynical, sneering, elitist and mean. Oh and contains a dig at X-factor culture which is just lazy. I don’t watch it but I do think it’s OK for people to enjoy it, as they aren't forcing me to watch the thing.

He's not completely wrong, there is clearly an issue, but it’s an extremely uncharitable way of looking at things. I’d prefer to describe the issue as:  if 36 per cent of people (at degree level no less) find politics and government too difficult to understand, is it worth considering that perhaps it is?

Perhaps, in addition, it benefits the people at the top/in the civil service to keep information to themselves or obfuscate the details to serve their own interests, and to preserve the status quo. Business, for instance, has HAD to become more open and transparent due to the pressures of competition, the modern inter-connected marketplace and campaigns like the Plain English campaign. Government has FOI,  but no other real motivation to increase understanding of it's inner workings. 

Step forward, Sir Humphrey:

James Hacker: It is very popular with the voters, Humphrey. Gives them a chance to help us to find ways to stop wasting government money.  
Sir Humphrey Appleby: The public doesn't know anything about wasting government money. We're the experts.

Maybe, dear, lovely ray of sunshine Terence might like to look at ways he personally can improve understanding of the issues rather than sneering at the graduate unwashed. 

In addition, we could also look to teaching the right things at school, it's my view that we currently prefer to teach to tests because it’s easier. It would be better to teach the Dialetic method, or how to examine an argument and deconstruct it. 

It's probably a combination of both of these issues above.

Another issue I have with Mr Blacker's article is I believe, as I've expressed in previous posts, that it is very dangerous  to your emotional health to ignore your emotions. I personally think the best judgement is a combination of thinking AND feeling. 

A little bit of a confession: I have been an elitist snob myself in the past. However, I have learnt from sales and the emotional intelligence work that I've done in my career,  that it’s much easier to persuade (and get what you want) if you find out what people are interested in, don’t consider yourself above everyone else and relate what they want to what you want, so as to establish a win/win situation. 

If you'd like an example on how to persuade properly - follow Hopi Sen's post here. I disagree with him because I believe raising the tax threshold is a better way to give low paid workers more money than the living wage - but Hopi's approach and not Terence Blackers, m'lud, is the way to construct an argument.

Anyone who believes in capitalism should get this from watching any salesman worth their salt. So, I find it interesting that the right wing are often the most sneery and divisive between themselves and the vast swathe of everybody else "not like them".

Yes, the "right-wingers" logic can be better, though logic is not everything, but it’s rather counter-productive, gets people's backs up and is in a way, why the left-wing, sometimes with less logic, get such a foothold – because they care.