Sunday, 6 April 2014

Less policy, more poetry please.


"Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies in a box on Beasley Street"

John Cooper Clarke is a great poet. I don't share his politics but I appreciate the poetry of his passion, an almost anger captured by the quote above. And, unlike too much modern poetry, Clarke's is accessible and appealing beyond the usual pretentious circles of the literary world. It's a reminder that, like a great song, a poem cuts right to the very core of something. It communicates.

So I was struck by Clarke's comments about today's politics:

I suppose if I had to I would vote Labour but only out of blind class hatred, nothing else. That's what keeps these bastards coming back. To be honest, the only one whose language I even remotely understand is Nige [Farage]. Shoot me down in flames. Everyone else: they talk about nothing that seems to matter. It's beyond satire. And even satire has become PR, you know, since someone told politicians they will get more votes if they join in with the piss-taking themselves.

This comment from Clarke isn't an endorsement of UKIP but rather a recognition that most of our political leaderships fail to break through to the audience, to get them to pay attention, to really listen. Take a few minutes and read the tweets of politicians - with just a couple of exceptions these are boring, banal and entirely forgettable. All wrapped up in caveats, conditions and the avoidance of confrontation, today's political communication mostly fails to communicate. Or rather it communicates the message that we are patronising, out-of-touch and unable to hold a conversation with a voter.

One thing Nigel Farage seems to understand is that it's perfectly fine to attack your opponents - there's no chance of getting 100% support so spending time trying not to alienate people who will never vote for you is a thoroughly stupid idea. Yet politicians do this, carefully crafting their words to be inclusive and the views to be moderate. We peer down our noses at the likes of Farage, talking of extremism and division - as if it's impossible to present a moderate view in polemic.

If the public simply don't grasp our language then all those hours of policy wonkery, the backroom chats and the market research will be wasted. We fail if we think it's enough for our political tribe to like, retweet or forward the latest banality. We don't breakthrough if our policies are presented in press releases with all the wit and charm of one explaining a vending machine. Or where those policies trickle out in speeches to selected audiences and are couched in the language of those chosen few not words a shop assistant or sales rep would use. No-one cares, no-one's listening.

Clarke's Beasley Street captures a place and the idea of a place in a few sharp words - you've an image of that Salford street instantly as he delivers the words. And politics can do this too:

It's morning again in America.

It didn't matter much about the words that came after this opener in Hal Riney's ad - he'd got your attention with that image, those few words said more than all the statistics we politicians play our games with. And it worked.

Our words are guided by audience analysis, filtered through focus groups and derived from the policy brief not the benefit on offer. We list initiatives and policies with each one design to tick a communications box. Speeches and announcements are made according to a framework rather than because we've anything to say. And we make the grand assumption that it's the detail of policy that matters rather than the positive image of the place we're in or the place we want to get to.

Here's the opening paragraph of the 1945 Labour Manifesto - this is how it's done:

Victory is assured for us and our allies in the European war. The war in the East goes the same way. The British Labour Party is firmly resolved that Japanese barbarism shall be defeated just as decisively as Nazi aggression and tyranny. The people will have won both struggles. The gallant men and women in the Fighting Services, in the Merchant Navy, Home Guard and Civil Defence, in the factories and in the bombed areas - they deserve and must be assured a happier future than faced so many of them after the last war. Labour regards their welfare as a sacred trust. 

Bang - straight to the point. We've won the war, now let's make the country a great place for the men who did the winning for us. If you read that manifesto - and for good or ill it changed the country forever - it's not filled with statistics or analysis, just a narrative describing the Britain a Labour government would create.

For balance read the 1979 Conservative Manifesto - again it makes a clear call from the start:

THIS ELECTION is about the future of Britain - a great country which seems to have lost its way. It is a country rich in natural resources, in coal, oil, gas and fertile farmlands. It is rich, too, in human resources, with professional and managerial skills of the highest calibre, with great industries and firms whose workers can be the equal of any in the world. We are the inheritors of a long tradition of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

Yet today, this country is faced with its most serious problems since the Second World War. What has happened to our country, to the values we used to share, to the success and prosperity we once took for granted? 

Today's politics with its media and message management does not allow for great narrative, let alone poetry. The popular response to most of our words is 'so what'. We don't paint pictures with words or tell stories, we relate a barrage of 'facts' and a torrent of policy hoping some of it sticks.

So let's remember that, come the day that matters, the politicians aren't in charge - we are. Election day as John Greenleaf Whittier put it is everyone's day and politicians should remember this:

The proudest now is but my peer,
The highest not more high;
To-day, of all the weary year,
A king of men am I.
To-day alike are great and small,
The nameless and the known
My palace is the people’s hall,
The ballot-box my throne!

Who serves to-day upon the list
Beside the served shall stand;
Alike the brown and wrinkled fist,
The gloved and dainty hand!
The rich is level with the poor,
The weak is strong to-day;


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