27 September 2008

Wisdom of forethought?

Back in 2004, when Brownites were busy briefing against Tony Blair, I wrote an article questioning whether Gordon Brown would make a good or better leader. It was rejected by the various newspapers I sent it to, but, in the light of events since he became Prime Minister, I don't think it was too far off the mark:

Can Labour afford to back Brown?
(written in September, 2004)

1979 Revisited?

On the day after the 1979 general election, I remember being flabbergasted by a letter to The Guardian that seemed completely out of touch with reality. Signed by Tony Benn and a group of like-minded colleagues, it attributed Labour’s defeat entirely to the fact that it had failed to pursue policies that were left-wing enough. The authors conveniently ignored the fact that the Callaghan government had only managed to stay in power because of a pact with the Liberals. And they were undaunted by the complete lack of evidence of any widespread support for left-wing policies from an electorate that had just voted Margaret Thatcher into office.

With the price of ignoring the preferences of the electorate as high as eighteen years in opposition, the party ought surely have learnt its lesson. But calls from Labour malcontents to replace Blair with Brown are beginning to sound like the first drum beats of a renewed retreat from political reality. It’s not just that the anti-Blair agitators have apparently forgotten that bickering and division are a sure-fire recipe for damaging a party’s fortunes. They also seem to be assuming that the electorate would be happier, or at least just as happy, with Brown at the helm as they are with Blair.

What harks back so resonantly to 1979 is the fact that the change being pressed for by the siren voices within the party once again seem to have more to do with internal party feuds than any rational assessment of Labour’s wider electoral appeal. Unlike the last time the party turned in on itself, the present situation has little or nothing to do with policy. After all, Blair and Brown were co-architects of New Labour, even though Brown now seems obsessed with deleting the phrase from his vocabulary. Nor, as far as the average voter can see, does there seem to be much difference between them about current policies. So whether the malcontents like it or not, the issue actually boils down to personalities – or to be more precise to which of them has greater electoral appeal. And this is where I find myself almost as flabbergasted by the pro-Brown lobby as when I read the Benn letter 25 years ago. And there are at least three reasons why a Brown leadership could be one small step, and perhaps even a giant leap, towards electoral disaster.

Lawyer v. Lecturer?

Gordon Brown’s first problem is that, when it comes to communication skills, the former lawyer has the former university lecturer beaten hands down. Blair knows how to craft and deliver a speech. He knows how to make the most of rhetoric, imagery and anecdotes to get his points across. And he has that rare and essential electoral asset of being able to attract respect, however grudging, from supporters of other parties. His ‘people’s princess’ speech on the death of the Princess of Wales caught the mood of the nation, regardless of party affiliation. And the impact of his speeches after 9/11 transcended national boundaries: such was the power of his oratory that, for a while at least, many Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, looked on Blair, rather than Bush, as the world’s leading spokesman against global terrorism.

By comparison, even the most casual research into audience reactions to Gordon Brown’s speeches comes up with descriptions like ‘the quintessence of dour’, ‘a finance geek in a grey suit’, ‘serious’, ‘sombre’ or just plain ‘boring’. However much he may be admired for his undoubted intelligence or competence as chancellor, he comes across as dull and uninspiring -- except to a tiny minority of political commentators who delight in looking for the presence or absence of words and phrases that might be a coded hint about the current state of his relationship with Blair and/or the party at large.

In an age when coverage of speeches makes up an increasingly small proportion of broadcast political news, Brown’s supporters might offer the defence that dourness on the podium doesn’t matter as much as it did in the past. But even if there is some truth in this, the trouble is that their hero has a second, and arguably even bigger, handicap in the way he conducts himself in what has become the main cockpit of political debate on television and radio, namely the interview.

Not Answering Questions

For at least two decades, viewers and listeners have had put up with the sight and sound of politicians treating interviewers’ questions as prompts to say anything they like, regardless of what they were asked, or as yet another opportunity to dodge an issue. As an exponent of how to carry this depressing art to its limits, Gordon Brown has no serious competitors among contemporary British politicians. When he was still shadow chancellor, one commentator noted that if you asked him what he had for breakfast, his most likely response would be ‘what the country needs is a prudent budget’ – and that would merely be the preamble to a lecture about his latest thoughts on the matter. I recently asked one of the BBC’s most experienced and best-known presenters what it was like to interview him. His answer was rather more outspoken than I’d expected:

‘Brown answers his own questions, never the interviewer's, and is utterly shameless. He will say what he wants to say and that's it. And he'll say it fifty times in one interview without any embarrassment at all. I've never met anyone quite like him in that respect. I once spent 40 minutes on one narrow point and still failed to get him to make the smallest concession. He's extraordinary and is never anything but evasive and verbose.’

If politicians like Brown think it clever or smart to get one over the interviewer with such tactics, they betray a staggering lack of sensitivity to two rather obvious and basic facts about the way people interpret verbal communication. The first is that viewers and listeners can tell instantly when interviewees are being evasive. And the second is that they don’t much like it. Politicians may say that they’re worried about their low esteem in the eyes of the public and growing voter apathy. But it never seems to occur to them that their relentless refusal to give straight answers to questions might have something to do with it.

The 'drink tonight' Test

Finally, Gordon Brown fails a simple test that I’ve found to be an interesting barometer of charismatic potential. I first started using it during a stint as visiting professor at an American university which just happened to coincide with 1984 U.S. presidential election. Noting that all the bumper stickers on cars in the faculty parking lot were pro-Democrat, I took to asking colleagues a simple question: ‘If you could go out for a drink tonight with Reagan or Mondale, which one would you choose?’ Without exception, they opted for Reagan, who was duly elected a few weeks later.

According to this test, the Tories have made a number of serious blunders since the demise of Margaret Thatcher: it pointed to Heseltine rather than Major, Clarke rather than Hague and Portillo rather Duncan Smith. And, if the opportunity had arisen, David Davis might have come out ahead of Michael Howard

Applied to Labour’s choice of leader after the death of John Smith, the test resulted in 100 percent of my respondents opting for a drink with Blair rather than Brown -- a statistic that has remained unchanged to this day. Add to this the prime minister’s greater effectiveness as an orator, the chancellor’s dour image and continuing evasiveness in interviews, mix in the damaging effect of internal splits and squabbling, and the plan to ditch Blair in favour of Brown begins to look almost as far removed from electoral reality as the left-wing fantasies of Tony Benn and his cronies in the 1980s.

2 comments:

domnul said...

Right on the money!

Chris Rose said...

It may be a bit late in the day to be posting a comment on this blog, but I have only just been directed to it.

You say that since 1997 the Tories have had difficulty in selecting drinking companions to be their leader. The only time they appear to have done so is when they put the final choice in the hands of their members in a popular ballot in 2005. Popular ballots are much more likely to select drinking companions than party apparatchiks.

It will be interesting to see whether this method of choosing a leader leads them to greater electoral success in the future, particularly if Labour do not institute something similar.

My guess is that after their experience of Brown, Labour may well alter their selection procedure, but I doubt if they will be prepared to give such a large part of the final decision to party members. I shall be most interested to see if that's a handicap for them.