Ross Newton discusses the need for effective political story-telling.
Storytelling matters. Every single day we are surrounded by it, exposed to it, sometimes unconsciously other times consciously, through art, literature and music. It is beautifully human, and helps us make sense of the world we live in. It can even influence where we spend our hard-earned money, which is why brands understand the correlation between stories and success. Unfortunately, it feels like progressive politicians have forgotten its importance.
To understand the scale of this self-inflicted error, we only need to look at the previous decade of division and discontent. From successive election defeats, to the rise of nationalism, Brexit and Trump, progressive politicians (with a few rare exceptions) have been reduced to bystanders. To blame electorates for this is to refuse to learn lessons. Instead, we must understand why and how we have failed to correspond to voters’ realities.
Regressive politics has flourished because of its success in tapping into people's lives, particularly their fears. Many people have real and valid concerns about globalisation, immigration and automation. Unless we listen, understand and include them in our vision -our story- and give them the confidence and belief to reject the darker politics, then the last decade will repeat, and the candle of progressive politics will be reduced to a flickering ember.
An analysis of recent politics is eye opening. Think of the Brexit vote. Devastating and also entirely preventable - if we had listened and responded to people. Forget the antics of the Leave campaign, forget the posters about immigration, forget the NHS bus claim, these were tactics designed to reinforce their main strategy; their story, exquisitely reduced to “take back control”. This can be further reduced to one single word: empowerment. Empowerment in a fast moving, chaotic world is undeniably seductive. What was the Remain campaigns central story? Fiscal fear and data roaming charges? Compare and contrast. Similarly, in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum the “No” campaign may have won the battle, but in doing so it lost an entire generation to “Yes” because of its failure to understand and articulate people's concerns and aspirations. To people trapped in generational poverty, or feeling forgotten and excluded, financial threats lose their power and simply drive voters to the populists expressing their concerns. To combat this, we need to stop limiting ourselves to cold, clinical figures and policy, and instead, also understand voters’ concerns about identity and culture. Ceding territory because it's uncomfortable to address allows regressive politics to own the ideas and discourse, framing the argument to suit their agenda and giving them the home advantage. We need to own the discussion, using our language and our ideas. Simply, we need to give people a reason to vote for things, not just things to vote against.
But there is hope. From Blair to Obama to Macron, we have seen that progressive politics can win and that conservatism isn't inevitable. But we only win when we truly connect to people and take on their real concerns, not the concerns we wish they had. To do this, we need the courage to change and our courage to change gives people the confidence to reject their fears. It is important to note that many specific policy offerings from those winning campaigns are barely memorable now. What we do remember is the intoxicating story of their campaigns. The sense of opportunity, hope and change that was only possible because of their understanding of people's realities, their owning of the future and people's confidence that they were part of the progression, not excluded from it.
This demonstrates the importance of storytelling, also illustrating that policy alone is not enough. To be truly effective, policy must serve a cohesive vision.
If all we offer is shopping list manifestos without an overarching theme or try and win short term through fiscal fear, then our politics faces long term decline. Failing to articulate a political narrative and tell a story that chimes with people's lives exposes voter’s identity and culture to exploitation by political extremes and nationalism. However, if we understand and connect with people and construct a credible, progressive, inclusive story that resonates with their aspiration and reality then there is hope and endless opportunity for progressive politics this decade. We just need the courage to seize it.
Ross Newton has a degree in Acting for Stage and Screen, works in media and enjoys football.
He tweets at @RossNewton_