Atul’s twelve days of opposition: day six.

by Atul Hatwal

Rule Six: Use the leader’s life to show their  human side

“Show don’t tell’ is normally advice for fiction writers. It involves minimising the exposition and letting readers or viewers experience the story through the character’s thoughts and actions.

Increasingly, it also applies to politics.

Not because political campaigns are works of fiction, not entirely at least. But as the spotlight at each election shines ever brighter on the leader, each party has a story to tell about why their man or woman understands the needs of the country.

Politicians talk about this incessantly, but there is little as persuasive as showing rather than telling. If a leader has a similar background, has gone through comparable experiences and tackled the same challenges as the typical voter, then these actions speak a lot louder than words.

For a prime minister who has the gravitas of office as well as the ability to make decisions that impact people, their personal narrative become less important the longer they are in office. Their “show don’t tell” comes from the choices they make in government.

But for an opposition leader, who has no means to affect people’s lives, and who will likely be largely unknown to voters, the detail of their personal story is critical.

Rule six entails showcasing the opposition leader’s own story in a way that builds a connection with voters and tackles the negatives that are barriers to future office.

It doesn’t matter if they have had a deeply unremarkable past. It doesn’t even matter if their lives are run through with gilded privilege, voters will be interested and use their impressions of the leader’s home life in determining their choice for prime minister.

The three most recent successful opposition leaders, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron were each comparatively privileged but exemplify how rule six should be used.

Before she was the iron lady, while still a struggling leader of the opposition, Mrs.Thatcher was a Grantham housewife and the daughter of a grocer.

Pictured sitting around the kitchen table with her husband and children, she was someone in touch with real people’s concerns. This Mrs.Thatcher was the wife and mother facing the same problems as the rest of the country. Her economic philosophy was even pitched as “kitchen table economics”.

In 1997, Tony Blair’s Islington family life epitomised a middle class ideal in a way that resonated across the country. It exuded a familial decency which anchored his personal appeal and, most importantly, helped convince voters that the country would be safe in his hands.

This was no ideological firebrand, brought up in penury with a burning desire to radically remake the country. Tony Blair was the son every Tory mother wished for. His background and family were social bellwethers that helped detoxify the Labour brand.

And in the last few years, David Cameron’s home life, although even more wealthy than Thatcher or Blair, demonstrated a man who loved his family and did the best for his disabled son.

It showed a Tory leader who was a human being – not a description applicable to certain predecessors – helping make his party’s brand more palatable.

Perhaps most importantly, Cameron’s experience of using the NHS in looking after his son, and his praise of the service meant people could believe his claims that the NHS would be safe with him in a way no Tory had ever achieved before.

Thatcher, Blair and Cameron each used their family normality and personal experiences to neutralise negative images of their parties. Voters looked at how the leaders had led their lives and made their judgement.

For these three politicians, very different in many respects, there was one important trait they held in common which enabled them to make the most of their biographies: each was content to allow the world a window into their private lives.

It is often assumed that all politicians would be comfortable with mixing personal and public in this way. But they are not. This reticence is at the root of why so many opposition leaders, who have already sacrificed so much to attain their position, will not and cannot fully commit to do what is needed to connect with voters.

In the last decade, the opposition leader with the best biography was Michael Howard.

The son of a Romanian immigrant, by working hard he got himself to grammar school, Cambridge and then became a QC. Howard’s back story speaks of tenacity and ability that is in sharp contrast to the stereotypes of privileged Tories.

His wife was a former model who had been on the cover of Vogue and with his two children made for a family that looked like a middle England dream.

Yet Howard was never happy talking about himself. He would rather make the debating point than tell a personal story.  Despite the negative way voters viewed Howard as a result of his time in the Major government and no matter what Conservative advisers did, he resisted attempts to humanise and personalise.

Similarly, William Hague had a good story to tell. An average Yorkshire middle class background and comprehensive school before Oxford, INSEAD and McKinsey tell a tale of someone bright and hard-working who has made their way through ability rather than contacts.

But when Tories tried to show his human side they got bogged down in ridiculous baseball caps and laughable stories about drinking fourteen pints a session.

In both cases, for Howard and Hague, there was an essential awkwardness inherent in the politician. Almost as if they weren’t quite comfortable in their own skin.

Ed Miliband has been accused of this. He certainly isn’t a Blair or a Cameron. But Mrs.Thatcher wasn’t a natural either and through persistent effort she managed to soften her image from the high-pitched early 1970s harpie that was Thatcher the milk snatcher to something approaching an everywoman by 1979.

Miliband’s recent spread in the Mirror, complete with family pictures of his wife and kids was the type of story which can help humanise a leader who is frequently viewed by voters as other worldly.

Despite the odd peculiar answer – having baseball and American football as favourite sports doesn’t really build bridges to the British public – it put him in a more normal context.

On its own, rule six won’t bring success if each of the others is broken. But more than all the talk about democracy, new politics or understanding people’s pain, showing a persuasive back story is the most powerful way to make a connection with voters.

In 1987, Neil Kinnock was leading a fractious party, with several unsaleable policies and a recent history of political dementia. At the start of the year Labour had lost the Greenwich by-election to the Alliance and was in danger of coming third in the forthcoming general election.

Labour’s election broadcast, subsequently dubbed Kinnock the movie, included interviews with uncles, aunts, had pictures of his parents and frequent shots of his wife and children. The broadcast remains one of the finest examples of the genre even twenty-four years on.

It did not prevent a Labour meltdown on its own, but it did make a major contribution to defining Neil Kinnock as a strong and compassionate leader that voters could believe in.

There’s never any substitute for “show don’t tell”.

Tomorrow: Rule 7 – My enemy’s enemy is my friend

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

Tags: , , ,

2 Responses to “Atul’s twelve days of opposition: day six.”

  1. AmberStar says:

    Yes, the Mirror piece was excellent. A good rehearsal for doing this kind of thing with others. Ed should also make the time & effort over the next few years to attend some non-political regional events with Justine & his family. I’d like to see a nice piece in the Scotsman & the Glasgow Herald. It would do wonders for his image with Scottish voters. Regional holidays around England, with a bit of press coverage, would also work out well for Ed, I’d think.

    We could also do with a nice brotherly event or two, featuring Ed & David. Maybe watching a footie match together at Sunderland (or wherever it is that David is involved with the local team). That would go down well.

    Really, this is probably the most important ‘day’ of the 12. Everything else is just the job of doing politics. This stuff is where politicians cross-over. It worked for Dave ‘the toff’; it will work for Ed, ‘the geek’.

  2. figurewizard says:

    It may still work but most voters, in the wake of the economic crisis and the expenses scandal double whammy tend to think a little more deeply about things than they did in the days you mention.

Leave a Reply