Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

The art of politics is having a story – who knew?

by Chris on 27th May 2019

I learnt a valuable lesson about political blogging over the weekend. If you want your story heard in a crowded space, have one — just one. The power of story is a single coherent narrative. And as heads are scratched this morning, that’s the lesson for political parties too.

As I laboured over my post late into Friday night, I couldn’t decide quite what I was writing about. My starting point was Theresa May’s painful exit, morphing into a story about Nigel Farage’s comeback. Finally, remembering where I was writing from, I turned my attention to Scotland.

The result was a piece that was too long, meandering from one story to another, never quite nailing anything. As I slaved over the crafting of sentences and paragraphs, and which words to use— we writers love to do that — I lost sight of the most important question. What was my central story? Because, in the end, I didn’t have one, my efforts were doomed.

And this, surely, IS the story this morning. At a UK level, no matter that the Brexit party was competing from a standing start. It had a simple message, one that its figurehead, Nigel Farage, has been proselytising about for as long as the 20 years he’s been around in politics.

In Scotland, no matter the jury is still out on the SNP’s core mission of independence, its story in this election was vote for us if you don’t want Brexit. The party held its nerve and was rewarded for it.

The Liberal Democrats did the same thing. They found a space that might otherwise not have been there because they had the courage to do so. The result is quite a story for a party which not long ago faced devastation in the polls because it had, arguably, forgotten what its story was.

The Greens too benefited from an unambiguous message about Europe relentlessly communicated with crystal clarity by its leader, Caroline Lucas. Proof too, that you can have a secondary story — in this case, climate change — and it’ll resonate as long as it’s relevant.

The message in all this. Don’t overcomplicate things. And for Labour, it’s beware the consequences of making constructive ambiguity your key tactic for too long because when polling day comes, your message to voters will ultimately and unsurprisingly be, well, ambiguous.

The message for the Conservatives is pretty much the same, albeit they are in office. If you try to please all of the people all of the time, you will fail. Especially if, as Theresa May discovered, you never learn from that and just keep doing it.

No matter too that the Brexit Party’s success wasn’t actually from a standing start but built substantially on a base that had never gone away, even if its political apparatus, in the form of UKIP, had. You can get away with chutzpah, and be rewarded for it, if you create a story. Even if it obscures inconvenient truths.

And surprise, surprise this morning — the media loves a story. Analysis is all well and good, but narrative is king. I mostly go to the comment pages first. But I know I’m not typical. For most people, headlines are the draw.

It may irk Remainers that Nigel’s comeback is the headline this morning. The No Deal figures don’t actually add up after all . But the Remain story is fragmented, one without a single figurehead, but many. Pointing otherwise in quite markedly different directions. Pore over the results all you like, there’s no getting away from that.

In Scotland, some of those scratching their heads the most are Labour voters — including those who didn’t vote Labour — who wonder at the SNP’s remarkable resilience when there isn’t a majority for independence. They resent the fact that big story north of the border is SNP success given its share of the vote is hovering around 40%.

Memories can be short though, remember the political landslide that was New Labour. Now that was a story. And it came on the back of 43%. All because five pledges worked better than six tests.

In the midst of that splintering it’s no surprise at all, that Change UK looks unlikely to do that. In politics, you have to create a story about WHAT you’re going to do too — not just HOW. And you can’t stand in the middle of the road. We all know why.

Some people do care about how politics is done, especially if they are caught in the thick of doing it. But the reality is that most voters want to know what it means for them. If the crisis facing the so called political class is what have you ever done for me, the response has to be a damn sight better than, we’ll do it more nicely.

My weekend lesson is that if I’m going to keep trying my hand at political commentary, I’d better know what I’m trying to say. Lose the plot and I’ll lose the reader – or worse still not grab their attention at all.

The art of politics is having a story. Message, not nuance. The devil may be in the detail but if you’re bedevilled by it, voters will punish you. Keep it simple, keep it consistent and keep it relevant. Throw in some courage and even a bit of hubris. Oh, and keep it brief.

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