The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 22nd, 2007

An unlovely display of Tory cynicism

Politics is about what you stand for, not about policies, according to a senior Conservative I talked to recently who represents Project Cameron. We have plenty of policies, he explained – that is true and it’s also true that voters and journalists seem usually to ignore Conservative policies unless there’s any chance of a pratfall – but what matters is what people believe you stand for, who you are.

That is, of course, largely an emotional question, but perhaps politics is always about emotion. A recent book by Drew Westen, now being avidly read in Westminster, argues persuasively that voters, even the most analytical of them, think about politics with the touchy-feely part of their brains, rather than the rational.

This can have come as no surprise to snake-oil salesmen of every kind, such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who have always understood it instinctively, or to public opinion gurus such as the American Frank Luntz, who first identified David Cameron’s impressive emotional appeal. It is not something that politicians can afford to ignore. The people’s feelings must be engaged – wooed, earned, won, seduced, manipulated, via the mass media.

The clumsiness and the cynicism with which most politicians have tried to touch up our feelings have been one of the most depressing and demoralising aspects of the Blair era. Countless images of Blair as mood-maker spring to mind, grieving for us, saving the world for us, making Britain a young country for us and ending with his infamous claim to being a straight sort of a guy. However, I suspect that the public is at long last beginning to be tired of this clumsy groping and is becoming much quicker to see it for what it is.

If the Conservatives want to do something new and inspiring, they should find a way of avoiding it. They would be mad, obviously, to ignore the voters’ emotional brains, but they should try to demonstrate that they wish to avoid, and will avoid, insincere public relations stunts of every kind. It would distinguish them clearly from Labour and its tainted history. In such self-denial they would luckily be helped by the fact that Labour now has a leader who is incapable of making emotional contact with voters at all.

Unfortunately, the Conservatives seem to be giving in to the usual temptations. Last week’s two by-elections were not in themselves disastrous for the Tories. In both cases they actually gained a few votes and Labour’s share of the vote went down by 14 points in Blair’s former constituency and by seven points in Ealing Southall. If this is the Brown bounce, the Conservatives have little to fear. What was disastrous for them was the whiff of opportunism and cynicism that hangs over them.

It was bad enough that their boy in Ealing, the Asian Tony Lit, was found to have given money to Labour only a month ago and had been photographed shaking hands with Blair. Indeed, he joined the Conservative party only a few days before the start of his election campaign. This suggests all too embarrassingly that the Tories were so desperate to have the PR coup of a high-profile ethnic-minority candidate that they just grabbed at the man without knowing much about him or his convictions.

Even worse is the Rwanda stunt. A gaggle of Conservatives, including Cameron, are flying off to Rwanda tomorrow to launch their global poverty action plan, or whatever they call it. Admittedly they seem mostly to be paying their own air fares, but this has all the integrity of Blair’s own constant picking at “the scar that is Africa”, to display his own humanity. The Conservatives should not be doing it.

Hardly anybody is impressed any more by pictures of politicians pressing starving flesh, or posing with amputees, or priming village pumps. Hardly anybody believes it means anything at all, even though good things may in fact be going on. Like obscenely expensive international humanitarian gabfests, the spectacular failures in Africa of pop star philanthropists, as well as of self-serving politicians, have bred deep cynicism. Such PR jaunts do still arouse powerful emotions, but these days they are the wrong ones – distrust and contempt. Perhaps this helps to explain why the Conservatives are now seven points behind Labour in the opinion polls.

Exciting political loyalty and interest need not necessarily be a matter of manipulation and deceit. When all else fails, why not try integrity? Genuine, seal of Good Housekeeping, A-grade integrity still has enormous brand appeal. Admittedly, Labour is also trying to flog it to the electorate in the person of Gordon Brown, but this is doomed to failure.

First of all, the unlucky man is entirely lacking in that innate emotional charisma that Cameron has in almost Blair-like quantities. Secondly, Brown’s record must undermine any claim he might make to integrity. One is spoilt for choice in looking for examples, but perhaps it is enough to mention his reneging on Labour’s election promise to hold a referendum about any European constitution. No one who has behaved as he has, over this alone, can have any serious claim to integrity.

Cameron still has the relative innocence of untried opposition. He could, perhaps, try a style of emotional appeal that is traditional and very British – that of understatement. It is not insincere, or untruthful, but on the other hand it has highly developed powers of persuasion. It tries to convince by its unwillingness to try to convince, so it is not and never has been entirely innocent of the black art of manipulation. But it does have the advantage of being truthful, of being literally true.

It corresponds neatly with Conservative philosophy – not trying to hatch vain empires, not intruding into people’s private lives or promising a new Jerusalem but, instead, modestly trying do useful things where possible and letting people get on with their own lives as much as possible. The Conservative world view is understated – aiming at less government, but not at less concern for the unfortunate. Cameron’s policies do fit this model. He is a proper Conservative. What he needs is to take a proper Conservative approach to public relations.