Communication breakdown: how Westminster politics can repair its public image

I’ve been thinking about this revolution à la Russell Brand business recently. He hasn’t historically been known for exercising excellent judgement, however in this case, somewhere buried in all the posturing, is a very valid point. The symptoms are clear: the British public are undoubtedly disengaging themselves from politics. Voter turnout is falling, as is membership of the main political parties. Facts which pose both a legitimacy and a solvency problem for British politics. On the other hand: the National Trust isn’t struggling for members: a fact frequently cited as evidence that Brits are still willing to engage in a wider public life and community. We’re just, seemingly, not that enamoured of politics.

Brand’s cure-all is revolution: a slightly impractical answer that doesn’t address the very real challenge of ensuring we have a legitimate way of getting a government. However, one only has to watch the news or read a paper or even probably ask a random person on the street to ascertain that he is indeed correct in his observation that most of the British public don’t care for politicians. His own diagnosis mainly revolves around the idea that politicians are all corrupt, self-serving ne’er-do-wells, in the pockets of big business and the city. This is a very compelling and easily-swallowed argument.

But my own experience of politicians – and I’ve worked with a few in recent years – doesn’t bear this out at all. Many of them are hard-working, decent, and public-spirited: so why isn’t this their popular image? Well, there are a few rotten apples, giving the rest a bad name. And some have just made silly mistakes. But I think the public would be less inclined to believe that all politicians are ‘on the take’ if they weren’t already so fed up with the political class in general. It is already a faltering relationship. And there is one particular feature which, as with all troubled relationships, I suspect might be causing the lion’s share of the problem: communication.

Communication involves two parties – at least – so let’s start by thinking about ourselves. The problems we’re having aren’t only to do with the kinds of people that become politicians. It’s us as well. We’ve changed. Brand may lament the lack of leaderliness in our leaders, but I’m not sure we want to be led in the same way any more. I recently visited Churchill’s house, Chartwell (National Trust member that I am), which is stuffed with memorabilia and records of his time in power. I reflected on the train home that not only was Churchill a very different kind of politician, but he was dealing with a different kind of public – one that didn’t know about (or turned a blind eye to) the fact that he was, for example, drunk most of the time.

Today, our expectations of communication have changed. We want to be informed, to be consulted. Social media has given us all a voice: we no longer expect to be mute subjects on the receiving end of a broadcast. And we have learnt from the experience of our consumer lives that we can expect to be put at the centre of things. To receive services that wrap around us, fit into our lives.

To return then to the accused party: I can’t think of any way that mainstream politics has meaningfully responded to any of these changes in the world (and MPs being on twitter doesn’t count). It hasn’t adapted.

For starters: it hasn’t updated its tone of voice. Ed Miliband’s conference speech was a case in point. Although the party faithful sitting behind him on camera were all nodding and clapping approvingly at his oratorical skills, I’m pretty sure that to most of the rest of us, he sounded like a parody of a sanctimonious sixth form debating captain. Every time he rhetorically paused and closed his eyes for emphasis I cringed. What an odd, archaic manner of speaking. And Mili-E is by no means the only guilty party.

Secondly, the political classes don’t seem to have cottoned on to the fact that most people are now quite sophisticated in their understanding of political communication, and can spot a dissimulating answer a mile off. Those old rhetorical tactics aren’t fooling anyone any more, so continuing to employ them encourages the fiction that all politicians are liars.

Thirdly, they collectively appear to be choosing to ignore the damage that party political bickering does to politics in general. For example, one may, as an innocent member of the public, switch on Prime Minister’s Questions expecting to hear intelligent and reasoned debate about how the country ought to be run: a great and serious matter. How disillusioned you would be to realise what you’ve actually stumbled upon is a window onto a rarefied members’ club where the main business seems to be jeering, name-calling and petty one-upmanship. Actually – internally – this is a system that sort of works because all the players know the rules. It’s more sophisticated than it seems. But to the outsider it looks like a highly disfunctional waste of taxpayers’ money.

Digging down into the reasons most people can’t identify with politicians reveals a significant communication breakdown. In what politicians say, and how they say it, they’re not, as a rule, connecting with The Public. But I don’t think it should be that hard to fix. There are actually a few relatively small changes which – if adopted – could have a big impact. In communications terms, politics needs to move into the 21st century with the rest of us, to move from an age of rhetoric (which it has worshipped and been steeped in for far too long) to an age of conversation – an art form which involves both listening carefully and speaking honestly, as yourself. Here are three suggestions for how this could be done:

1. Stop campaigning all the time (and collaborate).
No one listens when politicians use parliamentary questions – or any other platform – to big up their own track record, because no one believes anyone who is always the hero of their own story. They could be nudged into dropping this habit quite easily: the Speaker could instigate a new rule, a matter of parliamentary etiquette, that unless we’re very close to an election, campaigning and scoring party political points in the Chamber is considered an abuse of parliamentary time. They may disagree, by all means, but must do so constructively. To win back public confidence they must demonstrate that ultimately they’re all working together – collaborating – to solve the problems of the day. Opposing as a matter of principle is tedious and transparent.

2. Speak honestly.
This means responding to what people are actually saying, or asking, rather than waiting for them to finish speaking so you can say what you were always going to say anyway. It means admitting when you made a mistake or got something wrong. And it means being yourself. The popular politicians tend to be those who have a demonstrable personality – who don’t try to be an everyman.

In practice, this may require a relaxing of party lines: under the informal rules about how far one may deviate from the received wisdom without losing your party’s support, those who speak their minds don’t last too long. Or it may just mean we need a greater plurality of parties.

(This is also a great way of short-cutting bad behaviour by the press. Louise Mensch and Gloria de Piero are both interesting recent examples of MPs who defused public scandal by admitting, in a very no nonsense manner, to an incident in a former life that the press was attempting to batter them with.)

3. Be consultative
Allow people to participate in politics. Ask them what they think, and show that you have understood their answer – even if you disagree. Emailing constituents to canvass opinions before a vote is a great idea. It’s surprising how often people won’t mind a different outcome as long as they were asked their opinion as part of a democratic process.

All this is important because we absolutely need a healthy, happy, functioning democracy. Collaboration, which means good communication, is the only way we’ll get there.

3 thoughts on “Communication breakdown: how Westminster politics can repair its public image”

  1. Thanks, this was really interesting to read.

    I’m working in an innovation lab in a council. There’s a real appetite for change and people are interested in the design thinking ideas we share with them.

    We talk about asking opinions of residents and getting ideas from them. I’ve seen first hand that asking for ideas from residents sometimes doesn’t cross people’s minds – I come from a design background and this was surprising to me. How can we help council staff to understand the value of consultation so deeply that they are motivated enough to take action? What can I do, beyond reblogging this?

    People are interested in the quarterly survey of limited research that the council currently does. How can we support council staff to interact more with the public, and add to their understanding of their residents?

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