A dentist at work. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Show Hide image

We wouldn’t go to an amateur dentist so why are we suspicious of professional politicians?

There's a fear that politicians are merely polishing the surface, allowing the decay to spread.

Last week’s programme for Archive on Four on Radio 4 – Read My Lips: Why Politicians Speak the Way They Do – was subtly provocative. In purporting to answer the question posed in its title, the discussion developed into a skilful defence of the professionalisation of politics. The three principal guests – Alastair Campbell (Tony Blair’s head of communications), Daniel Finkelstein (political adviser to William Hague before becoming a Times columnist) and Frank Luntz (a pollster and consultant) – have all worked professionally with politicians to improve their ability to communicate. The presenter, Jonathan Powell, was Blair’s chief of staff. Only the satirist Rory Bremner stood outside the profession.

The programme responded to the popular perception that the political class is paralysed by spin doctors, “out of touch”, and unable to connect naturally and authentically with voters. Not so, apparently. Finkel­stein argued that politicians “are much more in touch than they were”, possessing an “acuter understanding of what the electorate can follow”. Campbell believes that, in response to the 24-hour media, “politicians had to force themselves to become clearer, sharper, more focused and on-message”.

Luntz paid tribute to a technology known as “the worm” or “dials”. As a politician speaks in public, a focus group provides feedback in real time, instantly converted into a graph that captures the popularity of each phrase. “Up or down, second by second, like or dislike,” Luntz explained, “it is a precise way to measure any communication by politicians.” This is the political equivalent of the stats now flashed on screen during televised sport: distance covered, passes completed, yards advanced, tackles made.

But does this kind of approach capture what it means to be a good politician? Or do the obsession with quantification, and the risk aversion that follows, encase politicians in a linguistic and conceptual prison, rendering them passive and inauthentic, simply churning out soundbites to tickle their audience’s prejudices, like bored but savvy GCSE students writing exam scripts merely to elicit the necessary ticks?

Luntz takes the opposite position: the problem with modern politics is that it remains too amateurish, not too professional. “If politicians spent more time, more care, thinking about the language they use, they would have a longer shelf life.” What Luntz means, surely, is that if politicians spoke more carefully, they would have a longer shelf life if (and only if) their opponents did not follow suit. In a zero-sum game – which captures the business of winning elections but not the art of government – if two opposing parties simultaneously develop the same set of communication skills and tactical tools, it does not increase anyone’s shelf life. Two political machines – each of them increasingly sophisticated, cautious and precise in its tactical pursuit of the votes it might win (and only those votes) – essentially cancel each other out.

This model offers a partial explanation of the current political stalemate in this country. The parties are so effective at defensive ploys, undermining any positive but potentially risky move by their opponents, that everyone is, in effect, playing for a nil-nil draw, perhaps hoping to nick a result in the penalty shoot-out (the election campaign).

Rugby union perhaps offers a more apt parallel. I am now resigned to the fact that old-fashioned line-breaks, in which attacking players evade the first line of tacklers – the moment when the pitch opens up, speed enters the equation and this fan feels as if he has been injected intravenously with champagne – are very rarely possible in today’s game. Defences are too good. The professional evolution of rugby – the drift defence, the choke tackle, the defensive hit in contact – have conspired against the sport’s most ecstatic spectacle: freedom in space. The teams are probably “better”. But is the show? I’m not so sure.

In one crucial respect the analogy with sport, introduced by Alastair Campbell, does not apply to politics at all. The purpose of sport, strategically speaking, is so simple that the term strategy is almost a tautology for an older, simpler word: winning. So the professionalisation of sport, though sometimes counterproductive to the spectacle, has unarguably raised the overall standard of performance. Today’s teams, broadly speaking, would beat the teams of the past. Sport is straightforward: everyone knows what winning looks like.

In politics, the notion of winning is much less obvious. The concept of victory can be divided into two spheres, not quite separate but certainly importantly different. First, there is the business of winning elections; second, there is the question of governing well. Although you can’t do the latter without first achieving the former, you can certainly excel at winning elections without being equally good at running the country. Given that focus, attention and talent are always finite, the decision to concentrate on one goal inevitably leads to there being less energy to lavish elsewhere. When we talk about the professionalisation of politics, usually we mean the professionalisation of the political message. But has there been a corresponding evolution and advance in delivering political fundamentals?

Read My Lips referred to the idea that we like professionalism in dentistry, so why not in our politicians? To take on the metaphor, perhaps we feel reassured that dentists are professional in the good sense because human teeth fall out increasingly infrequently. We can test the professionalism of dentists empirically. In contrast, we wonder if politicians are merely focusing on whitening and polishing the surface, allowing underlying decay to spread. Perhaps it is too early to tell. But that is the fear. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Show Hide image

What did Jeremy Corbyn really say about Bin Laden?

He's been critiqued for calling Bin Laden's death a "tragedy". But what did Jeremy Corbyn really say?

Jeremy Corbyn is under fire for describing Bin Laden’s death as a “tragedy” in the Sun, but what did the Labour leadership frontrunner really say?

In remarks made to Press TV, the state-backed Iranian broadcaster, the Islington North MP said:

“This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy. The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have died.”

He also added that it was his preference that Osama Bin Laden be put on trial, a view shared by, among other people, Barack Obama and Boris Johnson.

Although Andy Burnham, one of Corbyn’s rivals for the leadership, will later today claim that “there is everything to play for” in the contest, with “tens of thousands still to vote”, the row is unlikely to harm Corbyn’s chances of becoming Labour leader. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.