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In political debate as in sport, practice doesn't make perfect: it makes for boring

Instead of playing to win, politicians are seeking not to lose.

Faced with the threat of relegation, our political leaders ground out a low-scoring draw in the ITV televised leaders’ debate. They were disciplined and competent (to varying degrees, naturally). There was lots of legwork but little progress.

It was no surprise that both the Labour and the Conservative camps felt quite satisfied afterwards. It’s a revealing disconnect. When insiders believe that an event went well and outsiders feel the opposite, you know there is something structurally wrong with the game.

No one skipped training. No one was drunk. No one collapsed from nerves. No own-goals, no red cards. Lots of defenders behind the ball. Make the other side take the risks if they want to get the win. But let’s be honest: no one came to win. They sought not to lose. The weight of planning was rarely offset by instinct. There was much technique on view – too much. A technique totally mastered is one that disappears. “Technique is freedom,” reflected the ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The leaders on the podium did not look at all free.

An uninspiring sports coach would call it a set of “good professional performances”. And that is why I switched off my television in low spirits, another notch more disengaged. I didn’t learn a thing. Did you?

To assess the event as a set of performances is not to endorse superficiality. Nigel Farage’s abysmal pinstriped suit, which deserved a pre-warning like those news reports that contain flash photography, is not the point. Ed Miliband, unfairly ridiculed by the conservative press, was always likely to exceed expectations. But he struggled to articulate what the Labour Party is for when it can’t turn on the taps of public spending. Nick Clegg, just as in 2010, looked the most at ease. On the deficit, however, he came close to saying that he was keeping all his options open until convenience and circumstance direct his hand.

David Cameron, in his “debt and more taxes” moment, came closest to articulating a clear dividing line between him and the other leaders. Even those who disagree must accept that Cameron said what he believes. Yet the flatness of the debate left the strongest impression.

There is a misunderstanding, across many fields, about the nature of performance and how it can be trained. Early in my cricket
career, well-meaning coaches frequently led me to play worse rather than better. Reflecting on what they – and I – did wrong, I see similar symptoms in the leaders’ debate.

Professional coaches often fail to understand that a true performance is not just a rehearsal that is played out in public. It rests on risk and freedom as well as planning and preparation. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at practice and then just ‘run the program’ during the performance,” Christopher Seaman explains in his splendid book, Inside Conducting. “Take a chance and leave some things fluid.”

A letter recently published in the New Statesman moved me very much. The previous week I had described the England cricket team as grimly over-rehearsed and risk-averse. “Just like state schools,” a teacher wrote in response. That is why the best head teacher I encountered loosened the wheels at his school, reducing “professionalism” and compliance, encouraging space for mavericks. By nature, he was fiercely disciplined. By observation, he understood the dangers of too much discipline.

In sport you have to plan and practise. But there is no magic without spontaneity. If players exclusively roll out a series of prearranged plays and “patterns”, there will come a point where there is no point in watching them. We could just watch a digitised simulation of the playbook instead.

A brilliant wit is not funny because he knows exactly where he is going. Quite the opposite. His mastery of language is so great, his mind so quick, that even a mundane conversation offers countless open doors. Someone open to opportunities for humour is a wit. A person inflexibly delivering a learned “funny” story is a bore. The leaders’ debate was depressing primarily because it was so boring.

Did the politicians need to turn up in person? The following memo could have sufficed: “The leaders are going to present their key messages, clearly but predictably, often rotating their neck muscles effectively as they swivel, mid-speech, having first addressed the questioner, before looking straight at the camera. Trust us: they are going to be competent. We’ve prepped them completely. Yours sincerely, the message/spin teams.” And the professional politicos would have been right. Yet as our certainty about the professionalism of the “message experts” grows, our faith in the politicians diminishes in equal measure.

The media must take some blame for the defensive stalemate. The obsession with “gotcha” gaffes reinforces risk aversion. The familiar complaints – What a stupid mistake! Give us human beings! – are two sides of the same coin. But that does not entirely explain a generation of over-coached politicians. I am usually sceptical about the idea of attaching adjectives to the “electorate”, as though it were one person with an identifiable mood. But this time, like a fish washed up on a beach, the electorate is gasping for authenticity. And that drives the desire to give mainstream politics a bloody nose.

There is one gravely worrying consequence of the retreat by the political class into professionally coached condescension. When voters are deprived of natural, authentic political voices they are vulnerable to the shallow attractions of people whose authenticity, however unpleasant, is their only drawing card. The great risk of collectively playing for a draw is a resounding defeat for mainstream politics. l

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 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.