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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 17-May-15


Sunday 17-May-15

Politics and Persuasion in the UK General Election

Canvassing is done. TV debates gone. The UK general election is over and it's all change. Or perhaps some change, as the Conservatives have got in this time with a full majority. Last time they allied with the Liberal Democrats, who provided some moderation for what have been more extreme right wing policies. Under this new government we can expect to have public spending cut to perhaps even below the level (percent of GDP) of the USA, with welfare being a major target.

So how did they do it? Having a much bigger war chest no doubt helped, as did general good news about the economy, though opponents will point to the veneer over any implied depth. Falling oil prices, for example, is not a result of government policy. And reduced unemployment figures has as much to do with how these numbers are measured and viewed as the fostering of value-creating companies.

One of the biggest differences was how the leaders were portrayed, which probably had as much to do with coaching and acting ability as the real nature of the people.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has in the past appeared to be a bit bland. In the electioneering, he suddenly got passionate, even getting 'annoyed' when criticized on such areas as the subtle privatization of the health service. He also appeared often in factories, surrounded by workers as he expounded on the importance of business. Interviews with the workers afterwards seemed to suggest they weren't impressed, but that did not really matter -- Cameron was playing to the camera, not them. This was a good move for a Conservative, whose party are often accused of not being in touch with ordinary people.

I saw Ed Milliband, the Labour leader, speak a few years ago and was not impressed with his presentation style. He seemed more bemused at being leader than grabbing the audience with passionate speeches. Even recently, he has done daft things like forgetting to mention the economy in a critical party speech. Nevertheless, here he was, often in the community talking passionately again. He even took the bold step of being interviewed by an outspoken comedian and came off pretty well. But it wasn't enough and he'll be replaced soon enough.

Nick Clegg, the terribly nice leader of the Liberal Democrats saw his share of the votes collapse as he was punished for allying with the Conservatives in the last government. Traditionally the third party that received many protest votes, this time they were the subject of protest. His problem in public was that he was too nice, even apologizing for past political mistakes rather than using the more powerful politics of reframing and moving on.

The joker in the pack was Nigel Farage of the ultra-right-wing UK Independence Party, who stood on immigration and EU membership issues. He provided a string of OMG moments that broadcasters loved, with quotes that allowed him to be portrayed more as foolish than a realistic alternative. Farage played the populist leader, pint of beer in hand and spouting endless 'common sense' platitudes that did not bear close examination. They gave the Conservatives a fright, but in the end, despite getting around four million votes, they got hardly any seats in the UK's 'first past the post' system.

And racing up the outside was Nicola Sturgeon, leading the Scottish Nationalist Party to a whitewash that swept Scotland clean of other party seats. On the bow wave of a narrow recent defeat in the Scottish Independence Referendum, her straightforward and Scotland-centric rhetoric caught the hearts of the Scots who came out in large numbers to give her an alarming number of seats.

In the end, what have we learned about persuasion in UK elections?

First, youth seems to be de rigeur for leaders now, perhaps as a result of Tony Blair's ten years at the top Virtually all leaders are in their 40s, which would never have happened a few decades ago. As Boomers retire, GenX, who have little respect for their elders, are sweeping into power in all kinds of ways now.

Secondly, stage-management seems to have taken over, with carefully-scripted 'informal' scenes and politicians who seem coached into Oscar-worthy performances on every stage. Off-the-cuff comments and interviewer-driven interviews seem to be a thing of the past.

As always a supportive press helps, and much of it is owned by Richard Murdoch who apparently lambasted his journalists for not criticizing Miliband viciously enough. Media management, even with the expansions into online fora is the order of the day, though it didn't seem quite as big a deal as it has in the USA.

All the major parties spent a fortune hiring in experts and I wondered if I should have offered by services. But these days I've found a good work-life balance and somehow the hurly burly of politics this time didn't attract. Maybe in five years I'll throw my hat in the ring, but until then I'll keep on writing this website.

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