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On Brexit, Trump, trust and whither politics

Posted on 29 April 2017 | 7:04am

Here is the text of the speech I gave this week to the DJOEF conference in Copenhagen, on Brexit, Trump, trust, winning and whither politics

I am very flattered that you have asked me to talk about the two themes – trust and winning.

On trust I am the man who if you believe some of the British media single handedly created spin – I feel the creators of the TV series Borgen owe me one – and destroyed trust in politics.

And on winning I may have written a best selling book on the subject but if I reflect on recent campaigns I have backed … Labour against Tory 2010 and 2015. Remain against Leave in the EU referendum. Hillary against Trump. Oh and I was helping Francois Hollande a little until he hit four per cent – which is roughly the same proportion of people as genuinely believe that Elvis Presley is alive.

But before we get too nostalgic about the days when journalists were all honest, and politicians all pure and popular, another polling stat if I may … at the height of Churchill leading Britain through World War 2, in answer to the question ‘do you think politicians are honest and good for the country?’ … 35 per cent agreed. Politics has always been tough, but yes, it perhaps feels tougher than ever.

On winning, had you asked me to come here a few months ago I would have come armed with WINNERS AND HOW THEY SUCCEED, and shared some of the stories from winners in sport, business and politics I have known, worked with or interviewed.

Then along comes Brexit and along comes Trump and you wonder if you know anything about winning at all.

It’s said it is all about trust. But just step back for a second and look at those two campaigns, in the context of the dictionary definition of trust … ‘a firm belief in the reliability, truth or ability of someone or something.’

Brexit – one of the most effective things they did was to make a direct link to the health service and proclaimed that if we left the EU we would have 350m per week more for the NHS. This was not just an aggressive campaign tactic. It was a straight forward lie. Normally when people in politics get called out on a lie, they stop. They carried on. The more people talked about it the more the media showed the big red bus with the big black lie upon it. It worked for them.

Meanwhile David Cameron ran on the same kind of blunt economic message – defined by opponents as Project Fear – that he had used to defeat Scottish independence in the referendum there; and win a Parliamentary majority in 2015 – making that well-worn error of fighting the last campaign not the next one … as it happens some of the elements of Project Fear, like the crashing pound, have been borne out, while one year to the day after Barack Obama warned that Brexit Britain would go to the back of the queue for trade deals, despite Trump promising otherwise when he met Theresa May, it seems Trump has now seen the wisdom of Obama’s words.

So are we sure, when we say as we do so often, that people want the truth from their politicians? The liars won. Since when, you might assume that the chief perpetrator of the lie would be hounded, held to account …. but no the new prime minister who fought for remain and has since become a Brexiteer on steroids, decided to elevate the chief liar to the role of foreign secretary.

As for Trump. Where do you start? He did or said many things that would have frankly destroyed candidates in a previous era.

So what is going on? Why do we say we want the truth and then we elect and reward proven liars? How has ‘fake news’ entered the language? How have we got to a situation where it seems generally accepted Russia interfered with the US election but the Americans do not seem terribly upset about it? What has happened to our culture that the Oxford English Dictionary chose ‘post truth’ as its new word of the year?

Merkel and Obama had something interesting to say about this. Obama pointed out that if you are looking at your smartphone and scrolling through one of your social networks, a statement signed by every Nobel prize scientist warning of the dangers of climate change looks the same as a tweet from a third party funded by a climate change denial campaign. And more than that, who is it that people believe if we don’t believe politicians like we used to, we don’t believe journalists, business people, academics, experts. We believe – and this is the genius of Facebook as a communications model – we believe our friends. And our friends tend to be like minded anyway.

This is where Merkel picks up the story, warning that the world of algorithms and big data is driving us all into our own ever decreasing circles of opinion forming, This is a natural tendency that we all have, exacerbated by technological change. But it sure doesn’t help in terms of political debate and education.

With twitter now a torrent of abuse and Facebook a sewer of misinformation I am not sure if social media has worked out as well as it might have done.

Love trumps hate, goes the slogan. But does it?

Looking at these campaigns I would suggest hate works better.

Feeling trumps reason.

Anger trumps logic.

Simple messages trump complex arguments.

Anger and Fear. These appear to be the big drivers. Anger at globalization seeming to help some more than others. Fear that the trends keep going in the same direction, the rich get richer, change gets faster, the robots take over. So shut the borders. Build walls. Throw people out. Find enemies. Blame them, scapegoat them. ‘Take back control,’ for Brexit. ‘Make America Great Again.’ As if it wasn’t already.

Fear and anger that elites, policy makers and bureaucrats don’t get it, so excited are they by the opportunities of change, blind to the threats. Fears which unchecked grow and grow and the space opens for the anger to be exploited.

Wide open for this as an electoral model. ‘You are angry. I will make you more angry, by telling you your anger is justified and nobody but me is listening. I will persuade you that the things that make you angry are easily solved, but only I can solve them, because the others do not care. They are the elites. You and I are the people.’ Trump the billionaire inherited wealth businessman? Boris Johnson the Old Etonian? Le Pen the daughter of a dynasty? Incredible.

Now, I do not speak much Danish but I do know the word for cheese. And the reason is that once when I was here I said the three most important letters in the language were OST. I realized from the laughter that something was lost in the translation.

In my language, and this is what the WINNERS book is all about, O = objective. S = strategy, T = tactics. And if you confuse strategy and tactics you are likely to fail in the long term no matter how much you might win in the short term.

Let me make a statement of the obvious. If there had been no referendum there would have been no leave.

David Cameron is convinced he had to have the referendum. I am not.

Cameron had an objective for the 2015 election. Win, get rid of his coalition partners. His strategy was a mix of Project Fear on Labour and the economy, and neutralize on Europe. The referendum was a tactic, designed to appease his right wing and halt the rise of UKIP. Fair enough, he won the election. But there had never been a strategy to win the argument on Europe. He could not turn round decades of scepticism in a few weeks. Good tactic. Dreadful strategy. Won the match. Lost the title.

Now Theresa May is prime minister and has called the election, partly because Labour is seen as so weak; also because she knows that the next two years of negotiations are going to be very tough. In my view it will be bad deal or no deal. So far better to get her majority up so Parliament has more hard Brexieteers who will support whatever deal they are told to, provided they can say we are out. And if she drives the economy over a cliff, so be it, Brexit means Brexit.

There are also clashing strategies. If I think back to our time in government when the European enlargement process saw new countries come in from the east what were the strategies we felt we were pursuing? Enlargement itself. Surely the best response to the desire for the west of Europe to want the east to come closer. For good political, geostrategic reasons.

And on the economy business was telling us they needed a far broader range of skills, the public services enjoying the extra investment we promised needed more immigration to staff schools, hospitals and the burgeoning social care system. So on track with those strategies. But also alas on track with the strategies of opponents who wanted to make immigration the defining issue and come the referendum had done so. So unintended consequences.

Then into the middle of this comes the global crash. This is the key to the anger.

Till that point, for all the faults in politics, the political parties were engaged in a pact of ‘political trust’ whereby they sought to act as representatives to articulate, aggregate and translate the interests, demands and collective preferences of the voters into policy, via leadership. With the crisis, it became clear that this perceived pact was under threat to the point of non existence as parties across the world began to implement policy based on the needs of saving the international financial system and not the immediate needs and desires of voters. The feeling has grown that the people who caused the crash got away with it and the people who didn’t had to pay a price in their jobs, stagnating wages, falling living standards, cuts in public services, rising costs of university, inability to buy a home. The first generation ever to feel that they were unlikely to give their kids a better life.

There is a triangle at the heart of political debate. Politics. Media. Public. Politics likes to pretend it has all the answers. Media likes to say politics stinks. The public are often confused. Politics and media blame each other for the decline in trust. Neither dare blame the public. Indeed in the populist era, they have to pander to them even more.

I am in an unusual position, not fully in politics, not fully in media, but working in both. And I think we do have to challenge the public more. Because without change on all sides of the triangle, I fear we are in a downward spiral. The public, and especially the next generation, are a big part of getting us out of this mess.

We have so many rights but what about responsibilities? The responsibility to take part. To vote. To try to understand issues. To enter into debate. In Brexit, a passsionate debate, yet 11m didn’t vote. Trump 50percent turnout despite the noise. It is too easy to opt out, say it has nothing to do with me.

And we cannot overstate the significance of the changes in the media landscape either. When I started out as a journalist almost 40 years ago – what was the media? A paper, the news once a day. Now omnipresent, hugely competitive, big organisations players as well as spectators. Fox. The right wing tabloids in the UK. The new tech giants.

It’s no good politics wanting the media to adapt to the needs of politics. Not going to happen. But the political conversation with people has to change. Or else these trends continue. The tendency towards strong man leadership – Trump and Putin and Xi and Erdogan. Dictatorship operating at an advantage to democracy. Trump jealous of Putin, because of what more you can do when you have control of Parliament and media.

Putin’s OST are totally aligned. O – reassertion of Russian power. S – reassertion of Russian power. T – anything which reasserts Russian power, from riding a horse bare-chested to invading a country or interfering in a foreign election.

When attempting to establish what the major political parties can do to regain this lost trust the OECD lists six main areas where action is needed.

  • Reliability
  • Responsiveness
  • Openness
  • Better Regulation
  • Integrity
  • Inclusive policy making

Not easy, and even if the politicians were able and willing, it’s not enough unless the three sides of the triangle are engaged.

This has to start with the next generation. We teach our kids sport is good for them. We have to do the same with politics, for all the bad within it. I would favour compulsory voting. If we can be bothered to vote in TV talent shows, we should be bothered to vote in local and national elections and provided there is the right actively to abstain, we should have to. Alongside we should trust our young people to want to be engaged. One of the best things about the referendum in Scotland was that 16 and 17 year old could vote. It was exhilarating to hear kids on their way to school arguing not about the Kardashians or how many Instagram followers they had, but nuclear weapons and welfare benefits. And one of the worst things about Mrs May’s hard Brexit is that it is a dreadful example of the older generation governing in direct contradiction of the interests of the young generation. Show me a successful country, democracy or dictatorship, that has ever done that, gone directly against the needs, desires and genuine interest of the young?

And you do have to adapt to the way they live their lives. It is a media cliché that young people are less interested in politics. I don’t believe that to be true. But they are not drawn to politics as they see it being done.

Leadership and leaders are of course fundamental. Macron in France. Out of nowhere. Insider as outsider. Ultimately people feeling there is something OK here.

Justin Trudeau in Canada. You can’t get much more elite than son of a PM. Dynasty time. But he also led a life. He had a backstory not just in politics. Teacher. Studied engineering while teaching maths. Handsome, yes, smart, and that helps. But it is not enough. You need strategy. Teamwork. Innovation.

Now look at some data. His Liberal Party gained 148 seats. The largest numerical increase in seats in Canadian history. The massive gains (4.1 million) of the Liberal Party were only partially represented by losses from other parties, the centrist New Democrats losing 964,000 votes and the incumbent Conservatives just 54,000. There was a huge upturn in new voter registration, clearly demonstrating a significant impact on the previously disinterested and untrusting. You have to inspire and combine that with organisation. Obama did something similar in his use of social networks. It was not just about fundraising. It was about turning supporters into activists. Giving people the tools to campaign for you in their own way.

Perhaps unusually given the debate in Europe and the US, the Liberals’ liberal approach to the Syrian refugee crisis, and the Conservative government’s broken promise on how many they would take, seems to have helped. Perhaps showing that if you take strong and principled positions, even when difficult, you might get rewarded. Let’s see if Mrs Merkel feels the same way in a few months time. But for Trudeau the largest shift in opinion occurred around the TV debate on foreign policy where he expounded the personal responsibility of Canadians and the collective responsibility of the state to act with compassion for those in need. Very counter to Trump, to Brexit, to Le Pen, to the Putinisation of our politics.

There was also a massive increase in Female, LGBT and Indigenous candidates. 26% more female MPs and a more than 35% increase in Indigenous representation. It seems Canada wanted government fully to represent the diverse nature of their society. When we look at most Parliaments and political elites, do they? No way.

Who will go into politics? Where are the nurses and teachers and police officers? Where are the generations and races represented? Where are the brains? The brightest and the best tend not to choose it. We have to reclaim it as a good thing to want to do. Have to change our mindset about it. The fight is now less left v right, but democracy v dictatorship, open v closed, internationalist v nationalist. But it also has to be hope against fear, always. Fear and anger are easy. Hope is harder, especially right now, but you have to work with it, always.

Now we have talked of Trump and Obama, Merkel and May. I want to close with a story about a less well-known leader, of a smaller country, Edi Rama, PM of Albania. He is someone I have worked with for some years. He is in the WINNERS book because he is the only national leader to have played international sport, basketball, and I wrote about what teamship lessons he took from sport into politics. He is in the middle of an election campaign now. And he has had a genius idea, which in a tough political environment is really helping drive up activism and engagement. He took the format of the traditional TV talent show, The Voice, and turned it into a nationwide drive for young people to put themselves forward as future leaders. Called it FRESHvoice. Four celebs toured the country judging local events. 8000 registered candidates. Three minute speech. 2 questions to answer. Now they are voting to elect these youth leaders. But it has provoked a massive debate online and now on TV, and an upturn in political activism for his campaign. Just one idea. Not enough on its own. But the kind of thing we need to encourage and adapt to our own systems and cultures, just as they have adapted it from our TV format.

I gave you OST, my cheese acronym. I want to close with my five vowels.

A E I O U

Adaptation – politics and parties cannot stand above or aside from the pace of change. They have to adapt to it.

Education – we must be much more aggressive and proactive about the need for people to appreciate why we need politics and why we need good people to do it.

Inspiration – the successful parties are those who can inspire, motivate to get involved, turn support to activism.

Organisation – you have to organize.

Understanding – no point seeing the world as you want it to be. Have to see it as it is. I still worry for example that the EU sees Brexit as a British thing only. But the EU also needs to adapt, educate, inspire, organize and understand that we are in a very strange era indeed. And it is perhaps a sign of how strange the times are that I find myself closing with the words of Ronald Reagan, and his warning that we are never more than one generation away from the loss of freedom. So let’s fight for it.