The face of politics is changing and a new breed of ‘honest’ politician is capturing voters’ imaginations. But is honesty always the best policy, or does politics still need a sprinkling of spin? Author, journalist and broadcaster Sam Delaney takes a look.
Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Bernie Sanders in the US. Ageing white men with old-fashioned socialist ideas and a wanton disregard for ironing grabbed all the headlines this summer and by Saturday morning Corbyn might well have grabbed the Labour party leadership too.
And it’s not just lefties who are defying the mainstream, smashing the consensus and winning over voters with their lo-fi approach to politics. Nigel Farage with his pint of beer and studied looks of bewilderment; Donald Trump with his preposterous hair and casual racism; Boris Johnson with his ‘don’t ask me, I’m just a fat bloke on a bike’ insouciance. The one thing that unites them all is a no-nonsense, say-it-as-it-is brand of rhetoric.
Here are a bunch of blokes who are just as unlikely to apologise for their forthright views as their ill-fitting suits. They don’t toe the line, speak in soundbites or practise caution. They are a spin doctor’s nightmare. And all the more popular for it.
People have had enough of careful, strategic, packaged politics. Could it be that the dark influence of ad men over the past four decades has provoked this backlash? Are the Saatchis just as responsible for Jeremy Corbyn as Pink Floyd were for the The Sex Pistols?
Certainly, the sudden popularity of Corbyn and the rest seems to be the result of a collective exasperation. Exasperation with the tedious consensus across party divides. Exasperation with an indistinguishable army of neat suited, post-Blair, career politicians. And exasperation with the cynical manner in which these politicians use sinister marketing techniques to sell themselves and their policies.
The public’s principal gripe is with the meaningless gobbledegook and overly cautious platitudes with which politicians interact with the media. Of course, this is the result not of ad people, but of neurotically defensive PR advisors and the outrageously aggressive news media they battle with daily.
Ad agencies, meanwhile, encourage politicians to communicate with the same clarity and economy that works in commercial marketing. When Saatchi & Saatchi creative Andrew Rutherford wrote ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ in 1978 it was the first step towards a modern brand of political communication that treated the public with respect and addressed them with charming brevity. The central aim of political advertising was not to deceive but to engage.
“If you have a good thing to sell, use every single capacity you can to sell it,” Margaret Thatcher once said. This meant applying Maurice Saatchi’s so-called ‘brutal simplicity of thought’ – boiling down sometimes complex (and usually boring) policy propositions to pithy slogans and memorable maxims. As Jeremy Sinclair, Saatchi’s creative director, later put it, posters were important because “if you can’t get your message across in five or six words then, chances are, your message isn’t right in the first place”. It was all supposed to help the average voter understand politics better. Eventually, it was said to have rendered politicians so generic that the average voter stopped bothering to vote at all.
But now voter passion has been reignited by a set of politicians who are almost defined by their rejection of such communicative techniques. I can’t claim with all certainty that Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t retained one of London’s most fashionable agencies for this leadership campaign but, judging by the fact that you can see his vest underneath his shirt and that he often sports the sort of Greek fisherman’s hat last worn in public by the lead singer of Curiosity Killed The Cat in the late 80s, I think it’s safe to say he’s responsible for his own image management.
Mind you, a seriously clever spin-doctor might well have identified the mass rejection of the mainstream consensus as an opportunity to create someone just like Corbyn. It doesn’t take the biggest stretch to imagine that an unscrupulous planner somewhere in east London conceived of Corbyn as the human embodiment of a hipster coffee bar, fighting the homogenised sterility of the big chains, armed only with half a dozen rickety chairs, some crappy brickwork and a weirdly limited menu of beverages.
But the truth is that Corbyn has been sitting on the Labour backbenches with the same defiantly off-brand shtick since 1983. Meanwhile, over in the States, Bernie Sanders has been peddling his unapologetic brand of socialism for several decades too. It’s only now that people have started to notice. “Sadly enough, I suppose, the world has caught up with what I have been saying for many years,” Sanders told the Guardian, adding that he was, maybe, “a bit ahead of his time.”
Maybe Corbyn was ahead of his time, too. Or maybe he is like the ugly kid at the disco who seems far more appealing at five to midnight when the last song is about to play and all the more attractive people are already spoken for.
Why do his ideas seem to resonate with young people in particular? It’s partly because those young people weren’t around in the 70s when the ideas were first in vogue, so they perceive them as new. But it’s also because they are short, sharp, compelling and simple. Corbyn may not actually employ ad men, but his success certainly applies a brutal simplicity of thought.
“What’s wrong with being idealistic?” he asks. “The NHS was borne out of an ideal. Let’s defend the principle of a society that cares for everyone… where everyone cares for everyone else.” Sure, a decent copywriter might have polished up that phrasing a little, but otherwise his populism is pretty hard to argue with. Crucially, though, a decent ad team would have advised him to be a little more specific in his propositions.
In 1992, the Tories didn’t just stick up posters telling people that they believed in low taxes. They put up posters telling people exactly how much more tax they would pay under a Labour government. And in 2015, they didn’t just tell people that they didn’t like the SNP. They found a smart way of telling people (rightly or wrongly) that Labour were ready to team up with the SNP and spend what was left of everyone else’s money.
I don’t like to crush anyone’s romantic ideas about the power of hope and all that, but all the available evidence suggests that – when push comes to shove – fear and negativity is what influences election results.
When asked what they find appealing about Corbyn, young voters often say it’s his lack of negativity. Which is all very noble, but will ultimately prove electorally disastrous. If anything, Ed Miliband’s campaign would have benefitted from being more negative than it was: attacking the Tory record with the same relentless vigour as the SNP managed in Scotland. A good ad team can help identify the public’s deepest fears and tap into them effectively. But Miliband didn’t really use an ad agency for the May election. It’s unlikely that Corbyn ever will, either.
Sam Delaney is the author of the advertising titles 'Mad Men and Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising' and 'Get Smashed'. He tweets @DelaneyMan