Style or substance?

Each week, Theos, for whom I work, posts a ‘Current Debate’ on its website – an article examining some area of current affairs, to which the brave can respond (if they don’t mind getting ripped to shreds by our none-too-gentle regular commentators).

I’ve written them a couple of times in the past, but always under a pseudonym.  Today, they actually let me use my own name!

Here’s what I wrote.  The articles get archived after a week, so when that happens I’ll add the permanent link so you can read it on the site (and any comments) but for now it can be found here.

Does political substance matter?

After a week of ‘Clegg-mania’, The Guardian revealed that Nick Clegg thought he had done badly in the first televised election debate.  Apparently he “was underwhelmed by the performance and sought solace in a cigarette and the reassurance of a special branch bodyguard moments after the broadcast.”

Only as the instant poll results began to come in did he discover that the substance of his engagement was of far less significance to the audience than the style of it.

That he was there at all was seen by many as an acknowledgement that the Liberal Democrats have earned a place at the ‘top table’ of British politics, and that the term ‘the three main parties’ is no longer a courtesy but a reality.  Yet Clegg had wisely not taken his place in the room for granted; he, like the other candidates, had spent time with advisers strategising for how he should handle the debate.  The key strategy was that whatever their man said, he should address it directly to the camera not, as his opponents did, to the studio audience.  In the words of the Guardian article:

The advisers decided that rather than focusing on winning arguments, Clegg should convey something more personable. ‘It was about someone turning the telly off after watching the debate and thinking, “He’s alright” or “He’s a decent bloke”. It was never about winning a logical argument with numbers or statistics. That’s not what television is about.’

In other words, the decision was made not to convince voters that the LibDems have all the right answers to the country’s problems, but that they have a leader who is ‘alright’. Or to put it yet another way: the facts are irrelevant, what matters is perception.

It’s not as if the other leaders aren’t already aware of this.  In February Gordon Brown agreed to be interviewed by Piers Morgan, giving an unusually frank and emotional response, in a move that was said by the Daily Mail to have “followed intense discussions between Mr Brown and his aides over how to overcome the widespread perception that he is dour and remote.” David Cameron has long employed tactics such as inviting TV cameras into his home and delivering key speeches without the aid of notes or autocues.  In a highly visual, celebrity-driven world, politicians have to play the perception game if they want any chance of being heard.

Is this a problem?  So long as it’s a level playing field and everyone knows the rules, does it really matter what those rules are?  If the party that wins power is simply the one that has done the best job of choosing an electable front man (or woman, of course), is that a problem?  Does his grasp and articulation of policies count for anything? Once in power, he has ministers to wrestle with the actual policy issues; he just has to be the front-of-house salesman. 

The political pundits – particularly those campaigning on behalf of a party – would be outraged by the very idea.  Of course the focus should be on policy not personality. Politics is about the just distribution of a nation’s resources to ensure the flourishing of that nation and the individuals within it.  Every party has a different conception of how to achieve that and voters ought to decide which party’s conception best matches their own and vote accordingly.

The question is really one of values.  If we value, as we appear to in all areas of life from the X-factor to the supermarket, style over substance and form over function then we should not be surprised when our politicians pander to those values.  If, on the other hand, we value truth and reality over glitz and spin, we’re going to have to allow our politicians to tell us the harsh facts about the difficult choices that need to be made in matching resources to demand.  The current strategy is to sell us not what we need, but what we’ll buy, ensuring that for the foreseeable future at least, we will get not only the politicians we deserve, but the campaigns we deserve, too.

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