How to campaign in a “post-truth” world

I am going to tell you a story.  It happens to be true.  But bear with me, there is a point to it.

The “Swinsty cormorant” was usually there, perched on a float around 100 metres out from the dam wall at Swinsty Reservoir in North Yorkshire, whenever I ran round it with my dogs.  I used to be fascinated by the lone bird and would always look out for him to see if he was there.  My imagination ran riot with why he was always there on his own with no mates in sight.  I was captured by the romance of his loneliness, I suppose.

But one day, about 18 months ago, it all changed.  I would often meet a man on the days I ran who I knew slightly, and we would have a chat.  One day I came across him by the location of the Swinsty cormorant.  I asked him if he, like me, was fascinated by this lone creature.  His reply crushed me—albeit in only a small way.  He pointed out something very obvious that I had, oddly, never thought of.  It was not the same bird there all the time—cormorants visited the reservoir in small numbers, so it was fairly evident that the actual bird changed, especially as there was only room for one bird on the float.

After that day, I did see a cormorant on the float occasionally, but did not particularly look out for it nor spend any time thinking about it really.  I suppose that was when I realized that I, in common with many people, was a “sucker” for a good story.  But when faced with the facts—the evidence—which blew the story away, I was not particularly interested.  The only actual point of interest was the fact that cormorants were regular visitors to the reservoir.

Stories and myths are important.  You have an emotional tie to them.  This is why the Leave campaign during the EU Referendum was so devastating as their slogan “Take back control” was imbued with emotion and intent, and the implication that control had been taken away.  It created an emotional response.  The story about giving the NHS £350 million was also a good sell—something that people could relate to.  It was specific and personal to so many people in the UK.

In the USA, Trump told a good tale about making America great again, and building a wall to protect the motherland from unwanted immigrants.  Stories of “the other” raise emotions, because there is an implied danger and risk.  2016 was a good year for the story-tellers.

So how did progressives react to these stories during both the US Presidential campaign and the EU Referendum?  They wore us down with evidence—facts and data.  All very interesting, especially if you are a deeply rational person.  But difficult to feel passionate about.

A new adjective has emerged which readers will be familiar with: “post-truth”.  But looking at this from another angle, some of these post-truth sayings and stories could equally also be called “mythical”.  And in being mythical, these sayings and slogans have a hook, an emotional appeal that draws people in.  The evidence attempts to dispel the myth, and can therefore be disappointing at an emotional level.

At the beginning, I said there was a point to all this.  And this is my point: we, as progressives, need to develop our own myths and stories.  We need to connect emotionally to prospective voters.  We need to develop a counter-narrative, that is in direct opposition to that peddled by the right wing demagogues and xenophobes, that is engaging, positive and hopeful.  But not one that depends solely on facts and evidence. There must be some way of communicating the impact and benefit that our well researched, and evidence-based policies that appeals to people emotionally.  A good example is Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Canadian Prime Minister, who often uses stories deftly in his speeches to make connections.

As Liberals, we see hope and positivity—a better way for us all to live in this world– in the policies we strive to create.  Now, let’s find the stories that can communicate them to everyone.

* Helen Flynn is an Executive Member of the LDEA. She is a former Parliamentary Candidate and Harrogate Borough Councillor and has served on the Federal Policy Committee and Federal Board. She has been a school governor in a variety of settings for 19 years and currently chairs a multi academy trust in the north of England.

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  • “A good example is Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Canadian Prime Minister, who often uses stories deftly in his speeches….”

    Yes, … a Liberal example to us all. It now looks like post-truth-Trudeau was for sure, telling voters mythical stories,.. when he promised PR for Canadians in his election campaign.?

    Shouldn’t liberals like Clegg and Trudeau, at least have the decency to print their pr-election-pledges on toilet tissue, so voters can get some worthwhile useage, from their post-election-truths.?

  • Apart from the questionable assumption that “post-truth” politics is the sole preserve of the Right and Brexiteers, this is an interesting article which makes a good point. Parties on the centre and Left seem to be finding it nigh on impossible to connect with voters at the moment, pretty much everywhere.

    I think a large part of the reason for this is the fractured nature of the non-Right, and the fact that they do a lot of the Right’s work for them by attacking each other in ways that are sometimes unwarranted. The example I have in mind for this is the way the Lib Dems, post-crash, opportunistically picked up the right-wing narrative about how it was all the fault of the Government spending too much. Now, a few years later, the Lib Dems are tentatively moving back to a position of wanting to tax and spend more, but they’ll find it a struggle in part because of their own contribution to promoting the idea that anything other than shrinking the state is an economic disaster.

    The Right just find it much easier to coalesce for some reason. They don’t fall apart over disagreements over things like Iraq or the EU (even the rise of UKIP has ended up damaging Labour and the Lib Dems much more than it has the Conservatives).

  • George Crozier 13th Feb '17 - 7:52am

    Very good article. We need to make sure that our messages and promises tap into people’s emotional circuits not just the logical ones. Storytelling is a key part of that but not the only one, and it matters how you tell stories.

    Recommend The Political Brain by Drew Weston as further reading.

  • The Liberal message tends to get drowned out. In the past with the end of the News Chronicle there was no major newspaper to give the Liberal point of view. However we are something in a post-newspaper world so new ways have to be devised to get our message across on social media. There is a need to counter fake news and create a message that resonates with the voters.

  • “we, as progressives […] As Liberals, we”

    You appear to use “progressive” and “Liberal” interchangeably, they are not some Liberals are just liberals.

    “Progressive” is one of the most amorphous labels and does not help anyone, though it could logically be described as a position that worships the “new” (in reality there is very little new so it actually describing things of which there is little memory). Almost everyone trying to make a change claim it is “progress.” We have had a lengthy period of reasonable protections (and improvements) of individual rights (with plenty of bumps in the road). If the Tory government claimed that the new progress would be towards more compulsory “responsibilities” and we had to discard some of these “outdated rights” or “outdated laws” that ensure them, it would be “progress” towards something (not something I would like, but something).

    I would hope LibDems would see that “progress” is not inherently a good thing (it has to be progress towards a desirable goal), and focus on liberalism.

  • Simon Shaw

    “You mean as opposed to Conservatives, Socialists and Nationalists who, of course, always keep to their pre-election pledges.”

    There are quite a few I would rather they broke (continue to break) many of their pre-election pledges.

  • “Trump told a good tale about making America great again”

    Was it good? Did you actually see Trump interviews he had a knack of saying two opposing things in quick succession to be careful not to create a clear picture of what he was going to do apart from build a wall and introduce protectionism.

    “They wore us down with evidence—facts and data.”

    Really? Trumps opponents didn’t counter his positions they mainly called him names, there was some criticism which was based upon facts and reason but you couldn’t hear it for all of the name calling completely obscuring the message. Clinton didn’t offer much in response (who has a slogan like “I’m with her?”), though the chances are that Clinton actually has views that would directly challenge Trumps position but instead appeared afraid of position the “Clinton Machine” had previously pushed (a few were worth disposing of like the hard line on certain areas of law and order).

    Brexit is not as clear but it was not possible to construct positive story when most of the supporters have undermined the concept due to short term expediency. And lets not pretend that our side in the referendum was above “post-truth” politics, claims that were for from certain being spun in hyperbolic terms.

    A good story is fine but it works better if your arguments sound more credible than the oppositions (even if, post result, the newly elected Tory leader does try and make the most terrible positions come true by pushing for hard Brexit).

  • Simon Banks 14th Feb '17 - 9:14pm

    Psi s right about the problems with the word “progressive”. It must not mean supporting whatever seems to be the trend. But there is a need for the broad collection of those who want a more fair and equal society, who want to empower people and communities, who see diversity as mostly good and are not frightened by people different from them, who support civil liberties and do not see things purely in terms of national self-interest. I would like to add, “who care about wildlife and sustainability”. OK. it’s not precise, but it excludes the numerous Labour supporters who want more economic fairness and a stop to immigration and gay rights and the few Liberals who think if you drastically reduce the state and remove business regulation you will surely have individual freedom. Another term might be liberal left (with small l), but left comes with so much baggage.

  • Simon Banks

    I think the ship has already sailed on the meaning of “Progressive” and to be fair it is not an unreasonable interpretation of the term. I wold suggest that as we have now entered a time when the authoritarian left and authoritarian right both use liberal as a term of abuse it works as a simple short hand for most of the items you list, a decade ago everyone was rushing to claim the “liberal” title but not authoritarian view points are more acceptable and others are abandoning it, we should make sure to clearly defend it.

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