We’re forever hearing about how much the Westminster parties spend on “spin doctors” and other so-called communications experts.
I’d say they still have a way to go to help win our votes, if an interview with a seasoned Labour politician this morning is anything to go by.
Peter Hain – MP for Neath and a former minister in Blair and Brown’s governments – was on the BBC’s Today programme to defend Ed Miliband’s focus on the NHS, after the leader took a bashing from former Labour ministers Alan Milburn and Lord Hutton.
James Naughtie asked him how radical Mr Miliband is.
Brace yourselves, here’s Mr Hain’s response:
“He is the person to take Britain away from the weak economy, without strong investment in our industry, without strong trade performance externally, with lowering skills, with long-term youth unemployment dire and with living standards [for people] set to be, for the first time since the 1920s, lower at the end of the Parliament than at the beginning.”
Still, I bet that got the Labour Party Press Team cheering, with probably five big ticks on the Key Message Check List.
The trouble is, that’s exactly what it sounded like – party platitudes and missions statements – and not the language of disaffected voters on the door step.
No, they’ll be saying things like, “My 19-year-old son Kevin has sent 84 job application letters this month and not had a single reply” or “I’m a teacher with twice as many kids in my class on Free School Meals this year…what can you do about that?” or “I’ve been a GP for 30 years, but I’m emigrating, because I’m sick of spending three hours every day filling out forms.”
Too often politicians’ messages are about What’s Best For The Country, instead of the for the individuals who live in it.
What is whirring through our minds when we hear politicians is, “What can you do for me/my kids/my parents/our schools/our local hospital/my retirement”, because if any of the parties gets that right for the majority, The Country should be in good shape too.
James Naughtie’s next point seemed to highlight this failure to communicate to voters when he said it would be very difficult to find anybody who could say, “I have a clear picture of what kind of country there would be after let’s say, three years of a Miliband Government”.
They don’t get it because they’re not hearing it in the language most of us speak.
There was no sense in the entire interview that Hain had talked to any constituents recently. Yes, he was due to go canvassing this morning, but we got no closer to real voters than talk of “People are concerned about their own futures…they know the future is bleak.”
Generalities are a turn-off, specifics trigger a response.
How much more compelling if he’d said, “I was chatting to one of my constituents last week whose daughter has a PhD, but has been working as an unpaid intern for a year,” or “I met a woman who was on a tour of the House on Monday and she said her husband had had his hip replacement operation cancelled three times – these people deserve better and Labour wants to serve them better.”
Instead there were more vacuous statements and phrases: “Dire prospect of an ageing society…integrating care…reform agenda”. Not the kind of stuff you hear down the pub.
In the interest of fairness (and desperation), I even looked at Mr Hain’s Twitter feed to see if he’d been out and about meeting real people and avoiding the “Westminster bubble tittle-tattle” he mentioned a couple of times (another key message maybe?).
But I couldn’t find any photos of them in the last month. Yes, there was mention of campaigning in Hampstead, but some photos of him “pressing the flesh” would have said far more than talk of “reform agendas”.
Instead his Twitter feed had numerous mentions of his new book, including the launch event at the heart of the “Westminster bubble”.
But wait, I’ve just had another look and he’s recently retweeted a photo.
— Delyth Evans (@delyth_evans) January 30, 2015
That’s more like it…well, almost…if only Delyth Evans, the Labour candidate there, had tweeted, “@PeterHain pleased to meet voters on the doorstep…” instead of the other way round.
So simple, but so important.
Still, all the parties have ninety-six days to get it right.