The long campaign is becoming a medium-sized one, ahead of the start of the short campaign at the end of March. In truth the parties have been electioneering for months. But after Saturday’s speech from Ed Miliband, which launched Labour’s now-complete pledge card, and the Budget on Wednesday, the general election is on. There are less than eight weeks to go.
What is on offer, from the two main parties, are two competing stories. What are they?
The Conservatives say they provide competence instead of chaos. They do not offer any dramatic change. They say simply that they have a long term economic plan, and should be allowed to carry on with it in government. Things are getting better. Don’t let Labour ruin it, they say. They will give voters a referendum on continued EU membership. Only the Conservatives can lead the country properly.
Labour say that the Tories have failed to meet the targets they set themselves. The deficit has not been cleared, and long term debt has risen. Is that competence? Recovery from a deep and unnecessarily long recession is finally taking place, but most people do not feel the benefit of it. Labour says that Britain only succeeds when working people succeed. And a different approach is needed for that to happen.
Related in those flat and simple terms, perhaps neither story is especially compelling. The opinion polls seem to indicate that the public have not yet been swayed firmly in one direction or another. Maybe they are waiting to hear a better story.
The importance of story-telling in politics was brought home to me by Gavin Esler, the BBC correspondent and presenter. His book of a couple of years ago, “Lessons from the Top”, draws on three decades of experience watching some of the world’s most powerful leaders close up. He distils that experience into a simple formula, an approach to developing a story that leaders need to take.
“All successful leadership stories involve three parts,” he writes. “First, the leader has to explain ‘Who am I?’ as a person. Then he or she outlines ‘Who are we?’ as a group to followers or potential followers. Finally, the leader tells us ‘Where will my leadership take us?’ in our common purpose. A convincing leader will make these stories buzz in our heads in a way that is unforgettable.”
I think the public have a sense now of who David Cameron is. This partly explains his party’s underwhelming poll rating. He speaks mainly to his core vote, failing to bring others across. Touted as an “heir to Blair”, he has managed to attain none of Blair’s centrist appeal. Equally, the Conservatives’ answer to the “who are we?” question is not very appealing, either: “we” consists of the guest list at the Black and White ball, Jeremy Clarkson, and, until recently, Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks. Not many of the rest of us are really invited. And where will Cameron’s leadership take us? By the looks of it, to more of the same: low paid, insecure jobs, low productivity, poor prospects for younger people, expensive housing costs, and fear in old age.
How well has Ed Miliband answered Esler’s questions? He has taken the “who am I?” question head on – did you know he is the son of immigrants? – and has endured some ridicule as a result. It is precisely to stop the country getting a better sense of who Miliband is that the Tories have tried so hard to scupper TV debates.
Saturday’s speech in Birmingham was his most sustained attempt so far to answer the “who are we?” question. “The Britain I believe in is one where hard work is rewarded whoever you are, whatever job you do. We will never put up with a country built on insecurity, where the text message at 6 a.m. is when you find out if you have work that day…The Britain I believe in is one where security for working people is the bedrock of a successful economy and a decent society…The Britain I believe in is one where we restore the promise of Britain and the next generation does better than the last…Most of all, we will never put up with a country founded on rising inequality: the richest pulling away and working people worse off year after year. Because the Britain I believe in is one where we prosper together and are not driven apart.”
These lines also go some way to answering Esler’s third question – “where will my leadership take us?” According to Labour’s rather effective election slogan they have a better plan for a better future.
The campaign grids are being finalised, the attack lines drafted, the late surprises prepared. But in terms of getting the country to listen, and ultimately register support, the priority has to be to provide answers to those three questions: “who am I, who are we, where will my leadership take us?”
The leader who tells a better story will win.