Why politicians get so angry about Dominic Cummings

I am becoming one of those people who shouts at the TV screen.

(I suppose it was inevitable – it comes with age along with hair sprouting unattractively from ears and nose and busy eyebrows. I haven’t developed the full Denis Healey – but i can see the direction of travel).

My ire is aimed at the commentariat who come on Newsnight, who seem to be mostly in a state of moral outrage. Cue plenty of pomposity and posturing about what the government does from groping to proroguing parliament – and in particular Dominic Cummings. Cummings is often presented as an evil genius. He is not – he is just an advertising strategist with an effective communications idea.

If Newsnight was to invite branding and advertising experts onto their sofas they could lay it out more analytically for the viewers. But they tend to prefer journalists who are good at understanding today's headlines (and the nerdy details of today in parliament) but poor at the techniques of developing a long-term brand positioning. Besides, journalists of the BBC type tend to look down their noses at adfolk.

This is a pity, because advertising strategists are not prone to either moral outrage or bien pensant snobbery. Rather, they deal with people as they really are and work back from there. Let's try that then: start with human truths.

People are not much interested in the arcane details of how parliament or the law works. They are busy. In their personal lives they have to go to work and get stuff done. All Cummings has done is to spot that this is how people feel. He (via Boris) uses parliament as a stage to confirm that it is an odds with how most of us have to behave to get through our lives.

He has done this through classic, brutally simple brand positioning thinking that has three characteristics:

  1. a positioning that is easy to remember
  2. that boxes in (or “depositions”) the competition and
  3. (important this) is rooted in a widely-accepted truth

The simple positioning: The Tories will deliver on the will of the people.
De-positioning the competition as: A confused group of interests that can’t get anything done except frustrate progress.
The truth: Three years on from the vote parliament has stopped progress.

My point here is not – is this right or wrong? Just... is it effective? It is, and that is why Cummings is hated.(He is also shy is my guess, and given to covering this up with a carapace of aggression – which does not help.)

Can the Labour Party mount a counter communications strategy?

Labour now is too introverted and bound up in its own internal battles and bureaucratic structures. It used to be good at communications strategy in the Blair/Campbell era- but both these men are now so hated The Labour Party  cannot learn from them.

Corbyn and MacDonald look and sound like machine politicians of the pre-Blair era. And in their attempt to fight Cummings they have fallen back on old and distinctly retro campaigning techniques. They have, late in the day, come up with a simple strategy. But is it any good?

The simple positioning: we are the real representatives of the people.
De-positioning the competition as: “posh boys” or the rich elite or a conspiracy of the rich elite (an idea proposed on Newsnight by Paul Mason).

But a really good communications strategy has to have the ring of truth about it to take root and have longevity. This one -apart from being a throwback to the era of smoky rooms, long sideburn and flared Trowsers- doesn’t. All political parties have posh folk. Far from hating Eton, labour front benchers like their children to go to elite fee paying schools.

As for Mason’s conspiracy of the elites: this is a desperate attempt to re-present some city folk, who are shorting the pound, as something more sinister. Conspiracy theories have a long and disreputable history and are almost always the product of a fevered imagination. This one is not going to fly.

Try “the truth well told” instead.

What should Labour do? Try something truthful. Truth is the bedrock of a really good strategy. “The truth well told” is a good way to think of an effective strategy. This is what journalists often miss – as they tend to think of adfolk as people who hoodwink the public.

The truth is that Brexit is a really complex and there is no “getting Brexit done” –  even if  the government gets an agreement through, it is just the start of years of negotiations. Without a deal – even more negotiations. We will be locked into an endless depressing cycle that will most likely lead to the breakup of the union. That is a really sad and unnecessary future.

I would start there – start calling it as it. The public will respect you for it.

This piece is by Julian Saunders and first appeared his blog, joinedupthink here



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