Thoughts on Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett’s recent interviews, and a recent piece by Liberal Democrats’ president Baroness Sal Brinton on a visit to Cambridge recently.
The detail via The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman (who in the grand scheme of things I rate quite highly as a journalist/political commentator even though she operates in a different part of the political matrix) is here. Social media has also noticed that this wasn’t the first interview she’s struggled with – the BBC’s Andrew Neil making mincemeat of the citizen’s income policy.
Some damage to their brand and the standing of the party has been done. But is it the end of their campaign and prospects? Unlikely. One of the reasons for this is that in the minds of the electorate that is aware of them, The Greens are the opposite ‘brand wise’ of UKIP. Given the lack of mainstream media coverage until of late, it’s unlikely that Bennett’s past media appearances were a major reason for people joining the party – unlike Farage’s extended & ongoing media coverage in the face of seemingly increasingly bland & anonymous politicians from the mainstream parties. As Natalie Bennett was only elected party leader a couple of years ago – succeeding Caroline Lucas MP who had served her constitutional maximum 2 terms, (See p7 here) Bennett won the leadership election succeeding Lucas who until then had been their highest profile politician as both leader and only MP.
Are the problems one of media style or policy substance? Or was it just another bad day?
There’s a mix of all. Could Natalie Bennett (given how ill she was with a cold – as you can hear in her voice) have said: “I am ill – Caroline Lucas/Jenny Jones will be available for interview instead”. I’m surprised more ministers and politicians choose to plough on than take time to recover and put a substitute spokesperson in their place.
On both style and substance, The Greens have not had to face intense policy scrutiny from the mainstream media and their political opponents. Just before their recent problems, I posted this blogpost. Since then, they have faced scrutiny over social media posts – here in Cambridge with candidate Dr Rupert Read, followed by the challenges over policy from Andrew Neil and on Newsnight just now from Evan Davis over style & on how media-savvy they are. (He was interviewing Baroness Jones, the only Green Party peer in the House of Lords – who also was elected to the London Assembly).
You can’t solve a policy problem with media training and you can’t solve a style problem by overhauling your policies
If I were on the inside track with The Greens, I’d be investing not just in some short-term intensive media training from someone who really knows their stuff, but also in some longer term mentoring. (Ideally also from someone who has been through something similar or worse & bears the scars from the experience!) In particular, how to prepare for media interviews – both in the run up & on the day. This blogpost by Janet Murray covers the essentials if you are appearing in the media for any political party. (Or organisation for that matter).
How much policy detail should a political party know at this stage?
Former Labour Party special adviser Damian McBride is spot on here. He posted that post shortly after Ed Miliband and Ed Balls got into a bit of bother over their proposed mansion tax. No political party in the UK has the resources to give the level of policy detail being asked on some of the policies. That’s why we have a civil service in this country to do the detailed policy work for whoever gets elected. Take for example Labour’s flagship minimum wage policy. It was in their 1997 manifesto, and lots of people understandably asked: “What will the new minimum wage be?” To which their response was to set out a process for how the wage level would be set (so as not to frighten off the business lobby whose vote Blair courted heavily). Even when the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 was passed into law, the new minimum wage was not on the face of the legislation. It simply gave powers to the Secretary of State to set the minimum wage subject to the due processes set out in the legislation.
The point being that for the citizen’s income policy, Natalie Bennett did not need to go anywhere near giving away any numbers or ballpark figures. The policy itself is far too complex with too many factors & variables in it for such a small organisation to come up with a robust policy on it. What she should have said – in particular to Andrew Neil is to have argued the principle of the policy on its merit and said that the detailed policy analysis would come from the civil service assuming the Greens (or another party supporting the policy) got elected. Remember Natalie Bennett has gone on record saying what matters – in particular environment-wise, is that their policies are adopted, rather than getting ministerial seats.
As I’ve mentioned before, The Greens have a significant number of published policies – click here. Ever since the Green Surge the mainstream media has been pouring over these in detail. Because there is so much there, it’s ever so easy to get caught out by an interviewer saying: “Your website says…”. No party leader is going to know that level of policy detail. This is where Bennett might have gotten away with: “Our policy spokesperson who knows far more about the detail you’re asking for, is [click here for the list of spokespeople]…I can put you in touch with them because you’re asking me about a level of policy detail that you wouldn’t expect from any other party leader.” This is a media cultural problem of wanting to go to the party leader for any and every question under the sun, rather than going to the party policy specialist.
“Isn’t the risk with ‘media style training’ that you turn ordinary political activists into political media clones so derided by so many people?”
Yes – and it’s a significant risk. But that doesn’t mean you have to turn into a political drone pre-programmed by party HQ incapable of independent thought. Whether it’s the ‘straw man’ question (“You’ve said that you want to increase green taxes on businesses to help deal with climate change, why is it that you want to put lots of hard working small business owners out of a job, with the knock-on impact on their hard-working families and…won’t someone think of the children??!?!?!”) or any other trap (there are a few here), you can see why simply repeating the ‘line to take’ becomes easy to fall back on. Funnily enough, the only person I’ve ever heard openly ‘rejecting the premise of a question’ (see last point here) posed by an interviewer on mainstream TV is Laurie Penny.
Being your own media
I’m still surprised more politicians and parties don’t do far more on this. In The Green Party’s case, one of the things they could do is create some short digital videos setting out detailed and informed responses to all of the questions put to them in the difficult media interviews of recent days. Not ‘soundbite responses’ but ones that demonstrate just how complex and difficult public policy is to develop and deliver – and how trying to reduce these to soundbites or even short political exchanges does no one any favours. Let’s take another example – but from a different political party: The Liberal Democrats.
If the Greens are taking heat now, that’s nothing compared to the 5 year roasting the Liberal Democrats have taken for choosing to go into the Coalition
Given the huge number of controversial decisions Liberal Democrat MPs, peers & ministers have taken, they have often found themselves on the back foot. At times it’s as if the mood from some sections has been: “We expect these sorts of policies from the Tories, but not from you!”
The structural & existential challenge the Liberal Democrats have is that proportional representation is in their political DNA – understandably so. Look at the difference in seats vs total votes in the 1983 & 1987 elections from their predecessor Liberal/SDP alliance (1983 here, and 1987 here). Imagine if the House of Lords took the general election results & allocated seats to members of an elected upper chamber via proportional representation & gave that chamber far stronger powers to vote down and/or delay/change legislation. History could have been very different.
How do the Liberal Democrats defend the decision to go into the Coalition given the 4+ years we’ve had since?
Lib Dem President Sal Brinton, now in the House of Lords but a former county councillor here in Cambridge gave it a go on a visit to Cambridge recently. I filmed it. It’s almost 20 minutes long but is worth a listen irrespective of your political affiliation.
The point of the above being: ‘Yes, there are difficult questions to answer, so here are my answers in my own words in my own time.’ The risk with this is that if you don’t answer those difficult questions, you run the risk of any positive content being ignored as people focus on what you refuse to answer.
Food for thought?