“There are no remote places. Under instant circuitry, nothing is remote in time or in space. It’s now.”
— McLuhan, 1965
One of the biggest problems that political parties have now, is that they don’t actually understand what the internet has done to society. In trying to analyse and solve those problems, critics both inside and out have started reaching for words to explain these problems and how to deal with them. It’s obvious from the thread on my previous post that the words themselves have baggage that perhaps make them unsuitable for use, but for now I’d prefer to look at what we mean by those words in a political context.
I’ve never studied literary theory, so I’m not trying to impose that on the political process. I’d say it’s likely that most of the people using the term in this way are likewise not attempting to do so. Rather, they’ve found a word that describes one of the biggest problems they see with politics today, and it’s now a useful shorthand. What I am interested in is the way in which criticisms about the lack of a narrative share similarities with criticisms about the lack of attention to branding, or “optics”. One of the main things they all have in common is that many of the people using the concepts are doing so badly, but rather than waste my time pointing out the stupid commentary I’d prefer to spend my time adding to the (hopefully) intelligent debate. I’m not going give up on the concepts because some press gallery hacks don’t understand what they’re about.
The important thing that the concepts all have in common is a recognition that what political parties lack at the moment is consistency. By consistency I don’t mean that parties should never change their positions, never evolve or learn. But it should be genuine evolution and real lessons, with reasoning that is based in the values and principles the party holds and claims to believe in. The problems that I pointed to in my previous posts are problems that arise because every new election, every new day, every new media conference, is treated as a blank slate, in which a new set of key lines and commentary on the issue of the day are trotted out with an eye on winning the day’s argument. Who cares if this is the opposite of what we said last time? Who cares if the reasoning we provide for why we support this thing is the exact opposite of the reasoning we used last week to support that thing?
But the internet cares. So many of the problems faced by political parties today are thanks to the digital age, and things will only get worse for them unless they figure it out. The combination of speed and permanence that the internet provides means that nothing is in the past. The media cycle may be faster, but what went before is there for anyone who wants to go looking. And yes, maybe hardly anyone will go looking, but when they do, it only takes seconds for them to share it with many other people.
For any given political issue, it’s a safe bet that most people only want a brief, shallow understanding of what it is and what it means to them. But almost every voter has a few issues they care about where they want more information. The internet allows parties to easily provide those layers of understanding: a slogan for the majority, a fact sheet for a few more, a comprehensive policy for a small minority, and largely, the parties all understand that. But one of the concepts they’re missing is that there needs to be some overall consistency across those issues too. If I take the time to learn about one or two issues, I want to know that the party will use similar values and reasoning to make decisions in areas where I want them to get it right, but I don’t prioritise enough to learn about in great detail. And I want those same values and reasoning to inform decision-making on issues in the future that the party didn’t make an election promise about.
A party’s brand, or narrative, isn’t something you can create out of nothing. In the long run, people don’t remember who won that day in Question Time, who got the best grab on the evening news, who made the funniest tweet. That’s not to say the short term wins are irrelevant. But it is to say that it matters how you win them, and whether it’s at the expense of the party’s ability to say “this is who we are, and what we believe”. The narrative is based on the sum of all the decisions and speeches and campaign materials and photo ops. That’s always been true, but in the digital age where the past is hyperlinked to the present, there’s no point even trying to get around it.