In today’s Guardian, Adam Price calls on the “dismal” European left to learn from its American counterpart. According to Price, “the real secret to progressive success” is the wisdom of Professor Marshall Ganz, of the Hauser Centre at Harvard. Price calls Ganz “the Mark Zuckerberg of activism” and says:
At the core of his teaching is the idea that leaders must build a public narrative explaining their calling, a sort of progressive elevator pitch in three parts: why they feel called to act (story of self), how this act relates to the audience (story of us) and what urgent challenge this action seeks to address (the story of now).
Price goes on:
It sounds simple (which is part of its success), but if you doubt its power take a look at a then little-known Senatorial candidate’s speech in the Boston Democratic convention in 2004. You’ll hear how a son of a Kenyan goat-herder running for [the] Senate (self) was a symbol of American meritocracy (us) threatened by the policies of the Bush White House (now).
I think Price has identified the correct framework for politics. Done properly, “the story of self” establishes the politician’s or leader’s right to be heard, as well as his or her credibility and sense of authenticity. Most importantly, they will embody and symbolise the other aspects of their narrative. Price cites Barack Obama as the best example, but he could also have mentioned:
- Winston Churchill, who showed great personal courage by staying in London throughout World War II;
- Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter who worked her way to the very top and, once at Number 10, toiled day and night; and
- Tony Blair, who looked and sounded like a young, modern new leader in the mid 1990s and then set out modernising the Labour Party while promising a New Britain and, later, “Cool Britannia”.
There’s more to it. The Blair example shows how the “the story of us” can be “the story of the party” or “the story of the country”. The successful leader will tell both of these. The story of the party demonstrates values in action. In telling it, the leader will eschew talk about the past and show how the party can be relevant to the needs and expectations of the electorate.
The story of the country explains the leader’s vision, where s/he thinks the country has been, what’s right and wrong, and where it should go next.
Each UK party leader faces his own challenges in telling these stories. As Price says:
Flash forward to Ed Miliband and we see the source of his difficulty. Miliband has a plausibly good story of now (“responsible capitalism”), a so-so story of us (“squeezed middle”) but hardly any story of self – so we fill in the blanks with our own version: David’s brother, Gordon’s spad, or the son of England’s greatest Marxist theorist (my favourite).
David Cameron has a story of self, even if it’s one he would never have chosen (his tragic family experience). He also looks and sounds like a prime minister. And he has a strong story of now (paying down the debt). But Cameron’s story of the party is incomplete — the Conservative brand has still not been detoxified — and his story of the country (“the Big Society”) goes way over most people’s heads.
Nick Clegg has a story of the party (working with the Conservatives in the national interest; a softer heart than the Tories and a harder head than Labour). His story of self (successful career in Europe) appeals to liberals, but was derailed by the tuition fees debacle. Since the start of the year, Nick has been fighting hard to tell his own story of now, separate from the coalition’s. It’s still too early to say if the voters are buying. Beyond that, however, lies the old chestnut, a Liberal Democrat story of the country that people will understand and believe in.
Let’s see who breaks this logjam first.