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Sunday, 25 April 2010

Is anyone listening to Labour?

Labour has tonight released a letter to the press urging for a greater focus on policy over presentation in the remaining 10 days of the campaign.

the focus on the debates, both the process surrounding
them, and the polling before and after which they have attracted, has
dramatically reduced the amount of airtime dedicated to the scrutiny of
the policies of the parties. This is particularly so in the case of the
main bulletins which remain the main source of news for many people.


Is this fair? Or is it desperation from a party struggling to be listened to.

By all of this, the Labour Party mean that the debates have turned the election into a style contest - they can't say that, but it's what they mean. Certainly there has been an incredible focus on the debates - in part because they were new, in part because of the success of Nick Clegg in the first debate which has turned the polls around and pushed Labour into third place. But I would also argue that they've generated huge interest not so much because of Nick Clegg's own performance, but because an election with a tired incumbent party and a yet to be convincing opposition had ample space for a third challenger. And once viewers saw a vision of three party politics - they rather liked it.

True, much of the coverage of the debates has focused too much on style. The Sky News build up had frequent clips from body-language experts and regular analysis on language (but not substance) from Joey Jones with slow-mo coverage of every aspect of their body language too. The post-match instant polling gives an instant reaction and dominates the coverage after the debates.

But the debates are 90 minutes of relentless focus on policy. There is nothing but policy in that hour and a half. The analysis may venture too far on style at times, but these are four and a half hours of primetime in-depth policy discussion that we've never had at an election before. And they are pulling in the viewers. Next week's debate is likely to top ten million viewers. That's a hefty amount of policy coverage that no previous election has seen.

Labour claim that the Tories and Lib Dems agree with them that the debates focus too much on style. They probably do. But they've crucially won, or drawn, a debate. And they won their debates by getting their message across through the vital mix of style and substance. You may not agree with Cameron on Europe. But he got the substance across on this and other issues, and the instant verdict of the public was that he won. You take the electorate for fools if you think they just voted on whether they liked Clegg's tie or Cameron's haircut.

In all of this, Brown and Labour are not facing up to reality. All successful political leaders, wherever they are, need to mix a combination of style and substance. Brown attempted to rise above it all right at the start of last week's debate - "if these are about style, then count me out". That may be tempting, but Brown can't just opt out of the laws of politics. You need people to agree with you. But, first, you need people to understand and listen to you.

If you could be bothered to listen to him and see beyond the rictus smile, I actually thought Brown did win on Thursday. But noone was listening anymore. And for those who were, his clunking style got in the way of that. Cameron and Clegg are clearer and more effective communicators. Brown is suffering from the terrible consequences of being a poor communicator and peddling a message that people are tired of listening to. And the debates have accentuated that, but not created it.

Labour badly need to be listened to - they are in danger of becoming entirely peripheral to this campaign. Rather than moaning about it, they need to sort out their communication problems. Wheeling out an Elvis impersonator on Saturday, after hyping it for hours beforehand on Twitter; probably isn't the way to get out of the rut.

PREDICTION: Hung Parliament, Conservatives short by 5

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