Time turns flames to embers: Reconciliation in the age of Brexit

Happy New Year. And Happy New Decade! The end of the ‘teenies’ and the beginning of the ‘twenties’ has seen plenty of politicians and others in contemplative form, setting out their hopes, fears, dreams and anxieties about the next ten years. Perhaps the most interesting was the letter signed by, amongst others, Matthew Elliot of Vote Leave and Will Straw of Stronger In, calling for a ‘decade of reconnection’ after the past few years of division and strife. Are we even close to that happening?

Different groups are at loggerheads all over the world: rural conservatives vs metropolitan liberals across much of the former Soviet empire; US Republicans vs Democrats; Sunnis vs Shias – the sources of conflict are manifold and varied. Sticking to the UK, the debate about Brexit has brought into sharp focus pre-existing differences between the generations, between successful cities and struggling towns, and between England and Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. Can calls for reconciliation even vaguely cut through the rancour and bitterness uncorked over the past few years?

Not yet they can’t, because as it stands each side barely acknowledges that the other side has a right to be upset, let alone that anything should be done to assuage their concerns.  I read today a letter in the New European calling on Remainers to march on the day after Brexit Day to express their love for Europe and the hope we will be let back in – or to put it another way, to demonstrate that Brexiteers are wrong, that this is all an aberration, and we will eventually end up back where we belong.  At the same time many Brexiteers (including all too many now representing the Conservatives in Parliament) have adopted a stance of truculent triumphalism, effectively telling the 48% to stop being sore losers and just get on with life outside the Union.

Until we acknowledge that both sides are angry and disappointed, and start to grapple with why they feel the way they do, the ‘decade of reconnection’ is going to be a damp squib.  As the plethora of ‘how to avoid Brexit arguments over Christmas dinner’ articles have revealed, Leavers and Remainers are often unable to speak to each other making it hard to see how they are going to learn to understand one another. With this backdrop reconciliation feels a long way off.

Perhaps Boris Johnson has the answers? In fairness to him, he is trying. The promise to splurge on disadvantaged areas, to focus on key public services like the NHS, and generally to give a sense of momentum, optimism and hope after Brexit is sensible. But the worry is this will focus on quick fixes and razzle dazzle announcements about difficult big projects (bridge to Ireland, anyone?), not boring things like improved bus services, better education and training, and genuine devolution of powers, to city mayors and also to schools, hospitals and local councils. And an even bigger concern is that the greatest challenges, such as the fundamental unaffordability of the NHS and social care, the UK’s productivity crisis and, of course, climate change will be swept under the populist carpet. So although the Prime Minister is trying to bring people together (for his own electoral advantage, of course), this could easily end up being divisions delayed, not healed; stopping the bleeding, not stitching up the wound.

To really reconcile we first need to forgive, and to understand, starting with Brexit and then the underlying causes of the vote to leave. Remainers (including me) have to stop explaining how dumb Leavers have been, and Brexiteers have to admit that those who want to stay in feel just as strongly, and are just as angry, as they are. Both sides have to recognise that (1) we are leaving and it actually won’t be the end of the world, but (2) we need to do so in a way that takes people on the journey, rather than rubs their noses in it (as a starting point, how about not getting Big Ben to ‘bong’ to mark our departure?). It will take an enormous effort, but we surely have to try?

Take the long way home: How Labour could come back from this

Despite some controversy, for Ed Miliband and Labour Together to take a look at the Party’s failings in this month’s election seems like a wise idea.  As part of its deliberations the group will no doubt be tempted to look back at historical precedent.  So was last week’s election result 1997 all over again, with Boris Johnson cast as Tony Blair, leading us into a new dawn where things can only get better?  Or 1983, with Jeremy Corbyn being trounced just like Michael Foot as he tried to sell another “longest suicide note in history” in the form of a hyper-left-wing grab bag of a manifesto?  Both comparisons have been made; both are wide of the mark.

There are some similarities with 1997, or at least Johnson and Cummings would like there to be: essentially, like Blair and Mandelson, they have tried to sell a product heavy on optimism and light on detail.  But that year saw a change of team, the reds taking over from the tired and demoralised blues, not basically more of the same old Tories.  And however hard they try to dress it up the main emotion in this election was not hope but anger about Brexit and particular contempt for a Labour Party which has not tended to its heartlands for years, maybe decades.

And there is some resemblance to 1983 too.  Like then, the left-wing programme for government certainly didn’t help Labour; nor has the capture of the Party by a militant fringe unrepresentative of most of the broad church of the left.  However, the Tories won in part because of the Falklands factor and in part because there was widespread recognition of the need for a revolution, the rupture from the past that Thatcherism offered and ‘Johnsonism’, if such a thing exists (and it doesn’t so far), does not.

So neither of those comparisons is apt.  In fact, 1992 is closer, with a newish Conservative leader winning an unexpectedly clear majority (although more so in Johnson’s case than Major’s) whilst offering both continuity and renewal.  Then as now the Tories were in knots over Europe, and lying about their true intentions and actions in Brussels (in the earlier case, about the ERM).  And 1992 would be the best place for Labour to look for its route back to power.

Miliband’s group might note that a door has been opened for them by Johnson’s insistence that a free trade agreement will be concluded by the end of 2020.  If a deal can’t be done, or only done on unfavourable terms, and it does lead to adverse economic impacts such as Nissan closing down, or less totemic, smaller scale, deaths by a thousand cuts, then it would not be hard for a Labour leader to construct a narrative about how this is what the Party had always warned against, that a cautious and closer Brexit had always been the way to go.  Labour Together might conclude that the Red Wall has only lent the Conservatives its votes and they will quickly take them back if Johnson and co fail to deliver – or in fact make things worse.

But hopefully the review will also conclude that Labour has no chance unless it moves quickly to seriously reinvent its leadership.  It needs a plausible leader with plausible policies that appeal to and will deliver for ordinary voters rather than just excite the over age student politicians currently dominating the structures of the party.  Can it do so?  Some aspects of the post mortem of the past ten days do not bode well.  But Labour Together seems to accept it lost for deep-seated reasons that date back over years and often decades, and that blaming unfair media coverage, Brexit and a weak leader is not enough.  Perhaps they will even admit that a ‘Blair moment’ is required; that this needs to be 1994 and not any of the other dates at all.

Impossible comes true: Is the General Election the Greatest Show?

This brief article (some might say rant) was written the day before the UK election on 12 December 2019 at the request of the Holmes Report, which published an abridged version of it on election day.

This has been a deeply depressing election, another twist in the downward spiral that has been British politics for the past 20 or 30 years.  To an extent political parties always make promises that are at best optimistic and at worse highly unlikely ever to be delivered (aka lies), but this one has gone several steps further with the whole exercise being based on untruths.  The Tories are not going to sell off the NHS to the Americans.  Jo Swinson is not going to be Prime Minister.  And, above all, we are not going to get Brexit done by 31 January, a whopper that will be exposed within months and ought to severely damage Boris Johnson (but probably won’t).

It is really hard to pick a lowlight, because it has been a parade of lowlights.  But probably the lowest of the low moments came with the publication of the Conservative manifesto, which (on p.48) includes an overt threat to the judiciary and democracy dressed up in bland procedural language a 1920s European totalitarian would admire.  And yet, unforgivably, Boris Johnson has faced no serious questions about it.  This really is pathetic and horrible.

I’m struggling to think of a highlight.  I did enjoy the empty chairing of Boris in the Channel 4 climate debate, the steady drip of melting ice a strong reminder of the urgency of the need for decarbonisation and for politicians to make really difficult and unpopular decisions if we are going to get anywhere near net zero by 2050.  Speaking of the leaders’ debates, the big comms lesson was given every time Jo Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon appeared.  One was so over-rehearsed she seemed inauthentic and trite; the other naturally engaging and right on top of her brief.  In fact Nicola Sturgeon is the big winner of this election, by virtue of being the only leader who was not entirely mediocre, meaningless or mendacious.  Grim stuff.

I take a step back, let you go: On having the courage to do what you’re good at

The news that the founders of Hope & Glory are taking a step back from day-to-day management in order to get closer to clients and to ‘the work’ will have struck a chord with many people in communications.  It is a reminder of a couple of long-standing debates within our industry.

The first is a very broad one about management in all professions.  All too often people reach executive positions purely on the basis of being great at their ‘real jobs’, with no thought given to whether they have the attributes or interest needed to become good managers.  How many partners in law firms, say, end up in charge of teams of people because they are the best tax lawyer in the room?  It doesn’t matter if they are utterly uninterested in the development of their colleagues and more at home with figures than people, because they are the best at their job they are inexorably elevated to the top of the pyramid.  What could go wrong?

This tendency to promote people without any regard for their ability to do the next job is compounded in the PR industry, other perhaps than in some of the better resourced network firms, by the fact that many agencies are relatively small, do not devote as much attention to training and HR as they should, and have a tendency in all things to hurl people into the deep end to see if they can swim.  It takes a brave and self-aware person to say no, they want to carry on in a different role, doing what they are actually good at.  So the Hope & Glory announcement really is welcome, if unexpected.

The second debate is about the other side of the same coin.  Most senior folk in comms are good at handling clients, or at providing creative solutions or at giving sound advice.  And so they are promoted and start to devote time to managing colleagues, developing business plans, explaining themselves to shareholders and the like.  They have less time to spend with clients, who naturally become annoyed and may start to look elsewhere.  And they may even become disillusioned themselves, because it turns out they enjoyed doing ‘the work’ and even if they also like managing they can’t do both.

So what should comms agencies and the individuals within them do about this?  It would be tempting to say they should model themselves on virtual agencies like Park Street Partners, where I have been able to get back to working much more closely with clients, which I am enjoying thoroughly.  More realistically they should take a look at what has happened at Hope & Glory and create senior creative roles for people who are creative, and senior client management roles for people who are great with clients – and put good managers in managerial positions.  New ways to be senior and respected (and rewarded) should be created that do not necessarily involve scaling the managerial ladder.  There is a better way for agencies to organise themselves and this week’s news shows us how.

General Election: We were crazy to think that this could work

A few weeks into the election campaign and the landscape is becoming clear.  The SNP will dominate in Scotland.  The Liberal Democrats, despite their embarrassing early optimism, are settled into the slog of trying to win 30-40 seats – although hobbled by a leader who voters dislike more and more whenever she is seen in public.  And the Labour Party is chucking spending pledges at everything in sight as it tries to get voters to think about anything but Brexit: a wall of money and radicalism that it surely has no real belief it will ever actually have to deliver.

Meanwhile the Conservatives are fighting a deeply conservative campaign.  Boris Johnson is serving up cup after cup of Brexit coffee occasionally sweetened with some populist magic money tree flavourings of his own.  One slight surprise is that the Tories have not been hammered from the right by those who are terrified by the fiscal incontinence they are suddenly showing.  Yet again, the ability of Brexit to mask realities and cloud everyone’s judgement is revealed.

A cynic would say that all election campaigns involve politicians over-promising, and that they are always followed by a period in which the new government has to explain why this or that pledge turns out to be undeliverable in office.  What is extraordinary about this election is the extent to which the whole exercise is being based on whoppers, the biggest of which is that voting on 12 December is an opportunity to deal with Brexit once and for all.

As many commentators have pointed out, the idea that Brexit will “get done” or “sorted” anytime soon is utter nonsense.  In truth we are faced in 2020 with either another negotiation and then a long referendum campaign or another year of brinkmanship and rollercoastering towards a free trade agreement or no deal whatsoever.  Even then we will not be done, as Brexit will continue to dominate our politics for years and years and years.

In a narrow sense the outcome of the election remains uncertain.  Whether the Conservatives can turn a double-digit lead in the polls into 40-50 extra seats in the Midlands and the North is still an open question and, with two-and-a-half weeks to go it still feels like some event or issue could pop up to change everything.  But in another way the result is nailed on: an enormous sense of betrayal and disillusionment as it becomes clear that Brexit is still lingering and dominating everything.  And so the inability of the political parties to provide any sort of genuine leadership will be once again exposed and our collective spiral into cynicism and mistrust will continue.  Fun times.

This blog was originally posted on the PRCA website: https://www.prca.org.uk/GE-We-were-crazy-to-think-this-could-work