What yesterday’s spin room said about politics


9:00 am - April 30th 2010

by Sunny Hundal    


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There’s no point writing about what I thought of the debate: there’s far too much partisan commentary elsewhere. And even then, it’s pretty much a waste of time. The print media have had just slightly more influence on the election as blogs have – i.e. very little.

The spin room, where the press were assembled, was slightly more interesting. We were working almost like school-kids, side by side on desks. The wifi connection was slow and clunky; the sandwiches tasteless.

The idea that journalists are impartial, even the ones in broadcast media, is really fairly nonsensical. As the debate wore on some whooped at one-liners, other sighed loudly when Clegg kept blaming ‘the same old politics’.

It was fairly quiet but there was a hum of journalists talking to each other trying to affirm their thoughts with each other. Was Cameron sweating? Did Brown have lots of make-up on? Didn’t he look a bit scary? What about Cameron’s fake-tache? (Ok that was just me…)

15 minutes before the debate even finished, Peter Mandelson enters the room. He just stands there, impassively at the back, watching the debate.

You can use different analogies, but basically they swarmed around him. And when I say swarmed… Mandelson hadn’t even uttered a word and yet within a few minutes a thick crowd of journalists had formed a circle around him.

Some were standing on desks, extending their long microphones towards him, others were just taking pictures. Mandelson stood there, impassively, staring straight ahead. We watched in awe as journalists fell over themselves to get close to him and catch his first words.

Meanwhile, Michael Gove was standing just yards away by himself. No one troubled him in the least (I talked to Gove afterwards, he was very affable, and I’ll post that interview later).

Mandelson then started spinning before the final speeches had even started. The scrum was overwhelming. He was the only game in town.

Afterwards of course the journalists fanned out to talk to others. But it’s true what they say about Mandelson: he is not only an effective performer but he has a presence. More than that, he has a presence and an aura that no one in the Conservative high-command (or even Labour, let alone Libdem) can match. They have to stand on the sidelines and watch, and await their turn.

I’ve long said that Brown was bad for the Labour Party because he was a terrible communicator. But really – all of the three people running for Prime Minister are. They don’t have the presence or the effortless charm that you see President Obama exuding (even on television). One minute he’s sharing jokes with guys in a burger bar and the next he’s giving a speech on foreign policy. He doesn’t look out of place in either setting.

Gordon Brown’s supporters keep saying he is substance, not style. I’m not sure I like the substance (especially the immigration rhetoric) but I think it’s also true that such bad style actually hurts the Labour Party. If Mandelson were PM next week he’d have them eating out of his hand like Tony Blair did for years. But Brown actually drives away voters who feel positive towards the Labour Party (around 33% of the public) because they just dislike him. That is a polling reality.

Bigotgate may not have ruined Labour’s standing in the polls, but the gaffe makes it crystal clear that Brown’s communication skills are a liability.

Once the election is over, the party needs a hard look at deciding which intellectual direction it will go. But it also needs to ensure the person chosen party leader can also communicate well with the public.

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[PS. Some will say Blair was a good communicator too and look where that got us (Iraq) etc etc. I know that. But good communication skills can also be used to push for progressive policies (like explaining why immigration can be a force for good, which Brown clearly cannot do). It is simply an essential attribute]

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


Gordon Brown’s supporters keep saying he is substance, not style.

That’s because they’re desperate. It isn’t necessarily a positive thing, either. A vat of gruel would be more substantial than a plate of sushi, but which is more palatable?

Sunny,

Excellent posting thanks. It tells us something about why Lord Mandelson is regarded as so valuable by the Labour party, which would otherwise appear odd considering how detached from perceivable reality his comments on the BBC news were last night (and also how tired he looks of late). But if he is the one that always sets the agenda of comment, that will explain a lot.

Mandy is an object of fascination for the media, sure.
But are you really suggesting that he would have Blair’s popular appeal??

He will be forgotten after the election, though unlike the other Labour reptiles I suppose he has his massive EU pension which would allow him to continue in politics…

If Mandelson were PM next week he’d have them eating out of his hand like Tony Blair did for years.

If by ‘them’ you mean the press, then yes I think you’re probably right – he exerts an eerie hold over the media. I suspect that his public appeal is much less widespread.

If Mandelson were PM next week he’d have them eating out of his hand like Tony Blair did for years

I know Ann Widdecombe originally said it of Michael Howard, but I’ve always thought Mandelson had something of the night about him. I don’t think you should spend any more time in or near his company Sunny, ‘cos Mandelson as PM is probably one of the scariest things I think I’ve ever heard you suggest….

I first read about spin-rooms in the 1980s, in presidential primary elections. As the journos filed their copy, spin doctors would come along and “clarify” what the candidate had said (though clarification usually meant spinning something to make it more palatable to that particular journalist). And now we openly talk about them here, though it seems that now there is next to no interest in what candidates say and only interest in their aura or how good they are at communicating.

Yesterday’s debate was supposedly about the economy but on the front page of the newspapers today I can only find comment about who “won” the debate. There is next to no interest in what the three candidates said. If one of them had said that no-one really knows how to restructure our economy the assembled journos would have said that is a gaffe: but that is the reality. The same was true of some of Blair’s speeches about Iraq back in 2002 and 2003; the press got carried away with his delivery, but if you read what he had said carefully you could see some very big holes in his arguments.

Don’t get carried away with the communication business, Sunny; most politicians have nothing that they really want to communicate to us.

Mandelson will be the leader of the Labour Party.

Mandelson for PM? No – it leaves him far too directly exposed; he does his ‘best’ work behind the scenes. He’s the consigliere, nor the Godfather.

Correction: Mandelson for PM? No – it leaves him far too directly exposed; he does his ‘best’ work behind the scenes. He’s the consigliere, not the Godfather.

Fascinating eyewitness stuff.

But in the end, the media clearly didn’t buy whatever Mandelson was selling – they pretty much unanimously called it for Cameron.

What’s the use of a spinner that everyone swarms around but no-one listens to?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying anyone should want Mandelson for PM or that I want to hang out with the guy. Just saying communication skills are important in a way many seem to not understand about Brown.

Guano – you make a good point. But that is the state of the media.

Mandelson always reminds me of Lord Vetinari:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Havelock_Vetinari

Sunny,

I was watching the reporting from the spin room on the news last night.

The cameras panned away from the scrum towards the desks with a few journalists left at their keyboards. I think I saw you (or a guy who looked like you) typing away. Nice jacket by the way.

As to Mandy. Undoubtedly the power behind the government and probably the best suited to the role. However, if these debates have taught us anything it is that image is paramount – so reasons of looks, age, temperament and reputation mean that party lead is young man/woman’s game.

If I were a betting man, which I am not, I would place money on a complete makeover for Labour with Caroline Flint being suggested as young, attractive, ‘definitely not either of them’ type candidate for the position up front.

If I were a betting man, which I am not, I would place money on a complete makeover for Labour with Caroline Flint being suggested as young, attractive, ‘definitely not either of them’ type candidate for the position up front.

Flint? Not after her volte-face last year. Yvette Cooper, on the other hand…but she’d have to clamber over the dead bodies of Brown, Johnson, Harman, both Milibands – and her husband – to get to the leadership. Would Balls brief against his own wife, I wonder? And if anyone thinks the scrutiny of the leaders is bad, throw a woman into the mix – especially a Labour woman – and watch it scream into overdrive.

New Labour already do makeovers (Barbara Follett, anyone?). If ‘image’ matters, it just means no baldies/mingers/fatties/oldies – but we learnt that that from how the media treated Neil Kinnock and from the Blair years. Cameron shows that the Tories have caught up as far as 1997 as far as presentation is concerned.

redpesto,

I think it has descended to where looks are everything.
Ideally Labour should get Cheryl Cole on board asap but she’s got better things to do – leaving Caroline Flint in first place.

@ redpesto

“New Labour already do makeovers”

Well, there’s makeovers, and then there’s dead parrots. “New” (pass the sick bag, quickly) Labour may possibly have had one positive effect: it has helped achieve a fracturing of the flawed, archaic system which has been in control for the past century and a half.

When are people going to wake up to the fact that the old game is up? Labour are a busted flush. The Tories are actually crowing about levels of support they’d have knifed Cameron in the back for not too long ago. Neither party has really changed, indeed I doubt either of them really want to or could even if they were self aware enough to try.

Hopefully they will find some new leaders not infected with the New Labour virus, but even if they do it’s going to be a much reduced party. Perhaps they can regain people’s trust, and show us they are truly radical: it’s a shame it took a politcal earthquake like this to show them the way. I’m not holding my breath, and I won’t be shedding any tears about the demise of New Labour either.

I saw the Cameron’s fake tache too! Glad I’m not the only one!

Galen:

Hopefully they will find some new leaders not infected with the New Labour virus, but even if they do it’s going to be a much reduced party. Perhaps they can regain people’s trust, and show us they are truly radical: it’s a shame it took a politcal earthquake like this to show them the way. I’m not holding my breath, and I won’t be shedding any tears about the demise of New Labour either.

Seconded.

Communications skills are important; Labour need to be able to develop an emotional bond with people who are not middle class arts graduates who live in cities and work for the government.

Perhaps if Labour had MPs who are foreman bricklayers or people with similar experience , as cabinet ministers , then they would be better at communicating with their core vote. E Bevin’s great asset for Attlee was that he could communicate the thoughts and feelings, often unspoken, to the Prime Minister.
As Thatcher said ” Is he one of us ?”. Many core labour voters do not look at the cabinet and MPs and think he/she is one of us. Communication is 80% non verbal: if people like the look of someone , then they may listen to them.

Sunny: “But that is the state of the media”.

Maybe, but that has to change as well. New Labour was a makeover that tried to take into account the state of the media. It ended up losing touch with the public and reality. It came to believe that if the PM said something, and the media accepted it, it had become the truth. When the reality emerged, the only option was to tell the public that they were being obsessive about pointing out the truth and that they should move on.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
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