Categories: Crisis management / Political spin

15 January 2009


The Tories: Toughness and empathy?

The Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein says there is no benefit to be had from being strident, tough and arrogant when communicating the harsh decisions that governments and firms are going to make over the next few years. He’s right. But is that all there is to this debate?

Finkelstein says innocent people are going to get hurt. The word “no” is going to get used a lot. There will be cutbacks and setbacks galore. As Finkelstein says, “it is hard to see what accompanying these tough calls with a harsh demeanour will achieve”. I would add that corporates and politicians have a responsibility to show humility and to care even when doing things that are in essence unpleasant.

That’s sound enough. 

And yet, I am not sure that Finkelstein is entirely right. He criticises Matthew Parris for believing that Gordon Brown’s air of taciturn glumness was an asset. But wasn’t Parris merely suggesting the country might welcome a certain steady realism of demeanor and even of message from CEOs and politicians? In my view, Paris was spot on. Surely, he’s correct to say that audiences prefer authenticity, and that the public is less infantile than modern marketing strategies suppose.

It was interesting to see Steve Hilton – one of the great corporate CSR guys of our time – apply himself to rebranding the Tories. Certainly, as Finkelstein says, being labelled both nasty and inefficient was bit of a no-no.  This was strikingly noted by Maurice Saatchi and Teresa May. But has it entirely helped the Tories that they are now open to the accusation of mushiness (whether behind huskies or not)?

The Tories believe in tough-love. That is their USP. They believe in it for the economy and for families and education and welfare systems. That doesn’t make them red in tooth and claw, but it really is not clear that the Tories can ever be nice. One cannot be all things to all men, not even in retail politics.

Labour’s pitch is that you can tax the economy (especially the rich, say the old-timers) and fix the problems poor people face. The Tory’s pitch is that tax-and-spend is certainly bloody awful for the better-off but not much better – and maybe worse – for the poor. That’s not a pretty message for about a third of the population, but it may be true for all that. It also appeals strongly to lots of people.

It is certainly true that a devil-take-the-hindmost Tory-ism would fail in Britain. But in the end, corporatist Toryism also failed Britain and that is why Margaret Thatcher was allowed to correct about 20 years of sloppy government. Tony Blair was an enormous success because he smilingly promised that he would be a realist – and tough.

The genius of David Cameron – if it turns out to be genius – is smilingly to say that to a large extent there is less pain all round if we don’t pretend we can fix a recession painlessly. The country half accepts that the job of Tories is to clear up Labour’s tax-and-spend messes. That requires toughness.

These unpalatable truths can only be sold to the electorate by people and parties capable of seeming to empathise with the pain involved. Firms face the same challenge. Tone counts. To that extent, Finkelstein is spot-on. If that’s what he’s saying, of course.

2 responses to “The Tories: Toughness and empathy?”

  1. Richard D North says:

    Dear Paul,

    I like all of those points but add that the big problem with the New Niceness (the political and commercial pitch that we all care about everything and everyone, and do so equally) is that it can’t be true. Businesses and politicians always have to lie a little. That’s obvious. (“The customer’s always right”; “Excellent choice, Sir”; “Bright new dawn, time for a change”, etc.)

    I hope you bang on a lot about authenticity. I think what’s really, really new is that in a world of spin authenticity is the new black. Rich Tory Toffs, sure, no problem. Why not? Provided they’re genuine competent Rich Tory Toffs with good policy. Gordon Brown: moralistic son of the manse who presided over a consumer boom and ran up national debt. That may have been good policy but it certainly was very conflicted as a matter of authenticity.

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Talking of authenticity and honesty, Mathew Parris has a slightly over-the-top column in today’s Times: “Speak out now, or forever hold your peace”. Here’s a sample:

    “When the decision is taken irreversibly to go for the nuclear generation of electricity in Britain in a really big way, could all those in the political and media class who are at present sitting on the fence, kindly admit their former indecision, and spare us their thoughts on how there was “never” going to be any other way for Britain to abide by our green commitments?”

    I wish I’d said that: