Spinning and winning in today's world of politics

`Spin is a word used so loosely, so unthinkingly, that it's an impediment to understanding'
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The Independent Culture
PHILIP LARKIN said that sexual intercourse was discovered in 1963. In much the same way the British media discovered spin in 1992 and, like a dog with a bone, has never been able to break clear of its obsession with a word that, even if it meant anything then, means almost nothing now.

If ever one word obscures rather than enhances our understanding of political events it is spin - a word we shall hear endlessly over the next three weeks, as the party conference season gets underway. It is a word used so loosely, so widely, so unthinkingly that it is an impediment to understanding what is actually happening in modern politics.

That is not to deny that, narrowly defined, "spin" has not played a part in modern politics. George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton adviser, described a good spinner as "like a good lawyer: you highlight the facts that help your client's case, and downplay the ones that don't".

If spinning means anything at all it is presenting a political case to the media in way that maximises your advantage and minimises your disadvantage. Two hundred years ago you would do this through direct contact with the public. Now you can only really do it through the filter of an immensely powerful media.

Effective media management has been important for progressive parties. It is something Labour used to do badly and conservative parties did well. Our failure and their success led to a late 20th-century dominance of reactionary parties, which, in the mid-1980s, appeared almost permanent. This conservative hold was broken for many reasons, but part of the success of the left was a new confidence and competence in dealing with the media.

Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell are not irrationally obsessed by the media, but they are realistic about its influence. The media wrecked Labour in the past; it cannot be allowed to do so again.

But using modern media techniques was only ever a part of the progressive renaissance. Real understanding of the New Labour government comes from understanding two crucial challenges: the first is to break the cycle of 20th-century progressive failure in Britain; the second, to come to terms with the transformed environment in which Labour now governs. I call this the challenge of the new incumbency.

It is impossible to make sense of New Labour unless you fully understand how determined it is to break the cycle of Labour's failure in government. Labour has never won two full terms in government. It has always thrown power away. To achieve sustainable power, everything must pass the test of whether or not it helps to contribute to an enduring progressive future.

We operate within an entirely new environment: a context of ceaseless change and exploding technological opportunity. This is a world of exploding media opportunity, too, where news is constant, and where news outlets proliferate almost exponentially. It is a world of growing scepticism about politics and politicians, and in which governments are judged less by past ties and habitual loyalties, but by results.

This demands a new approach to government; one grounded in values, that can solve problems and deliver change, but which is also able to deal with a new media environment that is driven to the sensational by the demands of competition.

This is not just a British phenomenon. I call it "total news media". The result is an extreme imbalance of supply and demand: the demands of the media massively outstripping the supply of news.

There are many consequences of "total media". It presses coverage of politics towards the sensational and the extreme; it leads to a focus on personalities not policies; it means that issues are likely to be presented in stark one dimensional terms; it means that politicians and political parties (and other public figures) tend always to be either heroes or villains. This can be best characterised as "soap opera politics", but it may have more corrosive implications. In the US, a new political discourse focused on personality and sensation has been called the "politics of personal destruction".

The new incumbency means not just governing well, not just making a difference, but retaining credibility, trust and, ultimately, popularity in a media environment that is more demanding, more sensationalising than ever before. Spin is part of this, but a very small part. It has had its day as a way of making sense of politics. It is time it was dumped in the dustbin, and some political commentators started using their brains and not labels.

Philip Gould is polling adviser to the Prime Minister and author of `The Unfinished Revolution', published this month by Abacus in paperback

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