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This formula for good TV is the key to winning elections. As a screenwriter, here's how it works

The requirement for main characters to have a ‘want’ and a ‘need’ works in politics too. Speaking to people’s instinctive desires is a lesson Labour has yet to learn

Amrou Al-Kadhi
Tuesday 17 December 2019 09:56 GMT
General election 2019: How the night unfolded

“I don’t want something I need. I want something I want.” So said Mia, the flirtatious office worker from Love Actually, that staple Christmas flick. Crap holiday movies aside, Mia’s line encapsulates a profound idea – and one that might help us understand the failings of the left this devastating general election.

As part of my job, I often think about the difference between “wants” and “needs”. I’m a screenwriter by trade, having written for shows like Hollyoaks and Apple’s upcoming Little America. It’s screenwriting 101 to know that your central protagonist must have a “want” and a “need”. The “want” is the primary engine of the story. It's basically the thing that keeps you watching.

Take the film Little Miss Sunshine: a young girl, Olive, wants so desperately to win the beauty pageant, and the whole film follows the family’s relentless journey to get her there. The “need”, however, is what the character must learn, sometimes despite themselves. It's usually something abstract and intangible, the effective “moral” of the story. In Little Miss Sunshine, Olive must see that she doesn’t need the validation of a child’s beauty pageant, with the family realising that their road-trip together was the real trophy.

So, how does this relate to politics?

For decades, right-wing politicians have successfully spoken to people’s instinctive wants. In particular, the promise from the late 20th century onwards that a free-market economy unregulated by the state will offer everyone an equal opportunity at individual success is still fiercely persuasive. It's so seductive that millions of blue-collar Americans vote for politicians who legislate against the interests of the working class, with many still believing the American dream to be on their horizon (be it just a mirage of empty promises).

The chance of private ownership, limitless wealth, and an individual empire without state interference is all so appetising, that many are willing to sacrifice basic governmental provisions for a stab at it. It speaks to the same mentality of those on low incomes who spend large proportions of their money on lottery tickets – there is a chance, however negligible, that you might win big someday.

The left, by comparison, has nobly tried to address peoples’ needs. It has made the case – and rightly so – for universal healthcare, proper state provision, rights and protections, and a more level playing economic field. To me, it seems like a complete no-brainer on paper. Surely a society where all are equal is something we should all strive for? While the likes of Boris Johnson believe that inequality is something to be championed (yes, he said that), I hope that most people would agree that 14 million people living in poverty in the UK – 4 million of whom are children – is no good thing.

So why, then, has the left’s simple message often failed to gain meaningful traction?

My view is that it is not dissimilar to Mia’s request from Love Actually: people want things that they want more than they want things that they need. Needs are crucial, and we all deserve the right to them; but they simply do not arouse the electorate in the same way that "wants" do. I mean, I desperately need to go to the dentist, but I’ve avoided doing it all year. There’s just so much else I want to do instead – even though that dentist visit is definitely in my personal interest.

All screenwriters must learn the lesson that, if you tell a story focusing solely on a character’s needs, it effectively feels off-putting and moralising. Films that try to make a point without offering a compelling story to deliver it are unwatchable.

Now there are many factors which contributed to the Labour Party’s catastrophic defeat last Thursday – Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Brexit, media coverage – but part of it was the way its ideas were packaged and communicated. Labour didn’t lose because its policies skewed too far to the left; research shows that their intentions to nationalise public services, end austerity and build a green future polled very well. But the mechanisms by which they were told fell flat this election, and this was partly due to an emphasis on what society urgently "needed".

There has to be a way to retain Labour’s left-wing agenda and still deliver electoral success, but it can’t be seen to be condescending and moralising. It was a mistake for Labour to begin its campaign on the back foot by positioning itself as the party against “the big polluters, the billionaires and the tax dodgers.” While I agree with the sentiment here, this fails to offer voters a positive vision of the society the left wants to build.

Similarly, the way Labour batted out policies almost at random, was not only confusing, but offered no compelling narrative. If anything, it felt patronising, again because we kept being told what we all needed. I used to be a smoker, and when anyone told me that I needed to quit, I continued in protest. It was only when a doctor spoke to me about what my life could be like once I stopped that I decided to do so.

In the impending civil war within the Labour Party, we must fight to retain the agenda of socialist renewal. But if it’s ever going to get us into power, we need to reframe our messaging, and borrow the didactic strategy of the right. But where capitalism dupes, we must persuade people that it is only through socialism’s equalling out of opportunity that everyone has a genuine chance at individual success. Let’s give the people what they want, while also giving them what they need.

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