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How resonance beat reason

Veteran political reporter TOM BALDWIN’s new book explores how the worlds of politics and media have been changed for the worse in the last decade. This exclusive serialisation analyses what went wrong

Tom Baldwin is a writer and journalist, and former Labour Party advisor. He is now director of communications for the People’s Vote campaign. His book, Ctrl Alt Delete: How Politics and the Media Crashed Democracy, was published earlier this month. Order it here.

Just days before the 2016 EU referendum, a poll was published showing the attitudes of Remain and Leave supporters towards different groups. Remainers said they trusted academics by a margin of 68% to 19%, economists by 63% to 22%, and the Bank of England by 61% to 27%. By contrast, just one in four Leave supporters had faith in the opinions of academics, while other professions, including economists, charity leaders, religious leaders and of course politicians, fared even worse.

In other words, such voters trusted pretty much no one. These were the kind of numbers that emboldened the usually cerebral Michael Gove to declare, in answer to a question about the leading economists lining up against Brexit, that people ‘have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong’.

Since the referendum, Gove has tried to row back on these comments. He suggests he was not denigrating expertise itself so much as ‘those who consider, or declare, themselves experts’ but whose track record showed they were not very good at their job. In an interview for my book, he acknowledges that his views on the subject had more impact than he perhaps intended. ‘It was not a conscious thing that I had intended, it was much more spontaneous than that,’ he says. ‘The irony, of course, is that I often cite experts to justify what I’m doing.’ Gove then adds: ‘My aim at that point was to try to say that these people had been wrong in the past and they’re wrong now. They had said ‘trust us’ in the run up to the 2008 crisis and when the tide had gone out, we could see who was naked. I just think it is wrong to claim that because you work for the IMF we must automatically accept what you say. My argument would be, ‘justify yourself, let’s look at the evidence’.’

But the referendum campaign was not characterised by a sober and considered examination of the evidence. Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s director, has said Brexit would have been lost if the likes of Gove and Boris Johnson, had not ‘picked up the baseball bat marked Turkey/ NHS’. The most contentious, and false, claims suggested that Brexit would result in a £350 million-a-week bonus for the NHS and that Turkey was about to join the EU, ‘opening the floodgates to 77 million Muslim migrants’. But it no longer seemed to matter whether what being said was true or false.

In the days after the referendum, many Brexit campaigners like Iain Duncan Smith walked away from promises that the government would find the extra money for the health service. And Johnson, whose own family has Turkish heritage, swiftly reverted to his former position of trying to help the country join the EU. But none of this bothered Cummings, who wrote proudly on his blog that he had spent huge sums targeting these messages through Facebook because Turkey and the NHS had been the ‘most effective argument with almost every demographic’.

In one speech, Gove claimed that Turkey and four other countries could join the EU as early as 2020, leading to 5.2 million extra people moving to the UK. He said it was ‘clearly unsustainable’ to ask the NHS to look after a new group of patients ‘equivalent in size to four Birminghams’. In another, he warned Turkish migrants would raise the threat of terrorism.

I ask Gove if he was entirely comfortable making claims that appealed to some very low sentiments. He pauses for a long time. Eventually, he replies: ‘I know what you mean, yes. If it had been left entirely to me the Leave campaign would have a slightly different feel. I would have to go back and look at everything I said and think whether that was the right response at the right time. There is a sense at the back of my mind that we didn’t get everything absolutely right. It’s a difficult one.’

It was a ‘difficult one’ because, in this fight, smashing voters over the head with baseball bats seemed to be the only strategy on offer. The Remain campaign’s own weapon of choice was hyberbolic claims and terrifying numbers about the economic consequences of leaving. Although these were more evidence-based, there was a degree of what might be called technocratic hysteria in the way they were delivered. By the end of the referendum, what had been dubbed ‘Project Fear’ by the Leave campaign was being given even less credence by voters than the bogus claims made by the Brexiteers. Hillary Clinton’s defeat to Donald Trump shocked the world and signalled a new direction in American and world politics

At the time, Gove held the rather grandiose post of Lord Chancellor that required him to wear knee-high breaches, black stockings and buckled shoes on ceremonial occasions. He was also pursuing a programme of prison reform that had much of the liberal establishment purring.

When I go to see him, he is sitting in the swimming pool-sized office he gets as a Cabinet minister. I ask if he really regards himself as an anti-Establishment figure. This time, Gove replies without a flicker of hesitation: ‘Yes. All my life. It’s a cast of mind. I associate the Establishment with being smooth and I would see myself as spiky rather than smooth and, one of the criticisms of me – entirely understandable – is that I am inclined to cross the road to have a fight in certain areas.

‘I think that’s anti-Establishment. It might seem preposterous to you, but that’s how I see myself.’ He says there is a temperamental difference between the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne when compared to people like himself or Steve Hilton – even though they all went to private schools and Oxford. ‘George and Dave, smooth; me and Steve spiky,’ he says, ‘George and Dave posh; me and Steve arriviste.’ Although Gove says he would not have voted for Trump, he acknowledges similar forces were at work electing the American president just five months after Brexit and admits to having discovered a ‘streak of populism’ in himself. He says: ‘My view is that the Sirs and Dames and the captains of industry more often than not tend to be complacent… If you are the chairman of a FTSE company, then I tend to think you’re probably wrong.’

Gove goes so far as to suggest this has led him to be attracted to some radical left-wing communitarian ideas he describes as ‘blue Labour’. It is, he says, an argument that ‘the interests of capital have triumphed over those of the working classes, the interests of the City of the rest of the country, the interests of the mercantile over the industrial’. He adds: ‘I have found myself in the position of thinking there is a lot of truth in that. It’s about reminding Versailles about the rest of the country, an element of knocking on the plate-glass window and saying, ‘you know’.’

Arron Banks, who funded Farage’s unofficial Leave.EU campaign, would regard all this talk of facts, progressive ideas, and avoiding too much association with Trump as ridiculous pussy-footing. If he could not buy Versailles, this self-styled ‘bad boy of Brexit’ would not have been tapping on plate-glass windows, but breaking them.

His analysis of what happened in the referendum was best summed up when he was asked to compare it with the US elections. ‘The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally,’ he said. It was, Banks added with pride, what explained ‘the Trump success’. The game-changer: Donald Trump

Indeed, Hillary Clinton was not good at making an emotional connection. She had perhaps spent too many years seeking to obscure the full truth as she picked her way through the minefields of scandals involving her and her husband. But that was also because she was desperate to avoid being branded a liar. Donald Trump, by contrast, just did not care.

Early on in the contest, when he was still seeking the Republican nomination, Trump told a campaign rally in Iowa that such was the loyalty of his supporters, ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters. It’s like, incredible’.

For all the doubts and dysfunction that afflicted his campaign, he disorientated opponents, deflected proper scrutiny from the media and deceived his supporters with apparent impunity. Trump’s genius was that he realised what others mistook as iron rules of politics had only ever been made of paper like the framed – and fake – Time magazine covers featuring himself that decorated his golf courses.

The fact-checking website, Politifact, has examined hundreds of claims made by the president. Just 5% of them were judged to be wholly true, with the vast bulk of them – 69% – deemed either mostly or entirely false. Such a record should have been fatal for the prospects of someone getting elected as parish councillor. But Trump found, perhaps to his own surprise, that it did not stop him becoming president. In the peculiar circumstances of 2016, anything could be true if enough people believed it. As one of Trump’s spokesmen said, in about as pure an expression of post-modernism that you can get, just after the election: ‘People that say ‘facts are facts’ – they’re not really facts… Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.’

Trump is both a creature and creation of the old media he so often condemns. Before taking office, he is said to have told aides to think of each day as an episode in a reality television show in which he vanquishes rivals. It has been estimated that the president, who starred in 14 series of The Apprentice, spends at least four hours a day – sometimes much more – watching television, ‘marinating in the no-holds-barred wars of cable news’. He has also shown himself to be a highly-proficient social media troll himself, delighting in causing outrage and provoking reaction. Beginning soon after he has turned on Fox News at 5.30am, he fires off Twitter salvos, complaining about plots against him from the ‘deep state’, scorning climate change experts, and insulting opponents – ‘Bad!’, ‘SAD!’

Like any good reality TV star, Trump came across as more real than anyone else on the show, displaying what seemed to be genuine emotion – pride, joy, anger and contempt – when others, particularly Hillary Clinton, appeared to feign it. When tapes emerged of Trump saying of women that he would ‘grab them by the pussy’ it did not, remarkably, prove fatal to his bid to be president. His campaign went into meltdown, but for his core supporters, his comments were on-brand: he was already a celebrity misogynist and serial groper standing on a platform of political incorrectness against a feminist who sought to be the first woman president of the United States. ‘When you’re a star they let you do it,’ he said in that Access Hollywood tape. ‘You can do anything.’

For many years in the UK, Boris Johnson seemed to have similar gravity-defying powers. He not only knew how to press the media’s buttons, he discovered some that really should not have existed. His career as Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in the early 1990s had taught him that facts did not matter if he could make people laugh. After transitioning from journalism to politics, famously fearsome journalists would chuckle over his semi-scripted fumbles and indulge his repeated lies, whether they were about extra-marital affairs or his plans to stand for parliament, because he was different – he was ‘Boris’, a popular light entertainment brand.

But this conventional media game also masked a deeper digital-era appeal to voters disillusioned by air-brushed, metrics-driven, spin-dried politicians. Just as few people would have thought a gold-plated billionaire property developer could become a champion of the American Rust Belt, Johnson was an unlikely figure to lead a populist revolt in the UK.

After all, his whole act was elitist: he went to school at Eton and university at Oxford where he was president of the debating society for students who want to dress up in white tie and pretend to be MPs. He was also a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club dining society. But, whereas Cameron sought to ban any use of photographs of him decked up in its ludicrous club uniform, Johnson would still go up to fellow former members years later at parties, shouting: ‘Buller! Buller! Buller!’ Boris Johnson holds a press conference at Brexit HQ in Westminster, London, after David Cameron has announced he will quit as Prime Minister by October

For Johnson, such fearlessness in the face of convention conveyed a type of authenticity that helped conceal his dishonesty. He had always played the odd-ball outsider, foreign born and funny-looking along with that faint edge of being a scholarship boy which, apparently, still matters at Eton. He was what Lynton Crosby, the Tory strategist described as a ‘multigrain politician in a white bread era’ and, if few people believed that Johnson always told the truth, he nonetheless resonated with a similar type of authenticity to his fellow populist on the other side of the Atlantic.

Digital technology has helped populists and charlatans gain huge audiences or, in some cases, even to win elections. But too many mainstream politicians seem to throw their hands up in despair at the prospect of ever competing with the extremism that flies so far and fast on social media.

There is no easy answer, not least because digital campaigning does favour emotional resonance and clarity rather nuance and moderation. But we can learn from the success of politicians in 2017 as different as Emmanuel Macron and Jeremy Corbyn.

They are very different characters but they share many of the characteristics needed to succeed in the digital world. Both display a healthy insouciance for critics in the press, they are comfortable in their own skin, and their teams understand that what goes viral on the internet is very different to what might make a splash in the Guardian or Le Monde. Macron’s water bottle flip on Twitter (‘Voilà’), with two million views, and Corbyn’s balcony snowball fights are to social media authenticity what looking presidential used to be to their analogue forebears. Both have demonstrated a willingness to engage in this new political territory rather than retreat from it. For instance, when Macron was confronted by angry workers outside a factory, he broadcast it live on Facebook. And, when the Russian hackers came for him, like they had for Hillary Clinton – just days before his election as president – his digital team was ready, laying traps and false trails to frustrate them or waste their time.

There is no innate reason why evidence-based campaigns from the centre-left and centre-right cannot inspire and excite in what is, admittedly, a tougher environment. To do so, they should learn to make an emotional connection with voters or even offer their own version of insurgency. They need to develop better arguments that allow people to locate their patriotic and cultural identity in the modern world rather than the never-never land of inward-looking atavistic nationalism. Above all, they must learn how to campaign with new technology so that they are popular without having to be populist.

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