The unusual role of a politician competing for power


David Cameron has been doing it for years, Ed Miliband did it, One of Jeremy Corbyn, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall or Andy Burnham will soon be doing it. George W Bush and Barack Obama did it successfully twice. Al Gore, John Kerry, John McCain and Mitt Romney did it and failed. Competing for power is an unusual role. It brings the challenge almost nobody in any other aspect of life has to do.

Let’s take my own social media activity as an example. This blog like many is a small series of publishing. It is not widely read, if you are reading it thank you. I also have a twitter account followed by roughly 1,100 people, and to those people I thank you too. The true relevance of my view of the world is fairly small. I don’t hold any position, I am really not that important. And yet, from time to time, I still get responses from people who don’t agree and are stirred to make me important enough for a brief period of their life to respond. People who see what I have written and choose of their own accord, usually uninvited, to come onto my timeline. Some to put a different view. Some to show their displeasure of my view in rather less polite terms.

My follower base who are interested in politics are mainly on the Conservative (not all, but mainly) side of politics and generally people who broadly agree with me. To maintain it, I don’t have to impress or even give a monkeys what those who don’t agree with me think. Crossing swords with these people will not in most cases be seen as a negative by those who follow me. In some cases it will be seen as a positive, indeed the times I see my follower base go up is generally more often than not after a spat with a ‘Twitter leftie.’ It’s unlikely I will change that persons mind, I doubt many twitter arguments ever do. As long as those who enjoy, for whatever reason, what I do continue to do so, then that is fine by me. and the same will be true for them,

In most aspects of life the same is true. Please your own and the rest don’t matter. Manchester United do not have to cater or try and win the approval of Manchester City supporters. A Church preaches to the converted, as long as it is sustained by it’s own congregation, those outside do not really matter. One public house in Nottingham called The Dragon that I frequent from time to time actually has been known to discourage certain types of people from going, they cater for their regulars first, and they are happy with that

The common theme is that in non of these examples do any of these institutions have to care about those who may be antagonistic towards them, their ways, their views, their approach or indeed any big or small aspect of anything they do. The same to an extent is true of a minor political party.The Green Party for example do not currently make any real attempt to woo Conservative minded voters. They try and grow from the left yes, but targeting people who they suspect will have at least some sympathy with their message.

So that leaves those who are competing for power. Given in so many aspects of life devoting your energy to those who are like-minded or back what you do anyway is so natural, the role of competing for power is an alien one. To win you have to target some people who do not instinctively support you, some may not even normally like you and get them to put their cross next to your party on the ballot paper, This it should be said is not just a quirk of the electoral system, it is true around the world under a range of electoral systems.The individual at the top also has to convince the activists of the party he or she leads, usually including many who hate the other side with a passion and will think targeting people who do not agree with you as a betrayal of what you are there to stand for.

This is particularly tough for someone leading the party out of power. At least in Government you can do things that make your grassroots feel it is worth it. In opposition their are policies, theories, talk about how to win again, but no ability to do anything and often a feeling that if you are going to do some things that are not in keeping with the purity of your values, what is the point of it at all?

The gap between activists and key voters who wins determine elections partly explain the appeal not just of Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump right now, but of Michael Foot, of William Hague, of Iain Duncan Smith, of John Kerry, of Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale and many more. Those offering more purity appeal to the part of opposition and it is the grassroots who choose who gets the shot at competing for power. Note though everyone of those who got the chance to lead and compete for power I have just mentioned failed to win in the end (In Duncan-Smith’s case did not even get to the election.)

Those who were successful like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W Bush and Angela Merkle to name a few, all found an approach to reach out to a wider electorate.. Whether for example it is Clause 4, New Labour, Compassionate Conservatism, Bill Clinton backing a balanced budget or David Cameron backing gay marriage, all those successful challenged the party activists and put positions that made them feel uncomfortable,  Why? Because they understood that to win, they needed the support of people who did not instinctively agree with them and give them a reason to vote in their favour. Those above who failed went for purity, preach to the converted, keep your own people happy first, something that is absolutely fine in most areas of life, how you and I behave on social media, but doomed to failure if you are a politician competing for power. It’s an unusual role competing for power, requiring the ability to do the exact opposite of the natural thing to do, engage those who don’t agree with you and many of your own side privately cannot stand, try and change their minds in getting them to support you and appealing wider than your home base, while at the same time balancing keeping your home base on side. I have some admiration for all of those who succeed, even if I totally oppose their politics, because it takes a special set of skills to pull it off.


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