Browse Category: Political narratives

American Politics

white houseI am writing this post from Washington. Home of American Politics. Named after George Washington. President of the United States Number One. #1POTUS. This place reeks of politics – and that was just the drive here. Up until a few
months ago, when I was doing a speaking gig in Aix-en-Provence and I met someone who lived there, Watergate meant to me Nixon and impeachment. Period. But it is actually a posh apartment building where Condoleeza Rice lives. We drove past that. We drove past the Kennedy Centre. Today I am visiting the Abraham Lincoln and the FDR memorial and tomorrow I  am on a private tour of the White House. On Friday, I am Best Man to Matthew Elliott on George Washington’s Estate in Mount Vernon. I am a political geek – West Wing, House of Cards US, House of Cards UK, Newsroom and Yes Minister are all on my “favourite” lists. For me this is like a film fan going to Hollywood – except the sets are real and the people really exist. Except for Freddy’s BBQ rib “joint” which doesn’t! #SadFace

The places are iconic but the people are what matter. We don’t love House of Cards because of the scenery or the film-making although that is wonderful. We watch because of Frank Underwood. We don’t watch the West Wing because of Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue. We watch because of Josh and Donna and Toby.

We also watch them both because we suspect the reality is often far too similar to aspects of House of Cards and because we wish our elected representatives were grown-ups like Leo and Jed Bartlett advised by people like Fitz and Babish. Because as private citizens we wish the former one wasn’t real and the latter was. But as politicos we also love them because in our own little political lives we wish we were like the roles we see on screen.

I am meeting some wonderful people including a friend, John Shosky, who wrote speeches for 3 White House administrations. I am staying with Denise Graveline who worked in the Clinton administration. I have insider tour guides to Washington who give texture and anecdotes and colour to this wonderful set. I am a lucky guy.

Others. like Dan Hamilton, have taught me what little, and how little, I know about US politics including the false comparisons between “Conservatives” in the UK and in the US. And between Democrats and UK Labour. Last night Denise and I discussed, between drinks of course, the differences between Liberal Conservatives (UK) and Libertarians (US).

To be honest, I don’t know much about US politics. At all. I love the fact that I am here. I am lapping it all up. There will be annoying amounts of photos on my Facebook page very soon. Sign up here if you want to see them.


Image courtesy of Damian Brandon /

Real Authenticity is Raw, Potent and Compelling

Real authenticity is what all politicians yearn and strive for. It is what spin doctors go on about their clients needing and what commentators complain about politicians lacking. Being human is risky and dangerous. Because people judge you on the real, candid unspun you. Being yourself and being totally open makes you vulnerable to attack from opponents as well as from competitors within the ranks of your own party. Being human is sadly seen as being weak and our natural survival instinct is to feign impregnability.

Every now and then a politician is brave enough to be really authentic and to speak from the heart. The power of real, authentic humanity is so many leagues above stunts from actors like Tony Blair wearing jumpers and drinking from mugs of tea.

The public mood is so tilted against career politicians that many PR agencies are hired by politicians to create this silver bullet of authenticity. But plastic, manufactured authenticity can be smelt a mile off. There is no replacement for the real thing. When I work with clients we focus on unwrapping the real person – not creating a plastic mask.

In this YouTube clip Joe Biden talks about a tragedy in his life, himself and how he reacted. He exposes his own human weaknesses and vulnerabilities and as a result it is one of the most compelling speeches I have seen from a politician in a while. It is brave, frank and needs no big words or grand gestures or dramatic spinning or otherwise from his team.

Of course, no-one wants to have to pay the price Joe Biden did to ‘gain’ this authentic pain and anguish and vulnerability. But all politicians could learn from his bravery and his candour. I respect him enormously for what he said.

In the UK Parliament there was a debate on mental illness recently and MPs from around the House (including my No2AV friend, co-conspirator, red wine drinker and Labour MP, Kevan Jones from Durham) ‘fessed up to their own demons, mental health issues and humanity. They were universally applauded and I doubt they will suffer electorally from being so open. I have seldom been as proud of our British MPs – talking and listening to each other maturely on a serious subject that affects so many people.

Reshuffles are like political porn for Westminster geeks

So, after 4 years largely without change, the reshuffle finally happened. Reshuffles are like political porn for Westminster geeks – everything stops because no-one knows what tomorrow looks like. It is also bit like an awards ceremony for politicos like me. Who wins and who loses? Who is up and who is down? Are the people you know promoted, demoted or – worst cut of all –  ignored or overlooked? Should you take it personally, tweet about it, vent on Facebook?

ID-100236393 (1)Then the endless navel-gazing analysis comes – has George Osborne won or David Cameron? Is that even the correct premise for a question? Was it a win for women, or for traditionalists, or for Right or Left, or for Modernisers or Traditionalists or just a lurch to the right – with Labour not sure what to call it and then deciding on ‘massacre of the moderates’ amongst other things… And so the column inches of commentators will go on and on…

For so many staff and MP it is about their futures, their jobs and their CVs – especially for the Minister-dependent SPADS who lose their whole jobs and salary while their MP bosses only lose salary and their Ministerial title. (Good luck to all those SPADS who lost their jobs today!)

Behind all the intoxicating excitement of this political porn for Westminster geeks, is the reality that, thankfully for the UK and The Conservative Party, David Cameron was spoilt for choice. He had a large number of high calibre Conservative MPs to choose from and few positions to place them in because of the Coalition. Of course, there were some surprise appointments, but they were not compulsory because of the choice available – DC must have had a thought process behind each appointment rather than a resigned – “Well, who else is there?” moment. Or one would hope so at least!

I know many of those who have won, lost or been overlooked today. Whether they are friends or clients, winners or losers – their lives have changed today – soared or dived. Salaries have gone up or down. Jobs and responsibilities have changed dramatically. For reasons of client discretion and party loyalty I won’t go into the individual promotions that I jumped up and down about, the changes I dropped my jaw or shook my head at or the quality people that were disappointingly overlooked. But I am delighted that David Cameron had so many good people with good intentions to choose from – and that I had a small role in helping some of those people get selected and then elected. Most, if not all, came into parliament with good intentions, most will work exceptionally hard and some will actually achieve success for themselves and change for our country. Individually and collectively they are far, far ahead of most of their counterparts in the Labour Party.

Here is the full list from the official UK Government website.

which words to use

Merton Conservatives Campaign Video

A great campaign video from Merton Conservatives outlining their manifesto pledges and entitled: “Unlocking Merton’s Potential 2014”

It is fun, snappy, tangible and specific. It speaks about real issues and uses short words – like normal people do. I like it.

You can visit their website here.

late candidate selections

Candidate selections 290 seats not yet selected.

It looks like the next 8-9 months won’t be much fun for anyone working in CCHQ candidates department. As far as I can make out, as of today’s date, 290 constituencies still do not have a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

I understand from a number of sources that no CSI seats will be selected until after the May elections. This is probably also true for most non-CSI seats although the advert for Erewash has already gone out with the deadline for applications being midday 25th March.

To make any sort of dent candidates surely need 6 months in post. So if the aim is to have all seats worked by a candidate for 6 months and selections are postponed until after the May elections, there will have to be a minimum of 40-50 candidate selections a month from May.

There was once an accepted wisdom that active and focused candidates could negate most of any incumbency advantage – IF selected 2 years before an election. If that remains true we have missed a trick here.

I fully understand the financial and family pressures of a candidate fighting a seat for 24 months before an election and the argument will be that the 40/40 seats selected candidates early for that very reason. (How effective the 40/40 silver bullet will be is another story).

But have a look at some of the seats that have not been selected yet – they may not be “easy wins” or even “maybe wins” in 2015 – but many are surely seats that should be worked with a view to a decent result in 2020 – or is that too far away?

Parliamentary Seats With Conservative PPCs as of 18/03/2014 by Peter Botting

What makes a Political Legacy

I drove to a friend’s funeral in the Midlands yesterday. I have been to a lot of funerals in my life – this was my first to a Labour politician’s funeral. On the way I got a premonition of the size of Lord Bilston’s funeral when I saw the street signs on the dual carriageway to Bilston. The town where he was born, the constituency he represented and the name he carried in the House of Lords. Bilston.

LordBilstonDennis Turner aka Lord Bilston was a Labour Party trade unionist, councillor, MP and Peer who I met and worked with on the NO2AV referendum campaign. The word plotting is overused but he, Lord Bruce Grocott and George Howarth MP and I plotted, schemed and worked together for a solid month – the result being the extraordinary alliance between the Conservative and Labour Parties to defeat the Lib Dems and their proposed Alternative Vote. Without the input of these three men we would never have got Labour’s big beasts (John Prescott, John Reid, Margaret Becket, David Blunkett and Charlie Falconer) on board.

But,  intense and busy as it was, working with these tribal political opponents was great fun. Bruce told me yesterday that he had enjoyed that campaign more than any other and Dennis certainly took great delight in reminiscing about the campaign whenever we saw each other in Strangers Bar. Bruce, George and I were together again yesterday to bury a friend.

The church was packed and the service was long. 1 hour and 20 minutes long. There was standing room only at the back and people waiting patiently outside for the whole 80 minutes. Luckily the sun shone. These were not political people – not duty attendees. We estimated that there were 750-800 people there. It was, inevitably for a man with over 40 years of public service, a political funeral – with some political speeches, a number of Peers, former Cabinet Ministers and Labour MPs attending and therefore missing PMQs. The coffin bearers wore red ties. But – all the speeches were real and personal and I bet they were all written by the people giving them. They were raw – as funeral speeches should be. One of the best stories was how teenage chorister Dennis had led a strike of the choir – timed on a Saturday just before 3 weddings were due to take place.

Two of the speakers mentioned the fact that walking through Bilston with Dennis took ages. Both explained that he literally knew everyone, their names, their kids names and even their dogs names – a plus for a dog lover like me.  But the line that really got me yesterday was “Dennis was one of us”.

Much is made in both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party of candidates being “parachuted” into seats and how this doesn’t go down well with the voters. Research has shown that an ACTIVE candidate can negate an incumbent’s advantage if selected over 2 years before an election and I have candidates like that right now. Much is also made of how Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney 81-19 on the question “Does he understand/get people like me?” But what a great line that “Dennis was one of us” is. What an epitaph. What a summary.

Politics is important business and we need good and competent people in politics. They can’t all come from within their own communities. Or could they? Maybe if they did we would have more politicians getting over 700 local people, non-duty attendees, coming to their funeral. Funeral attendance is clearly not the only test of a political legacy or a sign of whether a politician made an impact on people, in legislation etc – but it is a human one. And politics is at its best when it’s about people.

Picture from

As this article makes clear – I wasn’t the only Conservative there.

party conference speech

Candidate CVs, Getting Selected, Drinking with a Conservative Party Agent

After a frantic morning packing, sneaking Buster off to his annual conference long sleep over with friends and then escaping before he noticed I was gone, the drive to Manchester #cpc13 started later than planned. Car parked and apartment not ready, I rushed in my scruffy gear to the ConHome event on “How To Win The Next Election’ chaired by Paul Goodman and addressed by Tim Montgomerie and Lord Ashcroft. Is there any other event or goal more important for a Conservative activist?

party conference speechThere I met Andrew Kennedy, famed agent for Tonbridge and Malling, who was also skulking at the back of the hall and who suggested “a drink”. A drink with an Agent – what could possibly go wrong? N.B. It was Andrew’s idea – not mine!

Andrew is funny, caustic, fiercely independent and stubbornly principled about transparency in local democracy and has been working for the party twice as long as I have. We swapped un-repeateable war-stories in the large, comfortable chairs of the Midland Hotel that held us tight while the G & T’s flowed. And flowed. And flowed.

Andrew is the agent in charge of the Tonbridge and Malling selection process and, respecting each other’s rules of anonymity and discretion, we discussed candidate behaviour, candidate CVs, the use (or not) of quotes in CVs, courting of associations, ways to do things and some rank examples of how NOT to do things.

Candidate CVs

Andrew wrote yesterday about his feelings on the use of quotes in candidate CVs – which I largely agree with and which I consider required reading for any candidate. Parliamentary candidates started using quotes in 2005 and it became common in 2010. Andrew told me that roughly 30% of  the CV’s he received for Tonbridge and Malling had quotes and the problem is the quotes are too often bland and meaningless. He says too many are clones, thoughtless and don’t perform the “make the CV stand out” function they were originally designed to do.

My clients, many of whom applied to Andrew’s constituency, often ask me about whether to use quotes or not in the candidate CVs. My advice is always that less is more and that any quotes used should be tangible, patently bespoke to the candidate, specific in its detail and credibly reinforce what the candidate is trying to evidence/claim.

Andrew hilariously told the story of a copy-all email he had sent to a number of activists that was quoted back in a candidate’s CV using Andrew’s quote as a quote to tempt the Tonbridge and Malling selectorate and, er, Andrew. Seriously? How dumb can you be?

Here is how he described it:

My thank you letter included the following line, 

“Sarah’s majority of 750 was down in no small part to a army of willing volunteers, who put personal interests aside to campaign where it really mattered most. I am grateful for your hard work and support, and for helping deliver an outstanding victory in a seat Labour really needed to win.”

This generic, if accurate, statement has re-appeared on one applicants CV as follows:

“Sarah’s victory was down in no small part to you.
Thank you for putting your personal interests aside to help us defeat Labour.”
I am happy to acknowledge that the above selective quote has not materially changed what I originally wrote. However, I don’t think anyone who read the original email could be in any doubt that it has been taken out of context. Such a willingness to “adapt the actuality” would lead me to question the validity of many other such quotes too. Would an MP, turning to an activists after a tough by-election and saying, “well done, you have worked harder than anyone for this result” subsequently turn up on a CV as “You are the hardest working activist”. I suspect in many cases, this is exactly what happens!

A day later, I am still shaking my head.

How NOT to act when a candidate

Andrew had some startling stories about how a few candidates had over-cooked the “courting” of association members and officers – some to the extent that they may have self-spiked their chances of even getting invited to interview. My advice to all candidates is to first call the Agent or the Association Chairman. They are The People in this process. Respect them for their titles, but above all,  treat them like people.

It is totally OK and acceptable to ask the Association Chair or the Agent about the process and to ask if there is a policy on contacting officers and members and asking for a meeting with the Chairman and Agent. If they say no and you are unsure what they mean – look up the word in a dictionary. If you don’t “get” hints maybe your empathy levels are not good enough to be an MP.

Candidates should be aware that if the Agent or Chair gave every candidate half an hour – it would become a full time job and they couldn’t do the hundred other things they are paid to do. Andrew published an info sheet to help candidates – but incredibly had some candidates pitching up at his office unannounced to “have a meeting” with him. Is it really necessary to remind people that courtesy, manners and politeness and not being pushy or presumptuous should be your default positions?


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