"Political language […] is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." - George Orwell
Sitting in an RSL 70 years after it was written, the average Aussie punter wouldn’t find much to disagree with Orwell. I wonder what odds you would have secured following the Coalition’s thumping Federal election victory in September 2013 on two Liberal-National state governments being thrown out after only a single term and the Prime Minister himself being subjected to a leadership spill in the space of less than 18 months? As NSW Premier Mike Baird nervously eyes the latest polls, he would be hard-pressed not to conclude that Australian voter volatility appears to be at an all-time high.
Australia’s over-paid polling and commentariat class struggles to come to terms with the new normal – either deriding the Prime Minister’s personal performance or in one incredible case, blaming the electorate itself for not ‘toughening up’. The reality is, the territory the game is played on has changed, perhaps for good – and one or two need to update their methodologies (…or get a lot quicker at cutting and pasting from others). John Howard remarked to me that a generation ago, pollsters and political strategists the world over could count on 40 per cent of ‘rusted-on’ support from reliable political ‘bases’. You know the type, ‘I’d vote for a donkey, so long as it was wearing a red rosette’. Today, that figure is probably closer to 20 per cent and declines by the day. A kaleidoscope of parties is emerging, in some cases defined by devotion to a single issue (e.g. the Greens).
Wherever you look around the world these days, new populist movements abound – smashing up the comfortable certainties of the élites who have prospered for so long with their lexicons of ‘sensible policies’, ‘Strong Economic Plans’ and the petty narcissism of small differences. In my home country of Britain, UKIP – a party defined by its own leader as ‘… an attitude rather than a set of policies’ – actually won last year’s European Elections, while the fascist Front Nationale easily overcame President Francois Hollande’s somnolent Socialists in France. Over the Atlantic, disgust with and disdain for Washington elites was the driving factor in the Republicans’ stunning take-back of Congress in November. So what’s behind all this?
Some blame the carnage wrought by the 2008-09 Financial Crisis, but how then to explain similar phenomena in countries where economies thrived during that time, such as Sweden or the Netherlands… or Australia for that matter? Recessions and downturns are perennials, so there must be something deeper going on.
Part of the explanation is the diffusion of political power itself. The primacy of markets, globalisation and other transnational phenomena mean that the nature of the modern democratic state itself is changing… and political power structures have changed with it. Yes, Rupert Murdoch might still have his billions, but the old tyrant is only one Tweeter among millions – and you can communicate with him directly now. In a landmark piece in The Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria wrote about the strange mixture of angst and assertiveness this breeds, causing people to ask of themselves, ‘who are we… and who are we not?’
In conclusion: More than at any time since we began polling, it is the force of identity – not ideology – that is moving voters.
So what does this mean for corporate and political types Down Under? Interestingly, we found that just as Australian voters tear down the political class in our focus groups night after night, the attribute they most desire from their political leaders is that of ‘statesmanship’. So what are some of the keys to that curious quality – in their eyes?
Authenticity is accountability. Whether it is Julia Gillard knitting or Mitt Romney awkwardly munching on a KFC, voters now have myriad ways in which they can spot a fake. Conversely – whether you are a Communications Director, Chairman or CEO – when you put yourself out there and they can tell it’s really you ¬– you build a bridge to that most priceless of qualities: Trust.
Candidates are ever-more critical. Think of your company as a campaign. Yourself as a candidate for high office. When you do this, you realise how important it is to inspire those around you if you are to take them with you. It is not enough to set mediocre, managerialist goals. Think of the best speech, presentation or pitch you’ve ever attended; it is unlikely you’ll remember every word that was said – but you can remember exactly how it felt. People may well forget what you say, they will never forget how you made them feel.
Put yourself in their context, show you get it. It is why our CEO Frank Luntz advised Tony Abbott to scrap his planned summer holiday at the end of the year, and instead get back among the voters – visually and viscerally in their faces, showing that the only thing that matters in straightened times is delivering measurable results on the things that matter to them. He went on the holiday.
In a world of unprecedented punter unpredictability and personal political power, intelligent and insightful opinion research matters more than ever. Musing on the increasing awfulness of political discourse, Orwell himself wrote of the ‘drunk who feels a failure… so drinks more, thus exacerbating his failure’.
The danger is that different identity groups simply talk past each other, turning up the volume ever louder as they go. The question is - who will give us the advice to sober up?
About Luntz Global: For decades, Luntz Global’s team of creative specialists has been using the power of words to move clients forward. It’s about more than what people are saying. It’s about listening to what people are thinking and feeling, and understanding the emotion underneath language. We find the Words that Work, so that you speak the same language that your audience does. Whether it’s for politics or for profit, marketing or messaging – we craft the right message, word for word and phrase by phrase.
CEO Address, Benjamin Haslem
Expansion, Alexandra Mayhew, Ben Haslem & John Wells
Voter Volatility, Nicholas Wright
The rush to the polls, Julie Sibraa
Zoo2Zoo: Peddling for suicide prevention, Benjamin Haslem
White House 2016: A form guide, Isabelle Walker
The celebrity sell, Alexandra Mayhew
The local council website, Benjamin Haslem
New Government Ministry lists