I am very flattered that you have invited me, as that suggests you think I understand what on earth is going on in the world, when in truth I find it all very hard to fathom.
I may have helped Tony Blair win three elections, but I helped two losing Labour leaders since. I helped Remain over Leave, Hillary over Trump. I did, more happily, help Macron a little. But, prior to that I was helping Francois Hollande until he hit four percent in the polls – which is roughly the same proportion of people as genuinely believe that Elvis Presley is alive.
But I do enjoy the fact that, having had more bad press than virtually anyone in UK politics for much of the time I was there, I now get asked to go around the world and talk about how to manage reputation. Never confuse good press with good reputation. And make the most of bad press if it comes your way – how else would I ever have been asked to achieve a lifetime ambition and play football in front of 72,000 people in a team that included Schmeichel, Mattheus, Zola, Dunga, Ginola, Desailly and (wait for it) Diego Maradona!
So what to make of the world today?
Well, wind back a few years ago – what odds could you get on Trump being President in one country, tearing up the rules of politics, government and diplomacy, Macron in another? In my country Cameron has been and gone, May is PM, Putin is regularly called the most powerful man in the world, and Britain is heading out of the EU despite my and others’ continuing best efforts.
Had you asked me to come here a while back I would have come with my book “Winners and How They Succeed”, with stories from winners in sport, business and politics. I would have shared the stories of some of the greats in these fields and applied their lessons to modern politics and modern communications.
Then along comes Brexit, and along comes Trump, and along comes Jeremy Corbyn – an aged left-wing leader now unassailable in Labour (my party, which I thought I understood), and you wonder if you know anything about winning at all. Something very strange is going on.
I’ve been lucky enough to be on the winning side of arguments a lot of my life in politics. Today, whether on Brexit, Labour vs. Tory, the spread of populism – it doesn’t feel like that any more.
I am very tribal, and apart from my football tribe, Burnley, who have just qualified for the Europa League, my tribes are not doing so well.
Progressives against populists? Losing.
Moderates against the hard left in Labour? Losing.
Labour vs. Tory – depends how you measure it, but with one of the most incompetent governments I have ever known, I can’t get my head around anyone in the Labour Party being content or confident when looking at the state of public opinion.
Battle of ideas – all I can say is the last UK election felt like a battle between two competing visions of the past. The 70s vs. the 50s. There seems so little happening in our political and intellectual debates to match the sheer scale of challenge facing us, both home and abroad.
Brexit? Leave won, Remain lost, and even though the negotiations are going badly and we now know we will be poorer, the country weaker, the Brexit that was promised not delivered – it seems we are carrying on regardless. A country is choosing decline.
European integration vs. European disintegration? Doesn’t feel great from a UK perspective.
Fact and reason in the big arguments like climate change, or the impact of technological change? They are losing to emotion and populism.
I thought I was on the right side of the argument when I welcomed the social media revolution, thinking it would give everyone a voice and allow the challenging of the old media oligarchs. Now I wonder whether the authoritarians and populists have used it better than the progressives. Whether elections have been won and lost not in domestic debate, but via foreign interference, fake news, and industrial scale lying. I wonder if Mark Zuckerberg is less a self-styled force for the good of world connectivity, than just a particularly geeky new media oligarch out to gather as much money and power, and avoid as much responsibility as he can.
It’s quite something to have been the one constantly associated with so-called ‘spin’.
For as a ‘spinner’, I must confess to amateur status compared with Trump’s tweets, Putin’s propaganda machinery, and Boris Johnson’s big red bus.
It’s often said the crisis in modern politics is one of trust. But look at the dictionary definition of trust: ‘a firm belief in the reliability, truth or ability of someone or something’.
Take the promise on the Brexit red bus of ‘£350m per week more for the NHS’. It was a straightforward lie. Normally when people in politics get called out on a lie they stop. But the more people exposed the NHS lie in the campaign, the more the media showed the Big Black Lie on the big red bus. And sadly, it worked for them.
The liars won. The chief liar, instead of being disgraced, was promoted to Foreign Secretary. In the US, the Liar-in-Chief is now Commander-in-Chief. Where do you start? Trump did or said so many things that would have frankly destroyed candidates in a previous era. His playbook is more Putin than Reagan. And what does it say about how the world has changed that so many Americans seem unconcerned that Russia brazenly interfered in their election? It says politics is more polarized than ever. So many people only care about damaging the other side, wherever the damage is coming from, and as if to match this mood they have elected the most polarizing president in history.
There is a book about Russia “Nothing is true, anything is possible” by Peter Pomerantsev. That is how Putin cemented power. From his background in the KGB, which regimented thought and opinion, he inherited chaos. He then understood the changes to the media landscape and exploited them better. It’s easier in a phoney democracy where you control Parliament and media, and can get them to believe that the UK staged a chemical weapons attack in Syria, or in Salisbury. But Trump plays the same game.
Post truth: in Trumpland reporters who criticize aren’t reporters, they are liars.
Government officials who speak truth to power are traitorous slimeballs. Believe nothing but the Trump tweets, even if they say the opposite of what he said before, or are defied by what you see with your own eyes. Day One: visit the CIA and stand before the wall commemorating agents killed in service, and make the issue the claim that the media were lying in saying there were fewer people at his inauguration than Obama’s (which there were).
It all becomes normalized.
Trump, who would never get the Republican nomination – got it. Who would never make the White House, but made it. Who would never lie as brazenly in office as he did in the campaign and who, if he did, would surely get hounded out pretty quickly. Well, he is still there day after day after normalizing day. He is able to make huge changes, such as he did this week on the Iran deal. At the stroke of a pen, emotion and gut feeling are winning out again against reason and sense. And don’t rule him out winning again.
‘Normalised’. I saw it in a headline a few weeks ago. A horrible, chilling story – the European Jewish Congress warning about the normalisation of anti-Semitism in Poland. Fascist slogans, open, avowed anti-Semitism on social media, nationalist flags of anti-Jewish groups on display at state events. This a country with just 10,000 people belonging to Jewish organisations in a country of 38 million. It was once home to Europe’s largest Jewish population of three million people, or 10 percent of the population, but of whom only 300,000 survived WW2 after the Nazi occupation and the setting up of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
When that becomes normal something is going very very wrong in the world. Normalise the abnormal and before you know it, the unacceptable becomes acceptable. Tie that to the pace of change and we have a lot of problems at a time we need them least.
‘Love trumps hate’ goes the slogan, but does it? The experience of the last two years on both sides of the Atlantic is less hope-filled, more bleak. The haters won.
It tells us that feeling trumps reason. Lies trump logic. Simple messages trump complex realities.
Anger and Fear are the big drivers.
Anger at globalization which helps some much more than others. Fear that the trends keep going in the same direction – the rich get richer, change gets faster, the robots take over. So shut the borders, build walls, throw people out. Above all, find enemies – blame them, scapegoat them.
This is wide open as an electoral model. ‘You are angry. I will make you more angry by telling you that your anger and resentment are justified, and nobody but me is listening. The things that make you angry are easily solved, but only I can solve them, because the others do not care. They are the elites, the ‘experts’. You and I are the real people.’ And it’s Trump – the billionaire inherited wealth businessman, Boris Johnson – the Old Etonian, Le Pen – the daughter of a dynasty, who pump this out. It would be incredible if it wasn’t happening.
Key to all this anger is the global crash. The feeling that the people who caused the crash got away with it. The people who didn’t had to pay a price in their jobs, stagnating wages, falling living standards, cuts in public services, rising costs of university, and the inability to buy a home. The first generation of parents ever to fear that they are unlikely to be able to give their kids a better life.
The bad news is that this has all changed so quickly. That, however, is the good news too. Not that things can change back to something that went before – that is not how the world works. No, the good news is that change to something different can come quickly, provided we work for it.
Of course, it may be that the change just accelerates in the wrong direction. It may be – let me get a bit apocalyptic, having recently read a remarkable book on the Holocaust by Laurence Rees – that we are entering a genuinely dark period in history, and step by step lurching into an era of cataclysm and decline. To be sure, there are too many parallels with the ’30s for us to be complacent. The aftermath of a global financial crash. The rejection of elites and expert opinion in favour of feeling and prejudice. The increase in nationalism and nativism. The rise of anti-Semitism, the casting around for blame – be that of immigrants, asylum seekers, or minorities who look and feel different. The rise of the strong man leader – Xi, Erdogan, Orban, Duterte; Putin the poster boy, winning plaudits and collecting useful idiots from left and right. People in the advanced democracies are beginning to question democracy itself as slow and faltering, tired, indecisive.
And now, in my country, the truly extraordinary situation on Brexit: that most MPs are seemingly planning to facilitate the biggest decision of our lifetime. All while saying to themselves they know this is going to be a disaster; our government pursuing a policy it admits will make the country worse off; Labour, with its most left wing leader ever, failing, refusing properly to oppose a policy which is being driven by the hard right, and which will do the greatest damage to the poorest and weakest.
And for all who think as I do, we have to fight. Not give in to this fatalism, because no, I do not trust our government to get ‘a good deal’. And I do not yet trust our Parliament to do the right thing for the country. That is why I back the “People’s Vote” campaign to give the people a say on the final Brexit deal. Young people support it overwhelmingly. Name me a country in history, democracy or dictatorship, that built success governing against the interests of young people.
So what is going on?
Why do we say we want the truth and then we elect and reward proven liars like Trump and Johnson? Why do we seem not to object too much when they carry on lying? What has happened to our culture that the Oxford English Dictionary chose ‘post truth’ as its new word of the year?
Merkel and Obama had something interesting to say about this. Obama pointed out that, if you are looking at your smartphone and scrolling through one of your social networks, a statement signed by every Nobel prize scientist warning of the dangers of climate change looks the same as a tweet from a third party funded by a climate change denial campaign. More than that, who is it that people believe if we don’t believe politicians like we used to? We don’t believe journalists, business people, academics, experts. We believe – and this is the genius of Facebook as a communications model – we believe our friends. And our friends tend to be like-minded anyway.
This is where Merkel picks up the story, warning that the world of algorithms and big data is driving us all into our own ever decreasing circles of opinion-forming.
So what do the IMF, the OECD and the Bank of England have in common? They all warned against Brexit. What they also have in common is that fairly sizeable sections of the population choose not to believe anything they said on the subject.
Yet those same disbelievers lapped up scare stories warning that tens of millions of Turks were heading our way when they’re not. That our Army is disappearing when it’s not, or that we will one day be having Arabic subtitles on our TV. And why do they believe such things – because they happen to fit an opinion on which they have already decided. Believe what you believe – and shout! Disbelieve anything that challenges it, and shout even louder! This is the new campaign landscape in the era of the social media echo chamber.
In this era of disbelieve, a rich elitist such as Trump can seemingly become the voice of the downtrodden and the anti-elitist in America by having as the topline on his CV for President ‘I’ve never been a politician’.
The mantra of the “Winners” book is OST.
I am aware this means cheese in many Northern European languages, but to me it means O for objective, S for strategy, and T for tactics. Set the Objective, then get clarity of strategy – only then go tactical. If you confuse strategy and tactics you are likely to fail in the long term, no matter how much you might win in the short term.
David Cameron had an objective for the 2015 election – win. The offer of a referendum was a tactic designed to appease his right wing and halt the rise of UKIP. Fair enough, he won the election, but there had never been a strategy to win the argument on Europe. He could not turn around decades of scepticism in a few weeks. Good tactic, dreadful strategy. Won the match, lost the title.
There are also clashing strategies. If I think back to our time in government when the European enlargement process saw new countries come in from the east, what were the strategies we felt we were pursuing? Enlargement itself – for good political, geostrategic reasons after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
On the economy business was telling us they needed a far broader range of skills. The public services that would be enjoying the extra investment we promised needed more immigration to staff schools, hospitals, the burgeoning social care system, cafes, restaurants and hotels in a booming Cool Britannia tourism market, and banks and financial services in a booming City of London. So on track with those strategies. Also, alas, on track with the strategies of opponents who wanted to make immigration the defining issue, and come the referendum had done so – unintended consequences.
We cannot overstate the significance of the changes in the mainstream media landscape either. When I started out as a journalist almost 40 years ago – what was the media? A paper, the news once a day. Now omnipresent, hugely competitive, big organisations are players as well as spectators. Fox, the right wing tabloids in the UK, the new tech giants.
It’s not good politics wanting the media to adapt to the needs of politics. Not going to happen, but the political conversation with people has to change, or else these trends continue. Dictatorship is operating at an advantage to democracy. Trump is jealous of Putin because of how much more you can do when you have control of Parliament and media.
Putin’s OST are totally aligned. O – reassertion of Russian power. S – reassertion of Russian power. T – anything which reasserts Russian power, from riding a horse bare-chested to invading a country, or interfering in a foreign election, or using chemical weapons and saying you didn’t.
Leadership and leaders are of course fundamental.
Macron in France out of nowhere – insider as outsider. Ultimately people are feeling that there is something OK here.
Justin Trudeau in Canada – you can’t get much more elite than the son of a PM. Dynasty time, but he also led a life. He had a backstory not just in politics: teacher, studied engineering while teaching maths. Handsome, yes – smart, and that helps. But it is not enough. You need strategy, teamwork, and innovation.
We have to reclaim politics as a good thing to want to do, have to change our mindset about it. The fight is now less left vs. right, but democracy vs. dictatorship, open vs. closed, internationalist vs. nationalist. But it also has to be hope against fear, always. Fear and anger are easy. Hope is harder, especially right now, but you have to work with it, always.
Understand that while the pressures are all to be tactical, the need for strategy is greater than ever.
“We have gone from a vertical society to a horizontal society where everybody has an opinion about every decision you make, everybody has an opinion on the Internet straight away. Basically the respect for people who make decisions is gone because every decision is questioned. So one of the most important qualities of a good leader now is massive resistance to stress. Under stress you become smaller and smaller until you cannot give out a message any more and that, of course, is something that is vital. Many people underestimate this challenge.”
This was said by none other than Arsene Wenger, a football manager. Wise words: you can only control what you do and what you say about it. Focus on that – the rest is noise. Manage the noise, but focus on strategy.
Same in crisis management. For Clinton with Lewinsky – what was his OST? O was survival – S focus on being president, and T make sure that the people know, that is what he is doing.
I want to close with my five vowels: A E I O U
Adaptation – we cannot stand above or aside from the pace of change, we have to adapt to it.
Education – we must be much more aggressive and proactive about the need for people to appreciate why we need politics, why we need strategy and communications in these crazy times, and why we need good people to do it.
Inspiration – the successful leaders and organisations are those who can inspire, motivate people to get involved, and turn support into activism.
Organisation – you have to organize.
Understanding – no point seeing the world as you want it to be, you have to see it as it is.
I still worry, for example, that the EU sees Brexit as a British thing only. The EU also needs to adapt, educate, inspire, organize and understand that we are in a very strange era indeed. Perhaps it is a sign of how strange the times are that I find myself mulling the words of Ronald Reagan, and his warning that we are never more than one generation away from the loss of freedom. So let’s fight for it!