Optimistic and generous: what political parties aren’t, and why they should be

In March, Marketing Week ran an article based on an ‘exclusive look’ at research done by COG for Isobel, about the secrets of being a happy brand. Cadbury, Andrex, Google, Fairy and Nivea came top. Liberal Democrats, RBS, Conservatives, Ryanair and Labour came bottom.

Unfortunately, COG has not published the actual research behind it, though you can view the full 100 list on Isobel’s website. However, Marketing Week did explain a little of the methodology: consumers were asked to rate each brand on five core characteristics, being playful, happy, trustworthy, generous, and optimistic. Winning brands scored highly on all five. Political parties fell down on two: generosity and optimism, something they have in common with banks and newspapers.

We don’t need this poll to tell us that political parties are unpopular. Actually, the information it gives us is quite the opposite. You can’t look down the list of brands for very long without coming to the conclusion that, by whatever alchemy they reached it, this is a pretty good list in terms of our intuitive associations of which brands are happier. In other words, the accuracy of the list goes a long way to justifying the methodology, rather than the other way around.

Let’s talk politics for a moment.

It’s always disappointing to be at the bottom, though, as a Liberal Democrat, I know we’re not the flavour of the month. What is more worrying is that only RBS and Ryanair separate us, respectively, from the Conservatives and Labour. On a list of 100, with only three political parties considered, this is as near as makes no difference, and it shows that politics, rather than simply the Lib Dems, has a problem.

Is it that we are insufficiently playful? Surely pictures of David Cameron eating a bacon sandwich prove that politicians do at least try to be a little playful. Boris Johnson and before him Ken Livingstone were always being playful.

Is it that we are insufficiently happy? Given the number of times voters are exposed to pictures of smiling politicians, that probably isn’t the core of the problem.

We do have a problem with trustworthiness — as discussed in my previous article. There is no way around that other than to become more trustworthy by getting better at being as good as our word, and less prone to shifty behaviours. However, on trustworthiness, we are not at the bottom. The Daily Star and the Sun beat us to that.

Our two problems which are not often noticed are generosity and optimism. When was the last time you read an optimistic leaflet put out by a politician? (If you’ve never actually bothered to read a leaflet, when was the last time you heard a politician being optimistic in an interview?) As The British (with capitals), we are always rather pessimistic about optimism. Listen to the cricket commentary for half an hour and you will hear talk of ‘jinxing’, and the strange effects on play commentators have when they say that a batsman is doing well. Speaking well of the future is something that troubles us, and politicians, particularly, are deeply nervous of saying that things are going to be good, in case they aren’t.

When was the last time you heard a politician say something generous about an opponent? Candidates are urged not to mention their opponents by name in their literature, as this is more or less free advertising for the other party, but, when they do, it is almost always negative. This is despite repeated studies showing that negative campaigning rebounds on the campaigner. Science has quite literally demonstrated that when you point the finger, three fingers point back at you.

I know what it’s like, because I’ve been there myself. Praising an opponent gets you dark looks from your colleagues, and any praise will be quickly seized on by the other side. But is this a bad thing? If I am quoted praising another candidate, I am still being quoted, and am getting the benefit of the free advertising, and in a positive, not negative light.

Electorally, it may seem worth a few votes to challenge the negatives and point out the flaws in the opposition. In the long term, though, this is part of the same corrosive effect I looked at in the last article.

As I said before, I don’t believe UKIP will be the evil enemy who storms in to wrest democracy from our hands. I don’t agree with them on most things (quite possibly on anything), but I’ve always found the UKIP candidates to be affable chaps — they’ve always been chaps, in my experience — who believe they are doing the world a favour by standing.

There are others out there, though, who have already begun to master the art of appearing to be optimistic and generous. I’m thinking, of course, of the people who put pictures of nurses, ex-servicemen, pensioners and so on on Facebook with supporting text like ‘Mr [name] fought for our country. 99% of people won’t share this. Will you?’

I have seen these kind of posts on a very large number of people’s Facebook statuses. They gained more ‘likes’ last month than any of our three political parties, with 350,000 clicks on the ‘Like’ button. Hope not Hate estimates that two million people a day interact with their material. A short check on Wikipedia will show what these groups are really about, but most people do not check, and, if challenged, say that they may not agree with everything the group puts forward, but they do support nurses, ex-servicemen, the RAF, and so on. Occasinally ex-servicemen’s groups have contacted the creators of the images to ask that they not be used in those campaigns.

This probably comes across as a little ungenerous. It’s not meant to be. People share these images because they appear to be a generous, optimistic response to the pessimism and name-calling of politicians.

Various people have tried to get this particular group banned, and there is an amusing, satirical Facebook page which parodies them.

However, the real answer is this: those of us in mainstream political parties need to make a conscious, possibly even collective, decision to become both generous and optimistic. Without wishing to fall foul of Godwin’s law, history shows that, in the absence of mainstream politics fulfilling these requirements, people are ultimately willing to vote for those who merely seem to fulfill them.

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