Political Strategy

Political Strategy

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    • 00:09

      PHILIP COWLEY: My name's Philip Cowley.I'm professor of politics.And I'm here with John McTernan, who's worked for Number 10,worked in Australia for Julia Gillard,to talk about the role of being a political strategistand political communications.So let's start, John, with Number 10.Well, it's politically a very famous address.But what's it like to work inside?

    • 00:29

      JOHN MCTERNAN: I have to say it's the best I've ever had.It's the best job in the world if you care about politics.It is an amazing place to have to work in, partly because it'sa living building.And so the furniture there, with one exception, whichis Churchill's leather chair from his study, allthe furniture there, no matter how old,

    • 00:50

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: no matter how valuable, is there to be used.There's not a museum piece in there.It's a living house, a breathing house,with tracks and traces of its history in it.So there's still damaged brick work on the back on the outsidewhere the IRA mortar bomb hit it.The cabinet table, there's still a clock that Harold Wilsonthat he could always have in his sight,

    • 01:11

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: so he could tell if the meeting was going on too long.There's a story everywhere in it.And the job itself, it's demanding, of course.It's on all the time, so you're at work all the timeever when you're not there.But the scale and the reach of what you get involved in,it can be the political management of the [INAUDIBLE]

    • 01:32

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: party.It could be dealing with a bi-election campaign.It could be the politics, the selection,of candidates for the Welsh Assembly.It could be how you coordinate different versions of a UKmanifesto.It can be how does this policy really impact.It could be the hard things of stoppingsomething bad happening.It can be greasing the wheels and pulling advisers in.

    • 01:54

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: I used to get the advisors to come in every fortnight,so they could have a discussion.When there's polling to present, they could see the polling.So they got that shared with them.When there's messaging to be shared,that was shared with them.They could tell each other about what's going onin each other's departments.

    • 02:10

      PHILIP COWLEY: You did a piece for the New Statesmanlast year--

    • 02:13

      JOHN MCTERNAN: Yeah.

    • 02:14

      PHILIP COWLEY: --in which you saidthat strategy was one of the most misused words in politics.What should it mean?

    • 02:20

      JOHN MCTERNAN: Well, what it seemsto mean for most people in politics is drawing up a list.Here's a list of things that we should do,a list of things we might do, listof things we would like to do, list of thingsit'd be useful if we could do.And the drawing up of the list is taking usto task and the delivery point.

    • 02:40

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: And that's not even the beginning of a strategy.A list is barely tactics.And I think people confuse tactics and strategy.And strategy, in the end, a relentless and ruthless focus.Strategy is a ruthless focus on outcome.Where do you want to be, and then walk backwards from that.

    • 03:04

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: I want in 2015 in the general election, whatEd Miliband should've wanted was the publicto go to the polling booth and say something like, well,not this time Mr. Cameron.We gave you a chance.But not this time, Mr. Cameron.You want, in a sense, to sum up a mood, or a critique,

    • 03:26

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: or a sense in the public mind in a sentence that'svery understandable.And that's what you build yourself towards.You build yourself toward that moment.And if not this time Mr. Cameron,it could be "time for a change."You've got to find your way-- what's the outcome?What's the expression of the outcome?And then what are the steps to take towards it?

    • 03:46

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: And when you get that, it doesn'tguarantee that you don't get blown off course.Of course, if it ever gets blown off course,it means you've got a course to go back to.

    • 03:55

      PHILIP COWLEY: Is that that route to the destinationphrase, isn't it, or the road to the destination?

    • 03:59

      JOHN MCTERNAN: It's the--

    • 03:59

      PHILIP COWLEY: You look at where you want to beand how you're going to get there.

    • 04:03

      JOHN MCTERNAN: David Plouffe said in a meeting in WashingtonI was at, he said people say to me,you couldn't lose that election.You were up against the most unpopular American presidentin history.And he said, I started with a black candidatewhose middle name was Hussein.

    • 04:25

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: Those are two different ways of thinkingabout a political challenge.And Plouffe said, there's always a narrow path to victory.And you've got to find that path.And once you've got that path, you devote all your resourcesto it.And the danger in most politics, particularly with the 24/7media, is you end up managing to get from Thursday to Sunday.

    • 04:48

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: And on Sunday, you manage to get yourself to Tuesday.And on Tuesday, you get yourself to Saturday.And it always feels right.But in the end, you could be a long way from your destination.What you've always got to be doing is know does this action,does this press release, does this message, does this vote,does this leaflet contribute to the thing

    • 05:10

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: we want to be getting into the public's mind?Take the Labor Party's obsession with the privatizationof the NHS.That's never moved a single vote in Britain.And there's two reasons for it.One, it's not happening.So it's a lie.And two, people don't actually care.What people want is a competently managed health

    • 05:30

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: service that delivers what they want as patientsor what their family members want as doctors, nurses,and ancillary staff.And so you've got to fashion a critique on the NHSthat goes to the concerns the publichas and crystallizes them.The Labor Party people complaining about privatizationmake Labor Party people who are voting labor anywayfeel happy with themselves.

    • 05:51

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: It doesn't move a single vote.Their strategy is also a measure against whichyou test anything.So you go, does this actually do--there's loads of things you could do politics.Every single day, there's a lot of stuff you could do.You've got to do the things that matter.So the strategy helps you distinguish between the thingsthat matter and things that don't.

    • 06:12

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: Things you have to do, not the things you'd like to do.

    • 06:14

      PHILIP COWLEY: People outside politics,what do you think they don't understandabout the role of a political strategist or someone involvedin political communications?What is it they get wrong when they thinkabout the way you do your job?

    • 06:27

      JOHN MCTERNAN: It's a bit like the situation where peoplewatch soap operas and think that the actors make uptheir own lines.The people kind of thing policies sound planned.I think they don't understand how much effort goes into it.So a really good politician, a really good communicator--someone Jim Murphy on the Labor side,

    • 06:49

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: someone like William Hague on the Tory side--an immense amount of work goes into being a really, reallypowerful communicator.It doesn't just happen.But it looks natural.It's that kind of old Hollywood thing, isn't it?Once you can, fake sincereity--

    • 07:02

      PHILIP COWLEY: Fake authenticity, yes, yes.

    • 07:02

      JOHN MCTERNAN: --you can do anything.Behind a politician is a whole hostof people doing lots of stuff for them.It's like, again, Hollywood.There's one person in front of the camera.But there's loads of people behind the camera.And so I think people don't understandthe amount of work and the planningor the pressure of the work and the pressure of time and speedwithin which certain things, decisions, have

    • 07:23

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: to be made, the pace at which they have to be made.and the trade offs that people are constantly making.So in a sense, the essence of politics is trade offs.Because politics is about allocating resourcesacross competing demands.And you've got to prioritize and prioritize to choose.But all of those things kind of get washed outin the public mind.

    • 07:43

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: Because they never see behind the scenes.Or if they do see behind the scenes,they see Yes, Minister or Yes, Prime Minister.They see a kind of a comic and a calculating sideand not the sort of more professional, more generousside of it.

    • 08:02

      PHILIP COWLEY: Now, you first started as a specialize advisorin '97.

    • 08:04

      JOHN MCTERNAN: Yeah.

    • 08:04

      PHILIP COWLEY: You then went on to Downing Street in 2005--

    • 08:07

      JOHN MCTERNAN: Yeah.

    • 08:07

      PHILIP COWLEY: --worked in Australia, came back,and then worked in Scotland as Chief of Staff to Jim Murphy.Over that period, 20 something years,how has the job of a strategic communications advisorchanged in politics?Or are these sort of universal truths?

    • 08:24

      JOHN MCTERNAN: Well, I started off with a pager.And now, I've got an iPhone.And in that journey, you can tell something's been going on.Because it's not simply that I'vegot something smarter looking to strut around withor strapped to my suit or in my suit pocket.It's that modern communications enablea different way of working.

    • 08:45

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: They enable faster responses.But in a sense, they also then create faster demands.Because they are the backbone of 24 television, 24 hour news.I remember sitting down and talkingto somebody who had been an adviser in the LaborGovernment, the Wilson, Callaghan Labor government.

    • 09:06

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: And it was David Lipsey, now Lord Lipsey, who said,if he got his minister, Anthony Crosland,one of the great figure of post-war politics,on this day program once a month,he's be very, very pleased.He said, but of course, there were only three TV channels.And they closed at 11:30.And there wasn't breakfast television.

    • 09:28

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: And so the saturated media environment--I thought it was saturated when I came into be an advisor in opposition '94 and government '97.That's just kept on growing.The number of media platforms, the importance--we've seen blogging kind of come and go in a way.But we've seen alternative media like Huff Po or Politico

    • 09:51

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: or Buzz Feed.You've got a funny thing, which istechnology creates great demands on politicians and staffers.But it also enables you to fulfill more of those demands.So you're kind of more productive.I think you've also got the fact that the public now alsokind of smartphones with them, which means that you've gota new way of speaking directly.Speaking for myself, I felt quite lonely

    • 10:11

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: at the end of the Labor Party leadership election,because I stopped getting emails every dayfrom all the different candidates.But the phone itself and the emailon your phone and all these thingsare also reminders that politics now competes for attentionamongst so many other things.You know, people don't watch television anymore.

    • 10:31

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: They watch Netflix or Amazon Prime.They're watching streaming services.They're watching boxed sets.They're not watching tel-- there'sall kinds of things that compete for time and attention.So politics has to-- was is-- there's an estimatethat people think about politics for about nine minutesevery week.But it's not necessarily a block of nine minutes.

    • 10:52

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: And it's not very clear which part of the week it is.So you're competing to be there at the most political timeof their week.And that's when it's convenient to them and not to you.So that is more demanding.But then I think politics is a public service.But it's a service industry, too.And if you're a service industry,you have to serve your consumers.And our consumers are the voters.

    • 11:13

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: And so our job is to communicate with them when theywant to be communicated with.

    • 11:16

      PHILIP COWLEY: Has it speeded things up?Particularly social media strikes methat-- I mean someone said to me even in the Brown era,PMQs would take place at noon on a Wednesday.The story would begin to sort of develop, crystallize,by sort of 3 o'clock.And now it's just-- til 2010.Now, the story has sort of crystallized

    • 11:37

      PHILIP COWLEY [continued]: by the time PMQs is finished, because of social media.You can almost see it forming on platforms like Twitterby about half past 12:00.And sometimes it can have unraveledby the time the story originally would have juststarted forming.That strikes me-- that must reallychange the pace at which things operate.

    • 11:56

      JOHN MCTERNAN: Oh, look, there's somethingvery strange about things being consumed almostbefore they've been consumed.Most of the election campaign last yearwas, in essence, a long conversationwithin the media about what would happenthe day after the election.Would there be a coalition government?Will the SMP support a Labor government?

    • 12:18

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: There was no interest at in the reportingof the thing that was going on.It was reporting the thing after.

    • 12:24

      PHILIP COWLEY: They were reporting the thingthat they thought was going.

    • 12:26

      JOHN MCTERNAN: Yeah.

    • 12:26

      PHILIP COWLEY: It turned out not to be the thing thatactually was happening.

    • 12:30

      JOHN MCTERNAN: Which is kind of a POP police itself moment.

    • 12:32

      PHILIP COWLEY: Yeah.

    • 12:33

      JOHN MCTERNAN: That's part of what's going on.The speed and the pressure is-- as you said,the story can unravel before it starts to rival sort of thing.And that definitely is difficult. But equally,it's very playable with.Because Twitter is not the world.Even though journalist still believe Twitter's the world,Twitter is basically just politicians, their staff,

    • 12:55

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: and journalists talking to each otherwith an audience, who don't really contribute.8 out of 10 people on Twitter never tweet.They just observe.And so you can, if you want to, create an issueand flab it up really highly and very fast.And that can lead to a raveling and unraveling.If social media could do one thing for the world,

    • 13:17

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: if it could ban real people from stories,that would be a great thing.Because politicians know real stories drive me demented.I met a real person that told me a real storyabout a real thing.I met a mand on Hampstead Heath It'skind of-- either the point you're making, your argument,is a strong one in which case it stands on it's own.Or it isn't, and you've got to play and aidsome real person that said it.You know, you're a politician.

    • 13:38

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: Do your job.Think through political choices and argue for them.

    • 13:41

      PHILIP COWLEY: Is politics a universal act?Was it exactly the same in Australiato Westminster Whitehall and then in Scotland?Or are there differences in termsof how you go about developing strategy?

    • 13:55

      JOHN MCTERNAN: So everybody's very, very clearthat every country is very, very differentand has got unique traditions that you can't understandunless you've lived there all your lifeand gone to school there and gone to university there.And it's only true in the sense that people believe that.It's not true in the same that it's true.High politics and low politics are the same in most countries,

    • 14:16

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: most mature democracies, particularly English speakingdemocracies.And in Australia, Scotland, and the UK,you've got the Westminster system in all of them.In Australia, state level as well as the federal level.And you've got a Tory and a Labor traditionin Australia, too.So the politics, in that sense, is the same.

    • 14:37

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: The audience is similar.The wealth is similar.The disaggregation of society, because as peopleget wealthier, they get less homogeneous,those things are all true.

    • 14:48

      PHILIP COWLEY: OK.Let's say that's true.There must still be differences though.

    • 14:52

      JOHN MCTERNAN: The power of talk back radiois different in Australia than it isin-- we really don't have it.We think we have shock jocks.We don't.So the populist radio is a very powerful force.But at the same time, all the mainstream mediais weakening in its impact.And so the Murdoch owned papers couldn't

    • 15:14

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: change the political decisions of their readersand swing voters in the western suburbs of Sydney.Those people went with the polls.They went liberal.But they didn't go liberal big time.They went liberal in the small scale.The thing which differs is your recent history.What happens in different countries

    • 15:35

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: is that what is a labor line in immigration, whichis firm, but fair migration.And people join a queue, waiting their turn.In Australian politics, this regardsas being more to the John Howard approach.And therefore, it can't be used by the left.So it's more that the history and the culture of a countrymarks a certain approach as being beyond the pale

    • 15:59

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: or within reach, the options.Scotland-- this was the other thing whichwas true about Australia is that the parliament is robust.But political discourse outside parliamentisn't as robust as you think it would be.They're not all Crocodile Dundee.

    • 16:19

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: Where as Scotland, which with it'shistory of the enlightenment and rational discussion--

    • 16:24

      PHILIP COWLEY: Has now become very robust.

    • 16:26

      JOHN MCTERNAN: --has gone beyond that almost.It's got to a point where the impersonal natureof social media and Twitter, whichallows you to abuse people you don't know,has go into real life.And people abuse you on the street.Eddie Izzard did a shopping center walk with Jim Murphy.

    • 16:47

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: And Eddie was in his suit with a skirt, high heels, lipstick,hand bag.And he said afterwards, it's come to something whena man in a skirt and lipstick getsless abuse on the streets of Gloucesterthan the leader of the Scottish Labor Party.And that's kind of where the politics have got to.So there's coarsening of the political discoursein Scotland, which makes it quite

    • 17:08

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: distinct to operate there.And so you'd say there's a continuum thatconnects Scotland and Westminster and Australia.And being in the Anglo-sphere makesit relatively straightforward at the level of high politics.To understand the kind of aspirations of the nationand the kind of things you have to do

    • 17:28

      JOHN MCTERNAN [continued]: and the challenges that you have around productivity gainor around climate change or around immigrationor around housing are broadly the same.And then transmission mechanisms vary.And then the low politics of how you do the dealsand how you stab people in the back, that'skind of how you get the votes and how you hold the votesand how you deploy the votes, that's the same everywhere.

Political Strategy

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Abstract

Philip Cowley and John McTernan discuss politics and media communications. They reflect on the similarities and differences among English, Scottish, and Australian politics. They also address how changes in media technology since the 1990s have affected the industry.

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Political Strategy

Philip Cowley and John McTernan discuss politics and media communications. They reflect on the similarities and differences among English, Scottish, and Australian politics. They also address how changes in media technology since the 1990s have affected the industry.

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