Perception in politics can make or break you

Winning is hard, as politicians have a spotlight on them which presents some very real perception problems to navigate. Once a perception is set, it can be hard to change so transparency and accessible accountability provide a sound evidence base to counter unjustified negative perceptions and critically, for the electorate, leaves nowhere to hide for justified ones!

What do politicians do when problems arise and what should they do? 

Option 1:

  • cover the problems and claim “all is well” even when evidence mounts to the contrary

Option 2:

  • throw up hands saying “sorry, we WILL endeavour to do better, we will learn and we will prove to you we are worthy of your vote”

Option 3: 

  • nothing, ignore it

I’ll leave it up to readers to decide what politicians should do and what they think they do do 😉

How to help winners succeed!

How you win is a key focus of political parties. The familiarity of the party machine at election time is what gets HQ juices flowing but where is the energy invested in USING the power from a win, beyond re-election, to deliver. That is what’s actually important to constituents after all! 

Some of our newly elected Scottish councillors will have never done this job before so how are they (or any other newly elected representative) set up to succeed?

Most parties have an assumption that mentoring by an ‘old hand’ is the key yet isn’t that a bit like being taught to drive by your Dad? 

Clash of wills between ‘master and apprentice’ may swiftly derail progress, in addition to the risk of picking up ‘bad habits’ from a ‘master’ with years of driving from an outdated hIghway code from when they ‘passed’. 

The process stuff should be fairly simple to go through at an induction, but beyond administrative learning, how do our new councillors learn to really succeed for their constituents? Simplest way is to observe who gets things done and where their priorities lie. 

When One Master becomes Two 

The key thing that changes from trying to get elected to being elected (unless independent) is a politician’s reporting line suddenly expands beyond their party.

To get elected candidates are part of a team, largely reliant on party brand and voter management strategy to be successful. Once elected, politicians now have two masters: party and constituents and their needs and wants don’t always align. 

Who the primary master is for a politician is fundamental in driving outcomes for; politician, party and constituents. Whether you’re a fan of Churchill or not, or agree or disagree about duties of parliamentarians to be ‘country first, then constituents’ I think few voters would disagree that his stated third duty, to political party should always ranks after both.

Yet as we see in all areas of government, the whip system is often deployed to protect a party position, at times to the detriment of some representative’s own constituents or even arguably the country. I’ve even heard from some candidates that party loyalty is tested at vetting, to assess how much of a ‘team player’ candidates are, using examples setting constituents interest against party! 

I find this very concerning but it reinforces why I could never be a politician in such a party system. I’d likely lose the whip before lunchtime on my first day, assuming I passed vetting!  Most folk who I believe would make excellent political representatives are of the same independent mindset. Some already elected have been punished for not being ‘team players’ either at vetting, selection or even through demotion! 

What do you do when interests clash – Local Hero or Party Nero? 

If politicians ignore constituents issues in favour of party line, they run the risk of; 

  • bad press,
  • heated surgeries
  • red hot constituency inbox
  • reputational damage as ‘Party Nero’, cloth eared to constituents when party interests and personal career interest are assumed to trump constituents interests
  • risk to re-election, if they’ve the stomach to continue in politics.

If the politician aligns with constituents interests, as their primary master, they can become the ‘local hero’ but this is too often at a personal cost within their party.

There’s an abundance of examples at all levels of government of politicians ‘rebelling’ to take positions against their own party’s line and even losing the whip because of it. There are many reasons for this for example:

  • Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s March 2003 eloquent resignation speech in protest against the invasion of Iraq
  • Andy Wightman’s resignation from Scottish Greens following an uncomfortable whipped adherence to party line on the Lamont ‘6 words’ amendment to The Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill
  • Elected councillors resigning party whip to stand as independents for their constituents on points of local interest or issues within their party

So what have we learned about the problems (and indeed benefits) of winning? 

Winning presents politicians with the real opportunity to make a positive (or negative) impact on their constituents lives and on society’s direction. The last few years have brought home that many decision made by politicians can be literally be life or death ones. 

Politicians are human beings and will make mistakes as we all do but it’s how they deal with their successes, failures and insecurities that have a wider impact on us all. 

Final part: What does society needs from politicians?

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