Sunday, November 24, 2013

For a man called Brand, Russell's Revolution shows a lack of marketing nous

I remain in two minds about The New Statesman's Brand-edited edition. For a magazine that can usually be relied upon for intelligent debate and factual analysis, it felt alarmingly close to satire, and I get Private Eye for that. It did generate a lot of publicity, from both ends of the political spectrum - it can't be often that TNS attracts the attention of the Torygraph.

Russell's essay was readable, certainly, if only because his prose flows like a babbling brook on a warm Summer's day. What he, and his various respondents, failed to do, was to suggest an alternative to the failed democratic model he decried and disavowed. Brand's position appears fatalistic - democracy is broken, the young feel disengaged, and the powers-that-be don't care. His solution . . . well, he doesn't really have one, beyond recalling Billy Connolly's joke "Don't vote, it just encourages them."

His critics' response can be summed up as "Put your money where you mouth is" - suggesting that Brand abandon his hedonistic Hollywood lifestyle, return home and run for public office.

Except that isn't where his mouth is, is it?

Robert Webb's injunction to "read some fucking Orwell" certainly did read well, but again, doesn't really address the central tenet. Webb went straight out and "rejoined the Labour Party" before taking to the pages of The New Statesman to list New Labour's Progressive achievements, from the minimum wage onwards. Personally I don't disagree with him. But if the point is that young (and older) people feel disengaged, and disenfranchised, by party politics, throwing it back in their faces isn't going to change their minds. The last twenty years have seen new social, economic and media paradigms emerge, and be enthusiastically embraced by Generation Y. Should politics be any different?

In this, I believe Brand's "revolution" shows the value of a good marketing strategy.

I'm wary of invoking "the power of the market" to cure every ill - just look at what it's doing to healthcare. But Porter's five competitive forces of any market include "threat of substitutes" - perfectly illustrated by the old (and possibly apocryphal) Parker Pens story. The one where the Marketing guy says "We're not competing with other pen makers. We're competing with the entire executive gift category, everything from Filofaxes to the complete works of Dilbert."

If you apply Porter's model to British politics, the absence of substitutes is keenly felt. Both the suppliers and the "buyers" (voters) are locked in an uneasy circle of diminishing returns. UKIP typifies the threat of New Entrants. "Threat of substitutes" is the one big hole in the competitive picture, and I believe that this failure to offer a reasonable alternative democratic option is holding the system back. Proportional Representation, and of course the dead duck that was the AV Referendum, were the nearest we got. But it's at a local level that people "feel" politics, but at a national one that they "see" it. Infrastructure, policing, traffic, parking - these are the issues that affect voters on a day-to-day basis. I'd never pick up the phone to my local MP (Peter Lilley) because he's a toxic Tory. Likewise, I'm unlikely to join a political party of any stripe, because of the confrontational model they represent.

It's party politics that needs a proper rebrand, not the parties themselves. Until that happens, these political comics are just having a laugh.

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