Listening to Gordon Brown speak in Bristol last week, it was easy to forget how heavily the burden of Prime Ministerial office appeared to weigh on him in 2010.
The former PM was here promoting his new book to a packed Wills Memorial Hall and spoke with conviction and humour about his life in politics.
He was also candid about the challenges faced by the global economy over the last decade, his role in addressing the crisis and the friction caused by the resulting fallout.
Here was a man at ease with himself, speaking about life with his kids, encounters with Nelson Mandela and quoting Taylor Swift lyrics. It was in stark contrast to the crestfallen candidate many remember after his disastrous mishap on the campaign trail in Rochdale.
Gordon Brown is not the only political leader who appears to have found his voice again after leaving front-bench politics. Anyone who follows Ed Miliband on Twitter can’t fail to have witnessed a remarkable transformation in his communication style since the 2015 General Election.
It raises questions about why many politicians find it so difficult to be ‘themselves’. It also may explain why ‘authentic’, ‘straight talking’ politicians are at the forefront of our discourse, even if their approach is contrived and – yes – spun.
Problems with campaigning
When talking about disappointment, Mr Brown admitted that his biggest regret was not ‘winning the argument’ in the 2010 General Election, around areas like public investment, the NHS and the world economy.
He added that the Brexit campaign of fear – on both sides of the debate – was a ‘disaster’.
Would the outcome have been different in either case if the campaigns were more positive or authentic? We’ll never know, but my guess is probably not. Not unless people ‘get’ what you’re about before the campaign starts anyway.
The forces that shape perceptions are not driven by campaigns in isolation these days, if they ever were. Narratives take time to build and be understood and supported; Brexit is a vivid example of this. By the time the government launched its remain campaign – terrible as it was – the other side had a 30-year head start, amplified by most of the mainstream media and supported by a simple core message.
Trust in politicians is falling and the influence of traditional media – and by extension, campaigning – is declining too.
This leaves parties on a sticky wicket if they don’t unveil a clear vision until the start of a campaign (and pledges in tablets of stone don’t work!).
This is important for communicators, who must find a balance between managed announcements and supporting authentic communications from their organisations.
Both are important. Leaving things to the start of campaign is no longer an option.
People need to know what you stand for before they will go with you. I understood more about Gordon Brown after listening to him for an hour in Bristol and wish I’d have seen this side of him 10 years ago.
Photography by Jon Craig
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