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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Politicians need to talk like the rest of us.

The political classes have a poor image and it is not just expenses that got us in this pickle - it could be how they converse. Imagine this scene. You have won your political seat at national or local level and then have to face the scrutiny of awkward questions, either from the electorate, press or television interview. You are under pressure to deliver honest answers and yet not embarrass colleagues, tell lies or be evasive. You don’t want to be misinterpreted and yet you want to give yourself wriggle room for the future. You want to display integrity, and candour and give an opinion on a situation which you may not fully comprehend. How do you defend a position publicly, which away from the crowds and glare of the cameras, you know to be wrong or indefensible? You want to keep your gesture clusters, leakages and tells under wraps. How do you keep all of these balls in the air at the same time?

The political class has developed a different genre of conversation to the rest of us. Yes, we know about the politician’s answer rephrasing a question to the one that enables an easier answer. And what about straw man thinking, giving your opponent a position he/she may not have adopted in the first place and then knocking the stuffing out of it? How does one develop the skills to practice these arts in the first place? Is it ingrained in the character and personality or is it learned by watching others and learning on the job?

Does our political representative sit down with pen and paper and create a flow chart to work out the myriad of question and answer permutations? Do our interviewees play mental chess games in their beds at night, anticipating the interviewer's opening gambit and then working out appropriate counter moves? Do they rehearse their answers so that the oratory and rhetoric seem convincing?

Not answering a question, rephrasing the question or dissembling are part and parcel of human discourse. What makes the political conversation interesting is that it is done in the public gaze. Talking "off the record" is a symptom of the dilemma.

Not surprisingly, the electorate can sniff out an answer that does not accord with common-sense. It is embarrassing and irritating to observe a political representative defending the indefensible. What a shock it would be to hear “ I don’t know” or “I haven’t thought about that.” or “I got that one wrong.” proffered as answers. We have heard it since the election but it would have been nice to have heard it before.

That is how the rest of us talk and if the Westminster bubble talked in the same manner then the cynicism the electorate displays for our representatives might be tempered. Coalition politics and a rebirth of the opposition provide opportunities not only for changed policy and personalities but, more importantly, how we conduct our conversations and interviews in the first place.