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Post Trump & Brexit: the communications challenge

The left is loosing.

We throw our hands in the air in despair and disbelief and ask why? How is it possible that when we ask the public what they want, they choose Trump and Brexit?

But they didn’t choose Trump and Brexit – they chose ‘not this’. Not more of what I have now, because it’s not working for me. They voted for change.

And that offer of change was sold using very simple stories, based on deep emotional truths.

Both the Trump and Brexit campaigns used very clever communication.

US citizens were told they could “take our country back” and UK citizens told that they could “take back control”. And those ideas held huge appeal, because they were a) simple and easy to understand, and b) spoke directly to the lived experience of people who feel left out and left behind.

What voters bought was an offer of more control over the things that matter most to them, even if that offer came without a plan.

Trump picked one feeling and played to it: fear. The Brexiteers picked one feeling too: disempowerment.

Trump’s narrative was simple – good versus evil (or should we say heroes versus “bad dudes”). His solutions were also simple – build a wall, lock ‘them’ up, deport ‘them’, ban ‘them’ from entering the country at all. He spoke about incredibly complex issues in black and white.

Now, the real problem may be that 35 years of neoliberal politics (led by the the very political parties now proclaiming they can save people from the problems they created in the first place) has created an enormous divide between the haves and the have-nots. Inequality is increasing everywhere. But here’s what matters – that’s not the conversation that people are interested in.

It’s not facts or logic that engage. These kinds of choices are made using emotion – what people feel is right and just and fair. Voters feel more than they think.

Those on the other side of the argument watch on in various combinations of horror, despair, anger and shock as ill-thought-out appeals to basic human emotions win the day. And then there is talk that the people who made these choices are uneducated. It’s clearly that they’re not smart enough to understand the ramifications of their choices.

This talk leads to suggestions like reforming the education system, so people can learn about politics and neoliberalism and world affairs. Yes! Let’s teach people to think!

But we don’t have time to make that our preferred solution. Here’s where it’s us who need to stop and think.

We can lament all we like that ‘uneducated’ people are making bad choices, but what does it say about ‘educated’ people if we can’t effectively articulate our point of view? If we can’t give them something to really believe in? People should not need a university degree to understand what the hell we’re talking about.

This is a communications challenge.

The Trump and Brexit votes prove two things again – people are fed up and want more control over the things that matter to them, and the left is terrible at communications.

The left is far too theoretical and analytical. We talk about the complexities of poverty and inequality, suggesting we can’t improve education without improving housing, and that we can’t get people into decent housing without creating more jobs, and that we can’t do any of that unless we start with improving children’s experiences before age five. We do research and we write reports and we look at causal analysis and produce theories of change.

The work we’re doing is all necessary (now more than ever), but while we’re busy making everything as complicated as possible (because in reality, it is), the right gets up on a pedestal and says, “take back control”, and they win.

This is a challenge shared by the third sector more broadly. Too often we use different words (mostly jargon) to describe exactly the same thing.

Take volunteering for example. We could call it ‘volunteering’. And sometimes we do. But we also call it impact volunteering, community action, social activism, civil engagement or charity work. And we argue with each other about which word is most appropriate.

And then we wonder why everyone has stopped listening.

And the other thing we do really well in the third sector is continuously talk to ourselves. The third sector is great at sharing its woes and its ideas with itself.

We need a new narrative, for a much wider audience, that appeals to the heart. We need a simple emotional truth that resonates. It should be about people, told using stories. It should tap into deeply held values and beliefs.

It’s communications 101.

The right are already doing it terrifyingly well – whether deliberate or not – and they’re changing the shape of our world in the process.

So here’s the challenge for everyone on the opposite side of the political spectrum: we must find a way to do the same (as counterintuitive as it might feel). We most definitely need analysis and plans and evidence and new policies and lots of fresh and radical ideas. But we also need a much better story if we’re going to create the critical mass we need.

And our story must turn the narrative of fear on its head. Ultimately what ‘taking back control’ is about is feeling valued, feeling heard and having opportunities.

It’s about belonging. Belonging in a community where every member of that community is valued.

And that’s a narrative we can use. It’s simple, and has emotional appeal.

We need to say it boldly. And proudly. And most importantly, as one.

This is the narrative that belongs to the left – and we must claim it before the right beat us to it again.

Theresa May has already promised “a country that works for everyone” while Donald Trump has named himself a “President for all Americans”. That story should not be theirs to own.

We’ve had two major blows in short succession this year. At this point we can choose to despair. Or curl up in a ball in defeat. Or move to Australia. But now, more than ever, we need to fight back. Now more than ever, we need to work together (using models like collective impact as we’ve suggested) and create communities where people belong and where everyone has what they need to live a decent life.

And we have to share this ambition and all the work we’re already doing using simple, emotional stories.

There’s no time to waste. Let’s get going right now.

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