Learning From Blair
I’ve seen several people musing that, looking back at past interviews, Tony Blair just seemed to do so much better than any recent leader in this format. I think this is right and I don’t think the difference is primarily one of ideological positioning. It’s one of communication techniques, of understanding what people want and/or expect of their politicians.
To be clear, I think this is only one part of the story: Personnel matters. The policy platform matters. Structures (first past the post, and the distribution of votes geographically) matter. More than anything, I think positioning with regards to national identity is likely the existential question for Labour right now. Put simply, the party needs to articulate a vision of post-Brexit Britain that is acceptable to northern leave voters who want to positively assert an identity for themselves AND assuages Scottish fears of being trapped on a culturally conservative, economically isolated island with failing governance.
Doing a good interview won’t address any of the above. It is however a skill that will always help at the margin. However good – or in this case bad – your position is, it will always be somewhat better if you can sell it well. While there are many elements of what brought Labour to power than are now completely irrelevant to Labour’s position today, this one is fairly timeless. And, whatever you think of Blair (my own views on his recent recommendations for saving the Labour party are mixed, to put it mildly), there’s no denying the man possessed a polish fielding questions that all of our most recent leaders have lacked.
This is often written up as an intrinsic personal characteristic – charisma, confidence, charm – but I’m generally of the view that it mostly consisted of specific techniques and ways of approaching the encounter. Specifically:
1. The skill of redirecting any question back to your key talking points without appearing evasive. This seems hard, everyone hates politicians who just won’t give you a straight answer. Conversely if you try to freestyle every question you risk contradicting yourself, or just giving a poorly worded answer. I don't think it has to be something that elected officials lose sleep over however. Looking at Blair interviews he kinda had a structure: Directly take on the question in 1-2 sentences. Locate it in a broader context. Get to your talking points. Use humour to ease tension/ bridge gaps in your argument. Anyone who’s done sales, direct marketing, or fundraising, will know about overturn or response cycles (indeed, if you’ve done one of these jobs for any length of time you’ll likely have them seared onto your brain.) Essentially these are very clearly laid out structures for converting the undecided into a sale or donation. They function by providing a pathway from any potential concern to more general talking points that you can use with confidence. In these roles knowing that structure by heart is absolutely essential – often the difference between success and failure. And this reveals a paradoxical truth about in person communication: A structured (not scripted, just structured) response will often sound much more authentic an extemporaneous one. Bernie Sanders, for instance, is generally viewed as a very authentic truthful politician, but he uses one of the most formulaic response structures (and most scripted talking points) of any modern politician. The reason I think is confidence – if you have a structure you know where you’re going with an answer. You can get to sentences in which you’re happy with every word in them. Taking hard questions without a response structure will require you to think ahead, to check your language as you’re saying it, to risk a lack of clarity, or going off on a tangent. All of this will read as you not really believing what you’re saying. To be clear, a bad structure can be even worse than no structure. Simply not answering the question just won’t do, you need to transition to your talking points, but this is simply part of the formula.
2. Don't be afraid to tell people they're wrong. Blair often, in a nice way, would just say "look, we disagree about this". Politicians are terrified of this, but I think it makes you look more honest, and people respect it more than just saying whatever people want to hear. Personally – and this is something of a philosophical statement – I think it respects a person far more to tell them that they’re wrong than to try and reach for some abstract consensus that stretches any sensible meaning of words. It also establishes credibility: People know that you can’t possibly agree with everyone, stating disagreement every now and then makes it count more when you do agree with people. A distinct, but related notion, is you don’t have to accept the premise of a question. This is correct, but if anything politicians overuse it, and use it badly. If the premise is wrong simply state the correct premise, don’t fill up your response with a bunch of words that don’t need to be there and will make you sound evasive. Consider: Q: “Why is Labour failing so badly?” A1: “you’re right, it’s been a very bad night indeed, we clearly have a lot of work to do A2: “well, I don’t think that’s really very fair to characterize it that way, certainly there has been many bad results – and nobody is more disappointed that me, but on the other hand, I think it’s only right to consider. . .” A3: “I wouldn’t say that. We’ve had some fantastic wins, and some very disappointing losses. We need to take X from our wins, and our losses show we need to work on Y” A1 cedes the premise and just seems a bit . . . miserable (although it’s at least straightforward and easy to follow.) A2 doesn’t, but is just way too wordy and defensive. A3 for my money would be the way to go: reject the premise, but in a clear simple way. Offer a characterization that’s a positive spin on events without being completely untethered from reality.
3. ‘Are their arguments trash? Then trash them.’
This one – a direct quote from Blair – is pretty simple. When your opponents are offering up bad arguments, smack them down hard. Politicians, particularly on the left, are often scared of this too. They seem to think that it’ll make them too angry or combative. More than that the right has done a good job of gasslighting left-wing parties into thinking that attacking them equates to attacking their voters. It isn’t. You’re in a battle of ideas, get comfortable being in conflict, and learn to enjoy it. Don’t let people get away with saying stupid or false things. Humour is often a good tool to avoid looking angry or sanctimonious. If there’s a line your opponents are always repeating find a way to undermine is with a clever, cutting, joke. If you do this right people won’t be able to hear that line without recalling how stupid you made it sound.
Another 90’s politician one could mention here would be Bill Clinton. His 2012 convention speech was essentially a long roast of the republican parties standard talking points – and it was widely viewed at the time as having saved the event.
4. Don't be afraid of depth. Blair was a bit of a policy wonk. He was passionate about the details. Think about being in a job interview - you want to show that you both can do the job and *want* to do it. I often make it a point in job interviews to mention how much I enjoy particular aspect of the work, and it’s no different for politicians seeking office – nobody wants to give someone a job they don’t seem to want. People like to see a bit of passion in their leaders, regardless of ideology. One politician in recent times who I think does this really well is Pete Buttigieg. You can tell he’s always incredibly prepared and seems to genuinely enjoy taking hostile questions. For my money, of the 2020 democratic primary contenders, I would probably rate Warren (another example of making command of details an asset) the highest for debate performance, but Pete for interview skill. And, while he didn’t win the nomination, you have to admit his assent - from small town mayor to the first openly gay candidate to win a primary state, to Secretary of Transpiration – is an impressive feat. So prep your interview, prep well, show your command of the subject matter and have fun doing it. Just don't use jargon, don't condescend, and you're fine.
5. Don't be afraid of values. Blair often said he wasn't an ideological politician, but what he meant by that was he wasn't dogmatic. He brought in values a lot, indeed almost every answer involved them and/or the vision of the country he wanted. I was listening to Labour people do interviews for the recent elections and not only did they not have the redirect structure down, not only were they trying to please everyone, but when they got to their talking points it was just a list of things like "create investment".
Voters are more influenced by values than policies: the later are complex and will change depending on circumstances - we want to know what type of society you’re trying to create (and that you're competent to do it), sorting the details is your job if we elect you.
So that's my list of what to learn from Blair. Note that none of it requires us to accept his centrism, it goes for politicians across the spectrum. Note also, that it’s a form of political engagement that is reasonably substantive, and in principle at least, truthful.