Politicians talk a lot. Communicating clear ideas and workable policies to voters is key to winning an election and an inevitable part of political rhetoric relies upon telling stories. Representing a policy through a narrative description is a way of personalising an issue and perhaps helping a potential voter relate to an idea that might otherwise appear abstract. This is why politicians often recount how they met someone ‘just the other day’ who is due to benefit from their party’s policies and why, in live events, the candidates try to remember the names of audience members to indicate they are listening and responding to a specific situation affecting a real person. The aim is to show that a vote for that particular party will deliver a happier ending than any of the alternatives on offer. In other words, politicians work hard to construct narratives that they hope the electorate will believe in, repeat to other people, and vote for.
Political parties therefore rely heavily upon the media to help them tell these stories. Journalism, whether in print or on a screen, condenses, contextualises and mediates. Between the spin doctors, media bias, the need for sound-bites and the familiar use of visual and verbal propaganda, the electorate are bombarded with a range of voices and ideas. A full range of political opinions is important for an inclusive and wide-ranging debate but, almost as an act of necessity, complex issues can easily become reduced to simple, fast-changing, narratives. One downside to this aspect of contemporary politics is that the electorate have been encouraged to see political parties as something akin to different brands, whose messages and identities seem to shift depending upon focus group feedback and the favoured narrative or ‘hot topic’ of any given week.
No one expects a political party to remain stagnant or to stop evolving their ideas, but the growing lack of trust surrounding politicians is at least partially related to a sense of slippage between what is said and what is done. Much like the Conservative Party’s ‘road to recovery’ for Britain poster, criticised for photoshopping a landscape from near Wiemar in Germany, the narrative visions used to gather votes do not seem to relate to reality in the way the electorate have been led to expect. An insistent discussion around the lack of trust relating to politicians, and the political system, has developed because the stories presented to voters are increasingly perceived as make-believe fictions rather than helpful metaphors.
An even more pernicious concern is that when voters do trust a particular party or politician, they perhaps no longer believe that politics is where the real power lies. News stories about global corporate influence, ‘fat cat’ bonuses, tax evasion, and the ability of highly-motivated vested interests to lobby government, present a set of counter narratives to party political storytelling, suggesting that power increasingly exists beyond government control. So even when a politician may be deemed trustworthy by voters, that trust is potentially undermined by a loss of belief in the political system – because how can trusted politicians affect change if the power to do so is out of their reach?
This does not mean that people should stop voting. Ideological differences between parties, even if difficult to discern or trust, could have a significant bearing upon where the swingeing cuts will leave the most lasting impact. What it does mean is that the major parties appear to be losing out to smaller parties on both the left and right of the political spectrum. Previously, voters would often feel it was a ‘wasted vote’ to look beyond the major parties. In 2015, ebbing trust in political representatives and an apparent loss of belief in the reach of political power suggests that a substantial number of voters are looking to minor parties. If the electorate does not really trust the narratives they are told and no longer fully believes in the power of the political system, one response, it seems, is to at least try changing the story by voting for something different.
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
Dr Kevin J. Hunt
Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture
School of Art & Design
Nottingham Trent University