BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Paul Mason
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Strong personalities with narratives win elections, shock

Paul Mason | 07:56 UK time, Friday, 6 May 2011

I've just flown in from Egypt to be confronted by a media awash with the early results of the UK local, Welsh, Scottish and AV polls. It's a big switch from the slums of Cairo to the psephological niceties of Blaenau Gwent. However coming in from abroad always brings you to the essence of a situation: you see it vicariously as foreign journalists might, filtering out the local detail.

Here's my snap judgement: it's those with strong personalities and strong narratives that are navigating the choppy waters best.

Alex Salmond has a strong narrative, not just on nationalism but on a mixture of social, economic and eg health policies. Cameron has a strong (ish) narrative and a growingly distinct international profile (on Libya, and despite that new quiff, OBL); he is convincing the Conservative heartlands of southern England that the cuts agenda is right (for now - the cuts have hardly started; and bear in mind he has done a body swerve on the NHS).

Clegg does not currently have a narrative, and so his personality - which played so well during the general election debates - cannot cut through the "betrayal" story. And he's finding out how well students can transmit electoral hostility now they are effectively 50% of every age cohort.

Ed Miliband? Difficult one this. Labour will be tribally delighted to have stuffed the Libdems in the north of England, ditto Plaid and the independent left in Wales.

But the Scottish defeat poses all kinds of strategic problems for Labour. The big one is obvious: if we now have an independence referendum and Scotland votes yes, that's the end of Labour's traditional arithmetic in Westminster. Even if things don't move that fast, Miliband faces having to take on and shake up the Scottish Labour mafia, which is essentially Brownite and has performed dismally. And then there's England. If the British political situation swings back to the Labour north versus the Tory south, Labour strategists believe the party can never win that game. The decimation of the Libdems merely clears the fog of war for the essential battle to begin, which under any electoral system will always be the Labour fight for the urban south.

Of course, economics plays into this, credibility, specific issues. But if you stand back and squint to see only the main outlines: the strongest and most charismatic party leader in Britain made the biggest gains; the weakest one had a catastrophe.

And despite a positive night at the tactical level in the north, Ed Miliband faces strategic problems that the removal of his adenoids will not make go away.


  • Comment number 1.

    Libertarian red party doesn't do too well in Scotland.
    Libertarian red party does well in Wales and the north of England.
    Libertarian yellow party bombs everywhere.
    Libertarian blue party vote holds up.

    Libertarians on all sides claim victory.

    Libertarians on all sides claim it was a great night for democracy.

    It was a great night for libertarians.

    Paul Mason reports it's all about personalities and hence nothing to do with policies.

    Now what was that about narratives...

  • Comment number 2.

    Whislt I would agree that Alex Salmond is a strong leader he is the SNP which without him is nothing other than a confused tartan.

    The most damning comment about Cameron came from Norman Tebbit who suggested that Cameron was Prime Minister because that was what he wanted to be as he had no political programme. This is not the first time I have found myself agreeing with the son of a carpenter.

    Leadership? No: I think you mean strong identities or should I say recognisable brands.

  • Comment number 3.

    To continue as the BBC seem to dislike long blog replies. I think Labour have a very serious problem which they have had for a long time; namely, having done so much to abolish wage slavery by eliminating a living wage from the working people of Britain they find themselves not just missing a narrative but the entire picture as well. They must go back to where they came from and rebuild themselves.

    There is banking reform, economic reform, full employment, education reform, industrial democracy, workers' control, the cooperative idea, mutualism: the list is endless.. so why can't they grasp the nettle?

  • Comment number 4.

    Lastly, I would not read too much into the collapse of the Liberal Democrats in parts of the UK. A lot of their vote was what we could call happy-clappy Labour-lite. This is so much into opposition that it always goes back to Labour when the Tories get into government. Pathetic!

  • Comment number 5.

    "Strong personalities and strong narratives"

    Time to dust off Karl Polanyi's Great Transformation. Here he is talking about the tensions leading up to Word War I, and they provide a chilling insight to what might be in store:

    "For another seven years peace dragged on but it was only a question of time before the dissolution of nineteenth century economic organization would bring the Hundred Years' Peace to a close…….The true nature of the international system under which we were living was not realized until it failed. Hardly anyone understood the political function of the international monetary system; the awful suddenness of the transformation thus took the world completely by surprise…..The dissolution of the system of world economy which had been in progress since 1900 was responsible for the political tension that exploded in 1914."

  • Comment number 6.

    We often forget how the 19th Century was quite a major period of "globalisation", which serendipitously held the world together in relative peace (through the International Balance of Power).

    The Great Depression and WW2 are all too often studied in isolation, whereas Polanyi correctly situates them within the context of the breakdown in 19th Century globalisation. The 20th Century rise of nationalism (i.e. strong personalities and narratives) were a consequence of an international finance order losing control.

    We can only understand how events will unfold for us now, by drawing parallels with this forgotten period of economic history.

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    3. At 09:13am 6th May 2011, stanilic wrote:
    To continue as the BBC seem to dislike long blog replies.

    It is about to get worse, and already has done on some blog pages (Mardell, Hewitt etc) as the new format imposed on them has a 400 character comment limit. Little more than an oversized tweet.

    I hope Paul is discussing the implications with his web editor as his blog attracts intelligent and sometimes controversial comment that requires more than a sentence or two.

  • Comment number 9.

  • Comment number 10.

    This narrative stuff is all too silly. Its the economy, stupid and Cameron will be hoisted by his own petard eventually but is still enjoying a faint glow of a honeymoon - unlike the hapless Clegg who has been put to the sword (with a blade made in Sheffield)

  • Comment number 11.

    Most people don't care for the professional politicians but are still trapped in the false choice so-called representative democracy pretends to offer.

    The people on the street are more radical than the politicans.
    The 30th June is the next big date - the beginning of a hot summer of strikes.
    This may well be accompanied by riots.

    The Tories will think they can continue with their cuts agenda.
    The Liberals will realise they made a huge mistake & get out of the coalition (if they don't the party will eventually split).
    The Tories try to soldier on but the civil unrest will mean another election, possibly in the autumn.

    But what we really need in a General Strike & permanent occupation of Trafalgar Square until we get true democracy, i.e. direct democracy.

  • Comment number 12.

    politicians have no currency apart from words and promises. Once the Fibdems reneged on theirs they where politically bankrupt. What we are seeing now is polarisation.

    400 character limit gets my vote - you can always post a link, or better still for some turgid serial drivellers - GET YOUR OWN BLOG

  • Comment number 13.

    Top German Politicians Want Portugal To Dump Its Gold In Exchange For A Bailout

  • Comment number 14.

    You just can't make this stuff up!

  • Comment number 15.


    You are right about Salmond being a good politician but saying the SNP are nothing without him is just wrong. Perhaps to an English audience unaware of the day to day workings at Holyrood the SNP seems like a one man show but to us up here north of the border, the SNP team are definitely head and shoulders above the alternatives - although that is also a damning indictment of the standard of politician at Holyrood.

    I am not in favour of Scottish Independence but i genuinely think we have started out on the road to it - the SNP will push for greater powers and greater autonomy for Scotland and unless someone adresses the constitutional situation of England and the West Lothian question in particular, i think the push for it will come from England rather than Scotland.

    Interesting times ahead.

  • Comment number 16.

    A reasonable analysis Paul. But another part of the whole narrative is the estrangement between the South of England and the rest - the periphery from the Westminster viewpoint.

    The Tories haven't done too badly in their heartlands, because their millions of supporters think they are going to get what they think they want: pain for other people and the illusion of a sound economy. Of course this economy is based upon the chimera of financial services; also, the pain will hit the "deserving" as well as the "undeserving". But these chickens aven't come home to roost yet. And I would imagine that the more Mr Cameron opened his mouth, the worse for the Tories outside their heartland.

    The Lib-Dems have done very badly because most of their 2010 voters have found that they have been saddled with something completely different from what they thought they voted for.

    Salmond is undoubtedly very effective, but the AV referendum rows and the reemergence from the crypt of the likes of John Reid, will have done it's fair share of damage too. The Labour machine is a very unpleasant creature, and still does the party major damage at times. (See Michael Crick's current blog - )

  • Comment number 17.

    '8. At 10:46am 6th May 2011, Kit Green wrote:

    ...the new format imposed...

    ...and implications to intelligent and sometimes controversial comment attracted that requires more than a sentence or two.

    I must have missed the clamour for the new imposition.

    In case there was none perhaps, in some quarters, it was the 'wrong kind' of intelligence finding an outlet that saw some feel the need for change.

    Controversy, sadly, is not so tricky to inspire in limited space.

  • Comment number 18.

    You are forgetting that when Salmond took a back seat not so long ago the SNP promptly got into a mess. I think it is a case of a determined, intelligent and lucky leader.

    You may be right about the pressure for Scots independence coming from England but it is all brain-dead stuff as all countries in the Union need it. The trouble comes from dysfunctional and expensive government, even more governments won't solve that!

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    Who remembers the Narey goal against Brazil in 1982? Brilliant wasn't it (those who know about football tell me it was, so I just 'agree')? And then his team mates realised what he'd done. The story has it, his team mates were asking him 'What did you do that for? We are in for it now.'

    As predicted, Brazil didn't like it at all. The punishment is history.

    Last year, Scotland scored a brilliant goal and the crowd cheered. Only one Tory seat sent to Westminster. And then the heads went down. 'We'll be punished for that with those Tories in power'

    Just like that goal.

    Scotland didn't have a defence strong enough to save their necks in that match against Brazil.

    Labour have shown not only are they no defence to the Tories, but they are unwilling to fight the Tories. For years, Scotland has listened to Labour talk of middle England, and watched as the party assumed the Scottish vote would be inherited no matter what.

    The SNP have spent years preparing. They knew. Sooner or later the child of Thatcher would return. Scotland had that rammed down their throats once before. The SNP now have the job of defending Scotland.

    The onslaught from the grandson of Thatcher is about to begin. Scotland has said no. Analysts last night were noting the SNP were taking votes from the LibDems, the Tories and Labour. The SNP tool votes from all of them. And they took important Labour seats. Shettleston was Labour's. The Labour candidate usually need never leave his bed to win in those wards. Not this time. And it wasn't the only safe constituence where Labour was shown the exit sign.

    Not only have the Tories been wounded (what there are of them), but big Tavish from the Lib Dems looks like he wants to cry into his mammie's sleeve.

    Labour are in complete shock; they'll be fighting amongst themselves for quite a while now, trying to avoid the fundamental truth - that to succeed in Scotland, they must literally split off from the national party or force the national party as a whole to go back to where they came from before the love affair with the Champagne Charlies. And the LibDems got into bed with the Tories. At least in the Central Belt I doubt that will be forgiven for 50 years at best!

    The harder the onslaught, the higher Hadrian's Wall is likely to be rebuilt when the architects plans are likely to be ready for the referendum in four years time.

    The harder the kicking, the more determined (or desperate) the Scots will become to make their escape. Will Independence destroy the fabric of Scottish Society. Maybe it will. But will that damage be any worse than that being planned on London?

  • Comment number 21.

    Paul, is this a labour party blog? Why (ish) and( for now)? Wishful thinking?

    Salmond spread gets off Scot free and yet you can't resist a dig at the Tories.

    How many incumbent parties increased their number of councils councillors and share of the vote across England even when they are putting through the CUTS. I use caps as the BBC likes to shout the word and never shows balance. We were nearly bankrupt and yet auntie takes no responsibility in communicating this.

    If you rob Peter to pay Paul you can always rely on the support of Paul thus Auntie always has labours back.

    The beeb is supposed to represent the whole nation not just the 30% on the far left.

  • Comment number 22.

    A bit OT but why does the beeb always ref the two newspapers which together represent less than 5% of fleet street. With over 9,000,000 national newspapers sold daily why choose to only refer to newspapers with a combined total circulation of less than 443k. Could it be these papers are perhaps written from a left wing viewpoint?

  • Comment number 23.


    If your blog is going to move to the new format how will there be the quality of comments that have been posted here?

    I am sure we would all like your opinion on this.

  • Comment number 24.

    21. At 17:03pm 6th May 2011, Paddytoplad wrote:
    Paul, is this a labour party blog?
    .......The beeb is supposed to represent the whole nation not just the 30% on the far left.


    Do you really believe that Labour are far left?

    The point of this blog is to give you the opportunity to comment and by so doing put forward your own view. If you do this in a convincing, well constructed manner then a debate may start, giving you the chance to provide the balance that you feel is needed.

    ....until the format change makes nothing possible longer than a double tweet or so.

  • Comment number 25.

    @20 copperDolomite - eloquently argued. There are elements in the Labour Party heirarchy which think that they own certain constituencies. These people have treated both members and supporters with contempt for years. (I am an ex-member.)

    As for rebuilding Hadrian's wall, remember that part of England lies north of that. I was born in Middlesbrough where much of the land in mediaeval times belong to the de Brus family. To look at it another way, the reason why Scotland speaks a form of English is because the prosperous Lothian was part of the Kingdom of Northumbria. If Scotland does go, the North-East may wish it had voted for regional devolution, and Yorkshire might consider its position.

    Perhaps what we really need to do is expel the City of London and the Home Counties from the UK? They don't produce or grow much - let them eat money! (I apologise to the many decent people in the Home Counties!)

    The results of these elections (and the referendum) were predictable and predicted from day one of the coalition. The Lib-Dem MPs let their greed for power and office blind them to the wishes and aspirations of those who voted from them. Will they apologise and leave the coalition? I doubt it! They will insult our intelligence and claim to be misunderstood. In fact, they were rejected because they were understood only too well! But I expect that they will carry on digging an electoral grave which is deep enough to reach the Antipodes.

  • Comment number 26.

    Greece Considers Exit from Euro Zone

    This news is dynamite if true - a shock but not a surprise.,1518,761201,00.html

  • Comment number 27.


    `...the higher Hadrian's Wall is likely to be rebuilt when the architects plans are likely to be ready...'

    Why not complete the cliche with an `och aye, the noo.' You spoiled a pretty good rant with that nonsense. Salmond has invested good time soothing the feelings of us descendants of the Caledonian diaspora because we got a wee bit tired of being called `you English' when we wnet about Edinburgh. Now that the SNP has had a good day all that bile gets regurgitated. Is this why sectarianism is such a problem in parts of Scotland?

    Let's hear how the SNP government got the Islay Tidal Power scheme under way. Let's hear the positives that devolved government produces. I keep saying the nationalists have asked the right question about central government in the UK; namely does it work? I agree with their answer that it does not; but we should then go on to ask whether any central government in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Westminster will work effectively. I think not: we need true devolution down to the neighbourhood.

  • Comment number 28.

    For example, we had a District Election this week. I had not seen a candidate from any party nor any election address from any party. So I was surprised to find a ballot paper with Conservative, Labour, Liberal and UKIP candidates on it. I spoiled my paper by writing on it `No canvassing, No election address, No vote'. It just isn't good enough.

  • Comment number 29.


    Sasha, it is nice to know you were once a tenant.

  • Comment number 30.

    Let's all just sit down and let the Tories do what they do - don't want you to be offended by the reality. Have you any idea how offensive it is for the south east voters to sit back and ignore the fact their government destroys whole regions. Let it offend you. I find it offensive when I see a whole population in dread of their own UK government policies. That is no way to run a country, any country. But hey, metaphors spoil it for you - maybe that is precisely why SNP won. Just maybe the Scots value people over metaphors and have the ability to prioritise what is important and what is not.

    And why mention the loaded term of sectartianism - was that you thinking of a coment elsewhere, or just not got anything sensible and relevant to contribute? Anyone claiming to be part of the diaspora would know that is a loaded term and irrelevant to who governs Scotland from Edinburgh. Been a while since you've had much to do with the auld country other than watching the geme on Sky, I suppose.

  • Comment number 31.

    25. At 18:37pm 6th May 2011, Sasha Clarkson wrote:

    Aye - used Hadrian's Wall, only because it sounded better than a line in a field and is somewhere approximately close to the border (if you use google maps and don't zoom in too close).

  • Comment number 32.

    @29 :-)

    I was a council tenant on my first job in co Durham. My school in M'bro was a council school built around an old manor house, Acklam Hall. The land had originally belonged to the Bruces, who were lords of Cleveland as well as Annandale.

    My English grandmother's family were miners between Gateshead and Houghton le Spring, working to support the luxuries of another Anglo-Scottish family, the Bowes-Lyons of Strathmore. The collieries had such romantic names: Kibblesworth-Glamis was one; Hetton Lyons another.

    I agree that government in Britain in broken, but local devolution will only help us if we can unite to confront the common problems we share. The power of international finance being one of them.

  • Comment number 33.

    #26 Sasha Clarkson wrote

    'Greece Considers Exit from Euro Zone'

    You can checkout any time you like,
    But you can never leave!

    I'm sure the Greek people right now would love to leave the EZ, events in Spain will sideline them.
    Too big to fail, too big to save. Spain will be the cause of the EZ default, haircuts for holders of all EZ country bonds.
    Germany was once the 'Sick man of Europe' (anybody remember that ?), they inherited the title from us, Germany started to boom by lending cash to the PIIGS to buy German goods, that market is now dead.
    The Germans (like many others) are pinning their hopes on the BRICS but the BRICS only hold devaluing dollars.
    Germany (saviour of EZland) will force through the EZ haircut (the last act of Merkel) to save themselves.

    Paul, I don't know about the narrative but the moral of the tale is never be the junior partner in a coalition. (you are blamed for compromising your voters and never get a slice of any success, and I thought these politicians were supposed to be professionals).

    Clegg should have told the Tories to run with a minority (none of the big parties want another GE as they have no cash) and supported/opposed them on an issue by issue basis.

  • Comment number 34.

    You snap judgement is correct. I call it the Hollywood syndrome - the more charisma & ACTING ABILITY, the more votes. It's as though people are voting for the entertainment. Who knows? Maybe that's the way the public has come to see politics - as a stage where each party plays its part, and then you change parties - like going to the movies.
    Nick Clegg never had the lead. Without the formation of the Coalition he'd never have had so much as a secondary walk-on.The decimation of the Libdems merely pushes Shakespeare aside for something more modern, more challenging, more exciting, and more entertaining.
    Ed Miliband? Personally, I feel that the wrong Miliband won, but I can't figure out how or why. Despite his rather intense and moving performance in the north, Ed Miliband faces strategic problems. Without the script, he has essentially nothing to say.
    I wonder how keenly felt may be the ousting of Labour, but I can't see a comeback as long as Miliband has the lead - no star quality.

  • Comment number 35.

    a reminder to bluesberry

    politics: 'showbiz for ugly people'.

    I am reluctantly in agreement with you that Ed M lacks the star quality which seems to be the critically important factor. Brother Dave seemed to have it but was just too tainted by Blair to be 'marketable'.

    I live in hope that one day everyone will wake up from this post- modern dream and start to ask what the cult of charisma/ personality is doing to us all and reject it entirely. Then Ed might just shine like a star.

  • Comment number 36.


    All I am asking for is for the positive messages that a devolved government can bring. Sady, the expression that comes from everyone but Salmond always seem to be in the negative. Little people sticking their head in a bag because they don't like what is around them! But then that is nationalism for you. Salmond is the difference which is why the SNP have done so well recently.

    I have dealt with sectarianism in its homeland and helped the building of bridges there. It is intolerance wrapped in the power to control communites. It does horrible things to otherwise decent people. As such it is close to nationalism so I treat them both with a very long spoon. I suggest that everyone does just that and is very, very careful about how they state their emotional responses to otherwise mundane political messages.

  • Comment number 37.


    International finance is like a feudal lord it only has power if you allow it. The difference between international finance and a feudal lord is that the latter was encouraged to consider the poor man at his gate. With the bankers it is either all or nothing. This is their weakness.

    So why is there so much fear about that even thinking seems to have become fearful. Yet the real power in society has always rested in the compliance of the little people. Even international finance needs the little people to underpin its survival. We need to conceive the nature of our power before we can bring to fruition an hope of asserting it.

    A declaration of intent to bring discipline to the `markets' needs fuller expression and the complicity of the state in failing in that intent needs to be articulated. A good time will be when the Banking Commission reports.

  • Comment number 38.

    36. At 14:05pm 8th May 2011, stanilic wrote:

    Good grief. Clearly, you have no idea what sectarianism or nationalism means, or you are throwing some strawmen around. What you don't like is the rejection or your countries political outlook. It is not being accepted by a whole nation. Strawmen won't fix that for you.

    Since I last wrote in this blog, strangely I've had in excess of 20 requests from English people: all of them asking if I could find them somewhere to live in a much more progressive Scotland than the England where they currently live.

    Sectarianism? Nationalism? No, it's people fleeing from a nasty, failure of an economic philosophy.

    I'm an atheist.


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