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James O'Keefe

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When it Comes to Politics, Donkeys Are Winners

Posted: 05/01/2013 20:41

With new year resolve I decided to relaunch my Twitter life. Of course this started with an hour's pondering on the profile photo. Probably with the Christmas manger in mind and a recent visit to the Hereford farm of our good friend General Denaro I plucked for a picture of the family and I with Arthur's hardy donkey. These beguiling animals have something special about their characters: tolerance, companionship, resilience and well veiled intelligence but with a mighty kick as back up if anyone is foolhardy enough to press them too far.

The next day the first story in my email was about a donkey and electoral succes illustrating these last two qualities so well and reminding me of the fact that donkeys and politics go way back.

The story that triggered this musing "Brazil mayor in donkey legal spat" on the BBC's Brazil pages told of Vandelei Batista, mayor of Passa Sete in the heart of Brazil's prosperous southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. In a move that would have earned a hand-blistering high five from Alastair Campbell in his spinmaster heyday the newly elected mayor rode a donkey to his inauguration having turned around a row which started during an electoral debate in October when an opponent implied he was uneducated. Flipping attempted humiliation back on the perpetrator is like Red Bull in an election campaign and so it was for Mr Batista's opponents when he adopted a donkey as a campaign symbol harnessing a play on words - the Portuguese for donkey, 'burro' meaning 'idiot.' In this way Batista captured what US campaign gurus call the Big-Mo.

This campaign vignette reminded me that there is a far more famous but strikingly similar story of politics and the donkey. US Presidential candidate Andrew Jackson was the first Democrat ever to be associated with the donkey symbol. His opponents during the election of 1828 tried to label him a 'jackass' for his populist beliefs and slogan, 'let the people rule.' Jackson was entertained by the notion and ended up using it to his advantage on his campaign posters and becoming the seventh president of the United States. And the party of the kicking donkey haven't been doing too badly in recent times either.

So what can our British political leaders draw from 'donkey politics.' There is clearly a parallel facing the current Coalition where it is generally accepted that a disconnect with the electorate has been taking grip with terms like 'out of touch' and 'toffs' having a feel of authenticity to them. This is recognised by senior Tory strategists who are well aware of the damage inflicted so far and are determined to halt the flow in this direction. The Conservative side of the Coalition is also looking to that traditional right of their party who could give a nasty donkey-kick by herding towards Ukip at polls in 2013 (local), 2014 (euro) and even the general election in 2015.

The Lib Dems have probably already had their donkey-kick moment with the broken promise on tuition fees. They seem to have learned from that painful bruising and are now engaged with another challenge. How to blend two of those equine qualities of companionship - with their partners in government and self-preservation - of their very species at election time.

For Labour they have got the ear of the voter again and the party leader is no longer taken for granted or underestimated. The task is to carry on showing resilience to the political ups and downs and resonance with the mood in the country. With the additional challenge for 2013 to make it easy for the electorate to know what today's Labour Party is about and what it stands for. Not so much policy but definitely purpose. From what I can see there is a Labour Party emerging which is every bit as new as New Labour was, it just needs to clarify and amplify what the 'new new' is about.

We can leave the final word of advice to our political leaders for 2013 from donkey's counsel to Shrek "its uncomfortable being on a rickety bridge over a boiling lake of lava!"

Brazil Footnote: It is worth a quick reference to what we can draw from politics in Brazil at the moment. The last two presidents have come to power with novel-worthy life stories behind them. Lula from metal worker to president and most envied western leader of his generation who left office with an 83% approval rating. To his protégé and successor Dilma Rousseff who has the unenviable task of holding onto sustainable economic growth whilst bringing in further social reform to address inequality in a country of 200 million and resolutely taking on corruption where it still exists.

A leader that stays out of the limelight Dilma's popularity rating is in the mid-sixties and with a trust rating of 73% half way through her term in office, suggesting that Brazilians have confidence that their president is in sync with them. The British government is working the relationship with Brazil hard and there are signs it is paying off. With over half a dozen high level visits in the last year perhaps watch for further visits from our political leaders in the hope some of this popularity dust might rub off!

 
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