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Spin Is Dead, Long Live Spin: The New Political Conversation

29/11/2016 17:18
Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

Over the last few months it has become clear that this Conservative administration under Theresa May is not a fan of spin. Or, to be more accurate, they're not a fan of talking for talking's sake.

They're not driven by soundbites. They won't give running commentaries. No one will pop up wearing a hardhat on the 6pm news, and there'll be no strategically timed statements designed only to monopolise the news cycle. In fact, compared with Cameron et al, they are going to be positively mute.

I've read a number of pieces recently that have put this lack of spin down to a positive effort to ape a more formal Thatcherite-communication style. But I think that's a simplistic argument. And while I'm no fan of any Conservative government, if my relieved reaction to less political spin - in fact, less politics in general - is anything to go by, there's a very careful strategy at play here.

Since 2010, culminating in the horror that has been 2016, we're been bombarded with political noise; a kind of psychological torture by politics. Every day, everywhere, on Twitter, in the papers, on the rolling TV news, nothing but spin. Nothing but slick soundbites, patronising, argument, conflict, and dare I say, lies?

Now, we all know why political parties like to make a lot of noise and bang home the same messages over and over again. We know why politicians have 'lines to take' which mean they never answer the exact question asked. And why they have to leave as little room as possible in the news for opposing views. Basically, because it works. In the past, people went on to vote for them.

So why is this government so reticent to talk? They've got one strapline: 'Brexit Means Brexit'. And that's where they've stopped. For very good reason.

There have been a number of interesting studies recently including by Garrett, Carnahan, & Lynch in 2013 and Dr Shira Dvir Gvirsman in 2014. These studies prove that when given the opportunity to choose from a wide selection of political information, people tend to seek out content that is consonant with their own opinions - the echo chamber effect; and that people become more extreme in their attitudes when they expose themselves to reinforcing information - the Trump Factor. And it's this second point that is, in my view, at the heart of this government's near silence.

They are in a difficult position. Literally. Despite the polls - or maybe because no one believes polls anymore - they are squashed with a slim majority between the far-left and the far-right in the forms of Corbyn's Labour and a likely soon-to-be resurgent UKIP. And as the recent bizarre Trump victory show you, in today's politics, there is very little margin for error. As the old wartime post goes: loose lips sink ships.

There is one other very important PR reason why traditional in-your-face spin is now dead. People are wise to it. In their last years, Cameron and Osborne became a joke. Almost everything they said and did was derided mercilessly - they were the Morecambe and Wise of politics - but people weren't laughing with them. Everyone knew that what they were saying was pretty much rubbish; just spin for the cameras or soundbite articles for the press. There was no weight; no substance. The more they talked, the less seriously they were taken.

Theresa May knows that in this day and age, near silence is the new spin. It means that when you do give the odd interview or statement people actually listen. They might not like what you say, but they don't automatically dismiss it as spin. Over time, they start to trust you. Maybe they start to believe you. And in the end, perhaps they even vote for you too.

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