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Why Fail?

can political post-mortems make good use of bad news - if so who writes the narrative?

Cloud created by:

Bill Law
13 May 2015

Bill Law
the career-learning café

Failure is endemic to the human condition.  But, as a species we've learned to live with it - even to make use of it.  We can learn from failure.  We do learn from mistakes, more than from achievements.  We're urged to accentuate the positive, but the negative rates at least as much attention


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  • questions and answers

The morning after an election defeat provokes what-went-wrong-questions - and the peddling of ready-made answers.  But, for me, the key questions are neglected... 

'why do people elect a regime

that shows little interest in their experience,

more-or-less disdains their needs

and damages their interests?'

It's some question - the propensity to ignore reality and embrace myth is bigger than a UK issue.  

But it's a neglected question.  The post-mortems find their answers in movements to left or right.  They wonder if they should adjust ideologies.  The need to improve cosmetics gets an occasional mention.  More seriously, but less frequently, commentators find reasons for failure in opponent manoeuvring by powerful lobbies, media manipulation and down-right lying.  The electorate deserve to know who to acknowledge for what comes next.  But its far from clear whether that 'who?' is a party leader or a press baron.


  • windows on righteousness

The evidence is that political outcomes are decisively determined by what people feel ready to believe.  In the hands of politicians it frames what it is advantageous to talk about - it's called the overton window.  And it encloses what people are to acceptably believe - say about the economy, or the poor, or a political party.

It works, but it may not yet have been tested to destruction.  There has been a time when it was acceptable to hold blue-collar poverty in contempt.  But as poverty invades the suburbs, white-collar poverty might well prove to be less of a pushover.

Yet, after all is said and done, the killer question stands - why deny reality in order to embrace myth?  There is an answer, but it's not on any of the what-happened lists.  It turns out that some political positions are easier to defend than others.  These are politics which distinctively proclaim the values of...

'authority', 'loyalty' and 'sanctity'

Surely these are unassailable values?  Maybe, maybe not.  Take the don't-rock-the-boat belief in the authority that comes with status.  It's enemy is disobedient subversion.  Then there's a flag-waving loyalty to team-membership.  The enemy of that is treacherous betrayal.  And there is the sanctity of untouchable beliefs.  Its enemy is impure invasions. 

It's a matter of daily observation that a majority of the the press, and some politicos, vigorously assert these 'unassailables'.  All are worth talking about as, in one frame or another, because they are the distinctive values of political positions.  There are, of course, other values. Two in particular can be set alongside the distinctive three.  Number four and five are care for the vulnerable, and fairness for everybody.  It is a five-fold political agenda...

'authority' - 'loyalty' - 'sanctity' - 'care' - 'fairness'

Who would it not appeal to?  Everybody can find something they want to support.  They can even think of it as righteous.  It is the politics of success.  But it is formulaic.  And it is not the politics of reform.


  • reform is 'difficult'

There are long-standing arguments about how people are best helped to manage their lives.  They point to the importance of confidence and, more recently, to resilience.  But asking what is useful in dealing with change-upon-change is finding other answers.  The study (shortly to appear on this site) identifies sources of help in developing ready-for-anything flexibility.  And the values that emerge are independence or mind, critical thinking and creativity.  This is the politics of reform

In order to understand the need for reform we need to face the realities of contemporary causes and effects.  For example. some businesses are predatory, they exploit until they're caught, and then they declare themselves everybody's friend. Global commerce has failed to invest in productivity, so that workers don't have the gear for meeting exportable standards, and much of the labour-force is stuck on low-wages, where it's easy to exploit.  

Small business, providing valued services, are being lost to both local trading and employment, because they can't borrow enough to cope with a late-payment economy.   Students are not taking hold of their citizenship or work life, because there has been massive failure of curriculum, which has been hijacked, using the externalising ploy of off-loading development costs onto education.  Education needs time, patience and freedom from ineffective structural change.  Stress - in and out of school - is at a high, and care provision at a low.  Civil-society is assumed to comprise of volunteers, with or without an appreciation of the cultural, economic or cultural differences in their neighbourhoods, and they are offering a privilege rather than a right.  And political moves to strengthen city governments have more to say about powerful mayors and shareholder values than what informed thinking knows about the experience and needs of citizen-stakeholders, who anyway seem disinterested.

Much civil life is presided over by the well-healed, who are influential enough to have their interests defended by government.  The country needs, and is rich enough, to pay for care, fairness, health, and education, from tax contributions and in a shared polity.  Meanwhile it's assumed that international links are matters entirely for commerce, minimising the need for agreements on international crime, planetary safety, negotiating strength, shared cultures and the absence of war.  

Some assume that creativity is more a concern for the decorative arts than for economically hard-headedness of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), so demonstrating how narrow their interests are in anything.  If citizens and workers are to have a fair crack of any political whip, the release and constraint of these causes and effects - or some version of them - need probing.  And 'independence', 'critical-thinking', and 'creativity' need to feature in that interrogation.

But here's the point: that three-fold agenda is pretty-well the opposite of 'loyalty', 'sanctity' and 'purity'.  It rocks-the-boat of beliefs, is disobedient to authority, and in no way is sanctified.  This is a differently-distinctive reforming agenda on the causes and effects of contemporary change...  

'independence' - 'critical thinking' - 'creativity' - 'care' - 'fairness'

But can it be a winner?  It won't fit into any overton window.  It has no easy-to-defend answers.  And it doesn't come across as righteous.  It comes across as difficult. 


  • narrative and rights

Narrative transpose causes-and-effects into sequences.  And in managing their lives people find most sense in narratives - more sense than in questions-and-answers, or arguments, or analyses.  Somehow it's easier to make good use of narrated bad news than reported bad news.  Televised appeals make the point.  So reforming policies need to be able to take what is difficult and transpose it into credible narratives.  

I know what I want to see in that...

'you have rights'

'to figure out what to believe
'and who to trust'

'you can probe the promises'

'question the sources'

'understand the investment'

'know who's getting what'

'know what's helping your family

'and what's harming'

'so you don't need to be told'

'you will sort the confusion'

'and claim your rights'

'we all need you to do that'


There's no short cut here.  No headline.  Needing time.  Nowt that can be crammed into an election campaign.  More like education than declaration.  Particularly in citizenship and work-life - which have not looked good in the recent past.  And more important than finding leaders, if leaders are to be agents of policy.

It's a narrative, and any decent narrative hands the issues to the audience - 'what do you think?'  So...

'which of that complexity do we hold onto?'

'and what do we let go?'

Whoever takes hold of those question - in whatever locality, holding to whatever values, for whose-ever interests - the answers will subvert the merely formulaic, and liberate us all.



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Dr Bill Law FRSA

the career-learning café





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