Comment: The left needs to understand the power of sales

The true task of the politician, like the salesperson, is to persuade people to agree with them


In an interview with CBS the weekend following his final appearance as host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart was asked if he enjoyed talking to politicians.

“I despise it,” he replied. “They’re salespeople. They live in a world of conjuring and denial. It’s very strange to talk to people who have lost their awareness that that’s what they’re doing.”

Jon Stewart is hardly alone in his disdain for sales and in rejecting its influence on politics, he joins the growing ranks seeking a ‘better’, more substantive discourse. None are doing so as loudly as the left, and nowhere has this had more impact than in the recent Labour leadership contest.

It makes sense, of course. More than most, lefties like to see themselves as purveyors of principle. Their raison d’etre is to solve problems, to help communities, to change lives.

That’s why they lose.

At every turn the true task of the politician, as of the salesperson, is to persuade people to agree with them, and then to act on that agreement. A salesperson knows that to achieve this they must convince the customer to believe not just in the product, but also in them, their company and their pitch. Ultimately in their ability to meet the customer’s needs.

In calling for more substance Stewart and the rest are saying we should concentrate almost exclusively on policy (ie. ‘the product’). This approach also forms the basis for Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘new politics’. As appealing as this might sound, it represents a massive misunderstanding of how most ordinary people interact with politics.

Throughout the leadership race the charge against Corbyn was that his policy prescriptions rendered him ‘unelectable’. It appears that the only conclusion his opponents drew from the general election result was that the electorate was put off by Labour’s policies. The reality was more complex.

While the policies surely played a part in Labour’s defeat, other factors – their leader, the message, and the party’s overall reputation in the eyes of the average voter – were at least as significant. In their desperation to be rid of every last trace of the Blair era, what Labour forgets is that It wasn’t Blair’s centrist policies that won them elections, but Blair himself.

For the fact is that Labour’s electoral difficulties will lie less in products that are difficult to push, than in a salesman with no appetite to push them. Jeremy Corbyn stood for the Labour leadership not because he wanted to do the job, or thought he’d be good at it, but to ensure ‘a broader range of candidates and a thorough debate’.

A salesman likes the sound of his own voice, welcoming any opportunity to speak to the customer. Since his coronation, Corbyn, cancelling interviews, running from reporters, in his conference speech that spoke only to the choir, has shown that he does not care for the business of pitching his case.

In thirty-two years as a rebellious MP, he has shown neither the willingness nor the ability to persuade anyone of anything they didn’t already agree with.

In his favour he has sincerity, authenticity and a reputation for caring about his constituents – all valuable attributes. However, if he can’t – or won’t – communicate, these qualities will do little to help establish his own image and rehabilitate his party’s.

Which is crucial. Because since the financial crisis Labour’s is a tainted brand. That they didn’t cause the crisis is pretty much irrelevant. They were the ones in charge at the time and as far as most people are concerned, that’s what matters. It was on Labour’s watch that 3.7 million jobs were lost.

However, that this belief in Labour’s culpability is so deeply ingrained can be attributed to the the party’s weak, incoherent pitch to the contrary. In the end the Conservatives, with their own messaging, didn’t have to do much more than remind the voter of what they already believed to be true. They had simple attack lines, that were easy to understand and delivered well.

The idea of reducing complex policy to a fifteen-second sales pitch may seem anathema, but it doesn’t change the fact that that might be all the time you get. It’s not about embracing Blair’s centrist policies but some of his other talents, which were so crucial in giving Labour thirteen years in government.

The Tories, although they didn’t understand this for a while, do now seem to grasp it.

David Cameron wasn’t chosen to lead the Conservative party because of his own ideas and principles but because he, better than anyone else they had, could sell the ideas, principles and vision for governing of the party he represents. The left needs to remember how to do the same. Because like it or not, sales is a feature of politics, not a flaw.

Nick Christian is a Brixton-based blogger and campaigner who focuses on human rights and environmental politics and specialises in digital communications and marketing.

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15 Responses to “Comment: The left needs to understand the power of sales”

  1. steroflex

    Nick, this sentence is very cruel: “Since his coronation, Corbyn…”
    Like most English and British people, I certainly prefer HM the Queen, who was truly crowned and who has served her country with enormous and faithful hard work.
    Mr Corbyn, like President Bob Mugabe and President Hugo Chavez would make an awful head of state. Thank heavens he can see this and is not going to insult Her Majesty again.
    Please be more careful with your words.

  2. Omoba Oladele Osinuga

    Nick Christian is spot on in his analysis and for those of us who didn’t support Corbyn but wish him all the best and success as party leader these are the home truths they should be listening to. Labour can only be an instrument of change if it’s in a position to persuade waverers and win elections be the party of government. It can’t do anything by being seen and perceived as a protest movement or by the number of members who have signed up.

  3. peterfreemansix

    Weren’t Keir Hardie and Clement Attlee ‘poor salesmen?’

  4. Gerry Toner

    There is substance in the proposition that Corbyn, as yet, has not got his communications established. I am not concerned by the he has disdain for some of media or that he does not follow the automaton pitching [selling] that most politicians engage in. He does however need to communicate with the people and he needs a strategy to do that. Here is a challenge as how does he do it without the media he avoids. I do not share the view there is any parallel with selling. Selling is a push concept that seeks to achieve one organisations objective irrespective of others. Corbyn, particularly as the ‘saviour’ of politics, must not push but offer. He should lead not command. It is a mistake to confuse the tactics of selling with the philosophy of values at the core of a leader. Corbyn needs to ignore not just the media. Campaigning is about identifying and sharing values, perceptions and agreeing to act in some form of collective way. Selling is positioning a narrow and partial view of a product or service, ignoring its negative externalities and concentrating on its alleged positives. This is what Blair did about the war. This is what finance does in selling its dubious products. It may be the case that a good salesperson could be an effective campaigner but that would be the person and their values not the ‘salesperson’ talking. This idea is a shimmer.

  5. DemSoc93

    This is a good article. I think the problem with Labour for a long time has been that they don’t believe in their product, that is, stated on party cards and publications, “democratic socialism”. Because one thing about advertising, as the Tories well know, is the clear repetition of the message you want to send about your “product”, or politics in this case. Bang and the dirt is gone, washing machines live longer with Calgon, Labour can’t be trusted with the economy, Jeremy Corbyn is a threat to the nation’s security. Simple, consistent messages. The problem with Labour is that for a party set up to be the voice of the “common” people, it has lost the ability to talk to, and like, them. The simplicity and consistency of the Labour message is blunted by its obsession with caution. I think Jeremy has a better chance than the other three at constructing a Labour message that can be “sold” with simple consistent pledges but as you say that needs to start now, not in four years and 6 months from now. Another genius move of the Tories is the ability to express one’s views in a way that doesn’t sound at all ideological but sounds like the plainest common sense, “we should live within our means”. We need rhetoric like that, that sounds so obvious that it sounds moderate. Radical policies expressed moderately can do well in Britain. That’s how Clem managed it after all.

  6. Cole

    But Attlee was in many ways pretty conservative – a monarchist, a founder of NATO etc – as well as a radical. He understood traditional British values. Corbyn clearly doesn’t, as the God Save the Queen incident clearly demonstrated – and he’s not very bright. He just preaches to the choir.

  7. David Davies

    A good product sells itself. The subterfuge to which you refer the black art of `marketing’ – the art of persuading the gullible that they `need’ some bawbee of which they were previously oblivious.

  8. johnm55

    A good product doesn’t sell itself. For a product to sell the target consumers must first of all be made aware that the product exists, then they must be made aware of the benefits that the product can bring them and that it is better than the opposing products that are being promoted, and finally the need to be convinced that the price they are being asked to pay is acceptable. All of this is called salesmanship. It doesn’t have to be lying to the consumer but it does mean persuading the consumer. Unless of course the target market does not extend beyond the quarter million or so who voted for Jeremy Corbyn
    Even on the left there is a long way to go to persuade the Six Million plus Trades Union members who did not vote at all in the Leadership election.

  9. DemSoc93

    You’re right Attlee was not a natural rebel but he was a convicted (at the least) social democrat. I take issue with the idea that NATO or the monarchy represent “traditional British values” (this phrase is meaningless anyway). What about Thomas Paine? What about the Levellers and the Diggers? All British, all very much in the same tradition as Corbyn. I think he should have sang the national anthem, just to humour the kind of people that think that sort of thing matters one jot. He said early on that he wasn’t going to fight for republican policies in the Labour Party, but the papers have decided to go after him on that issue. I think he gave them a free shot by not singing it and I can only assume that he is genuinely too busy to attend the Privy Council because they’ve gone for him on that too.

    I don’t think he preaches to the crowd at all, he released a series of policy documents that were far clever and politically savvy than “preaching to the crowd”. For instance, he’s been talking about small businesses and how we need fairer business practices so that tax-dodging, corrupt multinationals don’t just walk all over honest small businessmen and women. He’s also been talking about home ownership (in fact one of his earliest policies was a Right to Buy for private tenants). Again one of his early leadership pitches was a call to bring down welfare spending but using the living wage, fairer rents and rent controls. Practical policies aimed at bringing down welfare spending, sorting out the housing crisis and promoting *fair* business.

  10. Cole

    I don’t know about Diggers and Levellers, but I do know about Labour history, and Attlee – and other Labour PMs – would have been appalled by Corbyn. Labour under Attlee was involved in the creation of NATO, participated in the Korean War and wanted Britain to have its own nuclear deterrent. His government of course also created the NHS and welfare state.

    Of course some of Corbyn’s policies are correct, but others – like reopening coal mines and the right to buy rental properties – are daft. And Corbyn’s personal baggage, in the form of relationships with terrorists and dodgy regimes, make him a liability as Labour leader, as does his long history of making foolish statements. He is a gift to the Tories.

  11. DemSoc93

    I don’t think he would have appalled him. He wasn’t appalled by Bevan who, despite his support for an independent nuclear deterrent, wanted actual diplomatic steps towards multilateral disarmament and for Britain to have its own foreign policy rather than just enforce the US’. And in other areas, Bevan was very close to Corbyn’s position. In fact, Attlee wanted Bevan to succeed him.

    The coal mines thing is a complete misrepresentation, what he really said was “Where you can re-open pits – yes – and where you can do clean burn coal technology yes.” his comments were then seconded by Ian Lavery MP who said “Jeremy’s comments are responsible and both economically and environmentally sensible. Deep mined coal production and consumption is on the increase internationally. In the winter months coal still produces on average 50% of the electricity generated in the UK.” So not quite the daft dinosaur position of the caricature.

    I don’t think the idea of subsidising mortgage rates for people renting (many of whom could only dream of buying) funded by removing the excessive landlord subsidies is “daft”.

    His “personal baggage” is far less significant than a number of right wing papers have put it. He tried to engage in a dialogue towards diplomacy with Hezbollah and Hamas. He is not friends with them and he does not agree with them. The fact is that Israel has the diplomatic ear of major powers like the US and UK. He was trying to involve the Palestinian forces like Hamas. Tony Blair has actually met with Hamas more times than Corbyn but we don’t assume he is I’m complete ideological agreement with terrorists, do we?

    With the IRA, he supports Irish republicanism but does not condone terrorism. Once again, when the conflict was at its height he was trying to get them round the table. Mrs Thatcher’s government rnment was in secret talks with them at the same time.

    If you want to talk about real “friendships” between dodgy regimes and British politicians, you should look at Mrs Thatcher and Pinochet and our own Prime Minister’s unwillingness to diplomatically lean on Saudi Arabia to stop it doing stuff like literally crucifying innocent people.

  12. DemSoc93

    You’re absolutely right, but they lived in a different age of media to Corbyn. I think he can learn something from both of them though. I think so far he’s shown signs of the down-to-earthedness of Hardie and the moderately expressed radicalism of Attlee.

  13. Cole

    Of course I deplore the Saudi and former Pinochet regimes. But you only have to look at the Sunday Telegraph’s well researched (for a change) article on Corbyn’s relationship with Sinn Fein/IRA article to see how problematic this is (and it’s pretty much the same with Hamas etc)? To suggest he was some sort of peace negotiator is spin of the worst sort.

    The truth is that Corbyn is obsessively anti American and seems to support virtually anyone that that is in the anti US camp. That is not a Labour tradition, except on the hard left.

    We can argue about the policies. But as for coal, we just need to get rid of the bloody stuff. Hasnt the man heard about climate change?

  14. DemSoc93

    I thought the Sunday Telegraph’s article was the same tired old attempt to make Corbyn guilty for the sometimes objectionable views of everyone person he’s ever associated with. I mean, I don’t agree on every point with everyone I’ve ever associated with, does anybody? To understand his “associations” with the IRA and Hamas as somehow indicative of ideological agreement is spin of the worst sort. What else would you think a prominent peace campaigner and someone who clearly believes in nonviolent change (he went to the trouble of becoming a well-loved constituency MP rather than a militaman, for instance) would be doing talking to people like Hamas and the IRA? It was strategically unwise, but I don’t think at the time he thought that in thirty years his past would be trawled for any trace, no matter how tenuous and irrelevant the link, of any time he and someone with objectionable views were in the same place or same organisation.

    Calling someone who is a critic of American-led foreign policy is just a convenient way of ignoring their arguments. He doesn’t support virtually anyone who is in the US camp, he doesn’t support Putin, he didn’t support Saddam, or Bin Laden, or Hamas or Hezbollah. He’s trying to bring to nuance to the debate about international relations.

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