Friday, July 17, 2009

Establishing a political narrative

This is an article i have recently received from a Sinn Féin supporter. It is clearly part of the ongoing debate that is going on in the party at the present time. For me this debate is crucial and will decide what the future holds for Sinn Féin.


There has been much discussion about the political direction Sinn Fein should follow. Those discussions have been renewed following the recent elections. This site is itself a forum for such debate and there have been posts on the need to be more left wing, to remove ourselves from centrist govt. etc. Over on other sites more hostile posters have questioned whether the party has lost its connection with the working class to more radical left groupings.

How do we answer such a question. One possible answer is we tack left to meet the challenge from that quarter. However to my mind there is also different aspect to the question. Its an aspect that would remain the same whether we were to tack left of PBP/SWP and the SP; it would remain the same even if we went straight to the center. I am talking about the word connection. The connection with the voters is that set of beliefs, assumptions, that sense of trust they have for and awareness of our party.

Connection might as easily be described as whats our message, whats our story or narrative, what are we communicating to the voters and whats their set of assumptions about us. That’s not a left wing right wing thing. It cant be answered with we need to be more left wing or more right wing but its a question of how successful are we in making voters understand our political vision and representing their wishes.

I believe that the recent elections have demonstrated that we have not yet communicated our vision to the voters successfully but rather have allowed others to instead paint a picture in the mind of voters of who Sinn Fein are. I believe that as a party we have not yet challenged that perception aggressively enough.

Before I focus on Sinn Fein’s narrative I’d like to briefly discuss other narratives which might give an idea of what I am concentrating on.

Obama - His campaign was built about the narrative of change and captured the desires of Americans for a step change in society. It also neutered his critics who tried to paint him as inexperienced. Similar to

Gordon Brown - he tried to position himself as the man who was orchestrating the global response to the depression.

The Tories say they are change, willing to make the cuts and do what needs doing

The Liberal Democrats counter that narrative by saying that Labour and the Tories are the same and only the Liberals are free of the political corruption scandals. Only they can reform westminister.

Here in the south of Ireland each party has a narrative or story its trying to communicate to voters and a counter story being told by its opponents or just something that’s associated with the party. Sometimes a counter story is told by the party against its own interests- think of John Gormley standing fastly with Fianna Fail in photo ops but then saying the greens are doing their own thing. Think of Fianna Fail’s message in 2007 that they were the only safe pair of hands and how successful that message was. Also think of how the opposition failed to counter that story and lost (luckily)

Stories and counter-stories.

No matter how just, right or good a message is it generally wont sell itself. It might do if it were the only show in town but its not. There are alternative viewpoints that its competing with and everyone else is explaining why your viewpoint is wrong and theirs is right. Some people even misread your view point and label you incorrectly. So having a clear message or political narrative with which can explain who you are and what you are about is important.

A voter needs to be able to sum your party up in a few words and you need to ensure those few words are positive, actually true, and really speak to a segment in society that has a genuine need. I think its necessary to stress this is not talking about spin - the art of lying. Its rather about ensuring you get to tell people who you are and what you are about and what your opponents are about rather than having them do it for you.

At this point in time the party is pretty much painted into a box in the mind of the southern electorate as a pre-dominantly northern ran and orientated republican party that's pro-workers but that has no decent economic policy or understanding of economic policy and who are electorally stalled and irrelevant to the debate. All the points I marked as counter-stories put out about Sinn Fein in the above table are the most commonly held beliefs about the party. Although about 7-8% of the electorate is hearing our message and connecting with it etc we are seeing, again unfortunately, that we are failing to connect with the next 7-8% of the voters that we need to be at 15% (which is not at all beyond possibility in the medium term).

Making that connection

So why aren’t we at 15% at the moment. Well surely several reasons but I believe that a key one is Sinn Fein’s inability to phrase, or word, its message so that a larger segment of regular people associate with the Sinn Fein message and feel that it represents them and their concerns in a way that they themselves might express it ie it makes a connection with them in the words of ordinary people.

No party can entirely control its message because of the prevalence of others pushing counter stories. To that end the behaviour of certain media outlets etc. who attack Sinn Fein has to be accepted as a fact and cannot be used as a reason for our loss of momentum.

We have been strongly focussed on refuting the counter stories about us by proving our economic/policy credentials via proposals and submissions and via thoughtful and weighted contributions on the Lisbon debate . We have established our southern relevance with a strong cadre of southern based party figures. We have demonstrated our ability to do the real work in govt. by constructively working in the Dail.

However such was the weight of negative propaganda that all we have succeeded in doing is standing still. Now we need to reevaluate the message so that we can grow to 15%.

I believe that Sinn Fein needs to:

(a) go back to basics as Toireasa Ferris said re community work.

(b) Continue to prove our economic/policy credibility with good work but push the message in a more insistant fashion, and in a more passionate manner. I have noted that some SF reps doing TV work are very sober and serious, getting across the message that we are a serious party with a firm grasp of the issue. That’s good but does that mean we don’t make any emotional connection with the voters.

c) We need to start taking some harder, more controversial positions. I don’t mean populist or jam for everybody positions but rather lets push the boat out a bit with costed and economically proofed proposals. People don’t know what our positions are on issues. Lets change that. The Fgers have the health reform, labour their no vote last sept etc. Whats our angle? Dail reform became a big theme for a few days. Can we be the party of reform - god knows people want institutional reform in this state.

(d) What ever words or ideas become central to our message lets not develop that message for our own consumption. This is 2009 and if our way of expressing ourselves is not the way ordinary working class people are expressing themselves then lets stop trying to change the people and instead change how we express ourselves. Our principles remain the same but we instead talk using the language of the office and the factory and the dole queue, not in language drawn from books and journals.

(e) People who are members, or like myself, only supporters, should be conscious that we can play a key part in advancing the SF message. We, with the leadership, are the key players in convincing a broader segment of society that we are capable, competent and relevant to their needs.

f) Finally once we establish a message we should not deviate from it over the short term. Don’t side track but repeat it and keep on it and then repeat it until it’s established.


  1. A Chara, Im away out just now, but read your very good post and will have a think over it for a comment reply over the weekend. Though you might be interested in this as well:

    Is Mise,
    Ban Sidhe

  2. Hi, Thanks Starry for the post.

    Just wanted to say folks should double click on the table above to see the couter stories column.

    look forward to your comments I4P and other folks as well.

  3. theres alot of people skirting around similar issues for along time whats interesting about this one is the concept of other people writing our own narative. probably some truth in that. another counciler resigned today, ha, politician used to be a dirty word in SF might be again the way things are going. when some people can credibley say there leaving the party because it's
    a)to left
    b) to right

    theres some thing wrong with the nartive as you put it when conflicting stories are accepted as truth. the arguments against SF arn't consistant in theame. from different quarters of thaught they are consistent all right but turning that around. for the people who think where thugs they'll all ways think us thugs so we should smash something and prove them right to the people who think were sell outs we should smash something and get on with it. fuck them. to mush appeaseing going on, your right we know who we are, stick to it and get on with it.

  4. The difficulty i have with this post, and with the article written by Ferris in last weeks An Phoblacht, is that it contains no solid talk of what Sinn Féin's overall philosophy is.

    If we do not have an overiding set of basic beliefs that underpin what do, then what do we have and who are we? To me the danger is that we simple become more interested in gaining power for powers sake, and to do this we become prepared to just do what ever we (the leadership) think is required.

    To me that is what the labour party in England did under Tony Blair. They sacrificed principle for power. They became all things to all people and crushed internal debate by saying "look trust us, we know what to do and always remember we need unity or we will never be in government." Look what happened. The party that created a welfare state and made real gains for the working class no longer knows what to do anymore. It governs with an eye to the media and always thinks of how it can look good, rather than considering basic principles of what is right.

    Why does that happen? It happens because in the search for power they sacraficed their principles and they no longer have an overiding theory of what is right.

    For me Sinn Féin's basic philosophy must be that we are a left wing republican party who recognise the unequal distribution of power and wealth in society. As such we are dedicated to fighting for the rights of working people and their families and attacking the power, privilidge and selfishness of the ruling elites.

  5. SP,

    Your points are right. Without a basic philosophy then whats it all about. I agree, and I think alot of the debate that seems to be going on at the moment is all about reviewing our basic philospohy and refiguring who we are. Not a bad thing. Every party needs to keep examining who it is.

    So we need to reaffirm or reidentify what our principles are but how do we explain those principals to the voters. What examples do we pick to demonstrate our principles to the voters. Cause once we have a message, or a vehicle to show what our principles are, then we begin to connect with the voters. Then they really start to think yeah SF is in my corner.

    I firmly believe that once we reaffirm our principles that we only then begin to start the real work of delivering our vision by attracting and convincing people via our message that our principles are the same as theirs.

    You say we are a left wing republican party determined to stand up for the workers and bring fight inequality. But as per my table thats our narrative or story about who we are ourselves. I think thats who we are and who we should be. But the counter-story thats prevalent is that we are economic illiterates. For me thats about our story being rejected by the voters in favour of the counter-story.

    Maybe this sounds like new labour but this type of message fine-tuning is not the preserve of nu-labour style parties. Even the Socialist Worker's party is involved in managing their message to the voter. They are aware that the core philosophy of trotskyist socialist revolution does not speak to the irish electorate and is generally rejected by the voters as being irrelevant or not meeting their needs*. The counter story that the SWP are loopy left is too damaging and unless they overcome it they will never make serious gains that can deliver real social progress. So they changed their message, or the impression they make with voters, by calling themselves the People Before Profit alliance and just focussing on community issues suchas bins and water taxes.

    Thats an exercise in managing its message or political narrative. And not a good one in my books, even if it brings some small electoral success.

    More openly the SP's strong message is Joe Higgins, decent joe. And thats a message that most people formed themselves about Joe. the SP didnt need to push it, but its a strong message and one that the SP uses. For them the challenge is to broaden that acceptance of the SP by voters to an acceptance of their Socialist programme. Thats going to be a harder task because there is a strong counter story that the SP are all about turning the state into some crazy cuba of europe. Is that true no but its a common opinon of them.

    Both those parties have principles strongly held. They also have to consider their message as well though.

    I think both reaffirmed principles and a good message to explain them with are needed.

  6. Anon of 6:04,

    you say there is something wrong when conflictin narratives are accepted as truth. We dont own our party's story though, effectively the voters do. There will always be conflicting narratives about our party, the counter-stories or negative stories put out by opponenets or people with the wrong impression about us. Then there is our narrative or story about what we can do and what we want to achieve. If there is anything wrong with our narrative at the moment its that we are aiming it at about 70% of the electorate. The point i understood TF was making. As a result its watered down to nothing. Focus our narrative on about 30% and then we'll see progress.

    We cant complain about people pushing counter-stories about us. Thats politics. We do the same everytime we say FG are the same as FF;or when we say the greens have lost sight of their beliefs. These are our stories or messaage to counter their respective stories.

    I believe that were we are going wrong is by being too broad with our message. Thats why I like TF's focus on about 30%. What party aims for 100% of the vote - none and neither should we. We dont need to piss off the remaining 70% but we could focus more clearly on the 30% and really connect with them. At the moment we are like the kid who wants to be everybody's buddy.
    Thts a pity because the quality of work is there its just being diluted too much.

  7. yeah thats fair enough but what i ment is the inconsistencies are becomeing accepted by our own it's a process inside and out. i can go down to the shop today pick up a copy of the sunday indo and read that were marxists finish it then go on indymedia and read that were catolic nationaist reactionaries. broard examples and i accept that you can't stop others trowing mud but when it's our own argueing it something crazy and room spinning is happening. i have my own disagreements with where SF has gone over the last decade iam a thinking human being its natural but trying to follow other peoples objections which there intitled to but if you pin it down try and work it out it's pulling every where. in the last 10 years bar the 32 walk out there has been no split in the republican movement, whats happening is we are fragmenting, i'd include eirigi in that. people aren't accepting one argument, they are accepting a varied number of them from different angles. maybe its a natural process maybe not, what appealed to me in the original post is this empisies on defining naritive which to me i know what iam but broadly blatently must not be happening. every other spilt in republican history happened at a fork in the road, a breaking of direction today there happening two miles after the fork two miles before it, when where on the bypass and no where near it. not to disparage everyone who left but to look at everyone who left in there totality then transport those arguments internally, it's unconsistent. armuments have tried to be settled through appeaseing to one point of view or another, the same process of appealing to a wide no of the elorate as possible is happening internally, hasn't worked so would agree wwith all of youse ferris yourself the original author. refine and define the message, cut it back to the root and work out from there.

    anon 6.04