Thursday, 15 April 2010

Style and Substance

So - the great UK "Leaders' Debate" starts this evening. The leaders of the three main political parties will engage in a live TV debate (the first of three) in what is supposed to be the centre-piece of the forthcoming general election. Most of the media agencies have been gearing up for these debates for ages (take the BBC for example) - desperately trying to encourage the viewing/listening/reading public to believe that these debates are fantastically important to the outcome of the election. Sadly they are probably right.

I say sadly because I would really like the election to be decided by issues of policy and belief. I agree with Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News who said (sarcastically) today on his Twitter feed:
"Thankfully election TV debates are decided by serious issues like sweat, suits, looking at watches, put-downs and one-liners... Not trivia like policy, candour or answering a question"
In another part of their site (here), the BBC itemise the ways in which the debates could change the election and cite "The Gaffe" and "The Reaction Shot" amongst their list. I find this very depressing - that there is so little to choose - apparently - amongst the main parties that an accidental error in an 90 minute live broadcast or even a look of surprise or anger might swing the election. Are we electing the best party to run the country - and don't forget that we actually don't get to vote on the party leader unless we happen to be a member of that party (there is nothing to stop all three parties changing leader the day after the election) - or are we electing the best performer, the best trained actor or the main with the best media coach?

In an ideal world it should be both style and substance. In an ideal election we would all:
  1. Know the policies of all the parties in detail
  2. Be in a position to question both our own local candidate and party leaders
  3. Have a good understanding of our own context and that of the country and understand the macro political/economic/social environment - and so be able to select the most appropriate leaders
All that being equal we might easily then choose the best looking candidate or the one with the best sense of humour or dress. I suggest however that the substance is more important than the style.

Of course, we are not engaged in an ideal election. The parties seem to assume that we all care about style and that the detail of the content - the real substance of their case - can wait until after the election. Vague promises seem to be the order of the day. It is, after all, about politics - not about common sense.

I had a discussion yesterday with a friend in a law firm who will soon be voting for a new Managing Partner. It would seem that he is in the same position as I am with the "Leaders' Debate". The candidates for Managing Partner (I was going to shorten that to MP but even I found it confusing) are already positioning themselves with regard to the wider partnership and political stances are being taken. Promises are being made and factions established. I suggested, naively it turns out, that the partners should ask the candidates about their leadership styles and about their managerial experience and plans. "Don't be ridiculous", I was told "it's not about skills - its about power". It is, apparently, about who has built the best power-base; who has the right "friends" and about who has made the right promises.

In law firms, as with the country as a whole, it would seem that (often) style is much more important than substance. Sadly even if I accept that this statement is true (and I suppose that I have to) - it is only true during an election. After the election it is the substance that will be important - the substance that will drag the economy out of the mess it is in and the substance that will position the country (or the firm) over the next four to five years. Surely, then, we should all be looking for our leaders a little more closely through the style at the substance?

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