John McTernan: Tories’ lack of empathy could bite

The government’s disastrous response to the flooding in England is a symptom of a wider malaise affecting the ‘nasty party’, writes John McTernan

The flooding crisis in England could well be the Tories Swedish tsunami. Picture: Getty

The Swedish Social Democrats were the most successful European political party of the 20th century. They held power for all but six years between 1932 and 2006. Then they fell from office and have struggled since to find a route back to power. What was it that broke their run? A scandal? A recession? Boredom with one-party rule? No, none of these.

Wise heads at the top of the party say that it was the tsunami of 2004 that brought them low. Why, you might ask, would a natural disaster on the other side of the world be laid at the feet of the Swedish government? It was because of the way that they responded to the disaster, and most importantly, the tone of their response.

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The Swedish connection to south-east Asia is straightforward. Sweden’s a cold country and large numbers of Swedes head for sunshine over Christmas and New Year. Some 20,000 Swedes were wintering in the region at the time of the tsunami – and nearly 600 died, the largest number of foreign nationals to die in the tragedy.

The death toll only came out in retrospect, but the risk to Swedes should have been obvious to anyone who was thinking about it. And that was the problem, no-one in government seemed to be thinking about it. The emblem of the failure became the foreign minister, Laila Freivalds. She couldn’t find the time to go into her office until 30 hours after the disaster, but meanwhile she was able to go to the theatre.

Some of this was simply bad timing – the earthquake struck on Boxing Day and the Swedish prime minister’s office had only a skeleton staff too junior to recognise the significance to the country of what was happening. But really it was a profound failure of political touch.

While families were terrified about the fate of friends and relatives, the government was showing no urgency.

Technically, behind the scenes the right things were being done – aid agencies were being supported, consular support was strengthened, logistics support was made available to governments in the region.

It didn’t matter. The public saw no empathy, they turned from the Social Democrats and only now – a decade later – are turning back to them.

The truth is, it is one thing to be doing the right thing, it is quite another to be seen to be doing the right thing.

David Cameron is learning this now. The storms and flooding in England are, of course, a far smaller event than the 2004 tsunami. The failures of the Coalition government are, however, hauntingly similar to those of the Swedish Social Democrats. Their first response was swift – but it was technical.

It was the emergency services, the Environment Agency, Network Rail and the energy companies who were in the front line.

Then, Cameron’s team made a move that even the Swedes didn’t try – Eric Pickles tried to politicise the disaster. He blamed the Environment Agency, and targeted the chairman, Labour peer Chris Smith. This was stupidity on stilts.

When people have a house full of water they want to get dry, not take sides in a blame game. Just because Chris Smith was Culture Secretary doesn’t mean he is a wimp. Have you met Jeremy Hunt? Lord Smith is a bruiser and he gave better then he got.

Suddenly government cuts got the blame, and No 10 wished their climate change-denying Environment Secretary was back because he couldn’t possibly be worse than Pickles.

Finally, David Cameron choppered into the flood plains wearing a concerned face and his wellies. But it was too late.

You only get one chance to make a first impression – and Cameron made his when he failed to show any empathy.

The rules have changed, and it’s tough for politicians who’ve been schooled in conflict. You know the kind of thing? Rule 1: Blame the Opposition. Rule 2: Blame someone on your own side. Rule 3: blame anyone else. That approach has reached the end of the road.

Two things have changed. First, voters are better educated and better informed – nearly 40 per cent of the workforce are graduates. Second, the leading role of women in public life is leading to a feminisation of discourse – no less robust in its judgements, but with a very different tone.

Emotional intelligence is a central part of leadership nowadays – as Cameron and Miliband show, at their best. Oldsters may long for the Route 1 approach of a Blair or a Thatcher, but those days have gone.

Of course, empathy has always been a part of politics. After all, one of the defining political frames has always been ‘On your side vs Out of touch’. It’s just that you can no longer simply tell people you’re on their side, or even pick a fight to prove it. You have to show it in your thoughts, words and actions.

A crisis is not just, in Rahm Emanuel’s famous phrase, “something that’s too good to waste”. A crisis also reveals. The public have judged Cameron harshly on the floods, but there is worse to come for him.

The offensive on welfare by both the Church of England and the Catholic Church is highly dangerous for the government. No 10 is wary of a direct fight, the lessons of Margaret Thatcher’s fight over “Faith in the City” have been learned.

But Cameron’s response on welfare – defending the “morality” of his welfare reforms – is missing the point. There is moral outrage about the massive growth of food-banks – and the key word here is outrage. This is about heart as much as head.

However reasoned and well footnoted a speech the Prime Minister makes he will lose this argument too if he doesn’t change tack. Theresa May got it 12 years ago when she said the Tory Party were seen as the “nasty party”.

David Cameron got it too, once, but he needs to change now or he’ll lose more than just this argument.