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By Emma Burnell / @EmmaBurnell_

Politics is ultimately the art of persuasion. Ideology is important, policy is important, but at the end of the day, these only matter if you can convince others to join you in supporting them. To make a difference you must achieve power. To achieve power, you must win votes. To win votes, you must persuade. Not cajole, not bully, not subvert, ignore or avoid: persuade.

But persuasion is often the hardest part of politics and that’s why so many people prefer not to do it. It’s incredibly hard to have your ideas challenged and often repeatedly, roundly and sometimes even rightly rejected. It’s wearing on your emotional strength and your mental health. Shying away from giving other the opportunity to do so is a completely natural instinct. But in politics it is simply the worst thing you can do to yourself or for the causes you care about.

Ideas are important, but like children, they spoil if they aren’t challenged. Much as it may feel satisfying, surrounding ourselves with the comfort of ever purer agreement is the best way to ensure that when your ideas do come into the light they fade at their first exposure.

This is why Labour members at every level must be our own toughest critics as well as our own cheering squad. Both are vital to strengthening us as an organisation of persuasion. For an argument to work, it has to be well tested and challenged. For us to understand what makes something persuasive we have to try, try and try again. We need to be challenged not just from our own perspective but from the viewpoint of others who would always oppose us and those who might be able to be brought around.

Politicians and political activists should ask every day how their views have been challenged, and who by? Challenges should be a regular part of preparing your argument and we should all be open to that. Not because we should be perpetually rowing with each other. Were that the case then our challenges would become stale and unhelpful. We need to seek out new people to challenge us and new ways for them to do so.

When things are rough, it is so easy to fall into a bunker mentality. To only listen to those with the praise that has been all too often missing from opponents fairly and unfairly. When it feels like the world is against you it is so natural to cling on only to those who see things as you do. Few of us have the strength not to.

It’s a long tough slog – I know that. I’ve been doing it for Labour in good times and bad for most of my life. And I fall down too. I make mistakes and fall into bad patterns of behaviour. I try to challenge myself, my ideas and my perceptions and find others willing and able to do so. But sometimes I too turn away from the fight.

But arguments are like muscles, to be at their best they need to be well worked out. This is hard, and often painful. But it is absolutely essential to the health of our politics. If you believe that Labour is the best party to lead the nation, solve what ails us, heal what divides us and deliver a better future, you have to be able to tell me why. Then you have to be able to tell my neighbour, then their friend, their Uncle and everyone you meet and interact with right up to Laura Kuenssberg and Andrew Neil. And the more you persuade the more persuasive you become. And when at least you have persuaded enough people to cross the finish line a winner, ready and able to deliver the vision you have persuaded others to share with you, there is no better feeling in the world.

Emma Burnell is a regular columnist for Open Labour

2 responses to “The pursuit of power is the pursuit of persuasion

  1. You are right, Emma, we must listen to others. I have tried listening to Corbyn supporters, but have given up on that because they are either abusive or like a scratched record. I listened to Owen Smith, which was invigorating, but the majority of members rejected him so I don’t get that pleasure any more.
    I have also listened to what the Brexiteers have to say, but they tell me lies and provide me with no answers. I have listened to Theresa May, who campaigned to remain n the EU but is now leading us out, and I find what she says and does repugnant. At the moment I am listening to Tim Fallon; he is saying the right things on the EU, but…I don’t know…he seems more suited to hosting a popular game show on ITV than leading a country.
    So, tell me, who should I listen to in order to persuade people to vote Labour? If I mention Corbyn people laugh, if I mention McDonnell people grab a crucifix and back away, if I mention Abbott they roll their eyes and walk off. Who should be my guiding light?

  2. Wonderful article. We, the left, need to fight against our own echo-chambers if we’re to have any electoral success going forward.

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