How to use a train

On one level, this week’s headlines have been all about a man who doesn’t use trains very much and therefore doesn’t understand how they work. Here’s some simple advice:
  • If you want to sit together as a group, make sure you book seats in advance. Otherwise you may not be able to sit together. It doesn’t cost any more, and if you are sure when you are going to travel, you might even save money.
  • If a seat is reserved, you can sit in it – but if someone arrives and it is their seat, be prepared to move. If the train has left Kings Cross and the next stop is York, you can be pretty confident that you will be able to sit in the seat at least until York.
  • People like to sit with their bag next to them. If the train isn’t busy, that’s not a problem. If the train is busy, then ask them politely to move their bag so that you can sit down.
  • Sometimes people don’t realise that there are seats free further up the train and gather in a vestibule thinking that if there were seats free other people would have gone to sit in them. The train staff sometimes point this out (and also ask people to move their bags off the seats).

These are not new phenomena – here’s Ben Elton in 1993 reprising his material poking fun at British Rail.

On another level of course it is a story of someone who was prepared to tell lies in order to make a political point. Not a good idea on principle and in practice bad strategy because when the lies are exposed, the political point is likely to get drowned out.

I’m not sure whether to be surprised at the people who have rushed to Saint Jeremy’s defence, but he has now given a fuller account of what happened – which confirms that the original video did not paint an accurate picture and that the problems he suffered were about the bullet points above, not about the train being “ram packed”.

Is the media against him? Yes – but whether that amounts to bias is arguable. When the Leader of a major political party is caught telling porkies that’s a news story. I don’t think we can criticise them for pursuing the story – but it is true that Cameron and Osborne regularly got away with much worse. Pretending they had helped lift people out of poverty when in fact the reverse was true for example didn’t get nearly as much news coverage as it deserved and there was little analysis of the likely impact of their further welfare cuts before the General Election.

But Labour politicians know this. the question is how you deal with it. And one aspect of that is anticipating that you are likely to get crucified if you play fast and loose with the facts.

Successful experienced politicians who are thinking about how to approach major interviews, debates or just deciding on a political position on an issue practice scenarios and ask themselves “what happens next” – sometimes by getting their team to take on different roles. It is not enough to say what you will do – you need to think through what the other stakeholders will do in response – and then think about what you will do in response to their next move etc. Academics call this approach game theory.

The most important role of the people around the Leader is to have the gumption to say “Sorry boss but that’s a really bad idea because…”. Choose your own favourite option – “what if someone found out you have been recording all your conversations revealing your involvement in clandestine criminal operations” would have been a good one to use with Nixon; “what if there are pictures proving the opposite” in this particular case. How a major company with a penchant for self publicity might react if you made up a negative story about them would probably seem pretty obvious now even to Corbyn’s hapless team – the CCTV footage was just the icing on the cake for Richard Branson ensuring that even Corbyn would not be able to brazen this one out.


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