Imagine Politics Was Not About Winning or Losing

Imagine politics wasn’t about winning or losing. I don’t mean that no one wins, and no one loses. Rather, imagine if winning and not losing wasn’t central to the game of politics.

What does it look like when winning and not losing is the focus of politics?

  • Election campaigns are always in the background of how you think and act.
  • You never feel secure.
  • Your mental health is often impacted by the toll of the game.
  • Being transparent looks risky as it could be used against you.
  • Being right is important because we need to maintain the illusion that it is us vs them.
  • You encourage more voices in politics who believe it is a fight between us vs. them and have a tendency to repel those who don’t buy the rhetoric.
  • The wider the divisions you create in politics tend to correlate with a widening of divisions within society.
  • Good ideas are ones that come from you.
  • Only you will really take control of… immigration, law and order, crime, policing,
  • Your solution to problems is to provide more … more jobs, more police, more security, more houses.

There is nothing wrong with this; it simply is just politics as usual. This is the default version of politics. It is not innovative, it is not creative, and it is not inspiring.

When I say this, I am not doubting the general concern for public service that most politicians display. I am not doubting their belief that their approach is the better one and will help society the most.


  • I am doubting the prospect of politics taking a different form if this is your approach.
  • I am doubting the possibility of politics being focused on the fulfilment of the interests of society and the happiness of people.
  • I am doubting the possibility of devolved powers being a mode to empower communities really.
  • I am doubting the possibility of policy decisions being made which are driven by a humanity-first approach, not a numbers-based approach.

Like it or not politics is a game. But it is a game where only a few experiences holding the power.

In life perception plays a critical role in how we see not just ourselves, others, but also the world in general. We have perceptions about anything we have ideas about. The thoughts and feelings we have about each of these give us in large our experience, and that experience forms a version of reality.

Politics is no different. Politics is driven by various perceptions. Those different as well as overlapping perceptions, create a dialogue or conversation about politics. They in turn create a view of politics.

Some views commonly held are:

  • Politics attracts psychopaths.
  • Politics is cutthroat.
  • Politics is made up of parties who think they are right.
  • Politics is made up largely of people with a passion for public service.
  • Politics is full of people who are corrupted by power.
  • Politics is divisive.
  • Politics is disrespectful.
  • Politics is something that it is best to have low expectations about.

Whatever view you have none of this is inherent in politics. They are simply representative of different points of view, drawn from past experience, thoughts, feelings and ideas about politics.

Some you may see as your idea of politics, others you may see as inherited, others you may just plain disagree with. The point is each of these views creates a perspective that creates an experience of politics.

A view that I held was that there is very little collaboration across political parties. That view stemmed from studying political philosophy, the history of politics in England and the public-facing communication that we as the public witness, read, and hear about. Each of these is an attempt to either control or create a narrative.

When I learned from leaders within politics that collaboration was not infrequent, I started to look for all the other assumptions I held about politics that don’t add up in practice. And I will continue to share what I discover in future articles.

For now, I invite you to imagine that collaboration is frequent across political parties (and even if you are convinced it is not in your country, I invite you to play in that space anyway).

If there is already frequent collaboration across parties, what does that allow as a possibility for politics? One possibility I see is a different way of communicating with the public. The challenge with a new form of communication seems to stem from this worry. If the message is too complicated, if the message isn’t an us vs them message, then it won’t move people to act. You won’t move people to vote decisively.

A message which confuses about who’s on the right side of politics could risk alienating the voters or worse have voters not see them as the people to implement the changes, the people to govern. That all makes sense. If, however, it’s the simplicity of the message, which is what’s critical then why does the message have to be so disempowering? So adversarial?

The impact of this form of messaging is serious. Recently Andrew Leigh MP spoke in Australia about raising the standards of parliamentary speech. He spoke about Parliament being one of the few places in Australia where it was acceptable to shout and speak over colleagues when they were trying to do their job. Dr Leigh has stood out to me as an Australian politician who is not willing to tolerate business as usual.

It was only a month or so ago that Dr Leigh was reading out a letter from one of the young voices in Australia who called out the manner of communicating. She was 17 and said that the way parliamentarians communicated would not be tolerated in her workplace.

It is important to really be with that. A 17-year-old can see what is blindingly obvious about the lack of effective communication within the Australian Parliament. Unfortunately, this is on full display in many countries around the world.

The culture created within politics impacts every aspect of politics. And it creates a serious recruitment problem. Brian Klaas has effectively shown that the prospects of reducing police violence are correlated with who is being attracted and then recruited to the police. The New Zealand police force attracted people who previously had not considered being police officers by focusing on a series of ads appealing to those who were compassionate. By contrast, in parts of the US, the ads were focused on the militarization of the police. In turn, they attracted far more people for whom combat and violence were desirable. Klaas’ book Corruptible shares some hard-to-fathom examples of how bad this situation has gotten as well as what can be done to improve things.

Consider, this recruitment issue is also there in politics. We’re not attracting people to politics, because the perception of what politics is is that politics is divisive. It doesn’t have to be that way. If the game of politics lives inside of winning and not losing, then it looks like it has to be that way. The existing culture of politics becomes a deterrent to many of the most effective leaders there are.

Countless people who have been surveyed are turned off by the culture of politics. They do not see it as a culture they want to be a part of. The abuse, the misogyny, the standards of conducting oneself as a group, the invasions of privacy, and the personal attacks. It is stunning to think about how much outside of politics the conversation has shifted and the expectations and demands within organisations of what is acceptable have altered. Yet in politics, the standards of discourse have remained at the same low bar.

Politics becomes attractive to the few who will put up with the existing mode of communicating or for whom that way of communicating is consistent with how they get results in life already. That is not to ignore the possibility of there being others who believe they can help alter the discourse. But without fundamental support for doing so, and without knowing how to have your voice heard effectively, you might spend your energy doing this without any results. The belief that you can be at the source of real change starts to wane, and instead dealing with politics within the existing parameters of trying to make the best case for winning and not losing is the game you play.

It has you see heckling and being adversarial as an important strategy for winning that is what you will likely do. Politicians are aware of this problem. Sir Bernard Jenkins spoke about this problem at the Institute for Government this week. He referred to the adversarial nature of party politics where blaming each other’s current record or past record is a tactic utilised in order to get elected.

Similarly, there is a group of MPs who have supported the work of Compassion in Politics to create a more respectful tone. Awareness of a problem is, however, distinct from commitment. One does not have to wait for an agreed shift in the rules from the Speaker in the House of Commons to create a statement about respectful communication. Norms and conventions cease when the belief ceases.

For a belief in a convention to cease there must also be a shift in expectation about what others in the group will do. If people expect a future where heckling remains, then they are unlikely to shift their behaviour. After all, heckling is part of the game they play in order to win. Type into Google ‘who won pmqs’ and you will find a series of hits with media opinion on just that.

Everyone is trapped in the same game. And they are trapped in the game because they don’t see any other game to play. Worse still the game creates a false perception that most politicians are just in it for themselves and lack empathy. They don’t but more on that another day.

Imagine that we could still start to deal effectively with this recruiting issue and the perception of politics if we created a new form of communication. A form of communication that was not about proving you are right and the opposition is wrong.

Imagine we could get far more done if collaboration were not something which was done in the background but was communicated from the foreground.

Imagine that political questions like the current Prime Minister’s Questions in the UK were not a showpiece, but a demonstration of what is possible in the realm of political leadership.

Imagine that these spaces were an opportunity to listen, really listen to each other, and get what each other is saying. They do so not from a script – and that is distinct from saying don’t prepare, preparation is important in any professional space. It is not the script, which is generating the response.

It’s listening without already knowing. It’s listening for agreement, listening for where you can offer a different lens which has them see a problem newly, it is listening for the possibility of ‘Let me work with you on that.’ ‘Let me support you with that.’ ‘That’s important to us too.’ ‘There’s something to that idea and let us share an alternate perspective which may be more effective.’ ‘Have you considered …?’ It is getting that in the game called serving the nation you are actually on the same team even when you differ in your ideas about what that looks like.

It is possible a lot of this collaboration might be going on in the background of politics. But given the way perception creates a reality, wouldn’t it be important to shift what seems to be going on in the foreground from the perspective of those looking in? What impact might there be on public perception if parties were seen as working together (even when they disagree)?

What if it didn’t matter whose idea it was but rather whether the idea made a difference around what everyone cares about, namely the interests of society and the happiness of people?

Just because things have been done a certain way in the past, is not a way a reason to continue. Just because politics has been about winning, and not losing, doesn’t mean the context for which politics exists has to remain about winning or losing. That’s not ignoring the fact that there will be people who win and there will be people who lose. But if it’s not about winning or losing, there’ll be something else which is at stake bigger than that, which will be driving all of it.

The rules are made up. The systems can be modified, refined, and discarded when they are not effective. We are not stuck with them. We can create anything.

This is a moonshot approach to politics. It is the ‘you are the janitor, who’s putting a man on the moon’ approach to politics. It is not the approach to politics where people don’t know what their purpose is. They’re not sure what they’re working towards, and they’re trying to figure it out, or they’re just resigned about the fact that they’re not going to be able to do what they wanted to do so they just have to settle for how things already are. All of that is in a world of disempowerment. It is based on a reactive as opposed to created future.

Reactive futures are predictable because they are drawn from some version of what we have already seen in the past. They are survival driven in the same way our brains are geared towards surviving. If you create politics as being like a brain and purely geared towards survival, then the future of politics will only be geared toward survival.

Let’s take this analogy one step further. Consider that you are not your brain. Your brain is geared towards survival. Survival not just in the physical sense but also in the sense of preserving our existing identity, and conception of self, inside of what is familiar. The default mode network is part of what creates predictability in the brain.

Now let’s look at politics. Politics is made up of people. Those people speak and act inside a network of conversations. Consider we also have a default mode network that gives us the future of what politics looks like. That network is driven by a conversation around security and survival.

Imagine the following conversation:

‘We’ve got to make sure we win. If we don’t win. We’re powerless.’

‘Wow. What a conversation to be in. “If we don’t win this game, we’re powerless. We can’t do anything unless we’re in government.” Who said so?’

‘But that’s how it used to be. That’s how it’s been.’

‘Great. That’s how it’s been. Does that mean it has to continue to be that way? Have there not been lots of things in history which were a certain way and then they were a different way?’


‘So why is this any different?’

‘Well, it’s politics. You don’t understand how politics works.’

‘Great. Isn’t that an opportunity to shift the way politics works?’

If the way politics works currently, is that the only game that you can see to play is ‘I have got to win and avoid losing‘, then isn’t it about time you create a new game? Consider that actually, that game is only made up of losers. No one is winning that game. No one can win that game. It’s a game lived from a fear-based state. It is not a powerful game. If the game doesn’t live as a game, it’s not a game at all.

I work with leaders to play big games that fulfil them. They create power in their lives in places where they have lacked it. They develop the ability to operate from non-egoic power even when the circumstances call for them being powerless. Whom they become is extraordinary to witness. They shout ‘I have got this’ and then they live from being that. And they expand each time they bust some limiting view they previously held about themselves.

My commitment to leaders in politics is that you experience that same freedom, peace, fulfilment and effectiveness that comes when you stand in and operate from being an extraordinary politician.