Sunday, December 30, 2007

Celebrities and Politics: a dilemma of image

BBC political reporter Justin Parkinson asks an interesting question: "Is taking advice from celebrities a cynical voter-pleasing ploy, with politicians merely pretending to listen? Or is it a genuine attempt to engage with the world outside politics?" Parkinson lists a variety of examples: Feargal Sharkey heading a government taskforce on promoting live music; Kirstie Allsopp advising the Conservatives making buying and selling houses less stressful; Sir Alan Sugar advising Gordon Brown on business; I can see a logic so far! Then there are some other examples: avant garde musician Brian Eno briefing Nick Clegg on "youth" issues (Eno is 60 and lives abroad, huh?); Gordon Brown discussing global education with Angelina Jolie (obviously she's an expert); and there was that Fiona Phillips offer!; logical, not really. Surely these politicians are, at some points, trying to appear cool and basking in the limelight of the rich, famous and popular.

Parkinson poses the question in light of Italian prime minister Romano Prodi's refusal to speak to the aforementioned Jolie on the basis that: "I've never heard of a politician getting in trouble by not meeting an actress"; and why should they? If a celebrity offers something of value, such as Jamie Oliver, fine; but it suggests more attempts to be part of Cool Britannia than actually learning anything useful. The real problem is when politicians try to suggest that celebrities are a bridge between them and the public. While people may view some celebrities as being representative in some symbolic way (Geldof on poverty perhaps), they are not really as authentic as is suggested. How can they be, they are even more remote from ordinary life than politicians. The value of the celebrity, they are popular and newsworthy so, except when they do offer expertise (on live music for example), there seems only one reason to get them involved: to look cool surely? Celebrities like Jolie, Bono et al are enormously valuable for getting political issues onto the news agenda and getting messages across to hard to reach audiences (the young and gossip hungry politically apathetics for example) but whether they are good at, or should be used for, getting attention for politicians is more questionable!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Importance of being.... A Wonk! has published its list of the top fifty most influential openly LGB (lesbian, gay and bisexual) people in British politics: First place is not Deputy Chief Whip Nick Brown (He is No 2), or No 3 Peter Mandelson (open??? well outed by the media maybe).
In first place is a man called Spencer Livermore, someone few may have heard of. He is, however, Director of Political Strategy at No 10. I find it very interesting that a strategist, special advisor, is deemed more important that those who are supposed to actually design and set policy: perhaps a sign of the times and our politics. The worry is if the advisor has more power and influence than those we elect, all we are actually doing when voting is electing the person that selects whose advice to take. I guess that getting the right advice is important, and no MP in any position, can have expertise over everything but it makes you wonder who really has the power?

But who are the forces opposing democracy?

Benazir Bhutto 1953-2007

It has been described by senior British politicians as "an appalling act of terrorism" perpetrated by "cowards afraid of democracy". In the US Bush mirrored those words talking of a "cowardly act by murderous extremists". The question is, who are those who are afraid of power, are they extremists or those who hold power?

Gordon Brown: As I remembered it

No Gordon has not written an autobiography just yet, well not really, but if he had it may be titled something like this, or maybe 'As I saw it'; well he does like authoring his own history. For the past six months he has been writing himself out of Labour's history, separating himself from Blair's mistakes or the government's misdeeds or anything really he doesn't like about the last thirteen years. His review of the year on the Downing Street website is priceless, it is the good news only a spun version that is designed to communicate a sense of well-being among the UK public, and visitors to the website, and promote the government as good managers, achievers, even progressives.

But what is the point? It is a little the same as denying a problem exists - I do sadly remember the Conservative 'Crisis? What Crisis?' campaign. Brown seems to be completely in denial! But does his lack of reference to any problems present the image he wants, perhaps not. Most visitors are likely to be students and/or politically savvy, so aware of all the negative news attached to the government, and so are unlikely not to wonder about this airbrushed version of Brown's year. At least the Queen admitted she had an annus horribilis, but of course politicians are afraid to admit to mistakes as this strikes of failure. But should anyone trust anyone who does not admit to having made a mistake when it is patently obvious to all around them?

Monday, December 24, 2007

It's official, our government are annoying!

For bizarre reasons i watched (endured) BBC3's countdown of the top 5o most annoying people of 2007. For those who avoid such programmes, this is an opportunity for annoying journalists and comedians to slag off the equally annoying celebrities on whose career said journalists depend; yes high-brow entertainment. But it was interesting to see politicians appearing in the list, and the reasons for their entry.

I am not sure if any Conservatives were in the list, if they were they were 49 or 50 as I missed the start, only government front benchers made it above that. The first was Gordon Brown at No 39. To the tune of The Stranglers' golden brown the voice over talked of the events of the summer that were beyond his control but then the bit that really annoys us: his attempt to write himself out of Labour's history for the last 12 years. So no disagreement there then?

Next we find at No 25 Patricia Hewitt for the smoking ban, and at No 14 Alan Johnson for equating obesity to global warming. The message here is clearly that politicians should not try to interfere with personal freedom.

But the most annoying politician, who would have guessed it, well probably all of us, it was of course Tony Blair in the top ten at No 8. Why, for his long looonnnngggg goodbye. Sandwiched between Britney Spears and Paris Hilton (which is no place for a good catholic boy to be [sorry couldn't resist]) he was roundly mocked for attempting to build himself a 'legacy'.

The programme perfectly showed how politicians are, or at least seem to be treated by the media and public as, essentially just celebrities that talk about politics. There are boundaries of behaviour set for them and as long as they confine themselves beyond those boundaries they are safe from too much approbation. Perhaps these four have all been too high profile for annoying the public, Brown and Blair I expected to be there, Hewitt and Johnson I didn't; but there is perhaps something of a logic about it in terms of the opinions of those who would construct and those who watch these programmes.

The great moment for me, a sour faced Gordon Brown coinciding with the lyric 'never a frown with golden brown'; perhaps someone should do some new lyrics and put it out as Brown's campaign song!!!

Sunday, December 23, 2007


The Queen's PR department have launched the 'The Royal Channel' on Youtube so that her messages are "more accessible to younger people and those in other countries". Will it be successful, well her first broadcast which is posted has over 2,000 views and there are currently 1,169 subscribers and its not even Xmas day yet. Who says Youtube is only for happy slappers and silly videos of cats?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Fight to be Progressive

It seems that often the fight over the ownership of an idea in politics can be as vigorous as any election contest. The idea of being progressive has lain dormant, often used by Labour, but never particularly contested never mind defined. Former Labour MP, peer and Professor Emeritus David Marquand attached the moniker to Blair back in 2000, though recognising this as a problem for the party in terms of what being progressive means. The Conservatives may have invoked a similar problem!

MPs Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark have produced a pamphlet asking the question 'Who's Progressive Now?' The answer is unsurprisingly the Conservatives, they argue that Brown's use of the phrase 'Progressive Consensus' shows the term to be empty of meaning; it is the fact that they see Brown as standing still, not progressing or achieving anything, that leads to this claim. The Conservatives may not be historically associated with the phrase but, Hunt and Clark argue, the party has been the one of progress throughout its history.

They also lay out an alternative definition of the term building six key planks of being 'progressive'. They are: making progress; being hostile to uniformity and embracing diversity; being actively concerned about the less fortunate; an antipathy to unmerited hierarchies; a concern for social, as well as economic, goals; and a sense of responsibility for the future. Reading these one would think they should be central to the goals of any democratic party.

However the pamphlet critiques Labour under Brown (Blair being mentioned 13 times, mostly alongside Brown, Brown is named 28 times) before setting out how Cameron's leadership has stuck closest to the tenets of being progressive as set out by the authors. They map fairly closely to US ideas of progressivism from the turn of the century.

Big questions, are such ideas more of a risk than an advantage. Due to the abstract nature of terms such as progressive politics, can any failure in making progress be called unprogressive? Equally, and perhaps alternatively, can any party claim to own ideas that should underpin the policies of every democratic aspirant. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, do such phrases and ideas have any resonance with the public and will they be translated into ideas that do have relevance to the lives of the voter?

Perhaps as a set of ideas and tenets the pamphlet is useful in setting down democratic benchmarks for a party; however making such ideas as undermining unmerited hierarchies a point of principle in a nation and world full of such hierarchies means there could be a problem in practice and it is the practice that can be the problem for any progressive party.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Congratulations Nick Clegg

Closer than polls suggested but 511 is sufficient majority for Nick Clegg to win over Chris Huhne despite the 'calamity' episode from which neither emerged unscathed but only one with a nickname. It has been a busy 24 hours, becoming leader and organising a cabinet; also he has gained very little bad coverage. The BBC News Have Your Say section demonstrates two general points: Clegg seems a popular winner, but due to the electoral system it doesn't really matter. In the words of one contributor, Clegg is "as relevant as a soldier in a battle using a toy pop-gun!" Of course electoral reform is high on the LibDem agenda, but sadly it is true that there is a huge disadvantage in first past the post winner takes all systems for all but the top contenders which forces other parties to be pressure groups with the occasional chance of being power brokers if there is a hung parliament.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Ready, Steady..... Cook?

Camden Liberal Democrats' have produced a cookbook, Serve a Liberal Helping, has been available since September but made headlines (well Have I Got New For You). Their website describes it as a "best-selling collection of recipes by Lib Dem luminaries and members" which "captures the essence of the party's energy and joie-de-vivre". It is claimed that it is "the ideal cookbook for those who love to share great food in the midst of busy lives". Well I guess MPs should be best placed to judge on both counts. Highlights are:

  • Learn from assorted members of parliament and councillors how to cook great food in a hurry
  • Enjoy Charles Kennedy's recipe for a breakfast smoothie
  • Discover the festive secret Lord Navnit Dholakia has not told his friends to this day
  • Read an old family recipe contributed by Lord Bill Rodgers, never before written down
  • Find out what Lembit Opik MP likes to nibble while watching Question Time

Err interesting, not sure how widely this is beng publicised but it is something that seems to have gone by the wayside in British politics - a party doing more than simply being obsessed with happenings in Westminster. Though I have to admit being a little nervous about what Lembit nibbles on during Question Time

The Election-vision song contest

A funny thought! Given that there seems to be a lot of 'campaign' songs for candidates in the US (spoof and supportive) who should sing the song for the UK parties or their leaders?
Obvious answers could be The Cheeky Girls for the Liberal Democrats (though as Lembit Opik is not in the running to be leader it could be unlikely), or Geri Halliwell for Labour after her appearance in a 2001 election broadcast; any suggestions? If I get any I will compile a chart sometime nearer to Christmas!

A hot contest?

While the primaries are getting more intense and increasingly negative between Clinton and Obama, Youtube video makers are thinking of the eventual contest and seem to believe that it will between Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani. If that is an accurate prediction they already have the presidential contest theme song - well I suppose it will encourage some interest and get attention. Do you think turnout could increase?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The happiness of the pedant

I enjoy being pedantic now and again. Not necessarily with student assignments, they are learning, but when professional communicators produce communication that is vague, can be misinterpreted or makes no sense it is a pleasure to pick the holes or read a pedantic stripping away of the sense of an official document. John Redwood provided just that in his comments on Ed Ball's 'Children's Plan'.

I was emailed by 'Ed', well it was a Labour circular asking me to comment on the document, I clicked on the link provided, it was wrong. After scouring the web for the Department of Children, Schools and Families I located a copy, I was now wondering if they really wanted to consult me on this, or anybody for that matter. I think the normal rule is make it easy if you really want feedback, if you don't make it look like you do but make it hard: now what do you think was the case?

One of Redwood's points in particular interested me however, a reference to co-location: "that new primary schools should be co-located with the “police, social care, advice and welfare services…”. When I asked him if he really thought a police station on the same site as a primary school would make the school more attractive to parents he looked puzzled as he did not seem to realise co-locating police with children at school could mean siting the police station at the school". I thought surely this was not being suggested!

There are only three references to co-location in the full report: the one closest to a definition is "staff in co-located services are more likely to talk to each other and provide joined-up support. For example, co-location of health visitors and midwives helps smooth transition between antenatal and postnatal periods"; so we are talking a one-stop shop idea where several things can be provided in a 'joined-up' way under a single roof (so lots of management speak). Chapter 7 of the report sets out Labour's ambition in more detail (ahah!!)

Well err maybe. There is the phrase "locating services under one roof in the places people visit frequently"; so schools in supermarkets perhaps? The opening part suggests joining up health care and education, so this is teaching that the wrong food, alcohol, cigarettes are bad? That's new! There is box 7.2 which is a list of vague aims and managerial buzz-words (see below) if it makes any sense or informs of the practical detail please let me know, maybe it is me being slow. The chapter then tails off talking about so many different issues that it is hard to tell what is happening and where. Now to be fair to Mr Balls it does not suggest housing schools in police stations or vice versa, but then again it is so vague it could mean just that. Once again government provides a document that is virtually meaningless in the specifics that anything could be seen as meeting the appropriate target, offers consultation but makes it difficult, and sets aspirations few can disagree with. But what does it mean?
The first law of producing communication that stimulates intelligent thought and debate is to make it comprehensible and encourage the audience to actually read/listen etc. This is none of that, given the prevalence of professional communicators in government is this the design I wonder. Is the detail wrung out of it to ensure that it offers an appearance of activity? Whatever it reads to me as meeting standards of bad communication only: any views?

The role of a Prime Minister

Much capital is being made of the fact that a historic treaty is being signed by European Union members today, with elected heads of state all being present at the ceremony: all that is except Gordon Brown. While he has agreed Britain's commitment to the treaty, and refused a referendum on the basis that it does not impact on the British constitution, it is David Miliband as Foreign Secretary who is the signatory. The media, bloggers and Conservative opponents (the latter calling him "gutless" and "indecisive") ask the question of whether this demonstrates an uncertainty in relation to the treaty and some abrogation of responsibility.

What was Brown doing instead, he agreed to appear before the House of Commons liaison committee (the role of which is to consider general matters relating to the work of select committees) discussing all areas of policy before senior British MPs. Topics ranged from public services to police pay to whether Brown was enjoying his new job. My soundbite of the day was that he is "reading newspapers more but enjoying them less", though one does wonder why he reads them more as PM than as Chancellor of the Exchequer or if he enjoyed them more when his colleague and close friend Tony Blair was under a highly critical microscope - but I digress.

It makes me wonder what we expect a PM to do. Should he be signing a treaty or should he be answering the questions of the representatives of the people; given that he was a key figure in negotiations from which the treaty emerged perhaps his signature does not matter as much anymore. Or perhaps as Head of State he should demonstrate his commitment on behalf of the British people and suggest that the liaison committee reschedule of send a delegate to that instead. Its a tricky one, and one that has problems in terms of selling the idea.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Panto Season (weekly)

So it is the last PMQs before Christmas, and amid the great debate on world issues was an interesting (well perhaps) exchange that says a great deal about the nature of political debate in Britian. It was instigated by Vince Cable, perhaps his last action as Liberal Democrat leader:

Cable: "which of the "disasters" would "haunt" Mr Brown the most when he had his "one day off" at Christmas - the election that never was, Northern Rock or the "gross incompetence" of losing 25 million people's personal data"

Brown: "it was "nice" to have had Mr Cable appearing as his party's leader - and "given the history of the Liberal party it might not be long before he is back in that place... the government had made the "right long-term decisions in the interests of the country"

Cable ""Given his own position, the prime minister might not be wise to speculate on leadership elections"

Not verbatim obviously, as Hansard online is not updated that quickly, but pulled from the BBC News report. Amusing and entertaining yes, informative well maybe, engaging - up to you? For me it just needed a squeeky voice in the background shouting "That's the way to do it!"

Merry Christmas from Westminster

I recall last year I did a comparison of the Tory/Labour leader's Christmas cards, this year I was so stunned by the similarity with last year, as well as the similar approaches taken by the leaders that i forgot to include Mr Cameron's. It is, like last year, drawn by a child within his constituency of Witney. It is, like last year, and like Gordon's, not personalised and not party political, unless there are messages within the transport theme or the inclusion of tomatoes is symbolic of errr... something. But what a vast change from the traditional party leader card (as below)

Very regal. My favourite, the one I would most prefer to be sent is that of Vince Cable (below), it just has the right aesthetics for me personally. Though he wont be leader of the Liberal Democrats on Christmas day he had the privilege of choosing the party card, it is quite traditional while also being inclusive (i.e. non-religious) as most of the cards are culturally christmassy as opposed to being religious.

Happy Christmas!!!!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Happy Xmas from Gordon Brown

Blair favoured self promotion on his cards, Brown favours the more subtle and charitable approach. As when he was Chancellor his Christmas card supports a charity, this year Booktrust benefits, and features a group of multi-cultural children. One Labour MP is quoted as commenting: "Good on Gordon for ending the Christmas card cult of personality... Mind you, with the best will in the world, Gordon's brooding image is not necessarily ideal for a season's greetings card." Perhaps this is a careful attempt at image building or just a reflection of Brown's personality, I'm feeling charitable myself so go for the latter!

Cultural Christianity

Conservative MP for The Wrekin, Mark Pritchard, raised fears that Christianity was being marginalised due to political correctness, a trend that was allowing Christian symbols to be appropriated by the British National Party. In response scientist and atheist Professor Richard Dawkins stated he was a "cultural Christian", I wondered really what that meant in modern society.

Well here we are a couple of weeks away from Christmas and what is that event all about? Culturally the modern spirit of Christmas seems better summed up by 1960s satirist Tom Lehrer in his Christmas Carol:
Hark the herald tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things.
God rest ye merry, merchants,
May you make the yuletide pay.
Angels we have heard on high
Tell us to go out and buy!

There seems to be a greater sense of what Christmas means in our culture within these lyrics that nativity plays or the Bible; that may be wrong but it is the norm. So perhaps Mr Pritchard missed the point when considering it is other religions that undermine the role of religious festivals, more the fact that such festivals have been appropriated by the market.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Is religion unconstitutional?

A debate is ensuing in Germany over whether Scientology, the religion made famous by Tom Cruise, and popularised via Youtube following a somewhat heated exchange between Panorama reporter and a leader of the sect, should be banned. Federal Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble claimed in an article in Bild am Sonntag that the sect is "is an unconstitutional organization... [that] seeks to limit or rescind basic and human rights, such as the right to develop one's personality and the right to be treated equally". As such, according to Schaeuble, it is dangerous. The response has been an intense anti-German propaganda campaign which likens the suggestion of a ban to the treatment of Jews by Nazis, hence it may be unlikely that such a ban will occur. Despite that fact, the debate raises some very interesting questions.

The first is whether this makes all religions unconstitutional in that religion by its nature restricts the individual's responsibility and becomes part of the personality of a believer. While many who are religious may not recognise that description, consider the level of control exerted over followers of Catholicism. Is Christian abstinence associated with Lent, or Ramadan's fasting, restricting individualism? The second is whether a state, by banning any organisation, even restricting their freedom of speech, give that organisation more power due to the perceived state persecution.

But there is also the other side of the argument. Should any organisation, religious, political or otherwise, undermine any aspect of an elected government's position. While there seems to be a paranoic fascination with Scientology within Germany, there are questions about the way that the religion manages to gain influence and support, particularly using Tom Cruise as an advocate and celebrity endorser. It is an interesting issue and the debate reflects that, few national governments may follow the German example, and perhaps it is indicative (as well as perhaps ironic) that it is under a Chancellor of a party with Christian in its title. Is it right or wrong?

Why Politics Matters!

Not that you would know it if you follow the British media but there has been a political crisis in Belgium for almost exactly six months. There is no Belgian government, parties from the French and Flemish regions need to form a coalition but they cannot form an agreement. Stalemate is now the status quo! I was in Belgium on Friday, comments among academics there indicate that there is are questions being asked about why a government is needed at all when the country seems to be running the same as ever.

The problem is that, theoretically, there is no-one in Belgium who is working on behalf of the Belgian people. While the bureaucracy may do what they feel to be best, they have no reason whatsoever to follow public opinion; this does not mean the civil service will not manage the country effectively just that there is the danger that they will do what they think best.

While it may be the case that no-one desires a government driven by opinion polls or focus groups, it may also be the case that we would prefer a government that does worry about what the people think to one that does not have to listen. It would be incredible to imagine not having a government in Britain, there is maybe a belief that everything would stop but it would not, there may be no change at all as many believe governments rarely ever do what the public want. But just taking the inheritance tax as one issue, governments and opposition parties do now and again listen, hence it does matter that we do have a government that represents the people.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

If we keep quiet it will go away - fat chance!

Glancing around the Labour blogging community such as Bloggers4Labour, or the sites of various luminaries, a lot are fairly dead. In fact the 'B4L' site was last updated during the Labour Conference (23rd Sept), Harriet Harman's blog was last used in October, but even the keenest of bloggers, such as Tom Watson, is saying very little about the problems Labour are facing or the potential solutions.

You would kind of think that some would make some form of comment. Perhaps in support of the idea of reforming party funding, making a statement on what could or should be done; perhaps even making comments in support of those implicated and attesting to their honesty. At the very least they could be talking about what is, fundamentally, a flaw at the heart of the democratic process: that parties need cash to fund an election campaign but they cannot always be principled in accepting or rejecting cash and maybe there are unavoidable strings.

But the silence is deathly. Is it too hot a potato? Are they waiting to see which side up the toast falls? Is there an edict 'blog thee not on matters of donations'? Or, perhaps more importantly, should there be more said from within the parties all of whom face a very real problem? It wont go away I feel, so is commenting more damaging than saying nothing, and instead blogging on the 'professional pilot's rumour network', just a thought: some things are better met head on! If you dont talk about it everyone else will and then they have control of the agenda.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Whose popular in the political blogosphere?

Iain Dale did a popularity poll, or actually more of an efficiency poll, asking who out of a list 100 prominent politicians was doing a good job (scores are out of 10). There were 1,256 respondents, among them me, not representative but a healthy number. Here are the top ten, the predominance of Conservatives is not unexpected given Dale's open allegiance, but Vincent Cable as winner???
1. 7.78 Vince Cable
2. 7.44 David Cameron
3. 6.69 George Osborne
4. 6.66 Alex Salmond
5. 6.26 William Hague
6. 6.22 Michael Gove
7. 6.11 David Davis
8. 5.74 Chris Grayling
9. 5.30 Alan Duncan
10. 5.18 Chris Huhne

Given that Cable beats Huhne, while Nick Clegg is in 21st place, is the wrong person the favourite and the best candidate not standing. Maybe he was sticking the boot in effectively given the range of open goals Labour have left for balls to be kicked into.

The bottom five are perhaps expected given the week Labour have had:
92. 2.53 Alistair Darling
93. 2.45 Des Browne
94. 2.41 Gordon Brown
95. 2.25 Douglas Alexander
96. 1.76 Harriet Harman
It would be wonderful to see a similar study rolled out across the nation (Ipsos MORI, YouGov, hint, hint!!!) but unlikely I guess (I'm waiting!!!) fascinating stuff though and one does wonder how closely it maps onto the general mood in the nations.

A new commons?

Following a session on the potential and pitfalls of an online political communication strategy, and in particular encouraging participatory interaction, on of my group forwarded an interesting Facebook message from Mike Rouse. The whole thing is reproduced below, but the idea is a WebCommons, a virtual space where citizens and politicians can interact from which feeds will be transmitted around the subscribing online community. The question is whether this is about connecting politics and the public or about promoting the Conservatives given Mike Rouse's allegiances (which he is quite open about): I note reference to Donorgate and Discgate (but think that can be excused). 18 Doughty Street, a project Rouse has worked on, has a definite air of partiallity at times, will the WebCommons? A question that's all. But it looks interesting, not quite sure why CVs are needed but see the email and sign up if interested. Clearly there is an attempt to get a momentum behing it (see the Youtube vid).

Early Slurge

From WebCommons

Hello WebCommoners!

I thought you might appreciate a little more information about what we are going to do. If you're too busy right now - either poking people or playing Scrabulus - please do come back when you're feeling fighting fit and ready to digest the below...You're going to be a part of something very special - a revolution in how people access information about their elected members throughout the UK.

But, more than just information we're about establishing a two-way process between the elected and the electors, but we're not going to call it "a conversation". Part of the problem with other sites is that they tap into useful information and news, but then have to add their own twist to it, spoon feed it to you, or make you jump through party poltiical hoops to get at it. Then, they wrap it all up in a "conversation" and pretend that they're sewing democracy a new suit.

But, do elected members really have time to sit down and have a two-way "conversation" with somebody over the internet that probably isn't in their constituency? No, they've got better things to be doing with their time, and rightly so. So, what we're going to do is give them a platform that they'll like because it's going to increase their profiles without them having to trawl through masses of comments and data.

For the most part it'll gather the data automagically. For you, the dear old WebCommoner, it's going to provide you with more information and access to your elected member than you could shake a stick at. You'll be able to hear directly from them with our blogging platform and blog aggregator, which will update every five minutes of the day - Imagine the old teleprinter they use on the telly for the football results - It'll be like that. Short. Snappy and too the point. Like a newswire for politics, but open to everybody.

What's more, you'll be able to see all the rising political issues as they develop. Remember "Donorgate" and "Discgate"? For the first time, you will be able to track these issues from the first time they rear their ugly heads until their conclusion - whatever it may be. Well, we hope that none of them result in the collapse of British democracy as that would kinda make us all redundant.

And if that wasn't enough, and oh how we like to spoil you, we're going to develop a daily podcasting service that will be available on the site at an amazing 6am every morning. We'll call it WebCommons Today or something like that and it'll basically tell you what's been happening the day before and forecast the day ahead. It's a bit like the Shipping Forecast for politics. BBC Radio 4 hold on to your hat!

Finally, and this has to be the icing on the cake, we're going to provide an indepth performance tracker in the site, which is going to let you see how the public at large perceive the performance of an elected member. Bit like a stock price for politicians... How much is your MP worth?

The site is not going to work unless we make some pretty hefty relationships with commentators and elected members. We're not just restricting it to Commons Members either. If you're an elected member in any public body in the UK you can bet you'll be on WebCommons. We should have called it WebElectedMembers, but that hasn't really got the same ring to it, has it?

Thanks for tuning in to this rather looooooooong update. Hopefully, you're still concious enough to make the decision as to how involved you'd like to get. If you're really keen, just drop Mike Rouse your CV on and let him know what interests you about politics and what you're up for.

Thanks a gozillion!

WebCommons"Bringing order to chaos"

PS: Share the Page with a friend!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The end of the road

It is notable that an election seems to be creeping back onto the agenda and into the media and public consciousness again and with that the sense that Brown has not got long, or cannot survive too long, and that the next prime minister is to be David Cameron. Even Ian Hislop made that comment on Have I Got News For You. But this talk, particularly if it increases in speculating on the performance of a Cameron led Conservative government, could benefit Brown and Labour.
In 1992 Labour won the campaign but lost the election. One reason was that there was a nervousness about the extent to which Neil Kinnock would perform as prime minister. In other while the opposition leader may be well liked he (or she) may not be perceived as a national leader and their team may not be fully trusted. Thus as we move into next year and if speculation continues, the questions for both Brown and Cameron are:
  1. what do popularity ratings mean, and can they convert to votes?
  2. has Labour lost public confidence completely or is it the economy that determines victory or defeat?
  3. is Cameron perceived as a prime minister, and does the public have confidence in his front bench team?
The answers to these questions should shape the permanent campaign and the election campaign whenever it is held for both the contenders for government.

Who should pay for party campaigns?

Brown said yesterday that trust is eroded very easily, personally I am not sure there is much trust in him left; his solution reform party funding. While it is a move to distract the agenda, it is also clear that something needs to be done to clean up party funding. The problem currently is that individuals are not meant to gain from donating, so why donate? The long history of donations from Ecclestone to Abrahams suggest that there has been a correlation between making a donation and gaining something in return; despite protestations of coincidence, it all seems too convenient for anyone with a cynical (or realist) perspective. The problem then is how to reform funding.

Discussion on capping donations from individuals is not popular. All the parties have big donors, why who knows we can assume only, but without them the party would be in trouble. So it comes down to the idea that public funds should replace private donations; this is not a vote winner! The electorate may expect a glossy and professional election campaign, but deciding to pay for it at the expense of other services or an increase in taxation is a little like turkeys voting for Christmas. As Keith Ewing argues, there is currently an arms race taking place between the parties over who has the best campaign, but this is unsustainable and it is this that needs rethinking as it is the cause of the funding problem.

But there may be another way. Parties have a problem due to the lack of mass membership. Campaigns can be efficient on the ground if there are local activists to work on the behalf of the party and they are willing to produce their own material. Equally a range of direct communication can be utilised to get messages across to the people. The reliance on television and the glossy centralised campaign, while also focusing on the floating voter and not the party loyalist is damaging the link between party and members and reducing the likelihood of activism. While membership funds may not pay for flashy HQs a simpler model of campaign communication, with more control in the hands of local parties and activists, may just make politics more about people than about winning power. Or am I just a little too idealistic?

Bottom line; is professional flashy, glossy or just what will work best for the money available?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Should Youtube be regulated?

I am largely against regulation of the web, not only is it impractical but it is perhaps the one place where anyone can say what they like and for the audience to judge it on face value. However there are also questions about whether free speech should be completely free and if there should be rights and constraints relating to his as there is to other media outlets. See this posted video for example.

Not easy to spot that it is a satire, but by framing it as a Party Political Broadcast, by using the logo and by publishing it without any context, i.e. it being embedded within a comedy programme or website, does this cross a boundary? Is it defamatory or just satirical? And, if there is no regulation, does this then allow highly negative and defamatory messages to be posted, viewed and circulated, by parties to denigrate their opponents, without any necessity to identify the source.
Advertising is regulated at least to the extent where the sponsor has to identify themselves; if Youtube is eroding this safeguard what could be the effect? It is claimed that negative rumours, although dismissed or ignored on first viewing, sleep in our subconscious activated if the rumour may be true of more negativity is attached to the individual under attack. In other words thousands of videos highlighting dodgy deals involving Gordon Brown could well be believed in the current climate, independent of their veracity, and contribute to a further loss of popularity. So regulation or total freedom, I am undecided!

Velcro Gordon

Bruce Newman argued some years ago that it seemed that some presidents had either Teflon or Velcro personalities; Reagan was Teflon, none of the mistakes attached to his eight years diminished his standing. In the UK it seems that many leaders begin being fairly non-stick but then circumstances and length of tenure increase the extent to which bad perceptions, attitudes and associations stick to them.

Like pocket lint, everything has stuck to Gordon Brown. As soon as he landed from the 'Brown bounce' he has rolled slowly downhill (I should be a poet with metaphors like that: sorry I digress). The reason that Brown's bounce was so short-lived is that the public probably wanted an instant change that was always going to be unrealistic. As soon as expectations were not met, and negative comments about him appeared in the media (which did not take long), not only were the negative associations linked to his time of office sticking to his public image but so were all the negative associations linked to the Blair years. His inability to distance himself, and the unrealistic idea that he could disassociate himself, meant that he is a perhaps less charismatic version of Blair.

The fact he is now dogged with what will be perceived as his own funding scandal, a department he was directly responsible for (at least nominally) lost data, and he is flailing in the polls means he is a sitting duck. The media and political opponents are circling to pick over his carcass - what can he do to recover? He has until 5th May 2010 but can he hang on?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Showing creativity

Iain Duncan Smith, while Conservative leader, once appeared on the Johnny Vaughan chat show (now cancelled), and was asked if he would every perform rap to get in touch with youth voters; his answer was an enthusiastic yes: he intimated he would try anything! Perhaps luckily we in the UK have not been given the treat of watching politicians trying to rap; John Redwood miming badly to the Welsh National Anthem was damaging enough to his public image.

In Singapore no such problems seem to exist. The Media Development Agency, a conglomerate of the Singapore Broadcasting Authority, the Films and Publications Department, and the Singapore Film Commission (so kind of like a merger of the BBC and BAFTA) have decided they need to promote their creativity to a global audience using a rap song and video. What do you think?

My favourite bit is CEO Yeo Chun Cheng in a superman outfit, but they all look like they are having a good time; but like Boris Yeltsin when he played the spoons alongside a rock band there is something a little incongruous about it. On their website they state that "The raison d'etre of the MDA (so thus the video) is to develop Singapore into a vibrant global city so as to foster a creative economy and connected society". Critics would call it dumbing down and trivialisation; others would call it engaging, creative and memorable; hinting at its success. But who is right?
All together now Yes Yes Y'all We don't stop... and who else could get 'My tasks include internal systems integration HRFIS, PMP to iTRAX' into a rap song - so is this available on iTunes?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Lost competence

Politics is a funny game, a party can ride high in the polls, seemingly can do no wrong and the opposition cant get a look in; then slowly there is a shift in thinking and the whole situation reverses. In the early days of the Blair government the questions of sleeze surrounding the Bernie Hamilton loan, Mandelson receiving money firstly from Geoffrey Robinson Postmaster General, then being received back into government, then being implicated in a cash for papers for the Hindustanis scandal were all serious. Through all of this Teflon Tony kept smiling and appearing as a 'regular kind of guy'. Off course his image became tarnished but his successor never stood a chance.

Brown seems to have had the shortest honeymoon possible, he first considered and reconsidered an election, dealt with a financial crisis badly, at least in terms of communication, then one of his departments loses precious data and now another scandal about party funding on the back of cash for honours. Competence was Brown's one and maybe only key selling point and it seems to be unravelling. Perhaps, fundamentally, his key problem is that he is not the right man for the job?

I say that not because he is talentless, unintelligent or any other negatives that mark someone out for not being a leader; quite the contrary he has many of the qualities. The problem is that Brown struggles to convey them; for example he can appear uncomfortable on camera answering difficult questions, this gives the impression of him hiding something even when he isn't. Also he is not a charismatic figure who laughs off problems that gives the impression he is getting on with the job and doing it well, or that he is able to face down crises. In the midst of a storm of problems he appears all at sea.

The problem with this is that the impression of competence and ability to cope is probably more important than actually coping. There are many people around government to physically deal with crises but it is the leader that is seen as the cue for public perception. While it is unclear whether voters prefer David Cameron as a person or a leader, and may step back from electing him whenever the contest is called, Brown seems on a downhill slope and if he cannot convey credibility - charisma, authority, understanding - the damage to his image could be irreparable.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Who reads the papers?

Is this still true, very funny but also an excellent bit of social comment on the 1980s; but do the same people read the papers now as did then?

Too important for discussion?

Nuclear defence is historically an emotive issue with the fear being that if a nuclear capability exists then more states will aspire to become nuclear powers and the more nuclear powers there are the more likelihood there is of actual usage of the weapons. However it often seems that the reason for having nuclear capability is more like a badge denoting power than something that can actually be used: as per this quote from Yes Prime Minister.

The debate has arisen again with the government having approved the use of Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire for the 'Son of Star Wars' programme. Ministers gave approval without parliamentary consultation and the anti-nuclear lobby are furious about that fact. The real problem though is the communication problem at the inter-state level. Britain claims that the defence is against rogue states: Iran or North Korea being used as examples. Russia on the other hand see it as a renewal of the arms race.

The problem is that it is fairly obvious that neither Iran or North Korea could actually hit the UK and doubtful their missiles (if they exist) could hit any target that the defence system covers at the current time. So is it an attempt to make the British feel protected? In an era of terrorism probably not! So it remains nothing more than a way of ensuring a seat at the top table in world politics; but given that many nations seem to do very well without a nuclear weapons, an aggressive foreign policy or a position of being a global power, why is such a role so important for Britain?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

How the Australians may be coping with election night!

As in most elections in most countries, there will no doubt be wall-to-wall coverage on all the Australian TV networks. So for Australians it is time to choose your station, invite mates over, and once you're settled in for the evening's entertainment you can start the game of Australia Drink-Decides 2007!
The rules are simpler than a Senate voting ticket. Here they are:
  1. Any time your own electorate is mentioned, you must drink.
  2. Any time a number of one billion or more is mentioned, you must drink.
  3. Any time Pauline Hanson's name is mentioned, or a reference to One Nation is made, you must drink.
  4. If Pauline Hanson actually appears on TV, you must completely finish the drink you are holding. If you are not holding a drink, you must immediately fetch your next drink and consume it in its entirety.
  5. Any time a supporter wearing a "Kevin07" T-shirt is shown on TV, you must drink.
  6. Any time a cute/attractive politician appears on TV, you must drink. (Note: this rule is not expected to come into play, with the possible exception of the Greens' Larissa Waters.)
  7. Any time the phrase "working families" is uttered, by politician or TV commentator, you must drink: once for yourself, and once for each of your children.
  8. Any time the phrase "balance of power" is uttered, you must drink AND eat.
  9. Any time a politician claims victory on TV, you must drink.
  10. Any time a politician concedes defeat, you must drink twice. (Once for their sorrow, once for our joy)
  11. If in doubt as to the meaning or application of any of the above rules, or any time you are thirsty, just have a bloody drink.
  12. If John Howard wins, you must drink until your feeling of disappointment goes away.
Who says politics is boring!!!! Kevin Rudd is the favourite, by the way, he is tipped to be on his way to a historic landslide bring Labour back to power for the first time in twelve years and be the first new prime minister in the same period; but that is not what the game is about!
Thanks to Prof. Phil Harris for sharing this: if there is an election next year I expect Britons to do their duty and... make up their own version!

Friday, November 23, 2007

New indicators of support?

It seems that there is little substantive data to indicate who is the favourite to win the Liberal Democrat leadership contest as voting begins. Here is an indication, on Facebook Chris Huhne has 613 friends while his rival Nick Clegg has 774. It is hard to see any peak or trough in membership following the recent problems surrounding the campaign and members range from parliamentary colleagues to the normal, young members that are the average Facebook user. Some friends are shared also, such as myself to see how they are using their profile pages.

Clegg's profile has more of a campaigning feel to it. He has videos, a long 'about me' section, causes and poppies. Huhne's is quite basic, has causes and a US politics box, but offers less campaigning. The key feature of both is the amount of messages of support posted to their walls. Clegg is more responsive, perhaps his team are involved or perhaps he personally uses it as a campaigning tool; Huhne took a week to reply but perhaps that indicates a more personal usage. We should not assume!

Does it mean anything? Who knows! It is impossible (well it is very time consuming and less than simple) to tell how many of the 'friends' can vote. But it may well be a general indication of support within a certain voter segment. It is a small amount compared to the 163,882 friends Barack Obama has gathered but it is a different context, but given that Hilary Clinton does not have a profile an d the most popular groups are opposing her, does this give Obama the edge. The bottom line is, does Facebook have any political impact or can it even be used as an indicator of anything?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What is the role of a government?

It seems that increasingly governance is about managerialism, and the perceived competent management of the bureaucracy of state, than driving forward an ideological vision; perhaps it was ever thus and those who deny the fact are idealists kidding themselves. However the recent criticism of Alastair Darling highlights some of these issues.

Darling's competence is called into question because a junior civil servant did not follow sensible procedure when handling sensitive information. I presume the junior was sacked, his boss resigned, but should the minister join them? Do we expect the Minister to accept responsibility for everything that occurs within departments for which he is nominally responsible or is he the person that reports to parliament. In other words can and should a Minister abrogate responsibility on departmental minions or accept responsibility for the fact that there are insufficient checks on procedure?

And this is not solely a New Labour problem, though it is an easy way to attack a government that seems to be losing public support for existing (the boredom with this lot factor). It was this same question that Michael Howard faced as Home Secretary when prisoners wandered out of Dartmoor with their own set of keys. His role, and whether he had personally intervened in guiding the governor, was famously the subject of the famous Paxman interview where the question was asked a ridiculous amount of times.

Hence the question can be depoliticised as being about what any Minister should do. Should we set a standard for competence that can be deemed the responsibility of either the department or the Minister? Failure of policy seems logical, though of course proof of failure is difficult; but if a Minister sets out guidance which is then not followed, should they be responsible. What would happen within a company? What is something a Director of CEO would resign for? Would they face political point scoring, as every minister has throughout the last 30-40 yrs, or media pressure to be accountable?

The bottom line, is Darling responsible? Should he go? If so, on what grounds?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Contributing to public life

Two comments/statements that made me wonder about the thinking processes within British politics.

The first from Downing Street commenting on the never denied suggestion that GMTV's Fiona Phillips was invited to play a key role in government: "In previous statements by the prime minister, he said he would welcome all men and women of talent who want to contribute to public life"

The second on a Liberal Democrat MPs website says: "If you are under 25 and a young person living in XXXX, I want to know what you think and what you believe about the issues facing you today.Just filling in this survey will enable me to understand your views better and act on them locally and in Parliament. Whether you are worried about the war in Iraq, or just the lack of decent pubs in your area - I want to know" Clicking through to the survey and you are presented with the line: "Once you have answered all the questions, simply add up all the 'yes' answers and all the 'no' answers and follow the instructions overleaf to find out who you should vote for". Yes, it is a series of loaded statements that lead to the answer 'vote Liberal Democrat'

Why does it seems that politicians never really want to talk to the ordinary people about what they think about the big issues and how the country should be managed? Is it just too difficult or does everything in politics come down to vote winning?

Monday, November 19, 2007

One way of ensuring your message gets out

Five words – “Why don’t you shut up!” - have catapulted King Juan Carlos, the Spanish monarch, to internet stardom! King Juan Carlos of Spain became so enfuriated with comments made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez he told him to 'shut up' on camera. This request is now a popular ringtone among Venezuelan students who are using it as a form of protest: "It's something that a lot of people would like to tell the president". It has even become a slogan on T-shorts, mugs and all sorts of memorabilia and is a popular hit on Youtube. Through losing his temper Juan Carlos has managed to capture public attention and become a pseudo hero for the anti-Chavez movement. Perhaps many activists could learn a lesson from this!

Dirty Politics - the covert way

I have no idea if these blogs are sponsored by Clegg himself, his team, are by outsiders, activists or just members of the public: this is the joy of the blogosphere! However there are two blogs that have been created to simply attack Chris Huhne. The Anti-Chris! reports on the fact that Huhne was instrumental in the break up of his current wife's previous marriage, dubbing him the home wrecker! There is even a section that implicates Huhne in leading one of his step-daughters into a depression expressed through poetry, the blog states this was due to the fact that "at the most vulnerable age when she lost her father because of Huhne’s “charm” offensive".
There is then Chris Almighty, a rebuttal of Sunday's attack by Huhne by undermining him and his argument. It is interesting, but the bottom line that the poster wishes to publicise is that "He really is a horrible man who covers his unpleasant character with a thin veneer".

None of this perhaps should be a surprise. The blogosphere is the perfect place to spread rumour anonymously in order to undermine the campaign of an opponent. Such things can work, I imagine some of this will reach the mainstream media and may enter the public consciousness. It will not convert Huhne supporters,, equally it may not win Clegg friends if he sponsored it or not. The problem here is that overt negativity, such as the 'Calamity Clegg' dossier and the 'Anti Chris' style rumour-mongering simply gives a negative impression of both the attacker (actual or perceived) and the victim. If Clegg can distance himself from such activities while Huhne is unlikely to shrug off that dossier (despite it being normal fare for a campaign), maybe Clegg will emerge the nicer guy. What if he cannot???

Sorry is the hardest word

There is nothing better than a carefully worded apology, one that does not accept any respnsibility but never the less magnanimously takes a share of the blame, says sorry for the minor crime but in doing so allows it to be repeated. This is my analysis of Chris Huhne's apology to Nick Clegg via his website.

"On behalf of Chris Huhne's campaign, I sincerely apologise that a background briefing document of quotations from Nick Clegg on public services reform and proportional representation was sent out with a wholly inappropriate title. There is no excuse for this. The document title had not been approved before the document was sent out and neither Chris nor I were aware of it. In no way does the title of the document as sent to the Politics Show represent Chris Huhne's opinion and he completely dissociates himself from it."
Firstly it is on behalf of a campaign not the individual. Secondly it is the title of 'Calamnity Clegg' that is the wrong doing not the attacks on his opponents ability; almost good content but bad title. Combined it does bring the sincerity of the apology into question, or am I just too cynical? Does it read as sincere? It suggests that the negative campaigning will continue and divisions could entrench further.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Celebrity Politics - or will Lord Forsythe please not say 'nice to see you' to the North Koreans

It is perhaps true that politicians need to be able to translate complex ideas and policies to allow them to be understood by the masses. Currently this role is largely fulfilled by journalists who mediate ideas in a way that appeals to their audiences; despite the range if communication experts who colonise politics and the number of MPs with public relations backgrounds there still seems to be a communication gap. Gordon Brown had an alternative way of getting the public to engage with politics, give a high profile role to someone they already liked and listened to; not a great expert but GMTV host and long-time foil for Eamon Hughes jokes Fiona Phillips.

It is claimed by the News of the World that a Downing Street aide argued that "People say she is just a ditzy blonde, but Fiona Phillips manages to communicate complex issues which are of massive public importance to millions of people every morning." This was the justification for offering her a Baronetcy and the public health brief currently head by Dawn Primarolo within Brown's 'government of all talents'. Phillips is a long-standing supporter of Labour, conducted some highly cringe-worthy interviews with the Blairs and has an interest in politics and is quoted as saying "I'd like to change people's perception of politics... I'd love to do a big PR bit for the Government" but did not want to take the £400,000 per annum pay cut. Hence we are to be spared Baroness Phillips of obesity, binge drinking and safe sex.

But is Gordon out of line with the idea? Politicians are the least trusted profession while it is true that Fiona Phillips has a clear connection with her audience. While her expertise can be questioned, so can that of many cabinet ministers, and her ditzy persona may be her public face as opposed to her real personality. There is the perception of credibility issue, but is it the case that her role as a journalist and her perceived authenticity may well make her seem as on the side of the public as opposed to the negative perception of the politician out for themselves? Gordon Brown has hit on an important truism, that politicians fail to get the public engaged in their ideas; celebrities have that ability, but should they play an active role in politics is a big question. Could Fiona Phillips be Britain's Arnie? Do we need one?

Pyrrhic Victories

The candidates for leading the Liberal Democrats seem to have emerged from a phase of being too friendly to one another and started hostilities in earnest. It was revealed today on BBC's Politics Show that Huhne's team had produced a catalogue of Clegg's weaknesses entitled Calamity Clegg. No surprise there, if the candidates did not have some SWOT analysis data it would be more surprising. They are equally trying to brand the other as uncertain, a flip-flop in modern political parlance, and it seems after today's performance it would be difficult for them to work closely together in the near future.

It is here where the problem lies! The party has 62 elected members, while talent is not restricted to a few within that number the party cannot withstand factionalism. If the contest stays nasty, the supporters behind each candidate will observe strict battle lines and these could remain long after the leadership is decided. Divisions, splits and public attacks are damaging to the image of a party and public perceptions can be driven by media emphasis on such issues. Equally attack on the character and ability of a candidate make it very hard for rehabilitation. If Huhne wins and the image of flip-flop, or calamnity stick to Clegg, how can Huhne, if he should wish, then give him a front bench role? A problem!

For a third party, who are often seen as being unable to win, it can be difficult to gain credibility at the best of times. The challenge for the leadership candidates is that they win the contest without losing the bigger war; the war for political influence.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Securing the orange vote

Australia's Liberal Prime Minister is widely believed to have a matter of days left in office as he is predicted to lose to Labour's Kevin Rudd. His campaign has been fraught with problems, with many viewing it as the campaign of a team that know they are beaten. In particular Youtube users have remorselessly attacked him using a range of mash-ups; the incredible farting PM certainly undermining his credibility.

His last foray on Youtube is clearly attempting to position Howard as a nice guy, caring about disabled children, the environment and who listens. But the reaction is perhaps not the one he wanted.

Comments on Youtube suggest his video may have won over the orangutans (the orange vote), or that it promotes Daniel Clark more than Howard. Daniel is the young disabled boy who wrote to Howard to ask him to intervene on behalf of the apes. Watch it, it makes many political video advertisements seem quite engaging.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Is this an obsession I see before me

I am starting to expect to read a headline about 'Immigrants launch gas attack' only to read on and find some poor Polish worker farted. It is an obsession, and it is global! If you type immigration into Google news there are over 40,000 returns, over 500 since 9am this morning. The over-riding theme, there are too many immigrants, the language is about being 'swamped', they are a tide, and they question notions of state and nationhood. Even reports on the maiden trip of Eurostar talk about the importance of restricting it use by illegal immigrants.

I find it all a little disturbing that this is being turned into such a major issue yet there is little discussion about the causes of this 'tide' that is 'swamping' nations. Equally it creates a sense of them and us, we who have lived here for some time, maybe were born here, and them the recent intruders. The problem that goes unrecognised is that we probably would not have toilets cleaned, buildings built, buses driven, food to enjoy, our health cared for, without immigrants. While we are buys stirring up a panic consider firstly how many people who were born elsewhere in the world have played a key positive role in your lives so far. The consider how far back any of us can trace our lineage, and see at which point we stop being 'us' and turn into 'them'.

What disturbs me is that the populist sections of the media turn immigration into a scare story without any real discussion of all the facts, just the ones that support their story. This leads the public to think about immigration, and perhaps view all immigration as bad and immigrants as dangerous etc etc. Then the politicians are allowed to also adopt a nationalist line without fear of criticism, where does that leave us? Being nationalist and proud of a nation is not racist; but treating all outsiders as a threat is. There seems to me to be a fine line that is in danger of being crossed by the public mood, and that is crossed daily by elements of the media.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Comparing the Parties

The Queen's Speech is the first burst of permanent campaigning that emerges from the new parliamentary year, if offers each of the parties the opportunity to set out their own stalls and of course push over the stalls of their opponents if possible. So what are they talking about.

Labour's is the touchy-feely caring style Gordon Brown is offering. The focus on education, equality and the NHS invokes traditional party values and allows him to position himself as a leader in touch with concerns and caring about the people.

The Conservatives adopt a slightly critical tone, though use the opportunity to present their front bench team and highlight their alternative approach to politics.

The Liberal Democrats lack a charismatic front man, but they also set out their stall while suggesting there are too many similarities between Cameron and Brown and their parties. It is a little cheap but makes their point.

As is typical, the governing party take a wholly positive note and Brown is self-promotional, opposing parties refer negatively to the government, the Liberal Democrats also referencing the Conservatives. But it is at least refreshing to note that they set out their stall as opposed to simply rubbishing opponents. I make this point given that I am sure I recall that a couple of years ago Labour offered as their queen's speech broadcast an appearance by Dave the Chameleon, a wholly personal attack on Cameron. The problem is which is more memorable, these three selections of talking head shots which my students described as dull, or the negative approach that was funny and memorable; should we despair?

Impossible to sell

Whether you call it a presentation obsession, spin, political marketing or just old fashioned propaganda; the idea that anything that cannot be effectively sold is suppressed is rife within politics. It is not just an issue that faces a government but in an atmosphere where image, perception and impression are deemed to be more important than effective management, real politics and substance, all parties have to think of the effect of any announcement on the profit and loss account of public perception.

It is this issue that lies at the heart of the problem that arises today for Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. Illegal immigrants, those demons that present a clear and present danger to our society, according to section of both society and the media, have been employed in security roles as a matter of expediency it would appear. But it had to be done quietly, covertly and without the media and political opponents finding out.

When the decision was made no to announce this, memos reveal the thinking within government. Smith's private secretary reveals that Smith "did not think that the lines to take that we currently have are good enough for press office or ministers to use to explain the situation" and that the information "would not be presented by the media as a positive story". Well no it wouldn't, one can only imagine the headline the Daily Mail would have produced.

But is this a purely political party problem? Yes, they are the ones who focus on presentation and the treatment and thus effect of announcements. But the media must also claim culpability for the problem also. The media, as Blair famously said, want stories that have a dramatic impact. They are populist. Large sections like to scare their readers about dangers within society. Immigrants are an easy target, and despite the media showing a profound dislike for the actions and pronouncements of far-right groups like the British National Party they often appear to agree with aspects of their stance.

The bottom line is that it is impossible to have parties that do not spin when we have a media who do spin as it produces a 'circle of spin' or vicious circle as pictured above, each trying to out do and reverse the effects of the other's spin. The danger is the effect on public trust and engagement. I predict little change if the government were to change. A Conservative or Liberal Democrat led government would have to consider how the media may treat a story and find that they are unable to directly inform the public of the reasons for pursuing any particular political response. Hence they will spin. But the public will just continue to be cynical of politics, sceptical of the representativeness of this system, and view politics as a spectator sport of cat and mouse (possibly with the media as the dog that chases both), but they will not participate within a relationship that is about obfuscation and not illumination.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

You sound like a really useful guy.... any good with leaks?

Parkinson is the chat show for political party leaders, I think Harold Wilson was the first to guest but I may be wrong. The latest was David Cameron though. He told the story of being introduced to Kate Moss at a charity dinner and being unsure what to say. He recounted the conversation going thus:

"I remembered she actually has a house in my constituency and we'd had these terrible floods in West Oxfordshire and so I said, 'Very nice to meet you, very sorry about the flooding in your house... I know your local pub has been flooded, I've been to see the publican and I know you like to go to the pub and so I know it's going to reopen in six months... So I went on like this, twittering on, and she turned around and said, 'God, you sound like a really useful guy, can I have your phone number?... "I went back to my table and said 'The good news is, I met Kate Moss and she wanted my telephone number, the bad news is I think she thinks I'm something to do with drainage."

It turns out she assumed he was a plumber; apparently!

I would be interested to here Kate Moss's side of the story, if she has any recollection that is. It does strike me as unlikely that she believed she was meeting a plumber at a flashy charity do. Though it is believable that she had little idea who David Cameron was, and that is no slur on him but her social awareness generally. But why tell this story?

It has a wonderful self-deprecating style, Cameron positions himself as being a little tongue-tied in the face of such a famous celebrity, much like the average guy in the street; he also plays down his own importance quite jokingly. Since the criticism that Blair received when talking about his religious convictions surrounding the war on Iraq, this perhaps is the correct tone for the chat show and Cameron's performance seemed focused on being likeable, normal and average. The permanent campaign is on!!

Poacher turned Gamekeeper

A certain sense of incredulity is surrounding the appointment of Jonathan Aitken to lead a study group on prison reform. The appointment by Conservative Party think-tank the Centre for Social Justice headed by former leader Iain Duncan Smith, it seen as a rehabilitation too far for the former Conservative Minister who was jailed for perjury after claiming not to have received favours from a Saudi businessman in return for his support but it transpired later that he had.
The appointment may be unusual, however as a former inmate he may well have a unique perspective as well as experiences and contacts that the more traditional appointee may not have. The media clearly want to make a story out of this, linking the disgraced Thatcherite and one-time supporter of UKIP to the current Conservative leadership, leading to rebuttals and the distinction between the Centre and the Party being stressed. However this could actually be a non-story. The CSJ will offer advice which the party can read, adapt and convert into policy if they wish; the fact that part of the report will be informed by a former inmate is perhaps unsurprising. The only reason it is seen as interesting is because the inmate is also a former colleague. But if he was once recognised as having the qualities required for the cabinet, should those qualities not be used regardless? Is this desperation for a story I ask myself!!

Thursday, November 08, 2007


Research on reduced turnout and voter cynicism highlight the disengagement and disconnection of society from elected politicians and politicians are not ignoring this fact. There is a lot of rhetorical lip service paid to the notion of being connected as well as real initiatives for achieving this. Barack Obama is someone that has played the connectedness card throughout the campaign, he is one of the people not the elite and it is they, not the lobbyists and corporate donors that fund his campaign!

To reinforce this idea he has a new initiative as the primary race hots up. It is a survey that asks his supporters to: "Strengthen your connection to our campaign and help us connect you with organizers in your local community. Take a few minutes to complete this short survey". the idea seems to be that he wants to gain an aggregation of the issues that concern his supporters most in order to build a more relevant set of messages.

The theory is that the greater the relevance the greater the attention paid and thus an increased amount of perceived connectedness between him and his supporters. A plan that may have some success! A key tenet of marketing is knowing what your consumers want, this is applying such notions to politics, at the very least at the point of deciding what messages to communicate, and perhaps even to design the messages as well. However it sets up high expectations of the nature of Obama as a President; ones that could create false hope surrounding the nature of change in style that may occur if he is elected.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The wrong focus? Whose bias is it anyway?

Lord Drayton, who has actually been overseeing procurement within the Ministry of Defence, is taking a sabbatical to race in the famous 24 hours Le Mans race. Curiously he has come under fire from the BBC based on a quote from the mother of 19yr old Fusilier Gentle, killed in 2004. It seems that in the course of reporting on his inquest some enterprising journalist asked Mrs Gentle what she thought of his 'leave of absence' and she commented it was insensitive, untimely and, in basic terms, unprofessional. Drayton would have no role in the Gentle case, and it does feel as if conflating the issues is intruding on grief to make a story. It also misses the point that Drayton probably got the job because he donated the most to Labour, that he has not excelled in his job and probably wanted a title rather than responsibility, and that this is a neat way of exiting with a clean record. These points are under-explored and come much later in the piece; what does this tell us about the quality of BBC journalism comes to my mind. Any thoughts why this is the big story and not possible errors in appointment (amid Cash for Honours)?