Thursday, March 29, 2007


In response to the Power Report, Leader of the House of Commons Jack Straw successfully passed a motion that will see MPs given an annual allowance of £10,000 to build and maintain a web presence in order to "contribute to better public understanding of what this Parliament is about and what it does". There is a logic here, e-marketing and e-communication literature suggests that the Internet has the capacity to allow relationships to be established between sender and receiver and for interaction to level out social inequalities. Studies of party e-newsletters confirm that this is possible for political communication, and the potential of blogs is lauded; yet currently this potential is untapped. The parliamentary debate centred on the question of the main function, how could it be about promoting understanding while rejecting campaigning: this left some fundamental questions seemingly unanswered.

  1. Are MPs websites really the way to encourage understanding of parliament?
  2. Will they have the interactive elements that makes the Internet a tool for relationship building?
  3. Is there evidence based on visitor surveys to the COI site that there is a demand for interaction with political institutions?
  4. What would be the 'pull' factor to encourage visitors onto these sites?
  5. In an age of impression management and permanent campaigning, how do we define what is or is not campaigning?

The lack of answers means that this 10,000 x 659 MPs could be a gross waste of money. Particularly given that each MP, or at least those in the marginal seats, will create their own website anyway in order to campaign online. Given this, are Power's concerns really going to be solved by the emphasis on e-political communication, more importantly is trust and disengagement a problem with the media or the sender and their message?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Blogging for Reform

My colleague David Phillips maintains (as his comments on here show) that e-communication is the future, I remain sceptical; however there are glimmers of hope that his brave new world may yet be a reality.
An interesting article in the FT highlights the growing number of activists in the undemocratic regimes of the Middle East are using their blogs to highlight inequalities in society, call for reforms and, importantly, get more people interested in the issues. They see that too many people are focusing on the bread and butter issues and not looking to the real reasons of social problems: the oligarchic nature of the state.
While in its infancy the movement could just build up to the proportions the anti-capitalist movement had in the early to mid 1990s, one that could gather momentum and carve an alternative future for the region. They take great risks in the open dissent, but their presence remains and grows: are they the new face of Middle Eastern politics who are embracing new technologies, cultures and ideas (if you understand Arabic have a look at some ideas and follow a few links) its inspiring stuff!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Airbrushing History

The problem for any modern day politician is that they need to come to the job with no past, as any form of past could be used against them. Most of the time we should pity the politician, at other times burying parts of their history may well be strategic.

David Cameron is inventing himself as a new, 'green', family man, just an ordinary guy with the same cares and concerns as the rest of us. This brackets off his very privileged upbringing and his membership of one particular group for ultra-rich toffs. The Bullingdon Club is a socially exclusive student drinking society at Oxford University, infamous only for its members' wealth and destructive capacity. Membership is by invitation only, and prohibitively expensive for most. The Club was founded over 150 years ago, originally as a hunting and cricket club but now exists primarily as a dining club with a vestige of hunting in the support of the point to point. The club traditionally meets for an annual breakfast at the Bullingdon point to point, and a club dinner, as well as smaller initiation dinners, before which the rooms of new members are wrecked.

As the above picture shows members, the pictured includes Cameron, 2nd along the back row and Boris Johnson, front right seated, traditionally dressed for their annual dinner. The event they are going to would find them booking a private dining room under an assumed name, then physically destroying the place. Very large amounts of cash are then offered to the owners to pay them off for the destruction. The Bullingdon Club is satirised in Evelyn Waugh's novel Decline and Fall (1928), now why do you think that nice and ordinary Mr Cameron tried to restrict access to and publication of this photograph. What perception does this offer of him and his background, how authentic does he appear?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The personal touch

I revisited some of the research I did around the last General Election (see article or book), one clear finding related to recall of leaflets received and why. No direct marketing strategist will be surprised by this but voters in marginal constituencies remember leaflets that talk about local issues that are of direct relevance to the receiver and appear to have the personal touch (from candidate to voter). The remembered receiving the party focused stuff but did not remember the content at all unless they thought that was a key priority for the next government. In Dorset MRSA and immigration seemed to have little or no resonance whatsoever.
So what? Well perhaps this is the problem with most political communication, it is produced for the mass media, lacks the human touch and is perceived to have no relevance to the receiver, often because they assume if it is from a politician it will be irrelevant. The problem here is that no parties or governments can afford the personalised literature that most marketers use, so the great solution appears as far away as ever!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Tip One: keep it real

Barack Obama is tipped to be the next US President. But why? Here's a theory. He positions himself carefully as the outsider, with his ethnicity and background as evidence for this. Thus he is the non-Washington candidate, the real person, the real American perhaps. George W capitalized on his all American man image; Obama is slightly different, and an idealist, but his authenticity is his secret. He appears to offer a quality that Americans currently need, a fresh perspective on politics, one not tainted by the military-industrial complex. Whether he can sustain his image of authenticity should he win the nomination is a big question but currently his ability to 'keep it real' is placing him as the hot favourite as his support climbs.

Perspectives of Racism

Racism should not be tolerated in any form, hence the removal of a Conservative Councillor Ellenor Bland from selection lists and the dismissal of Home Affairs spokesman Patrick Mercer were absolutely correct. In particular Mercer should have been thinking of ways to ensure discrimination is removed as a normal part of life in the armed services and not condoning or excusing it - surely that is what we expect from MPs.
The problem is that the behaviour of these MPs is representative of views and actions that are widespread. Racist emails are circulated, many blacks have become accustomed to being referred to as 'the nigger' etc and worse in the factory; yet they do and say nothing as they do not wish to blow things out of proportion, be a trouble-maker.
But there are those that do use racism as a tool by which to undermine an opponent, and I wonder if this is something Lord Levy is employing. In the footsteps of Shilpa Shetty, he may be in the process of moving from crooked villain subverting British democracy to victim of anti-semitism. While some accusations may be grounded within hostility to British Jewry, once racism is introduced debate is stifled as to criticise the victim is to agree with the racists.
We need to separate out the small-minded xenophobic tendencies within our island mentality while ensuring that racism cannot be used as a cover by those who want to escape criticism, Mercer et al do society a gross disservice as they place evidence of racism in high places on the agenda, allowing others to see the potential in their differences rather than the problems.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Campbell's last master stroke?

Alastair Campbell, No 10 Spin Doctor, once dubbed the real Deputy PM, is to release his diaries but not until Tony resigns as, and I quote him, "I would consider it wrong to publish in a manner or at a time detrimental to the interests of the government or the party I served". This suggests sole focus will be on Blair and some material may be controversial, mind you the same was said of Lance Price's 'The Spin Doctor's Diary'.
However this is argued to be of greater concern for Brown. If we are to believe the media, Brown and Blair spent most of the 'Campbell years' in open warfare, Brown hated Blair only slightly less than he hated Campbell, and Campbell's role was to shore up Blair's position. If his diaries do reveal this backdrop it could seriously undermine Brown, particularly if Campbell biases his commentary, but think of the image it gives British politics. The PM and Chancellor were busy briefing against one another while god only knows what else was happening in the wider nation or world - there's something to encourage trust in government.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Ming in a spin

Sir Menzies (Ming) Campbell, the elder statesmen among party leaders, yesterday laid out a variety of challenges for the next Labour leader. Interestingly the media decided to follow their own highly spurious agenda. Following an off the record briefing they were asking whether Ming's speech declared an intention to enter a coalition - was Ming also blowing a dog whistle to be heard by those who want power and are not totally anti-Labour?
A coalition may be likely, given the proximity the parties enjoy in the polls, but is Ming really setting himself up as the power broker? Or is the media just desperate for something interesting to write about the LibDems spring conference? Whatever the answer it is hard to see Gordon and Ming working together, even less likely a cabinet that may include John Reid and Lembit Opik; Margaret Beckett and Vince Cable; John Prescott and Steve Webb. But now the media have placed the idea on the agenda it will run, influencing attitudes and perhaps voting behaviour across the country. This could mean that tactical voting takes on a whole new meaning by the next UK election.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Political PR measurement

There are debates on measuring the extent to which investment in PR is value for money see here for a bibliography), however it largely seems to come down to one thing - column inches. Those investing see PR as simply media management and expect their PROs (in-house of agency) to get the brand name in the media. While some measurement schemes are sophisticated and employ semiotics to not just measure number but tone; it seems that the central edict is that any coverage is good.
Is it any wonder that PROs find it difficult to adapt their trade to politics. Most coverage is at best cynical and often two-sided. The political PR finds the national media sets the agenda, and the local media, particularly newspapers, can be similarly intractable. Hence there is a conundrum here. While most brands not facing a major crisis can probably get a story somewhere in the media, a political 'brand' cannot - hence measurement must be semiotic, comparing the actual briefing to the coverage and ensuring any bias began with the PRO. However, one cannot then claim success. A brand may get one bit of coverage, in one newspaper, in a corner of the rolling news schedule etc; a political brand may get a lot of coverage in one day and measurement will probably find that, on balance, the PRO has failed. So is there a role for PR for a political party?

Friday, March 02, 2007

The (dog) whistle blower

Reviewing campaigning at the last UK general election, Ivor Gaber identified the use of the dog-whistle by politicians: the communication of a message designed for core supporters ears only. Gaber noted Labour's messages on benefits for 'workers' under their government while the Conservatives spoke on asylum, immigration, abortion reform and taxation. The latter seems to have been an early blast on the dog-whistle from George Osborne, summarising a long speech on the economy the Tory supporting Telegraph headlined the article with Osborne could cut 4p off tax. Given all the discussion on compassionate conservatism, public services and environmentalism is this a message to the heartlands that the old values remain?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The democratic process is silly - discuss!

The UK political system may well be cumbersome, archaic, steeped in traditions few understand etc, however one principle that should be retained untouched is the notion that all decisions are made following the proper discussion among those elected to be representatives of the people and that the end result should be a decision of benefit to the nation as a whole; as a result also MPs should scrutinise the activities of the government and ensure they follow legislation fully. Such principles are often undermined by the whipping system, where questioning of, or dissent from, the party line is punished; equally cabinet is observed to be taking far too many decisions and handing parliament a fait accompli. However the latest attack on representative democracy appears to go a step further.

Jack Straw has today complained that MPs are submitting too many questions to government departments, many of which are "really silly". He argues that the sheer amount causes backlogs and threatens the system entirely. One can see a logic in the presentation of his argument; however there may be an alternative reading. Are the questions silly, or are they inconvenient? One would really like Straw to say what a silly question looks like and why it is silly.

OK, we would not want MPs fanatical about waste enquiring about the number of paperclips stolen from a department; we do want them to ask why Britain is so reluctant to follow the letter of the law on rendering prisoners - what do we think the real reason is behind Straw's statement? Could it be to put off the awkward squad, or am I just too cynical?