Monday, April 30, 2007

Spare a thought for the front line!

A feature on BBC News Online incorporates a range of stories about dissatisfaction within and about the NHS with Tony Blair calling for anyone and everyone to recognise the successes he has made regardless of failure (though the latter bit does not seem to have been part of his pep talk). Parts of the article made me think how tough it must be firstly to manage the NHS, though I am not using this post to support or defend all aspects of government policy, as well as to face constant criticism as the staff often must feel that they do.

It is hard to remember any positive news about the NHS, more than often what may be isolated cases of failure become national news items that are used to signify government failure. Some research I conducted after the last election talked about trust and government delivery within a wide ranging set of focus group discussions. Most participants agreed they had seen improvements locally, and had no bad experiences, but agreed that generally the NHS is failing. What is the truth? Where is this going?

Here is the point I wished to make. Good news is not news, bad news is. Governments of every colour will get negative feedback on how they run public services, oppositions of every colour will use a cause celebre to score points. In the middle, and on the front line, are the public service providers. It is they who are doing the bad job, they are told so by the media. Independent of how well they are doing with the tools and resources they are given, they are frequently told they are doing a bad job. it must be very demoralising to be a pawn in the political game! I do not suggest a solution, particularly not that the media be soft on the running of the public services, but it does seem a shame that good reforms go unnoticed and one mistake damns the whole organisation.

An alternative perspective

British politicians, the media and us who view and comment on British politics often all approach the subject with the view of an insider. So embroiled in the minutiae of the various contests (electoral or otherwise) that we do not get the opportunity to step back and see how the system is viewed from outside.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is standing for the Conservative Party in Limbury, North Luton. Due to his Malay roots he has gained coverage in The Star, the Malay Star that is. Saiful could be the first Malay Councillor, hence the excitement! The perspective on multicultural Britain, what Saiful will gain from standing and the comment of the reporter Choi Tuck Wo, I found fascinating.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Nice Dig, Peter

A row has begun about whether Conservative Welsh Assembly candidate David Millar was promoting discriminating against homosexuals or just making an observation that homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of Christianity. It is now a claim and counter-claim between Millar and his Labour counterpart Alan Pugh.

But entering into the debate, which calls for David Cameron to dismiss Millar, is Peter Hain, Welsh Minister, candidate for Labour Deputy leadership, the man nicknamed the hatchet man (right) and a man with 165 Myspace friends. He gives us a fantastic soundbite in making a dig at the Conservative rebranding under Cameron:

"This is a real test as to whether your public relations respray job on the Tories means anything at all,"

Whether you agree with the comment or not it's a good line, perhaps though more widely applicable in modern British politics than Peter suggests or would like to believe!

The voting rebate

Labour MP for South Swindon, and staunch party loyalist, Anne Snelgrove (right) yesterday talked about reasons for not voting and how to incentivise the young to vote. Some ideas were just about making voting easy, by text, email or online for example, but a more radical idea came out of her talk to Swindon's New College students: "offering people cash or money off their council tax bill".

When will these deluded politicians realise that it is not about ease of voting, it is not about being paid (though certainly for a reasonable fee most young people would vote), it is about feeling that voting is important enough to 'be bothered', 'make the effort' and gain the information to make an informed choice. Gone are the days when the majority of voters like herds of cattle would flock out and vote for their respective parties.

Unless the voter can have an impact (in marginal seats), feel the election is important (the government may change or a particular MP needs saving), and are engaged by the parties, they are not going to bother. So don't offer cheap incentives, change the electoral system, ensure the parties are significantly different, and communicate ideas as well as image, then we may actually see voters voting.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Anyone but Brown?

Given the number of 'anyone but Ken' campaigns surrounding the forthcoming London Mayoral elections it is almost a surprise that the anti-Brown Labourites have not done the same. However it has emerged today that a deal has been struck, and John McDonnell (left) is to be the left wingers opponent to Brown in the coronation / contest / battle (delete as applicable) for the Labour leadership.

To be fair he seems to be leaving no campaigning tool unused. He has a Facebook profile with 338 friends. His blog has been used to attack the credibility of Meacher as a candidate. He even has a manifesto 'Another World Is Possible', downloadable campaign material and a series of videos where he sets out his platform on issues ranging from world poverty to climate change.

Why the effort, given that it is the Labour members and not the public who have the power in this election? Well he seems to want his support to come from below. The public should petition their Labour MP, join his campaign and establish a ground swell of support. He wants to be the next Blair and Cameron, not in terms of politics, but the leader chosen on the basis that the public want them to be leader. Rightly, he sees public antipathy for Brown as his opportunity. But is he the man that can capture public support? He clearly has ideas and positions himself as a modern socialist visionary, but are these ideas that will have resonance with the British public? Or rather can he emerge as the people's choice. If the web has power to launch a candidate then maybe, but if his ideas prove out of step with the 'voter in the street' he may just be another leftie with ideas and a platform but not the support to put the ideas into practice.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Is 'Ming' reading my blog?

On BBC's Breakfast programming, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell seems to be echoing my comments on comparing engagement in the French elections to those in the UK. He comments that "We've got two parties - two conservative parties - who agreed about Iraq, agree about civil nuclear power, agree about the replacement of Trident. What we need is a party of opposition. We are the party of opposition in these local government elections both in the north of England and the south of England too." But are the Liberal Democrats a real alternative? When we think of choice we think in terms of what we can have, not what we would like but cannot realise. Sir Menzies 'principles over fashion' argument is something all parties should take on board by setting out a credible set of policies and their solutions rather than masking them in soundbites, cliches and imagery. However a question must be asked. All parties are guilty of attempting to present their arguments in a way that appeals to voters, their solution is going negative and not actually offering substance within that communication; the LibDems are as guilty of this as the rest, their 'New-Tory-Labour' site and animations hint at solutions but the actual policy is a few clicks away. So sadly Ming's fine words may appear a little empty.
And it is appearances that matter. If the first line of communication does not convey a message, it may convey similarity and vacuousness; it appeals to those who agree but not to the undecided who want help in making a choice. Maybe he's not reading the blog after all!

Principles without Power

Francoise Bayrou, the centrist candidate, gained 18% of the vote and has 6.8 million supporters, but he will not tell them how to vote. Given that he disagrees with the direction offered by both candidates, his message seems to be that his voters should search their own consciences and decide who offers the best, or least worst package for the future of France. This seems to be quite a refreshing stance in modern politics. Not only are there clear political lines and so clear voter choices but there also seems to be an ideological integrity that often is lacking when power can be exercised.
What Bayrou could gain from playing the role of Kingmaker that the media have ascribed to him is unclear. But in many other countries third placed candidates would be running around brokering deals to gain power and influence and even a place in a cabinet. One wonders what shibboleths the Liberal Democrats might abandon if power sharing or a coalition in Westminster was offered? Or indeed, given the example of the Scottish Assembly, how far Labour members would become off message if bolstered by more leftist partners. Bayrou cannot gain anything, but perhaps this will protect his image and his politics in a way that many other careers have become tarnished, think about the German Greens and Joschka Fischer. His biography may well read that he sold out his principles for a position of power; Bayrou seems to want just the opposite.

Unwanted endorsements

David Cameron visited Ipswich yesterday as part of a 'whistlestop' tour by train (of course). The bulk of Paul Geater's report in the Ipswich Evening Star focuses on the Conservatives law and order policy and the link between prostitution and drug use due to the newspaper's 'Someone's Daughter' campaign following the five murders in the town last year.

A lovely little meeting however is described between Cameron and an ordinary member of the public on the train (though I use ordinary in an ironic sense)
One passenger who gave him an enthusiastic welcome was Michael Gustav Nordgren, a 42-year-old who was on a journey through life! Mr Nordgren said he liked Mr Cameron, but could not promise him his vote next week: “I don't live in Ipswich, I live in Hell!” he said with a smile. “I've met all the celebrities - Jodie Marsh, Bill Wyman. But David Cameron, he's cool!”
Clearly Mr Nordgren was far more concerned with maintaining his own image than contributing to perceptions of Cameron, though I'm not sure but is he the first Tory leader to be described as cool?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

When old media meets new media

There is much debate whether the advance of new media tolls the death knell of old media. True, it is easier to access the news you want, from a range of media outlets, from a single PC screen (an it is more environmental). However a safer bet is that old media will evolve to provide an online resource (as most do) but as a brand trusted for providing a certain style and content will retain a large audience. This allows the media brand more scope to offer a wider range of news and serve their audience better.

Newbury Weekly News has certainly taken these ideas on board and are offering the local people a political forum and their council election candidates the potential of the Internet without the hassle of creating their own online presence. Their website is putting readers questions to the candidates and publishing the answers on the hottest topics: today it is recycling! Given that council elections seem preoccupied with a mixture of local and national issues, and that voters like the big issues to be translated into political outputs that shape their life experience, this seems invaluable for democracy.

Why invaluable, because it forces the parties and candidates to engage with the issues people really care about. As commented elsewhere on this blog, for politics to appear interesting it must engage with voter's lives and aspirations and offer real choice. I suggest it is not about who leads the party, but what will the leader do for me that gets voters into the ballot box. Whether the party responses to the question posed by Carmel Owens (44 yr old Newbury resident) offer real choice is debatable without understanding the full context of their comments, and I don't live in Newbury so I do not claim that; but such initiatives offer the responses voters need when asked to make their choices. Maybe this should be a key function of the local newspapers during elections!

What must be remembered is that new media is not a magic bullet, you must have the 'pull' factor. If you wonder what theat means see the blog by Lisa Chambers (left) a Forest Heath District Councillor, it reads as little more than a chat between her and Robin (who uses the comments to tell Lisa that: May get a call from Sue McAllister about a visit at Studlands this week) sadly her efforts seem to have no pull at all.

Get a little X

Above is Stockport's slogan designed to get young people voting. Their campaign offers a dowloadable podcast, and the ideas of why the young should vote are being pushed on Galaxy 102 through advertisements and phone-ins. Much effort, creativity and money has gone into a series of similar campaigns around the country aimed at young people, of course the one aspect they do not address is whether the young engage with the campaign itself, identify with the candidates, feel any of them represent them or have similar concerns. Vox pops from the UK suggest this is the major problem, and no amount of gimmicks telling the young firstly to register and then to vote will really help. This user generated two-part video and the opening song posted on Youtube gives a better impression of why the young may not vote perhaps!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Boris Yeltsin RIP

Boris Yeltsin was the man who thought what was, in Russia of 1991, the unthinkable; he believed Russia could be a democracy and for a short time he was right. He also introduced a very different quality to Russian politics, an authenticity and emotionalism that had only briefly been seen during the Khrushchev years. There were, in my opinion, two pivotal moments in his career. The first and most momentous was his decision to threaten the hardliners with the force that they may well have been tempted to use against the Russian people but no longer had the power to give the orders. However he also contained the situation, positioning himself as the man with the power in the new Russian democracy.
His second moment was the softer side of a man who liked a good time. Playing the spoons and dancing on stage. This is often documented alongside Clinton's saxophone playing and the many other attempts by politicians to seek attachments to celebrities and popular culture. However it can also be read as trying to make a connection, showing the more human side of the politician. It did him no harm, that's for sure. Whatever his legacy will be, and Russia remains in flux, he is partially the architect of the nation's future and the fact that freedom now is greater, despite the inequalities and hints of totalitarianism, he should be applauded.

Singing for a vote

The Council Tax Band, a group formed out of Wealden Disctrict Council and headed by chief executive Charlie Lant, who will be the returning officer for Wealden, are planning to do gigs before polling day to publicise the election and get people out to put their cross in the box. Lant said:
"I've had enough of people moaning about their local councils but never doing anything about it... This song is our way of reminding people that they do get the chance, every four years, to decide how they want things to be done so don't miss out. Local politics affect everyone's lives and deals with issues which cannot be ignored like waste and recycling, planning, affordable homes, clean streets and reducing crime... Oh, and before you ask, no public money was spent in this recording... The Council Tax Band has high hopes the single will help inspire people to vote"
The 'song' can be downloaded from The Argus website, the article claims, though unless I am missing something it isn't there yet! Shame I was dying to listen to it! So what are the chances of this engaging the voters of Wealden? It is novel, it would be unexpected, its potentially memorable, if they are on the high street on polling day it could inspire some to dash and scribble their cross? I await the turnout results with interest!

Since When?

The political editor at the Swindon Advertiser reports the following with a tone of surprise:

"It seems voter apathy has engulfed the town just 10 days before residents are
due to go to the polls for the local elections... None of the 30 people
questioned... knew who their current councillor was or who else was standing for
election. In the straw poll it was found that just under a third surveyed said
they would be voting."

Well to be fair 33% is about average for turnout, knowledge about local representatives is always low; lets face it on average less than 40% can name their MP, so why the surprise?

The positive aspect, however, is the debate raging in the comments between those like 'Fed up' who ask "why bother to vote" and 'I too could be a councillor' who argues "not voting at all indicates that you think everything is hunky dory and you're perfectly happy". Habermas would be proud of the reinvigoration of the public sphere, at some levels admittedly, ICT offers.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Virgin on the Ridiculous

Sarah Jane Newbury, Independent candidate in West Wiltshire, has perhaps a unique selling point; she claims to be the UK's most famous virgin and an 'International Celebrity' and model (pictured though possibly not recently) - not heard of her, where have you been?. Funny enough I believed the first nomenclature was owned by Anne Widdecombe, though Anne at least does not advertise the fact so graphically, Newbury includes Dr's certificates on her website. Also bizarrely on Newbury's website, though perhaps this pales into insignificance alongside the descriptions of her ex-boyfriends and how far they did not get physically, Newbury states she would prefer not to win as she is non-political.

However she has many links with current candidates and the Council generally; indeed "Sarah Jane is very impressed with the collection of frogs owned by a former Chairman of the District Council which was displayed in his office" (a little vignette from her website). Will she win, who knows; it does make one wonder though about who she would represent and how in touch she would be to modern life; though the question I'm really pondering is were the frogs real? What an insight into local politics we are offered by this!

Keep it Local

Mid-term, local or European parliament elections are often viewed as a straw poll on governmental and opposition party performance, but not ones where issues come to the fore. Well not, it seems, in Chelmsford. The debate does not centre on Labour's next leader, the minutiae of Conservative policy, whether the Iraq war was legal or justified etc, etc. No, the argument is about how frequently kerbside recycling bins are emptied. Vote for the Tories and Chelmsford residents get a weekly collection, in line of course with 'Vote Blue, Go Green', the LibDems have reduced collection to every fortnight. All politics, after all, is local and personal; wouldn't this make a great debate on Newsnight?

Spot the difference competition

Yesterday I remarked that choice in the french presidential election seemed to have led to engagement whereas in the UK it seemed voters did not see differences or issues being addressed. Well here is the not so startling evidence of there being no difference between the parties.

David Cameron today talks about his solution to the anti-social behaviour problem; "Conservatives would encourage parents, neighbours, business people and teachers to take responsibility for bringing up children to behave properly and keeping their own communities in order". Does this all sound a little familiar to anyone?

22nd January 2007 (yes three months ago), Blair talked of parenting classes and "asking that the local community can get to have the power to make these people conform [to expected levels of behaviour] or face the consequences" So, lets imagine law and order policy post the next election, we are all to be de facto community support officers, we the 'community' will be in charge of keeping anti-social elements in order, and you cannot vote against it because both parties with a chance of winning propose the same solution.
Political Choice, noun, redundant in UK, expired early 21st Century

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Real Choice = Real Engagement

The 'voting panel' commenting on the French election are part of the media hype of the contest, however they and the levels of registration indicate a high degree of engagement with the campaign and its issues. Take Muriel Calvez, a 19 year old student; she finds none of the candidates programmes map completely on to her vision of an ideal President, shame but her level of knowledge about the candidates and her ability to articulate reasons for not supporting the vast majority demonstrate a real interest in the campaign. So perhaps the levels of choice and belief that the contest matters for the future of French politics has encouraged more to take notice of the campaign and get involved. OK these are the voters panel, they should be more engaged shouldn't they?

The UK panel, from the 2005 election seemed to talk more about the issues not being addressed, or the parties being too similar on the major issues; so not offering a choice. Muriel's counterpart Paul Holdsworth complained of the lack of a 'World Poverty Day'; his overview of the campaign was "Too few issues of any importance were discussed and too much effort was placed on dull, stale issues which failed to resonate with much of the electorate". The contrast with the French election is stark, issues are central to the panelists' remarks and there seems no shortage of information. Yes, something is wrong with UK elections; is this a surprise?

Voters appear to feel the UK 2005 election campaign to lack saliency, relevance to their lives. Any marketer will tell you that to get people involved then they need to feel they have a reason to listen in the first place. Not to say all voters do not listen at all, but the arguments suggest that when the lsiten they hear nothing of value so have difficulties making an informed choice; the French seem to have information overload. At the last election research showed that Labour were closest to the public in their prioritisation of issues, but were still not completely in sync; this does not the seem the case in France even if the 'offerings' lack appeal to everyone the voters seem to understand the nature of each of the candidates political stance (perhaps vive la difference is not appropriate here)!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Alternative Air War

If one wants to gain an insight into US political communication one can search the web and find a plethora of television advertisements that range from the promotional, the comparative (why our guy is better than the other guy), or the downright attack. The same is becoming the case in the UK but the budget is lower and we are not treated to advertisements on primetime TV. However the battle for the right wing, little england, conservatives is waged via Youtube. UKIP's major line of attack is on the Conservative party's online television channel 18 Doughty Street

Iain Dale's face superimposed on Uncle Fester is memorable if nothing else (sorry Iain). However there is a response:

The question here is though, will the ordinary Youtuber actually perceive both sides as 'eeky, ooky, mysteriously spooky' and in the end not actually worth voting for if this is the level of political debate they can offer. The advantage is that the anti-UKIP message is attributable to 18 Doughty Street, not the Conservative Party while UKIP is clearly the sponsor in all of its attack videos; perhaps then UKIP could be the main loser in this if viewers do indeed take a dim view of such attacks.

In search of unity

"If we question the path we are travelling then we question our very existence... if we allow our supreme leader to be opposed openly it will damage the very fabric of our society... any election must act as an expression of unity in the face of our opponents"

This is the interpretation of Joseph Stalin's arguments against democracy as offered by my political theory lecturer Geriant Williams as copied religiously from his slides. Bizarrely these sentiments are now being echoed in a Blairite led argument against Charles Clarke standing against Brown and so having a contest for leader of the party and nation.

A contest would be a distraction, it would divide the party, it would create camps, it would expose the arguments for not having Brown as leader. Well perhaps this is required, it may only give voice to sentiments that are already in the public sphere care of the media. But dividing the party is a big statement; the Cameron/Davis campaign did not split the Conservatives; even the disastrous events of the Liberal Democrat leadership contest did not create open battle lines. There appears to be a real fear within the Labour central office of the effects of a contest, however the fact that the deals and arguments are made public means everyone is aware of it all and it could be as damaging, if not more so, as a leadership contest. Perhaps this is the last gasp of control freakery.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ideas or Managerialism?

Ex BBC boss, ex Labour supporter (pre-Hutton of course), Greg Dyke announced last night he would not stand for Mayor of London. Not because of other commitments etc, but because both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would not back him to be the independent (ish) anti-Labour, anti-Livingstone candidate. Seems a little like his real goal was the power, he said: the backing of both parties was the only way to secure a win.

While it is argued that party politics, as opposed to real ideas, are unattractive to many voters, surely any attempt to build coalitions prior to the election just reduces choice and means ideas and ideologies would be replaced by a purely managerialist style. Ok, maybe this would not differ much from the Livingstone approach; but the notion that power should be attained by abandoning all political differences seems inappropriate in times of normal politics. The Conservatives, it appears, went for the idea (were they too seduced by the idea of victory at all costs); the Liberal Democrat response that "The people of London should have a full democratic choice on next year's mayoral elections" is more in line with the principles of democracy than the Dyke suggestion. It raises many questions about what the people want from an electoral contest, representation yes, but in what form - symbolic, ideological - we never saw a Dyke manifesto but it would have been interesting to see how he crafted his product to attract the London electorate.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Small is beautiful

The BBC's psephologists seem to be touting the idea that the small parties are going to be the big winners in the local elections, with both the Greens and BNP mentioned for the amount of seats contested and expectations of their success. Is this simply to make an interesting story, as elections lack any significant interest it seems, or is there truth in this? Well the short answer is who knows, data is contradictory and results can be unpredictable especially when turnout is so low and the course of the campaign has a way to run as yet. Perhaps a more interesting question is why would these parties do well!

The main parties run their campaigns at two levels, nationally and locally; the mass media campaign dominating and hence it is leader perceptions that could have the most impact among many voters. Small parties can only really campaign locally and build upon their records where possible. Their resources will be focused on the streets and doorsteps, each candidate or activist establishing a perception of the party through that one meeting. Basically the local campaign makes contact with voters both personally and politically, it makes them think about the contest, heir choice and the overall context of the election. If only one party, a small one particularly, makes contact, they do not suffer as much from campaign noise from other sources and may have the ability to build a relationship founded on trust through a single meeting. Research conducted at the 2005 general election suggests that such activities can have significant impact even when there is a mass media campaign running simultaneously; so the local elections should be even more fertile ground. The major issue will be can the Conservatives fight off this challenge, as if not it may suggest that the Cameron style is not having the impact polls suggest and that trust needs more substance than he is currently offering. Hence it should be Cameron that is most worried about the performance of the smaller parties, as if his noise can not block out their grassroots style he may be on shaky ground when the real contest comes around.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

New Leaders: New Rhetoric: Old Hat

Hilary Benn is to announce that the war on terror is over, or at least use of the phrase will end on the basis that “We do not use the phrase ‘war on terror’ because we can’t win by military means alone... this isn’t us against one organised enemy with a clear identity and a coherent set of objectives,”. Despite, or perhaps because, The Sun in its editorial argued that terrorism is organised and with an identity etc etc, this seems a welcome bit of common sense from the HMG in waiting; though Brown and Benn hardly appear a dream ticket in the polls.

What seems to be absent from comments on Benn's statement is the fact that the phrase War on Terror, a Bushism, is completely nonsensical. The sources of terrorism as Benn is to argue cannot be fought through shock and awe, this has been proven; and besides how do you actually eradicate terror? And how without creating more terror among a different group of innocent (such as the Iraqi people)? Perhaps though we should not abandon the phrase, instead we should make the objectives more realistic - lets nuke the Bogeyman, lets launch a precision offensive on the monster in the closet (whoops was that the bedside lamp?); then again maybe HMG should first consider what would constitute a sensible foreign policy for the current world order and not be too concerned about what to call it.

As an aside, Bush once called the war on terror a fight for freedom;
juxtapose this with the well worn saying "one man's terrorist is another man's
freedom fighter". Ironic eh?
However, back to the point. Given that the media are tipping Benn to be the Deputy PM after Blair, is this the first sweep of the new broom. The signs of change designed to symbolise newness and a shift from a pro-Bush foreign policy and the negative association that are attached to the Blair regime. Is this the first stage in a perception management strategy of distancing Brown from Blair; we shall see!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The social media revolution? Campaigning online

Labour's hierarchy appear to be falling over themselves to have a social media presence. We find an 'independent' site campaigning for while Peter Hain's is openly his own. The BBC claims others such as Hilary Benn, Alan Johnson and Harriet Harman also have a profile but they appear to be hard to find. Facebook is also being utilised, but you have to register to find 'friends' and quite frankly I couldn't be bothered.
Social Media consultant Lee Odden talks of a holistic approach to marketing and that online communication should be part of a coordinated strategy. Is this the case, well perhaps. While there are a number of politicians that have successfully embraced the online environment as a form of communication, it seems that Webcameron has created a bandwagon where everyone thinking of campaigning is heading to their PCs first and trying to 'engage'. Will it work, who knows. The general argument (or criticism) is where is the pull factor? But Hazel Blears seems to be attracting a small group of supporters, could this be the beginning of a new stage in the professionalisation of political communication. That rather than being just in the local press, the national media, a serious MP needs to have a not just a website or a public email address but also a Wikipedia entry, a Facebook and Myspace profile, Podcasts on Youtube, a blog and whatever the next stage will be as well? Are we witnessing the birth of political communication via social media?
But there are problems. Are we all then to measure success through hits, friends etc. For a researcher it may make life simpler, we could produce spurious correlations between the Youtube view counter, the blogspot profile views and poll ratings (cool!), but will it prove anything? Is the next election likely to see an explosion in this, and links made between a successful online presence and success in the voting booths, or will this all implode as either users take over control of content or the views are so few it becomes an embarrassment? Questions, questions, questions!!!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Council seats vacant, all welcome!

The front page of the Wiltshire Times today tells the story of Tory candidate The Reverend Neil Cocking who was, 16 years ago when living in Wimbledon, was accused of gross indecency following being caught having sex with another man on a Norfolk beach. Perhaps so what, though one may think a 42 year old should know better anyone is allowed a few indiscretions. It does not disqualify Rev. Cocking or question his ability to represent Bradford-upon-Avon.
More worrying are the comments made by the agent for the area, one Dirk Russell. Alongside comments that suggests he knew of this he remarked "We are not under any obligation to ask about previous convictions." So if a candidate has a history of embezzlement, fraud, is one certain Mr Archer, voiced racist or sexist views, has been an active supporter of the BNP (the latter happened by the way) the Conservative party would be unprofessional enough to allow them to stand unquestioned and receive the negative press coverage. Secondly that if no-one reported the issue they could be elected and be placed in a position of responsibility where they could further whatever personal or political goals they had.
This does not apply to Rev. Cocking, his is one of those 'so what' stories, but it raises huge questions about the way in which candidates are screened. When many talk of needing to build trust in political institutions such practices are really counter intuitive. What perception does this give of a party that aspires to government? Are the others any better? My dear old grandad once said that, in Rotherham, if you stick a red rosette on a donkey it'll get elected, and he remarked that the party often did put up donkeys; what else do they put up?


Ed Balls, ex-Treasury Advisor, now MP and Economic Secretary working within the Treasury has asked for questions via the Labour's Youtube 'Labourvision' dumping ground for videos.

Poster 'karljt' asks what the chances of Balls becoming Chancellor are; perhaps they should seek out this video (usefully Youtube flags it as related).

Perhaps after watching this 'salader1' hits the mark better when asking "Is your name balls because thats what you talk?" I love the freedom of user generated content and the open forum. Anyone remember the Big Conversation?? How long will it be before Labourvision disappears as they find it is impossible to censor or control either the site, its links or public interaction?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

I'm a Celebrity, elect me!

The polls could be closer, Segolene Royal on 22%, Nicolas Sarkozy on 30.5%, but with a quarter being undecided such gaps are trivial. The battle then is between the centre-right Sarkozy and the socialist Royal. Both are also fighting on a similar front, yes they have their politics, but they also have a far more important weapon; the perception of them as authentic, real people with a celebrity status.
Royal features often in glamour mags, even in a bikini. Sarkozy comments on football and is a darling of the chat show. Their shifting of politics to primetime TV has created a buzz around the election. But it has also bred uncertainty. Ideology is second place to personality as they market themselves as the product, not their political leanings. This new aspect of the post-modern or professional campaign appears to be both successful in gaining significant support but has also succeeded in confusing the French electorate. A nation where ideology means something needs politics of substance, but where is the substance here? It seems this is the question being asked: will they find an answer before the first round of voting on April 22nd?

Is the Negative Chord in tune?

The SNP have gone for the really negative boot in their fight against Labour in Scotland. This fits neatly with their slogan: 'It's Time'. The problem is that negative advertising may well be remembered and act as a mental cue to voters; but it can also turn off voters as easily. A major US study maintained that negativity created poor perceptions of the attacked as well as the attacker. The only ads that are argued to have a positive impact are TV-based and comparative, so allowing the voter to make their own mind up guided by the persuasive narrative. It is suggested that this blunt style may not work, despite doubtless having some resonance north of the border.
The interesting part is the lack of any party branding apart from that of Labour, this brings a new facet to negativity. You can sponsor an ad and publish it but you can obscure the messenger and just rubbish the opposition. Hence this offers win-win potential, particularly in its viral email form. Progress perhaps, though whether it should be lauded is questionable.

R's and elbows

Education Secretary Alan Johnson delivered a long speech yesterday, the soundbite from which is:

'If we expect our teachers to instill the old three “R”s: reading, writing and
arithmetic; then we must develop a new three R’s: rules, responsibility and

Yet the speech begins rambling about the atrocities against postal workers in Northern Ireland up to 1994, the building of trade unions in Iraq and then a rather nebulous discussion of social responsibility. Had the soundbite not been published it would probably not have been found, reading it I at first thought he was trying to bury some bad news about conduct in schools after many months since the launch of RESPECT (the Blair campaign not the Galloway party). Is it any wonder that we question the professionalism of political communicators when they try to deliver several different messages all at once, when they find themselves unable to be clear and concise. Again, the basic rules of communication are smashed to smithereens!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Tools of the State(s)?

It seemed a neat little feat. The Iranians appear to have used the captured sailors as a tool of state PR, the British MoD went one further and allowed the media to produce an independent rebuttal and pay the former captives for the pleasure. While now it seems they have pulled the plug on the venture, as two have already been paid the stories are out. So perhaps it is a neat little feat after all. Faye Turney's fee of £100,000 for appearing on Tonight with Trevor McDonald and giving an exclusive to The Sun (and why not), secures the story in the limelight and that 'the truth' will be broadcast. Given the media training offered but the MoD this may well be the spin-processed version and will paint the picture HMG wants; this makes the role of services personnel as a 'weapon of the war' as quite different.

If the Tories win, will the Guardian change tack?

In a worrying little piece in The Independent media section on Monday, Stephen Glover notes that the Guardian maybe in trouble should the Tories come to power. A veleid threat by George Osborne suggested the government may shift some of its media planning towards an online strategy. If the Guardian lost public sector job adverts, Glover predicts "it would be near catastrophe"; a handy way of silencing a paper that will probably be no friend of Cameron and Osborne. Whoever claims governmental control of the press is impossible seems quite misguided!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

A new sort of Councillor?

It was reported this week that, prior to a few major amendments "An election pack issued by Bournemouth Borough Council stated that "lunatics and idiots" and "deaf and dumb persons" were disqualified from standing". Clearly discriminatory but this amused me. Some sitting politicians could well be described as lunatics, there are definitely a few idiots around (if only those who make controversial and insulting statements about various cities without thinking of the fall out). While I'm sure many voters may well think their elected representatives are deaf to constituent's concerns and dumb (in a broad sense) when discussing the issues that matter.
The Election Laws gaffe came from using an outdated set of regulations (no surprise there then). But a few redefinitions could actually benefit the voter. Maybe here in sunny Bournemouth we might get a better calibre of councillor? Then again maybe not.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Blair on Youtube

Dizzy notes today that Labour's foray onto Youtube is less than a good idea as it shows how few hits each video gets. He uses Hazel Blears' posting as evidence. I had a look, intrepidly increasing their hit rate. Yet I found that Blair's welcome had no views, up to this point I was the only viewer; Ah the power of the pull technology, no pull no power!!

No wonder he looks a little downcast as he says this is a way of getting an unmediated message out to the voter, please, no, don't laugh, its not nice to mock! However he does get a few hits, 11,7001 for mind you not sure this is the message he wants to communicate.

Hostages to rhetoric

The sailors by the captured Iranians were hostages, its official. Not only do the media use the term but a senior chief of staff on BBC lunchtime news. The definition of hostage however is a prisoner who is held by one party to insure that another party will meet specified terms. But there was no deal! Ergo, they were not hostages! Or is there something we are not being told? It may suit the anti-Iran themes to describe them in this way but it obscures the issues completely. Maybe there was a deal, maybe their release was a PR stunt that will be used as a lever later, or maybe the terminology is just media driven hype. What are the facts here?

Shrink (C)Rap

As a sad political junkie I tuned in to the first ten minutes of 'Shrink Rap' on More4 where Dr Pamela Connolly (yes that is the comedienne formerly known as Pamela Stephenson) was to probe the psyche of former Home Secretary etc David Blunkett.
I tries really hard to ignore the fact that she appeared to be acting out the parody of a psychologist that she was good at when on Not the None O'clock News until she asked the 'killer' question. Blunkett spent most of his life in boarding school, as we know a difficult time for a growing lad with changing hormones. "Did you compare your physique to the other boys in the showers" Connolly asked. Now Blunkett has been blind from birth, what do you think his answer was. My only image was of Pamela's husband Billy shouting at the TV, "of course he didn't, he's f**king blind". Such is the nature of televisual psychology - I switched off!
Why post on this??? It is interesting to see politicians talking about their thinking, we see inside their heads. Clearly Blunkett did this for a purpose, to shape public perceptions of him probably. But when politics becomes relocated within other genres it does little to enhance the reputation of the politician or the media. Maybe the programme improved, maybe not, I gave up!

Ahmadinejad and State PR

The somewhat bizarre way that the British sailors were released by Iran yesterday demonstrates that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the real political power that lies behind the public face of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, knows a thing or two about perception management. As my friend Roman comments, not a bad 10 days work.

Iranians made several points yesterday; Ahmadinejad's speech was a largely an anti-western polemic, within that he neatly tied together hostility to the Iraq war, their position on nuclear weapons and the British sailor's alleged incursion into Iraqi waters. But then, in the spirit of the religious festivals Ahmadinejad gave the grand, generous gesture.

Then the stage managed greeting of the captives reinforced the perception of the nation as forgiving, in the right in some way, while also providing a possible bargaining tool for later negotiations. It brings to mind an apocryphal story that may well be true. George W. and Carl Rove were discussing the President's image. Rove tells Bush that many of the people in Europe think he is an idiot; Bush's response "so what, they don't vote for me". Rove then carefully explained the importance of having international support. Iraq may not have won too much public support yesterday but the intention was there; and perhaps Ahmadinejad prove he does PR better than George W.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Political Exchange - The price of a vote

Many academics have struggled with the notion of exchange in political marketing. What is it voters give in exchange for good governance. It could be the vote itself, or taxation and costs of living. But what if we delve deeper.
Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau developed the idea of a social contract. We the people give up the right to self-representation to allow another to represent us, we can then get on with our daily lives and leave the politics to those better equipped (sound familiar, maybe not but... bear with me.)
John Lilburne, leading Leveller, argued for votes for all on the premise that to demand that the citizenry obey a law any 'person' must have a say in its creation. The vote is symbolic of the contract between voter and representative and so each MP should be the voice of those they represent with the Prime Minister being perceived as the voice for the nation. This contract seems to have broken down, few recognise the symbolic value of the vote and marketing has reduced the value to almost nothing (especially to the circa 40% who do not vote).
Can marketing restore the link by using the representative capacity of market-led governance, is that realistic? Big questions, yet at the heart of democratic theory is a perspective consistent with a marketing orientation!

Political Marketing - a failed idea?

Political Marketing was heralded by at least one authority as a potential solution to disengagement, instead it seems that it is a source of deepening disengagement and dissatisfaction. This, I contend, is not because the idea is flawed; but that the way marketing is used by political parties is actually not marketing but a form of marketised communication strategy.

A study of the UK parties use of marketing at the 2005 General Election noted that rhetorically Labour was most market-oriented but that on the whole the focus when creating policies was internal, it was the process of communication design that was external. This misreads marketing.

If the parties were interested in reconnecting they would not be limiting choice to the electorate, nor would voters be seeking the least worst option or looking more to the quality of local candidate than who should be Prime Minister. Parties approach corporate strategy and communication like magpies; if it looks shiny they will steal it, but anything too complex is left to the high street brands. Hence consumers have relationships with their favourite stores, yet the parties' loyal voters are becoming a feature of history.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Contest, what contest?

The debate in the media rattles on: should Blair hand over power or should there be a contest? The left have candidates with little chance of even securing the required number of signatories, but serious challengers seem more worried about their future job prospects when they have lost than offer the party choice. Members of the public offering their comments to the BBC News online 'Who Should Lead Labour' page offer a range of views, some centring interestingly on democracy.
But the people will not get their say whatever, unless an election is held and this will not happen. I think that someone should adapt the comments of Stephen Coleman and allow the public to decide. Lets have a phone-in contest that is worthwhile, let us see the heavyweights convince us they are real people, worthy of leading the nation, let every person have a chance to vote once, let us all for a change say who should be prime minister instead of choosing the least wost of the leaders.