Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Horror Campaign

One of those comments that makes you think, and is appropriate for the season, was offered in a student email. He is a fan of Dungeons and Dragons, the role playing game, and said that there are two kinds of campaigns; safe campaigns where players have to think and face increasingly tough challenges but will survive, and horror campaigns where players' characters will have a good chance of dying. Que, you think, fair enough! The reason he made the comment was he saw an interesting parallel between this idea and the process of selecting candidates and then the campaign for US presidency. Currently it is a safe campaign, the candidates cannot attack each other too much as an attack on a fellow party member could be viewed as an attack on the party as a whole. He is looking forward to the 'horror' campaign, when the gloves come off.

So what does this mean. As the candidates wage their wars on each other, the media collect and transmit a lot of negative stuff that can later be resurrected, exaggerated and given a wider audience by the opposing party's candidate. The gloves will truly be off. But there is a problem here! in dungeons and dragons there must be at least a 50% chance of survival, and this is true of the presidential race. But no-one emerges unscathed. If there is a highly negative, attack, 'horror' campaign, one where dog whistles may be blown that talk in a sexist or racist tone (not inconceivable when so much is at stake), will anyone emerge with a good reputation whether they win or lose.

It comes back to the age old question, does negativity have a positive impact for anyone. For my student, the spectator sport is what is exciting. But for the US electorate they could see a battle where they have to detect who is the least worst character. I suggested the student read the late great Hunter S Thompson!!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Good communication or Seriously Bad

Getting a message across is difficult! A simple message needs to engage its audience, encourage recall of the core message but also appear credible for the context of the communication. How many rules does this video follow, and whom would be turned on or off by it?

Is this dumbing down gone mad? Or is it engaging and effective? As always the viewer decides.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Why the Republicans may win the US Presidency

The front runners for Democratic candidate have always been Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama; third place man John Edwards, despite innovative campaigning methods and experiments in second life, barely gets a look in. The reason his wife Elizabeth happily states is "We can't make John black. We can't make him a woman... Those things get you a lot of press." But now the race is coming to the most important point, Edwards is campaigning 'on the stump' telling Democrat voters that there is unlikely to be a Democrat president if Clinton or Obama get in. Taylor Marsh, hinting that such claims are racist and sexist, though acknowledging Edwards is neither argues:

"what he's saying on the stump is meant to convince primary voters that he can appeal to Bubba; someone who isn't going to vote for a woman or a black man, but might cast a vote for Edwards. Let's face it, Bubba could never handle a woman with her finger on the nuclear trigger; as for a black man, forget it. It's a strategy to convince primary voters that Edwards can capture votes Clinton and Obama can't, which will lead him to the White House"

Whether this kind of dog-whistle campaigning, sending out a message that those who need to hear will hear the loudest, may well be failing given that his opponents and most of the politically aware in the US know about it. But there is the question of whether this could win him the nomination.

In many ways it is a good thing that the race and gender question is public and not hidden by a spiral of political correctness that suppresses such issues. It is a real question in US politics whether 'Bubba' will elect anyone but a white male, and I imagine that question would also rise in UK politics and politics across northern Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Perhaps the gender issue is not as great, there are many precedents of female leaders, but race remains a tricky and unpredictable issue in the US and elsewhere.

Edwards meanwhile is walking a fine line. On the one hand he states on mass media that "Anybody who's considering not voting for Sen. Obama because he's black or for Sen. Clinton because she's a woman, I don't want their vote," and "I think the most-electable candidate is the one with the best ideas" but some subliminal and less widely mediated messages are suggesting, as one African-American Democrat camapigner argues, "that when Democrats make a selection, they realize that the world is not perfect and they have to consider the long haul."

It adds a very different dimension to the campaign and readings of the outcome, and raises a new debate that could obscure the politics of the campaign. These factors, and the real truth that Bubba may decide the election, could give Republicans the political agenda - so they can talk policies while Democrats tiptoe around race and gender - and the Presidency as Bubba looks for the guy that looks like him.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Choice, or lack of choice?

Defining core values can be a difficult task for a party, often recently the values are attached to the leader as opposed to the broad mass but not so perhaps for Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg, in declaring himself to be in the contest to be leader set out what the party stands for:
I want the Liberal Democrats to become the gathering point for everyone who wants a different type of politics in Britain. A politics that begins by giving power to people, their families and their communities... We are a nation with a strong sense of fair play and social justice. An instinct to protect the environment for future generations. We are suspicious of arbitrary power, impatient with bureaucracy and wary of government interference. We have always put our faith in the power of ordinary men and women to change our world.
The problem for Nick is that this maps pretty closely to statements by Conservative leader David Cameron, for example:
That's the political programme I will follow, based on my values of family, responsibility and opportunity, and driving forward our political agenda of giving people more freedom and control over their lives
An agenda that also includes the environment, reducing bureaucracy and giving power back does not offer a 'different type of politics', rather it is the same politics managed by a different party and leader. Whether there is space within the marketplace of ideas is questionable currently but it is clear that there is a lack of differentiation and this could be the greatest problem to face the Liberal Democrats. They will have a leader that is largely unknown and offer little that is fundamentally different, while not offering the opportunity for an anti-war protest vote, so on what basis can they steal votes from their opponents?

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Camelot Obsession - is society age-ist?

I was puzzling over a comment of Chris Huhne's when, in throwing his hat into the ring for the LibDem leadership contest, he said that Ming Campbell was "victim of a Camelot obsession", I was thinking of round tables, bold knights, the treacherous Lady Guinevere. Luckily BBC's Nick Robinson's blog added an alternative reading of the comment: Camelot "the name given to the court of JFK whose presidency was identified with youth, good looks and glamour". Nick wonders if Huhne is warning the party against such an obsession that focuses on media portrayal of peripheral elements of the qualities of a leader.

But there is a problem for Huhne if this is the case. It seems the JFK-esque 'Camelot obsession' is rife in British politics. The media cannot quite decide whether David Miliband is credible or not due to is youth, but the perception of youth around Brown is often voiced. Cameron's team were described by William Rees-Mogg for one as 'young guns', "more effective" and "cooler under fire" - arise George 'Sir Lancelot' Osborne, and that is no dig at him but of perhaps a perception that he is the youthful knight ready to challenge the dragon who feels (or felt perhaps) secure in his lair on Downing Street.

The point that is in danger of being missed is that there has been a shift since Blair became prime minister. Politics is no longer a job for someone with significant life experience, it needs both youth, energy as well as ability. Perhaps this is the problem then for many for whom politics has been a long career. The media appear to decide who has the right qualities and who does not, and this can be reinforced by the individual politician. It was said that, despite being the same age, side by side Ming Campbell and his predecessor once removed Paddy Ashdown did not appear the same age. Ashdown appeared to have more vitality it was claimed.
So perhaps now it is impossible to believe that a leader with experience, and who is described as possessing positive qualities: "honourable, honest, straightforward and has outstanding judgment", is likely to be perceived as the right man or woman for the job. Maybe the 'Camelot obsession' is not simply one that clouds decisions within parties, but also the media perceptions of a leader, and more importantly the perceptions of that leader out in wider society. Perhaps it is simply unprofessional to be perceived to be too old to be a modern politician, and although it is hard to say what a modern politician ideally should be, there is a benchmark somewhere that is held up and judgements are made accordingly.

Thoughts on Propaganda

Humayun and PragueTory have inspired me (is this thus a meme now?). The big question with propaganda is whether it is propaganda in itself. We can call something a good argument, if we agree and support the communicator and believe their motives are honourable; or say 'pah, that's just propaganda' if we disagree and dislike communicator and their motives; what does that tell us? Nothing?
The problem is that we live in a society of spin. If I am late I blame traffic, buses etc; seldom would I say I couldn't be bothered to get my sorry XXXX into gear and get somewhere on time when that is really the truth. This means that 'spin' tends to be a universal code of language which we all accept and choose to ignore or highlight. We decide what is acceptable 'SMART' spin, a white lie maybe, in what context, maybe to make someone feel better about themselves; and what is bad, unacceptable and misleading.

The problem for politics is that it doesn't matter if the motives are really honourable, or that a political actor/activist, is trying to present a persuasive case; often it is simply consigned to the dustbin as propaganda - 'Well they would say that wouldn't they' or 'They just want our money / votes'. Looking outside of the UK to the US, Obama is building a populist campaign around big tent politics. His purpose maybe to reunite America, the bottom line is he wants to raise money to support his campaign for he Democratic nomination. So do we shout propaganda, is it misleading and manipulative, or do we shout 'good campaigning' as it is persuasive and appealing. It is probably a question of perspectives!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Can we really spot propaganda?

There is a strong cultural significance surrounding the term propaganda. It is manipulative, it appeals to base desires, and is most associated with the ideological authoritarian regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, etc. So propaganda is a term we use to denigrate communication, to question the validity of the substance as opposed to the objectives of the communicator. Thus, from the US, mayor Jan Mill's communication is described thus by an opponent: "I felt like it was just simply political propaganda simply because it was filled with mis-statements about the truth." Apart from the wonderfully hedged phrase "mis-statements about the truth", does this miss a fundamental point?

According to one online dictionary propaganda is "the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person (or) ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect." The key points here are the idea of propaganda being communication that deliberately helps or injures a cause. So it could be lies, exaggerations etc, or it could be facts.

Taking a current example, by focusing on the age of Menzies Campbell, both media editorials and members of his own and opposition parties deliberately undermined his position. The fact that he was unable to rebut those comments made the campaign successful. The fundamental idea here is that propaganda is basically communication with a purpose, that purpose being to affect the attitudes, opinions, beliefs and behaviour of receivers. So we could argue that every newspaper that offers a biased argument, every slanted piece of news that offers facts from a single perspective, every person who tries to make themselves appear better than they really are (which we all do), and every party that spins is doing propaganda? Can't we?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

An absolute sack of shits?

That was Mike Hancock's description of those who he believes ousted Menzies Campbell from his role as Liberal Democrat leader, or at least so Kirsty Wark told BBC's Newsnight audience last night. This was toned down to be 'a right shower' on the AFP report. It is highly telling though that there is a mistrust within the party and a seeming lack of internal communications to allow the perception of their being kingmakers and coups at the top. Also speaking on Newsnight, Mark Littlewood, former Head of Media for the party, described Charles Kennedy's ousting as a 'defenestration', not quite the opportunity to clear himself of his problems as party spokespeople sold it. Campbell seemed instrumental in the ousting, and the allegations that appeared against the two popular candidates Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes may suggest that there was a lot of briefing going on from within the doors of the Cowley Street offices.

This may suggest that, while Campbell was victorious against Huhne is surviving unscathed rival, there may have been grievances that made his position shaky and increasingly untenable. Certainly there has been a lack of any concerted effort on behalf of some sections of the party to play down the age issue, thus they fell in line with the media in questioning whether a man in his sixties would be able to run a high pressure modern election campaign. Whether age is the real issue, or because it became an issue, is the question; or whether there were alternative reasons for wanting a new leader will perhaps be a mystery until the first autobiography appears and tells all.

The big question is though, should age be an issue? Campbell has had health scares so perhaps the intense work of an election could be a strain. But perhaps it is the image thing that is the problem. One reporter mentioned 'sock garters', an Edwardian fashion item, is Campbell perceived as just too old-fashioned? Is it a question of how professional he appears, and that may not be in terms of him looking business-like, but actually looking right when on camera. The recent gaffes say not. The bigger question is whether the Liberal Democrats could make a challenge whoever the leader is. The problem with the voting system and the general perception of British politics is that the next government will be Labour or Conservative, and any vote for an alternative is a waste. Now voters finally seem to want to offer support to the Conservatives again, but have not lost total faith in Labour or Gordon Brown, is there a place the Liberal Democrats can carve out.

The gap is the left, but that means focusing resources on Labour heartlands. Middle England is sown up. So is the three party politics that Kennedy heralded now dead and a new era of two-party politics emerging? If so in the borad scheme of things it may not matter who the leader is, but it might matter to all those who beleive that the Liberal Demcorats are the good guys, not out for power but who are for the 'little guy' if they are suddenly seen as tough guys who need to stab each otehr in the back to try to win a few points in the polls. That seems to be a perception that is rattlign around and may stick to the next leader as much as age has to undermine Campbell.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Thoughts on democracy

There is no constitutional reason for a UK prime minister, who takes over the job in between elections, to call for his own personal mandate. The reason is that the UK electorate vote for a party, a team of individuals that will run the country, in theory because that party has a collective vision, perhaps an ideology, that suggests how they will design policy and effect the lives of the citizens. The change in party leader should be a marginal event really, he is not an all powerful president but, theoretically anyway, the person that ensures the party is representing its electorate. If any readers see some disparity between the 'theory' and what they view as 'practice' then perhaps that is why there is a sense of scepticism, cynicism and abstention from voting.

However since Brown's coronation David Cameron led demands for an election and the media began to speculate about whether he wanted a personal mandate, and this speculation exacerbated as his popularity in the polls rose. There then seems to have been a cat and mouse game going on. Brown was forced to enter into speculation, any signs were used to indicate if there was an election or not, and the media pushed him for a response, he smiled coyly and kept them, the UK citizens and his opponents guessing. He was in the position of power and relished it.

Perhaps bravely, perhaps foolishly, Brown yesterday claimed responsibility for allowing the speculation to continue and tried to play down his reasoning for not having an election. The power then slipped to his opponents and those 'feral beasts of the media'. Well of course you cannot admit you wont call an election if you're afraid of losing, even though everyone is aware that is one of the key concerns of politicians within an era of permanent campaigning and fervent poll watching.

Interesting little fact on one report of the polls, and Brown's potential reasoning: "Sunday's News of the World suggested the Tories were ahead by 6% in marginal seats, with the party overall at 44% against Labour's 38%. Translated into a general election, it would mean a hung Parliament with Labour holding 306 seats and the Tories 246". No wonder Brown is confident of winning, all he needs is to reverse the polls slightly, draw even, and the likelihood is a narrow but workable majority. This in itself says little about the state of democracy and how motivated voters should be to make their choice.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Its down to Darling and Osborne

Predictions of an immediate election are now being downplayed, of course Gordon Brown had to see what impact the Conservative conference would have. He enjoyed a bounce after his, now it is the Cameron/Osborne bounce we are witnessing. With Osborne's tax cuts playing well in the marginals, and the newspapers showing a favourable disposition to the Conservatives for the first time in about 15 years, calling an election now would be madness for Brown.

A tentative prediction! Alastair Darling is to complete a spending review, within that inheritance tax will be cut and a policy on non-doms (non domicile earners) will be announced. The review will look at reducing public spending and so reducing tax, this will take the wind out of Conservative's sails and then Brown will call an election. Odds on for May 2008.

This may prove utterly wrong and Sunday will see Brown call an election, if he does it is highly risky and will give him three-four weeks to get himself back up the polls. The only reason he might is if he foresees an economic collapse; if that is imminent then he may well want to lose a snap election, let Cameron and Osborne take the credibility hit, and see what happens. But Brown is a man who seems to have had his eye on the job of PM for a long time, it is doubtful he will give it up easily.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The weird and the wonderful

Conferences essentially have little to do with real politics, it often seems that parties, a little like a car manufacturer putting its ideal car on a stand at one of the big motor shows, try to show what they can do but not necessarily what they will do. The media role, it seems, is to try and prove why the ideal car wont run on the available fuel. Well I liked that analogy!

The Conservatives have talked a lot about Gordon Brown, I lost count during Osborne's speech! Osborne also suggested the following "the new economy... succeeds by trusting in the collective wisdom that emerges from free people making individual decisions about their own lives. That's how Google works. It's how FaceBook works. It's how MySpace works. But it is not how Gordon Brown works". But, apart from being highly successful businesses, what does the organisation of social media tell us about he economy. Sorry I didn't get that - is there an economist in the house?

David Davis compared Brown unfavourably with Margaret Thatcher, but also told a lot of inspiring stories of the sort of people he argues possess the true spirit of Britain, almost. He also evoked a wonderful image thus: "It's come to something, hasn't it when Gordon Brown presents himself as Dunfermline's answer to Mrs. T. And Jack Straw presents himself as Blackburn's answer to Mister T." Like him or not its a good one-liner!

Alan Duncan introduced anti-Communism, well at least a combined and confused ramble on the works of George Orwell. There was "We are living in the world predicted by George Orwell. Gordon Brown was elected in 1983. I feel it all started in 1984." errr well the first thirteen years was a Conservative government? And then "And even now, if you know your Animal Farm, there is an unsuspecting Snowdrop the pig sitting somewhere around his cabinet table." I do know my Animal Farm, the pig who was a caricature of Trotsky was called Snowball. I like Alan Duncan, but this was a little weird.

The bit that is overlooked is the New World booklet, this contrast Brown's 'Old Politics' with changes that are required (see screenshot below).

It is very idealist, the problem is that these simple ideas get lost in the rhetoric, jokes and weird references. Though perhaps as there is a lack of substance, more a case of trust us to do this, then maybe it is not these key ideas that are intended to be communicated. But it returns us to the idea of what a conference is, is it a marketplace for ideas or just a piece of branding and showmanship.

Hogging the News

It is perhaps bad enough for David Cameron and the Conservatives that their conference runs parallel with the inquiry into the Menezes murder (as the offense would be if anyone else but the police made that sort of mistake - point made?) and the Diana/Dodi Inquest but Brown is also running his own spoiler campaign. Not only does he make a visit to Iraq but announces the withdrawal of 1000 troops, you might have to be a very interested and perhaps loyal Conservative to find out what happened today in Brighton as it will not get much coverage on tonight's news!