Saturday, June 30, 2007

Out of tune with the market?

Prince's forthcoming album is to be available free with The Mail on Sunday at some point in the future causing shockwaves to run through the big high street retailers. Their response is to attack the decision and threaten to boycott selling his recordings. Is calling the decision "absolutely nuts" or making the statement "It is an insult to all those record stores who have supported Prince throughout his career." really good PR for the retailers? While not an admission that can often be made it seems that The Mail's MD Stephen Miron is more in touch when he argues retailers like HMV "are living in the old days and haven't developed their businesses sufficiently". As they try to respond to cheaper offshore retailers, file sharing and the download industry, it seems a little unwise for the high street to damage their images in this way. As artists make less money from record sales as concert revenue and through merchandising, and when in essence their music is their own, is it any surprise that small bands promote themselves via MySpace and the bigger names look at less conventional routes for promoting themselves. Change maybe a bad thing for some sectors but when the market speaks both retailers and artists have to move with the times. Critics appear to be simialr to King Canute trying to make the tide obey him. The market has spoken, in a consumerist society brands, political or otherwise, are forced to listen.

Do polls tell us Brown would win?

The latest Yougov poll suggest a lead for Labour suggesting Gordon is enjoying a honeymoon as Prime Minister among voters, if not the media! This, the Telegraph argue, is a signal that the time is right for a snap election to dispel the question of how legitimate the Brown mandate is. But is this poll really saying that Brown enjoying unswerving support in the country. Reading the figures, the interesting aspect to these polls is that they are so mixed and, I would argued, could not seriously be used to predict an Election outcome.

While responses to the statement 'Who would make the better prime minister, Brown or Cameron' (which Brown wins 35 to 23) is indicative, more indicative are the 38% who don't know. Similarly on the 'forced choice' between voting Labour or Conservative, Labour wins 43 to 36, but there are 21% don't know. But consider these figures, 52% say it is possible for Gordon to make a fresh start, but 48% suggest he will be no better or no worse (the same as Blair then!). 41% say he will make no significant changes, there is a 40/40 split between yes he wants to meet the concerns aspirations of the country and no he doesn't. 57% say no Gordon is unlikely to restore trust in government.

So would you call I election if I were Gordon, well maybe. What this shows is a lot of uncertainly, the don't knows being a group that could go either way, but a degree of faith in Brown as a leader, a good manager perhaps. Cameron it seems does not yet possess the image the British voters are looking for and perhaps the Quentin Davies critique is one more widely shared. Sadly it appears that Brown is the best choice, but not because of his outstanding qualities or record, more that he is perceived currently as better than Cameron only.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The People's Policy?

Barack Obama seems to be taking consultation, and perhaps the idea of political marketing, to a new more sophisticated level. On his website he lists his position on all the major issues facing America. However on the side bar he asks for more than simply comments:

"Across our country, everyday people like you have experiences and ideas that haven't previously been heard. This is your chance to speak your mind and help set the policies that will guide this campaign and change the country"

There are then three steps to complete:
Step 1: Present your ideas; in the form of ideas, telling your story, uploading a video or recording a message.
Step 2: Collaborate and Debate: Here Obama says "In the coming months we will be helping you collaborate with others across the nation to define and refine the best ideas and incorporate them into our vision for the future. We'll make it possible for other people to weigh your ideas and give their own thoughts on the issues."
Step 3: Define a New Direction; the philosophy being: "As the best ideas from the community are refined, we'll use your feedback to find the best and important submissions and incorporate them into the campaign's policy."
This all suggests that rather than simply commenting on policies, interaction of those who sign-up to 'My Barack Obama' will actually shape policy initiatives if he becomes the Democratic nominee and perhaps also if he becomes President; this of course is not specified.

Some forms of interaction are already going on. In an open thread begun by Scott Goodstein tells readers that "This afternoon we sent Obama supporters who signed up for text messages a note about the upcoming debate tonight... We asked folks to tune in and text us back with their thoughts about the debate. A few of the responses that came in just before the debate started: Jayson will be "watching for a Darfur question" while Kelsey wrote "you are truly inspirational and perhaps the only person capable of reversing all the damage that has been done since Bush took office". We even had a text from a Howard University student who was headed to the debate. But that all reads as just a little too censored and congratulatory.

As is the contribution from high school teacher 'Angela': "A lot of people drop out of teaching after the first couple years, because it can be an extremely difficult job," she said. "It's not great every day, but the high moments keep you going. They inspire me to be a better person. I feel like I can change things by leading by example, and I think that's part of why I respect Senator Obama-- he leads by example". There seem to be a few too many words of support to suggest that this is open debate, and the videos that are posted are more citizen endorsements than anything else (see below)

If this is a new phase in political marketing, connecting people to decision making and the design of the political offering, where is the serious debate? While those who believe in Obama and support his campaign are clearly drawn to contributing, his initiative could draw others to the campaign who feel marginalised from politics. Maybe it is too risky at this stage in the process, the danger is that it maybe perceived as rhetoric if the debate is not started.

The new television

Hidden away on Family Security Matters [The National Security Resource for American Families] is a fascinating article by Walter Anderson on the role of the Internet for the 2008 US Presidential Election. It starts with the premise that "The Internet IS the new television as far as 21st century campaigning is concerned". The statement is underpinned by the fact that, while television is still a core toll of nomination hopeful's campaigns, the Internet is being used to a far greater extent and introducing a range of novel communication devices that would be impossible via other media.

Raising funds seems to be the key role of Internet communication. One example sited is from John Edwards' campaign, one that has exploited perhaps every device the Internet can offer. "His campaign sent out a request purporting to be from his Mother Bobbie asking for a $6.10 donation before his birthday (his birthday was June 10th) to raise $610,000.00 for the campaign. In turn, Bobbie would send her recipe for pecan pie as a reward to each donor."

The reason for the shift towards e-political communication is the fact that the Internet offers a low-cost communication solution. Using free outlets campaign communication can be posted, communities can be formed around a candidate and a momentum can be created around a campaign.

For Anderson, email is the killer application that can "get information and ideas passed to thousands and potentially millions of voters", though he accepts that it may be social networking tools that might have a more significant long-term impact, but he accepts them as a requiring email to pull voters towards other aspects of the campaign. If we accept that a momentum is forming around the contest generally, and that the Internet is acting as a tool of mobilising potential voters to engage cognitively with the campaign then he is perhaps right in his concluding claim that "we [voters] can look to the Internet for additional assistance with understanding campaign issues and deciding upon candidates between now and November 2008.
There is a slight query here, yes voters can look to the Internet to help with the voter choices, but will they? The elaboration likelihood model (above) talks of two routes for information processing, peripheral and central. Does an email act as a reminder that an individual is standing, or does receipt make the receiver want to go and find out more about that candidate? If the latter, and this equates to real engagement, will those who follow links to websites, or friend a candidate on Facebook, find that positive attitudes become stronger and negative associations weaken so achieving some form of behavioural change. Perhaps currently we can measure that in donations, but these will be existing supporters simply mobilised by e-political communication. Can these tools reach floating voters, weak supporters or supporters of opponents? That will be the test and, if it can be measured and quantitatively proven that the Internet has some impact on voter engagement and voter choice making, we will see political communication increasingly moving online. This could solve the current conundrum for political campaigners, now to communicate directly to voters without the noise of mediation. But will it? Is this a bandwagon that is creating its own momentum or is it the start of a revolution in political communication?

Shift Happens, but is it news?

Nothing else is happening, anywhere in the world, all the British media can talk about in their 'politics news' sections is 'change'. The change that has happened since Brown took over, the question of how much change we should expect, or the comment that actually all change is continuity. When the first bits of news came out it was interesting, particularly how each story was being reported, now I find it simply repetitive and largely non-news. Now if I, as a self-confessed political anorak, find this boring, what about the average person in the street? I find the independent blog comments more interesting than the microscopic examination of 'Cabinet by numbers' that the BBC offered up at 10pm last night. Shouldn't news programmes actually report news in order of seriousness, relevance and impact, and not make a big deal about the fact that the average age of the Cabinet has fallen by eight years. The flooding in Yorkshire came afterwards as a news priority, does that strike as evidence of imbalanced news values?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

$ = Votes

Interesting that many feel that the safest way to assess the standings of hopefuls in the US nomination battle is by the money they amass. Hence one article argues the Obama is making significant progress because he has 'opened 250,000 wallets gaining 339,000 donations'. The article informs readers that: "So far this quarter, Obama aides say $20 million would thrill them, the Edwards' camp says its shooting for $9 million, and Clinton aides say she will be in the $27 million range"; will this correlate with the result one wonders. To put the figures into perspective "Howard Dean built a reputation for unprecedented grass-roots support when 70,000 people contributed about $10.5 million in the first two quarters of 2003". Is this an indication that people want a candidate to have the best campaign money can buy, or that in modern America you not only have to vote for your preferred candidate but also buy them. One wonders what happens when the sponsors feel let down by their candidate if elected, and how they communicate this; maybe Facebook or MySpace in the future will see messages that read "I donated $XXXX, but I don't agree with YYYY, but because of that $XXXX you have to listen I do what I say" and how many "any me's" will there be.

On a less serious note see the 'Race for the White House' board game; only in America?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


As Blair left Number 10 it was announced that he would be soon taking up the role of UN envoy to the Middle East, or at least envoy for select UN members. At prime minister's questions, Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley said: "I just want to say to the prime minister... He has entered into another colossal task... I hope that what happened in Northern Ireland will be repeated and at the end of the day he will be able to look back and say it was well worthwhile." But is Blair the right man? When George I said we should not send any more Hoares to Paris is was based on a public outcry against a man who made a wrong decision in foreign policy; OK Blair did not sell a nation out to a fascist dictatorship but is there any greater respect for him within certain Middle Eastern states. Will he be perceived as an impartial arbiter or a warmonger? An independent mind with an objective perspective or an American puppet? Does anyone know how he is perceived in the Middle East? And if not, why is he the right man for the task? Would former British prime minister Edward Heath, the man at the helm on Bloody Sunday, have been able to negotiate peace in Northern Ireland? Big questions!

Peter Kay for Prime Minister?

Given that we are again seeing the death of spin, unlikely given that every government, organisation and individual spins as part of their daily life, there is much speculation about how different Brown will be in his communication. I found an interesting article buried away on the BBC News site by Brian Wheeler that discusses, using a range of experts, what the Brown approach should be.

Tim Bell, former advisor to Thatcher, makes the point that ending spin is impossible; but also highlights that "He is surrounded by public relations people and people advising him on what his image should be. If that is what his spin is, he is telling a lie." PR is ingrained in government, but not all PR is bad. PR can be used to facilitate a dialogue, at least theoretically, the problem is that spin has become synonymous with PR and a negative entrant into political discourse. Hence, as PR consultant Mark Borkowski, "Blair completely blew it. The great secret of political PR is to make sure no one sees the strings being pulled. If the media are talking about spin, it means you have failed,"

Neil Hourston, of TBWA, Labour's advertising agency at the 2005 general election argues Brown should be 'Mr No Nonsense'. Learning lessons from the success of the John Smith's Bitter advertising campaign, Brown should emulate Jack Dee or Peter Kay, Hourston argues. John Smiths was "the 'no-nonsense' ale against the nonsense of lager... David Cameron is like Stella Artois" When pitting John Smiths against brands like Stella "we had to have charm and wit. We were actually being a lot funnier than the opposition... If we made John Smith's too rational and literally no-nonsense, they would not understand the appeal of those values. They would probably find it a bit boring." So Brown must be straight talking, witty, convey a no-nonsense attitude, be the peoples brand perhaps. The big question, is it too late to build a new persona. The whole piece is predicated on the fact that people want to know more about Brown, but do they? Is there evidence? Or have people already got a perception of Brown and are happy or unhappy with that? There are a range of assumptions that may be true for commercial brands, such as you can change the image using a funny ad, but are there really obvious parallels with politics? The ads though depict straight-talking, the big question is; whether straight-talking is possible in a competitive media environment and if politicians should really always tell it like it is? Couldn't resist offering this ad to help us consider the parallels!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Crossing the Rubicon

It was once known as crossing the Rubicon, when an MP of one party changed sides; named after a short but wide river in Italy. The practice seems to be have been used for political capital, so Shaun Woodward, Brian Sedgemore and now Quentin Davies. Davies published a scathing attack on his now former party leader David Cameron, arguing that:

"Ties of familiarity, of friendship... cannot be the basis for living a lie - for continuing in an organisation when one no longer has respect for its leadership or understanding of its aims... You are the first leader of the Conservative Party who (for different reasons) will not be received either by the President of the United States, or by the Chancellor of Germany... It is fair to say that you have so far made a shambles of your foreign policy, and that would be a great handicap to you - and, more seriously, to the country - if you ever came to power... You regularly (I think on a pre-arranged PR grid or timetable) make apparent policy statements which are then revealed to have no intended content at all. They appear to be made merely to strike a pose, to contribute to an image... Under your leadership the Conservative Party appears to me to have ceased collectively to believe in anything, or to stand for anything... It has no bedrock. It exists on shifting sands. A sense of mission has been replaced by a PR agenda... Although you have many positive qualities you have three, superficiality, unreliability and an apparent lack of any clear convictions, which in my view ought to exclude you from the position of national leadership to which you aspire...".

The letter was released to the press for the benefit of informing constituents. It is no surprise that Mr Davies was given a warm welcome by Labour Chairman Hazel Blears, particularly given his comments about Gordon Brown "a leader I have always greatly admired, who I believe is entirely straightforward, and who has a towering record, and a clear vision for the future of our country which I fully share".

Unofficial reaction is interesting though scant so far. Iain Dale calls him "a disloyal s***" and suggests there are few long term ramifications; many anonymous comments though support Davies' comments. There is nothing on the Conservative website or WebCameron, following their publication of the full speech opinion seems mixed on ConservativeHome with on the one hand 'good riddance' and on the other some sympathy with Davies; his Europhilia is seen as the key negative. The interesting bit on ConservativeHome is the editor's post: "EVERYONE SHOULD BE CAREFUL WHAT THEY WRITE ON THIS THREAD. THE MEDIA WILL BE READING IT. EXTREME COMMENTS BY NAMES I DO NOT RECOGNISE WILL BE DELETED"

Tim Montgomerie is of course correct. Surprisingly Labour's homepage makes little of the event, it is the media that have it as the big splash. Interesting note; Davies has been removed from all Conservative websites and his homepage is down, but the photo with the red rosette above was released immediately though it looks photoshopped to me! I doubt this will have any greater long term effects than Brian Sedgemore did during the last General Election but it may be significant in attaching negative connotations to Cameron of being too image obsessed and a PR man and lacking in substance; something the media may well run with when they decide to balance their reporting and have a be nice to Brown week. If this goes on will anyone bother voting next time?

Txt if ur up 4 it!

'Txt if ur up 4 it' was one gimmick that New Labour devised in 2001 for getting young voters to turnout. Basically it was sent out to all numbers that registered. US Democrat nominee hopeful John Edwards is going one step further. Edwards is said to have more than 13,000 supporters on his database, created by texting 'HOPE' to 30644, and is planning to send them all the message: “Will u donate $ to my campaign?”. Those who reply will then be diverted to a recorded message that tells them

“I’m calling to remind you that with just over a week before the end of the quarter the time to act is now. I’m not asking you to help us out-raise everyone else. I’m only asking you for what we need to get our message of real change out to voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other key states nationwide.”

Simon Pleasants asks "With cell phone messages becoming the latest tool in the race for cash among the campaigns, we have to wonder what the most popular reply will be in texting lingo for those who don’t want solicitations? There’s always the “$0,” as in zero, on the phone pad. Or, No tks, TTYL". Fair point, what this demonstrates is another aspect of the technology driven professional campaign that is using all resources to increase the chances of victory. Edwards is planning to start a dialogue later in the campaign, though some commentators feel this should have been the first stage, by asking people to phone in their comments and issues. hese, accompanied by Edwards' response, will be posted on his website so pulling people closer to his campaign.

What Honeymoon?

It is common for a new Prime Minister to be given a honeymoon period, where the media and public opinion show support for them. While weekend polls suggested Labour had gained a halo effect, the BBC appear to have launched an anti-Brown/Harman offensive even before they take up their new roles.

Last night's Panorama was an investigation into Brown record on spin. It wasn't exactly revealing or new, just collected little bits of evidence from across ten years to show he was as media-obsessed as Blair, depict him as competitive in gaining positive media coverage, and importantly quite prepared to lie publicly when asked if he was aware that Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone had donated a large sum of money to the party. This all raised serious doubts about the extent to which Brown would usher in a new style of open government that would listen to the people.

This followed on from the grilling Harriet Harman received on the Today programme concerning whether she had agreed, during the Newsnight hustings, that the party should apologise for the Iraq War. She did, yes I checked, say she agreed when Cruddas said the party should apologise but now claims "What I've said is I actually voted for the war on the basis that there were weapons of mass destruction and I was wrong on that... How many times can I say it? I haven't asked anybody else to do anything - I've just explained what my position is." Will all this lead into a back story that argues this government is illegitimate and needs a public mandate? It seems likely that Brown is to get a hard ride and face significant scrutiny over the next months and may well be driven to the early election whether it was in his mind or not. Good for democracy in some ways, but should the media undermine a new Prime Minister in this way, it may be a popular approach for some but it sets a dangerous precedent where any new government could find itself undermined from day zero.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Countdown to the General Election starts here [YAWN!]

On my travels today I noted with interest that a number of headlines predicted an election in nine months, rushing to the stands I was rather disappointed. The Times reports on page 1 "the appointment of an election co-ordinator [Douglas Alexander] in a clear signal that he would like to go to the country next year", though this is later qualified to say "if Mr Brown believes that he can win an election within the next 12 months, he will try and secure his own mandate from voters". So the headline Now for election '08 is not quite the breaking news it seems. It is however the start of the hype to replace the Blair-Brown feud and the when will Blair go saga, so every journalist will probably now be speculating when will an election be called unless some real news passes their desks and even when it does that will be the context for the majority of political stories.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Making connections

On political party in Corsham is certainly going the extra mile to gain support. The "new community service “Help in Hand” is a free help service to Corsham’s elderly, disabled and needy designed to do those jobs that [they] can’t do themselves and have no-one to do it for them. The party's leaflets explain:

Too high to reach ?
Too heavy to lift ?
Job too difficult ?
There is Help in Hand
with the BNP FREE
Help in Hand project for
Corsham’s elderly, disabled and needy.

Yes that is the British National Party, the party who promotes repatriation and has faced a range of allegations of racism. The party claims that after delivering their first 100 leaflets that: "Already our phone has been ringing with enquirers. One nice lady said she will go away and make us a long list of things to do!"

One does wonder if the elderly, disabled or needy who may be of non-white English origin will be helped, then again maybe they were selective in their leaflet deliveries. Perhaps there are lessons here a few parties could learn from when considering what a grassroots presence means, certainly if this offers any form of political advantage it is somewhat worrying.

The reason I looked this out was that a friend emailed me the following picture forwarded to him that constituted part of a promotional campaign for the BNP's 'Red White and Blue Family Day'. I also found they have an online TV programme; they do seem to be busy in reaching out to voters - should we be worried?

The Brown Approach

Brown's first speech as leader was largely predictable. Again it was a privilege, there were a lot of thank yous and he talked about his priorities in housing, education, ending poverty, the environment, foreign policy and global injustice. Largely a checklist, but they had to be said by a credible prime minister; and that was the image he conveyed in my opinion (and surprisingly Iain Dale's).

Two bits stood out as being faintly rhetorical while personal but also a little difficult to assess. Firstly the 'who I am' section:
"Call it ‘the driving power of social conscience’, call it 'the better angels of our nature’, call it ‘our moral sense’, call it a belief in ‘civic duty’. I joined this party as a teenager because I believed in these values. They guide my work, they are my moral compass. This is who I am."
The better angels of our nature, perhaps this is the social responsibility theme that runs through all public political discourse at the moment.

Secondly there is the responsive government theme:

"This week marks a new start; A chance to renew. And I say to the people of Britain: The new government I will lead belongs to you. I will work hard for you. I shall always try my utmost. I am ready to serve."
His approach is to give more power over policy to the members of the party through consultation, and the public through citizen forums and citizen juries. Though there was a slight linguistic hint that this was also about gaining electoral support: "determined that we reach out to all people who can be persuaded to share our values and who would like to be part of building a more just society". Whether this means a great deal is always questionable, speeches come and go and their link to actual initiatives can often appear tenuous. So a clear and distinctly new approach, or more of the same: that is the big question!

a 'NET' loss

I found Labourhome this afternoon, Labour's answer to Conservative Home a forum "for blogs, discussion and debate in which supporters can meet and consider issues of common concern and interest outside the party", set up early June I think. Now here is a good example of a why David Phillips is absolutely right when he argues that anything posted anywhere on the web can later be potentially embarrasing (all Facebook users particualrly beware!). Browsing the archives I found a beauty!

Commenting on Harriet Harman's Newsnight performance, JR makes a statement that could easily be used by Labour's or Harman's opponents to undermine the party's next election campaign. Perhaps said at a time when her victory seemed slim and of course it could be seen as fair comment; but the implications... The full text is below:

by far the biggest shambles of the night was Harriet Harman. After desperately clinging on to her Cabinet position for all these years, now Blair is going, she decided to stab him in the back and reject all the principles which she herself had backed for a decade. Amnesty for illegal immigrants? Taxing the David Beckhams of the world until their hair stands on end? Going on about people buying £10,000 handbags? She's lost the plot. So Harriet, tell me, by denying somebody the right to spend their hard-earned money as they choose, why does that make the poor better off? Hitting the rich will not improve the lives of the poor - it simply gets peoples backs up that deluded government ministers are attacking them for wanting to earn a good wage and wanting the freedom to spend it how they see fit. She seems to be on a one-woman mission to kill Blairism and everything that New Labour has built up in it's decade of success. It's not an unfair comment to say that she even outflanked Cruddas on leftieness, so much so that even Cruddas himself couldn't help but lavish praise on her. And of course, then we had the charade where she quickly tried to change her second-preference to Cruddas in order to scoop up more leftie votes, but she couldn't quite manage it because she still wants to make out she can win us votes in the middle-class South. Sorry Harriet, but you've failed there spectacularly. No self-respecting middle-class family would give their votes to a party that espoused your views.

At the start of this campaign, I originally considered giving my vote to Harman as she seemed pleasant, was generally loyal to Blair and was moderate enough to win us the middle England votes. She's destroyed all that and now she's going second-bottom after Cruddas. Congratulations Harriet Harman, you've managed to scare stiff about half the British population into thinking Labour is going back to the Michael Foot era - I'm sure that's really going to help come election time against Cameron's 'heirs to Blair'.

Dream Team 2009/10

Dream Team 1992
Dream Team 1997

Dream Team 2009/10

Against all the odds it seems, and only because of the second preferences on the Cruddas ballot papers, Harriet Harman pipped Alan Johnson to be elected as Labour's Deputy Leader. Reports indicate that her popularity is highest among the parliamentary party and members but not the Unions or it seems the broader public [though this pairign offers a neutral outcome when balancing out those who would vote for the two and those who would not, 15% either way]. She has positioned herself as a loyalist but with an element of independence, emphasised her long-time commitment as a campaigner against gender inequality and soemone who is pledged to focus on the next election. Interestignly a Yougov poll conducted in May suggested that "Harman beat all her competitors on recognition, being trustworthy, being in touch with family life and, crucially, on making people more likely to vote Labour"; somethign she has promoted ever since on the front page of her website. Perhaps today's respnse is an indication that she may be the best known but that few know a great deal about any of tyhe candidates, as the next election could easily be as far away as May 2009 and the Brown government has until May 2010, Harman has time to make her mark and increase her profile and popularity; perhaps emphasising the qualities the May poll perceived her as possessing. Personally, I wonder how central her Facebook group, website and blog become to her communication.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Where's the detail?

The Treaty Amendment, or EU Constitution as some would have it, was finally agreed at dawn this morning. This meant that it was just in time for the newspapers to pick the story up for the Saturday edition. Looking across the coverage what seems lacking is the detail of the treaty, instead the focus is on the process by which compromises were reached.

The Sun suggests Blair was ready to surrender until forced by Brown; The Telegraph agreed arguing Blair 'caved-in' until Brown insisted on safeguards for Britain. Similarly The Guardian reported that 'a chastened' Blair returned after being told by Brown to 'stand up to the French'. On a more positive tack, The Times argued that Blair largely achieved his aims but was pressured by Brown to compromise while The Mirror, offering the only positive perspective, hailed the safeguards as a victory for Britain. In total contrast The Mail proposed the treaty as a 'threat to British sovereignty'; even the BBC raised doubts allowing the euro-sceptic UK Independence Party MEP Nigel Farage most airtime during Breakfast News.

So the perspective being offered is that there this was the last Blair-Brown power struggle, that generally the treaty may not be a good thing but, depending on the editorial position, the only evidence presented is one-sided. It has long been argued that the reporting of UK-EU relations has been focused too much on the process as opposed to policy, it is noted as a divisive issue in British politics, and that there is a generally Eurosceptic tone colouring reporting; hence the British tend to be sceptical of all things related to the European Union. The quick review of main news reports offered this morning seems to reinforce these perspectives. Perhaps few would be keen to read much in the way of detail, and to be fair this is offered, however the main news is essentially an editorial selecting the negative and personal aspects as important; independent of attitudes towards the European Union, should there not be more objective information presented by the media?

The other aspect is the way it seems Brown has been able to gain media support from this. Clearly information about 'phone calls' has leaked from the Brown camp, who else would. Thus he has become the saviour of some vestiges of sovereignty. His combination of being anti-Blair and anti-EU in one go was a media management masterstroke and the media acted as his propaganda machine. Bet Brown is feeling quite triumphalist today, just ahead of tomorrow's inauguration!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Moving on the debate

Blair's speech of 12th June where he launched an attack on the now famous 'Feral Beasts of the Media' was the launch pad a for a consultation process. The debate mapper is described by the creators as a part of the government's e-democracy project designed "to develop a web-based means for people to collaboratively identify and display all of the arguments pertinent to any political debate clearly and fairly, so that all of the participants in the debate have the chance to see the debate as a whole and to understand how the positions they hold exist within that debate": hence the debate map (pictured). The debate on the content of the 12th June speech is to close in five days and is for a panel of invited experts. It is unclear if this initiative is the start of a consultation process to match that of the Conservatives which George Osborne argued will be founded on open access to information, social networking [via MySpace etc], and an open-source bottom-up deliberative approach. Is this a passing fad where enthusiasm is being thrown at all things 'e', or the start of a revolution in the way politics and political communication is done?


While interesting in terms of to allowing Youtube users and Labourvision visitors to pose the six Labour deputy candidates with questions, I'm not sure what stands out when watching this. There is Michael While, as compere, replying to Benn's 'How are you' with 'I'm racing this afternoon', not to mention his success in working out Hain is before Harman alphabetically. There is then White struggling with the blogger and Youtube user's non-de-plumes (Dr Dunk gets a giggle). There is the talk of out to re-engage the grassroots by carrying on the style of debate adopted during the contest. Or there is Hazel Blears saying that she has been in discussion with 'sister socialist parties' across Europe: 'socialist' is also a word used by Jon Cruddas less surprisingly.

The important question is the level of engagement that will continue. While both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are allowing the public or members to shape their policies how Labour seek to combat these initiatives while being in government, but appear similarly keen to engage, could be very interesting.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The role of the modern MP

The parliament Modernisation Committee is about to publish its report Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member which offers to make parliament more media friendly, interesting and to shift emphasis away from the front bench according to a BBC summary. One line that seems somewhat curious is that there are concerns that "MPs were spending too much time doing constituency work, at the expense of their duties to scrutinise the government". The question thus is, what is the role of modern British MP?

The work of Michael Rush has documented the increased prominence of the constituency role over the last two decades, and there are two reasons for this: the increased demand for good service by constituents and the increased number of marginal seats where an incumbent needs to build themselves a profile. However, there is another side to this story. The increased power of the PM and Cabinet leaves MPs with little room to scrutinise but they are expected to rubber stamp bills. The latter should be reviewed, but the constituency link is an important one that should be retained.

Thus perhaps Jack Straw should, in announcing his proposals, be considering what the role of the MP is. Should they be representatives for the area that elected them primarily or not? Or what balance of time should be spent on the various duties? Work on professionalism argues the modern MP must be both a good servant of the constituency, in order to secure re-election, but also a good servant of the party in order to climb the greasy pole. It is a moot point whether these expectations are even compatible!

When I was collecting data for my PhD one aspect involved trawling Hansard for statements by Labour's radical left. It was often the case that an MP who ostensibly appeared to be solely interest in British foreign policy actually spent more time raising issues or contributing to debates in a way relevant to their constituency unless it was specifically a foreign policy issue. This is true today, though it is less reported. But are the proposals for modernisation intending to change that?

One MP who served 1955-1989 argued, in an interview, "my first duty is to the people who actually elected me, my second to the country I serve, I have no duty to party it has a duty to me". Is this the ideal? Perhaps the committee should find out what the country thinks an MP should do. If they are to be lobby fodder no longer in whose interests should MPs work?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Blogs that make you go MMMMM!

Franscud at Caught in the Stream bestowed upon me the honour of naming me as a blogger that makes him think, but within it was also the request to pass this award on to five and challenge them to also pass the award on. I suppose the danger is that every blogger could end up with one in the end but then again why not. So here are my five:

Dizzy's Opinionated Arrogance: media monitor par excellence

Norfolk Blogger: always fascinating

Iain Dale: political journalism with a slight bias, great insider stories

Recess Monkey: another insider, always provocative

Leverwealth: Not called David (Web 2.0) Phillips for nothing

Now I feel guilty for those I omitted!! But these are ones that have made me think in the last few days, and who often inform my thinking and writing so there we go. And now the rules for how to proceed:

Should you choose to participate, please make sure you pass this list of rules to the blogs you are tagging. I thought it would be appropriate to include them with the meme.

The participation rules are simple:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,

2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,

3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote (here is an alternative silver version if gold doesn't fit your blog).

Twittering Candidates

It sounds silly, could be accused of further trivialising political discourse, but twittering is taking off among US presidential hopefuls. Twitter invites users to tell their online friends "What are you doing?" in 140 characters or less: so you can tell everyone you are updating your blog, going to the pub, or more importantly share links using tiny url. Basically it is akin to one to many text messaging and status updates can be sent from a PC, mobile phone or one of the various other devices that connect us to the world.

John Edwards' staffer Colleen Murray argues, however, that it is a key medium for engagement, she is quoted at as stating "Our campaign is about empowering people, and the cutting-edge technology available today gives people across the country the opportunity to interact with us and become part of our campaign". So can the sharing of trivial ephemera offer a sense of being part of a campaign? Well perhaps! It will only inform subscribers of the information, to subscribe they must be fairly interested anyway, but the information could draw those subscribers closer. Equally it can also help inform journalists of key information as it happens. If any minor evidence emerges of there being a twitter-effect you can bet that David Cameron will soon be twittering away, probably followed by a range of hopeful candidates in marginal seats.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Shared Ideas, Old Ideas, Big Ideas

The speech that has been touted by the media all day was finally delivered by David Cameron in Tooting. David continued with his 'building a house' metaphor for moving the party to the centre ground and today he added some foundations: a big idea. So what could this idea be? Well: "the big idea on which we’ll build our plan for government. That idea is social responsibility." In answer to a range of questions on security and opportunity, there was one conclusion: "Our vision is built on the truth that no politician, no bureaucrat, no government official, can ever achieve as much as a strong society working together... Social responsibility, not state control". Fair enough and generally a long standing tenet of Conservatism; call it laissez-faire economics or the politics of small government, the idea has been around a while. It needs the policies, or bricks, but as an idea well it is one.

The trouble is that social responsibility seems to be everyone's idea. Every business, seemingly just to appear credible, has a corporate social responsibility policy. In 2004 Blair argued that yobbish behaviour is a problem for all as " the upbringing of children is the shared social responsibility of all", while in 2006 "Business... must recognise a corporate and social responsibility... in support of their role in wealth creation"; in contrast Boris Johnson has mocked Blair's use of such language. Perhaps there are no new ideas, but when this appears to be the silver bullet to all social ills and the bandwagon upon which everyone wants to ride it seems difficult to perceive this as a credible foundation for a policy debate. The Cameron house needs walls, that is a definite, but if the foundations seem shaky and rhetorical will those walls survive the big bad wolf's critical huffing and puffing?

Quite enough metaphor I think!!

BBC too liberal: so let's not end world poverty

A report released by the BBC claims that there is insufficient partiality in certain areas of their programming. I would probably agree; at times. Curiously there are two instances singled out on the BBC's website: the Make Poverty History narrative embedded within one Christmas special for The Vicar of Dibley, and their coverage of Live8; while Andrew Marr is described as having an "innate liberal bias". The report concludes, according to the summary, that impartiality is "not necessarily to be found on the centre ground".

I found this report, or at least the bits extracted, as rather odd in a number of ways. Firstly, while endorsement within programming of ideas by favoured characters is persuasive, one does not get the sense that all programming supports the Make Poverty History cause; instead there are a number of narratives that could be called persuasive being run across the board. Having watched Spooks and Judge John Deed, I find them anti-government; Eastenders is often a vehicle for social marketing [highlighting the problems facing parents of babies with Downs Syndrome for example]; should all of these be balanced and how?

On the specific issue of Live8, perhaps news coverage prior to the event gave more time and focus to Bob Geldof than Gordon Brown, Tony Blair or the concurrent summit. But there is also a sense here that it was clear who had some form of mass support. If staunch critics had been given airtime, to say that the UK should keep its money and ignore the Third World, what effect could this have had upon the BBC's image?

While impartiality is a worthy goal, it is questionable whether anyone can be impartial? While BBC Trustee Richard Tait argues in the press release that one of the 12 principles must be that "Impartiality is no excuse for insipid programme-making", is this not actually the likely result of the criticisms? It is claimed that these standards will shape every sort of programme, of every genre, so will this limit the ability of drama writers to tackle controversial topics unless they present a balanced view?

Finally though, the greatest evidence for partiality, which seems unmentioned, is the cynical stance which Tony Blair was talking about last Tuesday; where the journalist simply adopts the attitude that all politicians are lying. While this is not descriptive of all coverage, it is questionable how that type of interview measures up against two of the key elements that those questioned denote impartiality: [Let us hear different people giving their own stories in their own words 80%; Stand back and ask critical and rigorous questions of others 71%]. I can imagine a few politicians would argue that the first element is usually overshadowed by the latter! And for evidence, independent of any ideological position, see this clip!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Policy Consultation: does it work?

An initiative that seems to have sneaked under the radar, but is attracting some interesting contributions, are the various e-forums set up within the Conservative home page. Under the auspices of The Public Services Improvement Policy Group the forums are tasked with finding "long term solutions that will secure lasting improvements in our public services". Using a range of consultative fora, particualrly the internet, the review will be designed as a result of "drawing on the experiences and ideas of people across the public services. Practitioners, public service employees, public and professional bodies as well as users are all contributing to this policy review". Taking just one example, it seems a range of practitioners and users are submitting their key gripes; in theory this could highlight the problems in the current system and has the ptoential to produce policies that satisfy users if there is a clear link between contributing and gaining improvements. The key, however, will be how funding is balanced out. I remember one prominent politician once arguing that political marketing, or producing the policies the public want, is largely impossible: get them in a room, he said, show them the percentage funds dedicated to each area, ask them if they want more doctors should we do this by cuttign the number of police? The reason for the problem is that maximum funds are wanted in every area but public shy away from the tough decisions of real politik and will not argue for divertign funds from one area to another: in other words they want everything! Thus any listening campaign can appear to be no more than rhetoric and a marketing device unless the product matches the promises. Will this suffer the same fate or is it to usher in a more consultative and interactive democracy?

Friday, June 15, 2007

The transformation of politics?

Jonathan Freedland wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago that I just found. It concerns the effect that Internet may have, long term, on politics. His starting point is advice to politicians offered in a speech by Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, who argued that there were huge potential pitfalls but also clear benefits. The pitfalls are most interesting and may seem obvious anyway. All things ever put on the Internet may come back to haunt someone who later aspires to be elected, so beware any would-be PMs who currently admit to an active and colourful social life via their Facebook or MySpace profiles. More seriously Freedland quotes Schmidt as noting: "The politician of the Internet age has to admit all errors in full and early: they'll only emerge anyway. Factual slips are forbidden, too. Bloggers will find you out and, if they don't, Google hopes its own algorithms will soon be sophisticated enough to detect "falsehoods"." The benefits are the scale of potential audience at a politician's fingertips. But Freedland's later points are of more interest.

He comments that "I can't quite believe that the Internet will transform the mechanics of politics but leave politics itself untouched" suggesting that governments will be increasingly bypassed as active networks form and such a development "risks shattering what was once a collective mass into a thousand shards, not a society at all but a bunch of niches". What collective mass is this. I wondered reading the piece if this collective mass was actually shattered by television and the privation of life as families retreated first to their lounge and now to separate rooms to watch soaps, reality TV or maybe a little bit of news, but fail to ever contribute to the public sphere. Surely the Internet and rise of social networks reverses this trend and creates more social beings.

Five years ago the McCanns may be trying to appear on the media to maintain pressure on the authorities to continue the search for their daughter. Now there are so many social groups around supporting the McCanns, offering prayers as well as actions, that the issue has a life of its own. Equally the discussion of political issues across the boundaries of nations can circumvent governments but shows support for a range of issues. Student groups backing an end to Third World Poverty can make more people globally take notice than a few petitions. More importantly, while everyone does follow the causes they support, this is not a case of two people and a dog subscribing to a blog on "caravanning in Finland" as Freedland suggests, but what is becoming a critical mass of individuals who subscribe to a range of causes and share their interests through widgets and advertising group membership.

So the transformation of politics may be one that is not party, government or state centred, instead it could be personal through a range of self-defined communities that are in a state of constant flux as issues wax and wane. But the Internet facilitates interaction between individuals with shared interests and allows debate on political ideas and issues, and on a much broader level than any other medium. Freedland's commenters seem of mixed opinions and cautious, but they are interacting with him and each other, not quite the parties of one Freedland fears will be created. While there are the big players who operate the software and websites, the posting and access of content largely remains democratic and hard to regulate. That may be a problem for those with a state-centric view of democracy, and who prefer to regulate the flow of information, but for those who want to build wide communities around issues it is a form of power and could bring politics back to the people and away from the elites who make news.
Have a good weekend!!!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Brown meme

Prague Tory kindly tagged me and set me a challenge that he in turn was set by Mark Waldman on the 'Its got to be Gordon' post which asks a few searching questions of us all. This is a blogosphere circular almost, and the results could be interesting (though i suspect negative), if any readers wish to add their own please feel free to comment here or on Mark's post or on any of the other various links. I took a little time to reflect on the questions, and attempted to think as objectively as possible, while also thinking personally about Brown's time as Chancellor and future as Prime Minister; so here goes.

2 things GB should be proud of:
  • Firstly, I believe he is the longest serving Chancellor in modern times, and that he can say that within his ten years there has been no serious crisis but a prolonged period of stability. Whatever the criticisms of certain decisions that is a significant achievement!
  • On a more trivial note, sacking Charlie Whelan comes to mind, though not a nice act in itself, Whelan makes an excellent commentator whose skills were overlooked when he was simply Brown's spin doctor

2 things GB should apologise for:
  • An annoying part is his quiescence during the Blair years. There is an invisible force field that seems to separate him from the cabinet decisions. He is often reluctant both to endorse or to criticise and as such he acts more like an impartial civil servant. Perhaps he has always been keen to be seen as a separate entity...
  • Pensions, Pensions, Pensions; top-up fees I can handle, but the fact that state pensions are a miserly sum is appalling whatever the economic logic.

2 things GB should do immediately when he becomes PM:
  • Firstly, initiate an independent enquiry on the cash for peerages scandal that gets to the bottom of the allegations with a view to ensuring no such accusations can ever again be levelled against a British Prime Minister.
  • On the same day hold a full and independent enquiry into the lead-up to and prosecution of the Iraq War.

2 things GB should do while he is PM:
  • Carefully consider the effects of various pieces of anti-terror legislation on British society, social cohesion and the central tenets of modern democracy.
  • Reform government communications to ensure there is openness and transparency and that a civil servant is an impartial servant of society and not a political tool of the state.
Personal opinions and probably only a little idealistic but what the hell; they are considered answers to serious questions.

The last great act of defiance

Blair's speech on Tuesday, where he criticised the media for causing public cynicism in politics, caused a surge of responses across the media and the blogosphere. Within the speech there were interesting observations and admissions. In his early years the party paid "inordinate attention... to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media"; though he did not mention the term manipulating which may be more accurate. He also argued that a response and rebuttal machine was an imperative as "you can't let speculation stay out there for longer than an instant", and hinted that MPs now think more about their media presence than their parliamentary work: "If you are a backbench MP today, you learn to give a press release first and a good Parliamentary speech second". These are admissions that are not usually made by insiders, never mind an architect of the party machine.

But it was the criticisms that was the focus of attention. Accuracy, within media coverage, was deemed as "secondary to impact", and that the media elided "opinion and fact... as a matter of course" through the process by which the media focus as much on the "interpretation of what a politician is saying as [them] actually saying it" causing politicians to focus their energies on "rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended". It is hard to deny that these happen, one often gets the sense that the serious political journalists such as Nick Robinson and Jon Snow believe their opinions to be of more value than anything said by a politician and they infer meaning constantly; this must be frustrating. Equally the focus on sensationalism, the tabloidisation of news, means that serious politics can be pushed to the fringes. However, despite the earlier admissions Blair refused to effectively link the two. Labour's spin machine's raison d'etre is to hide anything that could be construed as negative from the media, hence what politicians say may have broader meaning but that the meaning is couched in hyperbole. Therefore as soon as there is a whiff of spin, the Westminster pack begin to sniff for the story that is obscured from them: a vicious circle!

Perhaps strangely Blair only chose to lay blame at the doors firstly of the BBC to an extent, but then the Independent "a viewspaper not merely a newspaper". This devalued Blair's position even more than attempting to dominate the moral high ground. Yes the independent has an ideological bias, but so do all newspapers so levelling accusations against the one that most vehemently opposed Blair's policies across the Middle East seems to be just sour grapes: an odd move for a man skilled in judging public and media reactions. Thus it appeared to be Blair raising the defiant finger to his left-wing critics and not beginning a real debate on the future of the relationship between the media, the political sphere and the public.

Last Great Act of Defiance

So what can we take from the speech? Clearly there is a problem. Firstly that politicians are too media-obsessed and concerned about receiving positive coverage; secondly that the media can focus too much on opining and not informing, and on the trivial, soap opera-esque aspects of the political drama rather than serious debate. Both of these can make politicians and politics seem detached and irrelevant among the public. But we cannot claim, as Blair did, that this causes cynicism. Media malaise research proves a link, however Pippa Norris found that entertaining reporting actually engaged the audience; so there are questions regarding the effects of democracy. So was this just sour grapes? Hard to tell. While Blair opened claiming to wish to "contemplate in a broader perspective the effects of a changing world on the issues of the future" his argument seemed curiously personal and rooted in today. His points are useful to an extent, but it would be hard to find unequivocal support from academic work in this area; so perhaps all we can do is take his points on board but see this really as his last act of defiance against a media he has always appeared to be trying, but failing, to control.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Appraising political second lives

Mark Warner is one of the many candidates competing for the Democratic Party nomination in the US currently. He is also attempting to build a virtual town hall within second life following his appearance within the MMO Second Life as a guest speaker where he flew on stage superman-like (see clip below)

While it could be just a stunt, Warner argues that is not the reason for his appearance and his enthusiasm for developing the tools. He argues that through web technology "distances and time differences vanish. It will allow us to reach people through a whole new medium. Social technologies can be great tools for political change, and virtual worlds like Second Life might be the next tool for engaging people in the real world democratic process". There are positives, it is cheap and efficient, it is non-mediated and, providing other users believe it is the real Mark Warner controlling the avatar, enables two-way communication and the building of relationships. Indeed the comments on the one game-politics site are largely not critical of Warner's appearance, though there are stylistic comments, but asking for substance: is this a new audience getting interested in politics?

There is a danger however. The Second Life environments are similar to the Sims game. You are able to create an avatar, or basically a computer generated person, you are able to control (Mark Warner's is shown left). The whole idea of this is that any user can be anyone else they like, usually this is enhancing their personality or physique but the avatars can also be based around real people. Hence there may well be user-generated replicas popping up that mock the real politician and their party. As one poster comments "imagine people wandering around looking like presidential candidates, swilling beer and staggering through strip clubs".

There are huge questions here then. The extent to which real appearances offer insights about the real person, or are perceived to, given that second life is about creating a false, even better, self. Equally, will users interact with a politician once the novelty wears off, or will they even believe it is the real person operating the avatar and not an aide. Finally is the perception of reality and believability. Just as a hypothetical scenario, if there is the real Mark Warner being the perfect president to be, plus a number of fake Mark Warners behaving badly, which will be seen as the representation of reality and which will move from second life and into media reports. The fakes are uncontrollable, for all we know someone out here may have created a character like any of us and may be making us do unspeakable things within a virtual world; but in politics such stories can control an agenda and at some point second and first lives may collide: will be for the good or the bad?

Monday, June 11, 2007

The future of E-politics

The 2007 French Presidential election has been heralded as moving e-political communication into a new phase and in the UK Tim Montgomerie, the creator of Conservative Home, has argued that the next UK general election will be the first Internet election; going as far as to state that "If our existing political parties do not find a way of building online communities that channel that power, they will die". But do not be mistaken in thinking that this is simply a Anglo-American/French phenomenon. Following in the footsteps of car manufacturers Toyota and Honda, and perhaps borrowing from Sarkozy's Ile de France, Japanese MP Kan Suzuki is to move from simply blogging to create a Second Life and create a cyber office in order to "discuss new policies with net citizens, deliver lectures and also hold meetings". While discussion currently centres on whether Suzuki will be in breach of strict election regulations, it seems that social media is increasingly being harnessed for permanent campaigning by political parties and candidates. As more of the world's population go online, is E-politics the future and will the future be virtual interaction as opposed to the static post or post and respond websites and blogs? Is this the silver bullet that can kill disengagement and apathy; it is too soon to tell but it seems that resources are being focused on releasing the potential of online campaign environment.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Don't mess with rock 'n' roll

In 2002 Ozzy Osbourne was George W. Bush's guest at the White House and, despite widespread condemnation among America's religious right, Ozzy was clearly guest of honour with Bush claimed to have announced "The thing about Ozzy is, he's made a lot of big hit recordings: Party With the Animals, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Face in Hell, Black Skies and Bloodbath in Paradise, Ozzy, Mom loves your stuff". It seems the respect and adulation is not reciprocated as Ozzy has launched a rather scathing attack on the Bush regime's record.

Listening to his new album Black Rain, I was struck by the sharp political message, one that is almost a personal message to Bush, in the song The Almighty Dollar; take the following verse for example:
Burn into the air and atmosphere
Watching the rain come down.
Turn your head away, ignore the fear.
Watching the ice crash down.
Our father’s justice gets closer,
How could you screw us all over?
Rape, steal, and murder,
God bless the Almighty Dollar.
While the comment is on the lack of care for the environment shown by the Bush administration, the 'how could you' reference almost suggests that Ozzy expected better. It is not the first time that Ozzy Osbourne has offered anti-war or pro-environmental messages within his lyrics, my favourite remains the opening of the song War Pigs:
Generals gathered in their masses,
just like witches at black masses.
Evil minds that plot destruction,
sorcerers of death's construction.
The new album may have a wider audience due to Ozzy and his wife having a high profile. Equally his apolitical image may mean that the message can break through the clutter of persuasive messages and have an impact on his new fans. Whatever it is a message that is constructed in an interesting way.

Thinking like Winners

In her role as Party Chairman, Hazel Blears has published a document outlining a suggested strategy for Labour at the next general election. The theme is that there is "no iron law of politics which decrees that the Tories are on an unstoppable path back to power"; Labour can reverse the trend and increase their majority but: "We have to think like winners".

The seats Labour are targeting offers few surprises. They were all seats lost in 2005 and currently the incumbent has a small majority. So voters within Croydon Central, Rochdale, Manchester Withington, Bethnal Green and Bow will all face the onslaught of Labour's professional, on-the-ground campaign. Fair enough, however it is the segmentation and public expression of real politik that is a little disconcerting.

Firstly there is the issue focus. All the seats are noted to have a diverse demographic; their concerns then will be immigration, housing, crime and anti-social behaviour, welfare and benefits, and public services especially the police, NHS and schools: this is somewhat obvious as they are currently the most important issues / problems as found consistently in polls. But "‘Middle class issues’ such as climate change, civil liberties and international aid are not election-deciding issues for the swing voters in the these seats"; so do not expect a Brown government to be focusing much attention in these areas.

The second area is what parties elegantly refer to as the BME communities, meaning Black and Minority Ethnic. Apparently the main issue for those voters in 2005 was Iraq, clearly the party hope this will be forgotten by 2009/2010 but to stand in Bethnal Green and Bow (George Galloway's steal from Oona King in 2005) is Rushnara Ali; described as "an excellent Bangladeshi women candidate, so this should fall to Labour next time". So politics seems not to matter, only the ethnic background and gender, the tone of the document suggests.

The concluding points are that a win is virtually in the bag as long as Labour:

  • remain firmly camped on the centre ground of British politics, where elections are won and lost;
  • focus on campaigning in the community;
  • build our strength in the key Labour-held marginal seats;
  • win back the seats we never should have lost in 2005.
Is there something missing here?

While no document such as this can detail the politics of the government between now and when the election is called. However the language suggests cynical but professional electioneering. We need to talk about a, b and c, but ignore x and y; but there is no sense of what the government should do to win these voters' support. It is true that ground level campaigning works, but there has to be something behind that campaign that engages the voters. That can be the quality of the candidate, though an incumbent can gain a personal vote too, but it must match with the perception that the party is the best one for government. Underpinning it all is the notion that "a new leadership team, new ministers, new policy initiatives, and a renewed sense of purpose and determination" will offer that positive perception; so perhaps criticism is a little previous. However circulating these documents gives a bad impression independent of the overall strategy. Just taking one element, the shortlisting of Rushnara Ali, her ability as a representative or the party's policies that will support the BMEs is not considered, just her Bangladeshi background; doesn't this devalue the role of a potential MP a little?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Tools of the State?

Clearly the legal system is a part of the state apparatus, if only in terms of its enforcement of the laws introduced by the government of the day. However the political role of the police and judiciary is seen to be minimal and there is a sense that the legal arm of the state is independent of the government but answerable to parliament. Such a principle seems enshrined by the fact that the cash for honours allegations have been vigorously pursued by the police, even to the extent of questioning the Prime Minister. However, largely there seems to be a mistrust of any decision that does not produce an anti-government conclusion and the question is whether this is a positive or a negative.

The Blair government appears to have substantially undermined trust in what is referred to as due process. The Hutton Inquiry, for example, was independent but with a narrow framework of reference: studying the extent to which the blame for the suicide of Dr David Kelly could be attributed to either the BBC or the press office and spin doctors of 10 Downing Street. But the outcome which seemed to exonerate Blair and Campbell while condemning the BBC's Today Programme was suggested by some to be a whitewash. The Butler Inquiry into the use of intelligence in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq compounded the view that the judiciary was if not in the pockets of government was unwilling to bring down the party with an electoral mandate. Therefore it seems that recent independent inquiries, all of which seemed to favour the government, have bred an atmosphere of deep mistrust of officialdom.

Thus it seems of little surprise that the findings of an investigation into whether the UK government colluded in the extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects, conducted by the Association of Chief Police Officers , which found no evidence of collusion has been openly questioned. This questioning begins with the premise that there is something amiss with the investigation, predicated on contrary findings released by the Council of Europe. Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty accused ACPO of a weak investigation and went as far as to comment "When politicians spin it is disappointing. When police engage in the same activity, it is rather more dangerous".

Cynicism and open questioning is a good thing, it protects the citizens from the state. The problem here is that the level of mistrust and acceptance that police and government would collude to produce the 'right result' undermines the principles of democracy. While it is impossible to say what is right or wrong in this case the problem is that Blair has overseen the processes that have bred this mistrust. By having independent inquiries with narrow remits that can only produce one conclusion, now everything is seen as spin. Unless the government, whatever colour it may be in the next few years, can quickly prove itself to be honest and working with the people trust will further diminish. Where will that leave us?

Friday, June 08, 2007

Real democracy?

Based probably on the success of the petitions that anyone is able to post on the 10 Downing Street website, and the support given to the petition opposing road pricing, David Cameron has suggested that a Conservative government would roll out the scheme to allow citizens to comment on policy proposals. His rationale is:

"I would like to see a system whereby, if enough people sign an online petition in favour of a particular motion, then a debate is held in Parliament, followed by a vote - so that the public know what their elected representatives actually think about the issues that matter to them."
The plan has the backign of Ken Clarke and is designed to reinvigorate the relationship between peopel and their political representatives, as well as the power of parliament as a legislative body.

While the details need consideration, given the fact that the public are harnessing the power of the internet to express their views already, and currently petitions gain significant support this has to be a logical step forward in re-engaging the public in the dmocratic process.

By the way for those who agree that pubs should not all be forced to switch from glass to plastic, independent of whether they actually have fights on the premises, sign the petition at

Is Modern Conservatism out of touch?

A poll of Conservative Party member's attitudes on a range of topics deemed to be controversial for the party has been published on Conservative Home. It is interesting reading, and can be interpreted in various ways (see Recess Monkey for one such). But the question is how out of step are they with the rest of the nation?

If we take the headlines. Two-thirds of members would go to a friend's civil partnership; according to The Christian Institute between 80 and 84% are strongly in favour. A different question but perhaps a disparity here.

Virtually 49% oppose abortion, seemingly independent of the reasons. National polls show high variance depending on the question. The opportunity for a termination has 70-80% support, but context can reduce this and prevention of pregnancy is supported as a better alternative.

34% are regular church-goers; Nationally this is 10% and sporadic.

34% also argue Immigration has been generally good for Britain; This is far higher than the national average in 2006 which was at 14%.

30% give money to International Development. Again this is higher than the national average for postal donations (21%) but two-thirds give on the street or to door-to-door collectors; so mixed responses maybe.

20% believe there should be no sex before marriage; surprisingly 25-33% agreed in a 2001 survey.

16% ride a bicycle, however Cameron is part of a 27.3% of the wider population according to research.

Only 3.2% are vegetarians, as opposed to 12% of the population.

So what are the conclusions of this less than scientific review. Well they are more liberal on immigration and pre-marital sex, but less so on abortion and civil partnerships; probably linking to their higher propensity to have strong religious convictions (though clearly this depends on the faith). But none of this actually indicates that he Conservative Party are any more reactionary or racist (and I use these terms as they are pejoratives linked to Conservative members not because I claim the party to be either) than the rest of the population. This then begs the question: why is there a divide between the leader and the party and a drive to locate themselves in a mythical political middle ground when the population don't seem that centrist or liberal anyway. Perhaps, whether everyone likes it or not, the market the parties are fighting for are actually far more reactionary than they think but it is the way the parties collect data that is flawed. Focus groups elicit responses deemed acceptable by the group, encouraging a spiral of silence, anonymous polling gains different answers, so should the Conservatives reflect the party and would they actually find a lot of people actually are 'thinking what they are thinking'?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

And have you heard the one...

Picture the scene, a high pressure international summit at the height of the Cold War. US President Ronald Reagan is due to meet then Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme for the first time. To ensure no social faux pas, Reagan asks his team whether Mr Palme had any communist sympathies. An aide quickly explains: "No Mr President, he's an anti-communist", without bothering to process this important bit of information Reagan retorted sharply: "I don't care what kind of communist he is". Get it?? Rolling in the aisles?? LOL??? NO, ah!

Well spare a thought for the various aides following Gordon Brown around the country, and not to mention the numerous audiences of party faithful who have to offer a polite titter. As news has it that this joke has been told at every meeting so far. Clearly this is part of Gordon's attempt to shake off his image as lacking a sense of humour and being too dour and sombre. Is it working, well BBC Radio 4 did a classic piece of political journalism to check out Gordon's delivery. Stand-up comedian Paul Sinha explained his delivery was weak, he appeared bored telling the joke, and the joke is not that good anyway. I'm stunned, I am glad they got an expert in.

However journalists when on to criticise the new touch feely image politicians try to cultivate, discussing the lack of substance and elevation of personality, celebrity and authenticity. I agree, hear hear! However, isn't this just a little rich coming from any journalist. They have suggested Brown would lack appeal as prime minister because he seems too serious, that his personality is flawed. The man is not a comedian, despite suggestions that his calculations are a joke, why should he feel the need to become one? Well because of his portrayal, the perceptions held of him, and what the media claim his personality to lack. Again damned if you do, damned if you don't! It brings to a question that remains central to all studies of the media-politics relations; should the media inform or comment and if both what is the acceptable amount of comment and how should the news agenda be determined - all very pertinent questions!