Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Politics of Pacman

The Conservatives have launched a game to get across the message that Gordon Brown has implemented 111 stealth tax rises; this can be found at If you go to the about screen you find why it has been created and the message "Try as you might you'll never get away from Taxman Gordon", alternatively you could just play Pacman and try and eat the Gordon Ghosts. Effectively political communication? Questionable! Novel? Yes! Negative? Yes! Reaching out to floating voters or non-Conservatives? Again questionable? Which means it doesn't really work in my opinion! Or is it just because I'm rubbish at Pacman, ho hum. It doesn't really make you think politically; then it is perhaps for the converted anyway.

A question of convictions

Convictions, beliefs, maybe even ideologies, have been much discussed since 1997, with Blair being accused of lacking in ideas, following focus groups and jumping on bandwagons. Successive Conservative leaders have sought to show they have ideas, the famous 'I Believe' statements made by Michael Howard being a good example. Brown has sought to distance himself from the Blair image describing himself as a conviction politician in the mould of Margaret Thatcher. While this has been condemned by Conservative shadow chancellor George Osborne because he opposed Thatcherism, he misses the point. The debate centres on who is Thatcher's heir, not the broader connotations of Brown's statement.

Brown's appearance with Thatcher, as pop-duo The Proclaimers said on This Week on Thursday, may not go down well with his voters in Scotland; but he may have seen the publicity side of their meeting to be positioning himself as a certain type of Prime Minister. Strength is clearly a characteristic he wants to demonstrate he possesses, he is not Bush's poodle for example. He also seems to want to make statements rooted in belief as opposed to popularism. It is the image that voters get of him that could be crucial between now and whenever an election is called. If he is seen as stronger then Cameron, and that he possesses (to a greater extent than the alternatives) beliefs that are shared by those whose votes he seeks then he should be the winner. Cameron and the Conservatives cannot undermine him by stealing Thatcher back for themselves, but by questioning Brown's convictions and presenting themselves as sharing the mood of British society. That is the real challenge and given the largely negative view of politicians and their attachment to anything beyond power, it is not something that will easily be sold.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The signs are there - but are the British bored of an election already?

There's an election brewing, like strange shapes in tea leaves predicted everything from the death of a monarch to 'Squire Morton's pig running amok in t'village and trashing the market', the signs are there we are told. The way that every UK media outlet is playing up the election story is beginning to get annoying, I wonder what effect it is having on the more apathetic, less politically-interested, potential voter/non-voter? Many a probably thinking Gordon should get on with it so the media can find something else to talk about.

The media claim to have duty to inform, are they mis-informing? Are they feeding apathy by hyping up the idea of an election constantly? Its a big question!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Mixed messages

Wandering past one of the many TV screens showing rolling news that populate the modern media school I saw the most bizarre of events. The Labour Party conference, trying to follow the words of The Red Flag, which was being sung by a soprano opera singer, as Gordon Brown smiled on. So we have a collection of quite right wing pronouncements, coupled with the nationalistic overtones of the British Brown, all wrapped up with a nod to the history of the Labour movement. What Keir Hardie would have made of the spectacle god only knows. The Guardian's Simon Hoggart was less than impressed that's for sure!
But in considering the point of it all, this seemed to be the return of something iconic, something that denotes socialism, while everything that is proposed is as far from socialism as is possible. So why? Was this some attempt to revoke some core philosophy, or did someone suggest that they needed "a little something to keep the reds happy"? It certainly came across as a bizarre piece of spectacle that conferences have become (on the reform of conferences see James Stanyer's work).

For those interested in symbols, rhetoric and connotations, the song was signing the party up to:

It well recalls the triumphs past,
It gives the hope of peace at last;
The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.

It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man's frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.

With heads uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall;
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.

Then raise the scarlet standard high
Within its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

One wonders how many of those whose minds are fixed on pelf and place see Brown as the man who wont let them down? Just a thought.

Credibility: the Boris challenge

Boris Johnson, magazine editor, Conservative MP and former member of the Shadow Cabinet, iterant television personality etc, is to be the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London. Not only that but the selection was unequivocal 15,661 votes out of 20,019 cast. He was the best known and offered a sense of his strategic direction (well scrapping bendy buses and not focusing on Zone 1 exclusively), but can he win the office?

The BBC quotes Tony McNulty, the Home Office minister, who said "for all his strengths as an individual, Boris is essentially a very clever man, but ultimately a clown, and he won't put up with the sort of scrutiny that mayoral candidates do". So credibility is clearly the issue here. Can he position himself as a person that could manage the infrastructure of one of the busiest cities in the world? Can he prove himself as an ambassador for the city? Has the ability to overcome the image of him as the bumbling part-time presenter of Have I Got New For You?

He talks a good talk on his website:
"The job of the Mayor is simple - to get people to work on time, to ensure people feel safe on the streets, to help people find a place to call home, to celebrate our diversity and to champion our success. My determination to lead this city is stronger than ever. After seeing both the good and bad that London has to offer, I am committed to making London greater and standing up for every Londoner that invests so heavily in our city. I want to be a Mayor for all Londoners, from Zone 6 to Zone 1. A Mayor that will listen, will learn and will lead."
But his videos are undeniably bumbling Boris and he has a history of making gaffes so, despite the affection for him, much of which is expressed in comments on Youtube. This history means there may be a long way to go to prove he is the man able to do the things he promises to do despite the anti-Ken (King Newt) sentiment that seems to exist. It will be the ultimate in challenges for his marketing and strategy team.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Getting the message out

It seems political oppression no longer has the power it once did. There are a series of blogs emerging from within Burma that tell the story of life under the military dictators. Many are by monks, and the aim seems to be to get the message out as widely as possible (for example see here). The campaign is also being waged on YouTube with the help of Dennisbier09:

While the national media will be the key means of getting the message out, such high quality accounts and images enable journalists to provide better accounts of the crisis and those campaigning within Burma to get their message to the broadest possible audience. Powerful and effective, and probably impossible without the internet; such is the nature of modern communication that none can stop information if those wishing to inform are determined enough, and while there are cases of this throughout history, in the modern age we are informed in minutes and hours not years.

Where is Brown on the brand life cycle

A good friend, former colleague and now marketing consultant made an off-hand comment on Brown the other day, one of those that you first nod at and then it makes you think. His comment was that "we the general public, have become experts in seeing through packaging - Gordon is a tried and tested 'failed' cillit bang .......shouting louder is a temporary self comforting exercise". So what he is saying is that Brown is largely a failed brand who is simply trying to be noticed in the market place and, perhaps, mistaking all coverage for positive coverage. From my friends analysis, Brown is simply trying to maintain himself as a mature brand wanted by the public (as per below), but is this the case in reality?

Brown has been around long enough to be a brand in decline, particularly in the world of politics. In fact, up until his period as Prime Minister, he was seen only as a peripheral brand perhaps. But has the rebranding of Brown restarted the process, so he is a brand the public are learning about, or is he currently staving off an inevitable quick decline at a time when competitors are seen as less viable options?

If the latter then a quick election is his best move, if the former he has plenty of time. While perhaps these sorts of terms will not be in use within the Number 10 strategy team, the ideas will be front of mind. Will Brown's popularity last or is it a short honeymoon for a brand that seems initially exciting due to the media hype but will quickly wain as the public get tired of seeing him? Maybe it will depend, if he goes for the long period before an election, on how he differentiates himself from Blair and from Cameron, but that is a maybe as public opinion can often be a fickle master.

Alien concepts

We can read a lot about American politics and camapigning, and usually there is the hint that global political campaigning is becoming Americanised. Perhaps there is some truth in that but the one thing that is definitely missing in the UK is the in your face demands from money using highly emotive rhetoric. I signed up to Barack Obama's emails, I have no idea if they work and if they do why.
Over night I received a plea for money, or rather a request that I should "own a piece of this campaign". Others have done so, the email claims, such as James from Durango Colarado. He is quoted as saying:
"The founding principle of the great American experiment, as it has been called, is based on the involvement of citizens like us. Regular people joining forces to make an uncommon and profound difference."
I guess I just don't get it. It would put me off completely, but then I cannot actually vote in the US so what does it matter what I think. In the US Obama claims his funds are rising on a minute by minute basis, so it must be having some positive effects.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The performance of politics

The prime ministerial speech seems to have come early in Labour's conference this year, but as ever it is the centre piece and the key media spectacle. For all those that feel Brown is not a performer in the ilk of his predecessor it perhaps proved them wrong, Brown displayed the same passion and managed to deliver the soundbites for the media coverage on tonight's news (after all that is the bit that 98% of the population will be most likely to see).

The speech itself seemed to tell us a great deal about what he aims to do, but little on the way it is to be done. A particularly emotional piece was the following: "Every year 10 million die from diseases we could have the medicine and science to prevent and cure. If in the 20th century human ingenuity could put a man on the face of the moon, then surely in this 21st century human compassion can lift the pain from the face of a suffering child"; but nowhere did Brown state who was to pay for this, from what budget.

So what do we know, he stands for a lot of things that most people would probably agree with, for example "I stand for a Britain that defends its citizens and both punishes crime and prevents it by dealing with the root causes"; but a little more controversial is "I stand for a Britain where it is a mark of citizenship that you should learn our language and traditions". But the key soundbites are as follows. The first has been his enduring response to questions about a snap election (something he did not claim to stand for): in talking of the challenges of the summer's terrorist attacks and foot and mouth outbreak, "our" (that is he and Britain), "response was calm and measured. We simply got on with the job". The second key soundbite responds to the distrust of his predecessor and the feeling that he let the people of the country down (as shown in a number of focus groups held around the 2005 General Election". Brown stated:

This is my pledge to the British people: I will not let you down. I will stand
up for our schools and our hospitals. I will stand up for British values. I will
stand up for a strong Britain. And I will always stand up for you.

The standing ovation was mandatory as ever, but in the end it was simply a rallying call to the converted and the delivery of a few key soundbites for media use; such speeches are simply a performance and it is impossible to say if any of the items the speaker 'stands for' will ever be translated clearly into policy.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Following the public mood

Political marketing seems largely, in practice, to being simply projecting an image of being authentic, a real person, in touch with the mood of the nation. Perhaps Gordon Brown attempted to capture this when his official spokesperson declared yesterday that: "The Prime Minister is a football fan and somebody who enjoys watching Premier League games, so he knows Mourinho has a fantastic record of success... He's made a significant contribution to British football in a short period of time and he's also one of the great characters of the game." Well it may win over the Chelsea fans who were holding a vigil of mourning outside Stamford Bridge last night;

I would doubt it will strike a chord with Raith Rovers fans however (Gordon's team). His spokesperson was quoted as saying in 2005 that Brown is "a lifelong supporter of Raith Rovers " and he is claimed to have spearheaded the management buy-out of the team after its relegation.

All part of his image as a regular guy, or just Gordon being Gordon; perhaps if there was not so much use of marketing and PR in politics we would not ask the question. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a long retired Labour MP for one of the Coventry constituencies. He was a fervent supporter of Coventry City, and regularly attended matches, but he also wanted to market himself as a part of the community by being visible. His trick was to get his agent to ring the ground during half time, in the run-up to an election, and get a call put out on the tannoy to ask William Wilson MP to contact his agent; see nothing is really new!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Stealing the agenda

Driving around Dorset today, through the little village of East Stoke near Wareham I was somewhat surprised to find a notice calling residents to vote in 'The Referendum on the EU Constitution'. When you think you have some sort of handle on what's going on in politics it comes as a surprise. I asked in the village shop, finding a local parishioner I discovered that local members of UKIP have exercised their right to force a local parish referendum if 10 or more local parishioners vote in favour. 18 attended and sufficient voted in favour!

This has been done not because it will have a profound effect on government policy, particularly as the question is not on accepting the constitution but: "Do you want a referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty?". The point is to put the issue on the agenda and rally support. It seems to have worked, to an extent. One has to say the timing is wrong however. If they had done this to coincide with a speech on Europe then maybe, but it only made the local BBC News and was ignored by the evening bulletins, but there are a wealth of references on a Google search. But if every parish in the country followed suit...
Turnout in the referendum was 80, out of 350 potential voters; the result was 90% in favour of a further referendum. Not really democracy at work, but as many local councillors, MEPs and mayors cannot gain a similar level of percentage turnout or support it cannot be condemned too much.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


No-one can deny that Liberal Democrat Industry Spokesman Lembit Opik is a character, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that he argues that "We have to decide it's OK for us to have characters, because the public like characters." Opik has always been a controversial character. He spent many years talking of the dangers of asteroids hitting the earth and his private life is often the subject of tabloid gossip. His partners have included weather girl Sian Lloyd and Gabriela Irimina one half of the novelty pop act The Cheeky Girls, the latter relationship bringing him a lot of media attention but perhaps for the wrong reasons (as the below testifies). So, is he correct in arguing the personality matters?

Well of course he is. Blair emphasised the idea of himself as a 'straight kind of guy', Cameron tells us he is Mr Average, the guy in the street, with both there may well be questions over their authenticity, perhaps their ability to cultivate a persona, but belief in who they are is important. The reason is that voters can assess the extent to which they will do what they want by their closeness to themselves. this is called proximity politics, where voters see someone's personality and policies as being closest to themselves and select that candidate on that basis. But there is more to it than just having personality.

Politicians must also be credible. This was the debate surrounding Charles Kennedy, he was well liked but was he credible as a leader and potential power-broker. Ming Campbell suffers similarly due to age largely. But characters like Boris Johnson and Lembit Opik, politicians who have become celebrities and known for the trivial, controversial or wacky maybe liked but lack credibility. This will be a problem for Johnson as a candidate for London Mayor and perhaps for any party that encourages more personalities. The celebrity politician may become well-known and promote the party but they can also be damaging to a party's credibility; hence there is a fine line to be drawn somewhere between being known and being a likeable, but incredible, celebrity.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Democratic? Fair? Confusing?

In the UK the process of selection of candidates is simple really. Local parties, often guided from central office, select their candidate for MP, MPs and party members select the party leader. It limits choice to the voter but the process is transparent and in theory should encourage the interested to get involved at a local level.

In the US the path to being presidential candidate is long, arduous, complex (at least to an outsider), and privileges the rich or well sponsored. The single, most stark contrast is that in the UK an individual with no personal money could get onto the ballot paper and not worry about winning or losing if they have party support, in the US this is not the case.

Here is an explanation of the system:

Iowa will be critically important in this race. But there are some unique aspects of the Iowa caucus that you need to know about. Here in the first state where the Democratic candidates will compete, people don't "vote" for their candidate in the way that you might think. In order to win, we have to turn people out to a caucus -- a process that lasts over an hour and requires supporters to publicly advocate for their candidate and persuade others to join them. That means in Iowa, it's all about organization. We have to organize all 99 counties and train over 1,700 precinct captains to lead these caucuses. We have to recruit more Obama supporters to attend their caucus and build the ground game to turn them out on caucus day. It's a massive undertaking, and with just over 100 days left before the Iowa caucuses, I'm asking for your help. Why does Iowa matter to you? Because the momentum from a win in Iowa could create a domino effect in the rest of the states that follow. In the last two presidential elections, the candidate who won the Iowa caucuses went on to win the Democratic nomination. Now is a crucial time to show your support. A donation of $12 will provide ten yard signs for Iowa lawns. $27 will send fifty Iowans a piece of mail telling them Barack's story. $53 can sponsor a college student at a Students for Barack Obama weekend training. And $114 buys enough t-shirts for canvassers to wear while knocking on every door in Evansdale, Iowa. Please make a donation now to help us win Iowa.

The issue perhaps is the economy of scale, how do you reach the number of people required in a nation the size of the USA; perhaps it is no wonder that all but the most liberal of Chinese argue that democracy would not work in China. But when you consider the money here it takes obscene amounts to get elected as candidate, that is before the presidential race proper begins. One wonders what impact this has on those Americans to whom $53 is a significant sum of money, who are concerned about politics but who know that they can have no role in the process of selecting who will go forward to the two-horse race.

Is there a real sense of low self-efficacy and cynicism (perhaps as a product of one another) born out of the fact that there is no real input into the process until it is largely two late? This is not to suggest the wrong candidates emerge at the end, but a comment on the nature of a system and the way in which it can either encourage or discourage participation.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Cynics or Sceptics and why?

Last Thursday and Friday I attended a conference on Political Socialisation organised by Universiteit Antwerpen, it was all fascinating stuff but one paper in particular made me think. That was offered by Henk Dekker, based on research into young people's political attitudes in The Netherlands. It discussed two important themes, firstly the nature of cynicism and secondly the sources.

Dekker made an important distinction which is often overlooked in studies; that is between scepticism (the rationale questioning of communication), and cynicism (the rejection of communication due to a mistrust of the communicator). The media often conflate and confuse the two on the basis that politicians are mistrusted so any questioning of campaign communication or manifesto promises are contingent on that mistrust. This may not be so and so cynicism may not be a widespread as is commonly believed. It is a question worth asking, particularly if studies look for cynicism as opposed to having indices for both cynicism and scepticism.

The second aspect that Dekker proposed is regarding one key source of cynicism, low self-esteem. Dekker argued that those individuals who feel they have not realised their own potential are more likely to blame others and create conspiracy theories to shift blame onto broader society and structures of power. So perceptions of powerlessness and feelings of low self-efficacy can result from personally not doing anything but the blame for that is easier to shift on the political structure than accept.

So, for example, non-voters may find it too difficult to make a decision, or even motivate themselves to go and vote, but may later feel guilty for failing to exercise their democratic duty (a feeling that may inspire low self-esteem). Their excuse however is shifted onto the political system by repeating negative press reports and claiming all politicians are the same and every vote is worthless.

Clearly there are rationale arguments for being cynical, and research of media coverage can suggest there is an effect between cynical reporting and cynical public attitudes. but this is a fresh perspective worth some consideration. Perhaps we should consider whether data such as the graph (right) represents healthy scepticism or a cynicism that is corrosive to democracy. So perhaps what I take from Dekker's paper is a suggestion that research into non-voting and the causes of cynicism should be a little more sophisticated to attempt to assess how deeply the cynical attitudes are within the public psyche as opposed to accepting that cynicism is really rife and is a prime cause of political disengagement.

Not Flash Gordon!!

According to today's Independent Gordon Brown has enlisted Saatchi & Saatchi to construct his advertising for the 'forthcoming' election campaign and the poster is already in the bag. The message is 'Not Flash, Just Gordon'. So the election, whenever it is to be called, will be highly personal, centred on the candidates for prime minister, and perhaps just a little simplistic. Given that Brown is trying to establish himself as the serious politician, are the connotations of this message appropriate. Is it just me or is the image that comes to mind a rather camp (by modern standards) science fiction hero who always fought and won Ming the Merciless (so are the LibDems the main enemy)? The leaked story may just be testing the water, and the ad itself may never see the light of day, but an interesting direction for 'a man of substance'.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Perceptions are everything

It is very common to find that any poll that finds answers which some violently disagree with is attacked for invalidity. This is the case for the findings that show public support for moving towards nuclear energy produced by Opinion Leader Research (OLR) who are under fire from environmental groups and the Guardian newspaper. The document which will inform consultation is claimed to be stacked with "pro-Nuclear opinion masquerading as fact" and so Guido argues this is simply push-polling and an attempt to produce the answers the government wants rather than having an open consultation.

Now we would normally not attack a research organisation, they are founded on the principles of gathering data that reflects the opinions and attitudes of a representative sample of a given population at the time of asking the question. Polling and research is a scientific process designed to find answers not support for an answer; so why is OLR accused so easily.

OLR is part of Chime Communications PLC, an organisation known for public relations and its association with Lord Tim Bell and the Bell-Pottinger group. On the front page there is a quote from Lord bell, whose long association with political campaigning makes him one of the few recognised experts in the area of winning elections, the quote reads:
"Perceptions are real. If you are playing to win they have to be favourable. Your ability to persuade people to listen to you, understand what you are saying, and support you, will determine whether you win or lose"
This suggest that unethical practices are allowed in the course of achieving victory, we know that research findings can create a bandwagon effect; where the reporting of a fact such as 80% of people favour nuclear energy may convince doubters that they are in a minority and should rethink their position. It is a common PR tool to use spin to nurse statistics to favour the organisation; and in the US push polling, the use of loaded questions to solicit the right response is common at election times.

None of these practices are directly attributed to Chime however, but the fact that there is an association between OLR and Chime is sufficient to cast doubts on the validity of the research. This is compounded by the fact that there are a number of government aides who have or do work within OLR and Chime, so they are seen as being partisan as well. The PR Industry is mistrusted, particularly when it becomes involved in politics, hence perhaps such associations should not be exploited by a government seeking credible data on a highly controversial topic. Unless of course Brown's opponents are correct and this is the use of research to sell an idea, a popular tool of government for many years. Perceptions are everything, why don't Brown's PR experts (including wife Sarah of Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications) give him better advice.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Time for a Change (to campaigning)

"This is a totally different approach to campaigning for a political party. By using this new type of campaigning to set out the Conservative Party's vision in the run up to the conference season, David Cameron is demonstrating his fresh approach to politics."

This is Caroline Spelman's claim regarding the campaign the Conservatives have launched today. Initially I was going to criticise, the phrase Time for a Change, or something very similar, has been used globally and is almost a standard strategy for a party seeking to overturn a government that has been in power for a number of years. But, despite the phrase, there is something new here.

Firstly there will be nine discrete advertisements, each focusing on a policy area and suggesting a better solution to the problems in that area than those offered by Labour. The policy areas are, The NHS; supporting families; the environment; pensions; crime; public services (schools and hospitals); poverty in Africa; steaming education; the EU constitution. So rather than simply being personality based, Cameron is moving beyond PR to the politics. Also they seem to be more than simple attacks on Labour's record but suggesting alternative proposal for dealing with problems. Whether the proposals are good or not is up to the reader, but it is a departure from the trend towards negativity.

Secondly these advertisements are to be in newspapers and on major websites such as AOL,Lycos and Facebook. This is argued by the Telegraph to be appealing to the 21 million internet savvy voters. The problem, as the comments on the Telegraph article show, is that it is a gimmick those using the net seem to be highly cynical of (though how representative these comments are is highly questionable). This indicates a high spend campaign that is targeting a wide range of voters and in particular web users.

The third point is that the advertisements themselves are not obvious to visitors. They appear not to feature on the Conservative website as yet unless the image (left) is an example and where they will appear on the sites is impossible to tell. If the image is the ad, and on the Home page it scrolls between messages but retains the same image, then it says very little about real policy. It is a shame in many ways that the actual ads are not shown, or that it is unclear if this is the ad or not, but I guess the idea is to create a buzz about them prior to release so they are noticed more. So it seems that the campaign itself is being hyped and PR'ed rather than the advertisements beign able to create their own momentum.

But is this new? Advertising clearly is not, neither is promotion via the Web; Cameron seems to have drawn politics in the UK more and more towards focusing on ICT. The foregrounding of policy is perhaps a shift of emphasis but in style it is reminiscent of the key points from the party's 2005 Manifesto. What maybe the only new aspect is that it is claimed that these are directly linking to their publics' attitudes as dtermined by analysis of the comments on the Conservative consultation exercise Stand Up, Speak Up. So perhaps in terms of talking about the issues that concern the people who the advertisng will reach, the politically interested web user, perhaps there is a greater use of marketing in designing the messages

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The dubious importance of TV debates

The British media are once again talking of live television debates following Conservative leader David Cameron writing to Gordon Brown asking for one. Little is said of his reasoning, though I will indicate why I think Cameron wants one, but once again it seems the incumbent prime minister, the man with most to lose, is opposed to the idea.

The idea of the big public debate is to provide a level platform for all candidates, and so allow the viewer to compare them on a range of policy initiatives. US Presidential candidates always have one, and arguably they have decided contests, particularly the youthful John F. Kennedy's defeat of Richard Nixon in 1960 (right); the Democrat candidates have already held a Youtube debate, and French Presidential candidates Royal and Sarkozy both debated live on television.

But research in the US indicates that these debates do not encourage voters to compare potential presidents on policy, it is image. Cameron is only the clear favourite among voters when asked about likeability, so clearly a debate could benefit him. But should voters decide on who sweats the most, who looks better on camera, all the peripheral cues that give impressons of a person but say little substantive about how they would manage government. While it is impossible to exclude perceptions and impressions of candidates for leadership from an election it would be intrestign to see what woud happen if we had an election where image played no part.

If voters were simply given a list of policies on election day, each party providing a list of the key iniatives as a package, and voters were given time to read it and then voted for the package they thought would be best for the country at that time, what would happen? Could voters be deceived as easily as when they select the 'nicest guy' who appears most 'authentic'? Would it make voters see a clearer link between promises and delivery? There are a lot of questions, but it seems that the promotion of image erodes both the ability to gather information on candidates and make choices too simlistic to be meaningful.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The vicious cycle

Nick Assinder wrote yesterday that "If it looks like an election campaign and sounds like an election campaign then it is understandable people believe it IS an election campaign", an he is right, it is an election campaign but he misses a very important point. This is the permanent election campaign, it began as soon as Blair's timetable for leaving began. Why? Because the media have talked up an election campaign since that point also, every reporting of the polls is used to suggest when an election will take place and who will win. Hence Brown and Cameron are both engaged in a permanent campaign for public support as any shift in the poll is reported as an indictment of them as leaders and future prime ministers.

I describe this simply, as per the above diagram, the problem is that this sort of reporting drives cynicism and boredom. Why do the public want an election, because every bored political editor is using this as the hook to make a political story exciting; and around the cycle goes!

Limiting choice doesn't win elections!

The Conservative party seem to have a problem, well several actually, but I note three of importance. Firstly, they are behind in the polls; secondly, the news agenda is most interested in possible splits between left and right, modernisers and traditionalists; thirdly, the only policy that hits the main news is their pledge to stick to Labour spending plans.

The problem therefore is that public perceptions of the party, leading to lower scores in the polls, are likely to be driven by an impression of division and lack of direction and that they have no original policies. While there is currently an online initiative to consult which is gathering pace (see here), this is ignored as it is not entertaining news.

Perhaps the pledge to stick to Labour public spending plans, which to an extent undermines their open consultation, is an attempt to capture the agenda but this is flawed. It worked for Labour in in the run-up to 1997, but because the Major government was in disarray and there was a need to reassure the floating voters that a Labour government would not incur and economic collapse; in this instance fine. But Labour's record on the economy is Brown's strength, providing this lack of choice will give people the choice between a tried and tested brand and an unknown alternative, but for the same price (or risk if you like). The choice will be Labour.

While it is not for me to comment on which policies the Conservative Party should or should not lead on, they need to talk about those things the public are concerned about but offer a more attractive alternative to Labour not more of the same. This is the only way any party can steal the ground from a party of government that have not yet lost the support of the public completely. Maybe they need to do more research, maybe they need to consult more widely, but it seems that if this is all they can offer then a snap election would present an open goal for Brown.

Monday, September 03, 2007

What's in a name 2

Gordon Brown is talking of creating citizen juries to help determine policy. These, like a jury in a court of law, hear evidence from experts and deliberate the key points in order to reach a verdict. The main principle is, as with most research, that once a small sample of a population have heard the evidence their deliberations can fairly represent the perspectives of the wider community. The Guardian heralds this as a 'New type of politics', but is it?

A criticism of New Labour under Blair was the use of focus groups. The principle of a focus group is to collect together a number of people who are representative of their broader social grouping on the principle that they will discuss and debate issues and offer the solutions that the wider group would find atractive. I have used these to aid the design of shampoo bottles (it paid the bills) and to find out why voters in safe seats are less likely to vote and why those in marginal seats are more likely to (a forthcoming publication).
So is there a difference? Fundamentally no, but they have different connotations. Within the research industry focus groups are highly respected and often used, within political circles they are suggested as a sign of weak government, Citizen juries are sold as consultation among the informed, an idea which first emerged with the Big Conversation, but can be described as a departure from the focus group.

Speaking in June of this year Gordon Brown claimed the following:

“In 2007, you have got to engage and involve people much more… engage them in discussing a big issue, it could be smoking, I did one on that, I did one on the British way of life… you work through the problem. I believe that citizens juries and citizen jury service could be a thing of the future: inviting people in all parts of the country… 100 or 200 or 300 people discussing an issue through. [They] feedback to government and then government responding and saying this is what we are going to do as a result. This is an important way of consulting.”

A new open politics perhaps, better use of marketing techniques perhaps, and it is the name that separates them from being the focus groups used by Philip Gould to design numerous Labour advertisements, slogans and campaign messages. But to be taken seriously there must be a visible link between the consultation and policy, if not it will be dismissed as an empty marketing technique now it has been sold to the media.

What's in a name 1

For the grand total of £100,000 the Scottish Executive has rebranded itself as the Scottish Government because, apparently, most people had no idea what an executive did. Research carried out suggested that the term government had more relevance and was in keeping with the mission of the "act like a government".

Is that the main reason though? Well the alternative purpose would be to state it governs as opposed to executes. The latter term is more often associated with an executor, someone who acts on behalf of others. Now possibly this could be liked to the notion of representation and the executive, executing on behalf of the Scottish voters; but perhaps Alex Salmond wants to be clear that the Scottish Executive does not execute on behalf of Westminster.

Whether it is a step towards some form of independence is dubious, however it may signal a greater decision making role, and a greater credibility. So perhaps the name is important. Providing they do not have MSGs (Members of the Scottish Government) as this could be confused with monosodium glutamate; a flavour enhancer notoriously bad for health. No comment needed.