Friday, May 30, 2008

Breaking New Records

It was Roy Castle who used to sing 'dedication's what you need... if you wanna be a record breaker'. Not sure it is dedication that results in the news today that Gordon Brown's Labour Party has now recorded the worst opinion poll rating for a UK political party since surveys began in 1943. The YouGov poll shows Labour on 23% while the Conservatives are on a very strong 47%. While the media lay the blame on voter concerns about a slowing economy, rising fuel and food prices, and of course the botched tax reform just prior to the Crewe & Nantwich by-election, there must be more to it mustn't there? There must be an understanding that the economic problems are not all Brown's making. So why is he not the man trusted to ride the storm? Is it the catalogue of errors that mar his short time as leader? Is it his wooden perfromance skills? Or is there a boredom with Labour and Brown's team? Conversely why are the Conservatives seen as being more able to manage the crisis? Is this due to a feelign that someone else deserves a chance? Is it about image and perception? Or is it anyone but Gordon? There are so many questions about Brown's popularity that opinion polls cannot answer sadly: any ideas?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Muck Spreading

Obama is again positioning himself as the man funded by the people, in asking his supporters to "own a piece of this campaign", he contrasts his fundraising schemes with that of the man who will be his rival if he wins the Democratic Party nomination. He quotes a reporter who quotes a source close to McCain who is talking about his participation in a gala fundraiser with current President George W. Bush. The fundraiser is claimed to be "part of McCain's delicate effort to find the balance between embracing an unpopular president and taking advantage of his huge continuing draw with well-heeled Republicans." The purpose is to firstly ensure his supporters solidify around him, against the Bush-McCain alliance to retain power. But secondly it positions John McCain in the same moral league as anyone who will do anything to get the money to win that power, it positions McCain as being worse than a prostitute. Is this type of attack, a central theme of Obama's strategy to position him as an 'US' that includes the populace and a them inside 'Washington', going to gain him support simply because he is only funded by the people or will the novelty wear off is he wins the nomination and the campaign becomes more intense. More importantly how will McCain respond and how dirty will the contest get?

The Facebook Chart

As mentioned yesterday, a Facebook profile and supporters page is becoming the must have accessory of the aspiring candidate. So, out of those allowing us to show our love for them, who are the winners?
  1. Barack Obama, 865,535
  2. Hillary Clinton, 158,512
  3. John McCain, 132,686 (so would Obama beat McCain based on this?)
  4. Ron Paul, 87,832 (failed US Republican hopeful)
  5. Mike Huckabee, 51,116 (as above)
  6. Mitt Romney, 34,056 (and again)
  7. John Edwards, 30,084 (Democrat and poss running mate for Obama)
  8. Wen Jia-bao, 24,943 (Chinese Premier)
  9. Dennis Kucinich, 22,963 (failed Democrat hopeful)
  10. Arnold Schwarzenegger, 20,914 (Governor Terminator)
  11. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, 15,495 (Leader of Danish Liberal Party and Prime Minister)
  12. Sebastian Pinera, 14,353 (Chilean Senator and former Presidential hopeful)
  13. Boris Johnson, 12,034 (Mayor of London)
  14. George W. Bush, 11,869
  15. Nicolas Sarkozy, 11,845 (French President)
  16. Fred Thompson, 11,761 (another failed Republican hopeful)
  17. Rudy Giuliani, 11,042 (as above)
  18. Stephane Dion, 10,983 (Leader of Canadian Liberals)
  19. Jack Layton, 10,694 (Leader of Canadian New Democrats)
  20. Helle-Thorning-Schmidt, 10,006 (Leader of Danish Social Democrats)

Put into perspective against the UK parties, the Conservatives have 4,469 supporters, and leader David Cameron 3,296; RESPECT Leader/Independent MP George Galloway has 3,279; Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg 827; UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has 106. Is this indicative of anything one wonders?

Keep it Local

The South Oxfordshire Conservative Association responsible for choosing the candidate to stand in the Henley by-election prompted by Boris Johnson's victory in London have decided not to select Boris' father Stanley, but instead have gone for a local candidate shortlist: though they have still to choose the actual candidate. The Chairman of the Association John Walsh claims, according to the BBC, that their reason for doing so is: "Where we have not chosen a local candidate the Liberal Democrats very much pick up on that and criticise it significantly. I think it is designed this time that nothing goes wrong. The primary importance is to make sure our electors turn out." An odd admission for a party riding high in the polls and fighting a safe seat. If marginal, unless of course there is a latent support for the Liberal Democrats and they are making a resurgence, it would be understandable but to think something might go wrong and admit it is unusual.

Meanwhile, and in true Liberal Democrat style, Stephen Kearney has a Facebook page, 10 supportive comments and 195 supporters (mostly from the party) and is positioning himself as the Champion for Henley; clearly it is increasingly the must have accessory for any serious candidate these days.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Stalking horses vie for airtime?

Does this look like the next Prime Minister, or even leader of the Labour Party? Well it is a question and raised in response to the article on the front page of PR Week from May 23rd. According to research commissioned for the magazine both David Miliband and Ed Balls have increased their television appearances (Miliband had 19 6-20 May; Balls 13 in same period) and, according to a Downing Street source the appearance on Newsnight "seemed like a leader in waiting speech". The claim made is that Miliband and Balls, as well as James Purnell and Jon Cruddas are all increasing their airtime, so their name and face recognition, to position themselves as viable candidates if and when Brown steps down. Despite protestations over the weekend from Miliband that he was not at the head of a possible coup d'etat, it is likely that there is a strategy to ensure there are strong contenders among the front bench. However, the point that PR Week may be missing is that this is also a useful strategy for a Prime Minister whop is failing to engage the public personally. If he can rebuild his image for quietly managing, but have Blair-esque figures around him that look better in front of a camera, perhaps this creates more of a dream team. So maybe this is Miliband/Balls thinking about playing Brutus, or maybe it is Downing Street trying to find the more acceptable face of the party in a time of desperation.

Vote for me, I joined Facebook

Incredible to know but, what do Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, Taiwan's Ma Ying-jeou, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, George W. Bush and every major US presidential hopeful all have in common? Well like Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao they have a Facebook profile. Wen has 13,000 supporters, small considerign the size of the Chinese populace but significant when Internet penetration is considered. OK it is impossible to say how many have to be his friend, given the Communist Party's style of government, but there may well be a love for the 66 year old who earlier this week reportedly called by bullhorn to one child trapped in the aftermath of the earthquake 'This is Grandpa Wen Jiabao, hang on child, we will rescue you!'. Whatever the case, it seems that even in China being on Facebook is a must have political accessory and must be seen as a way of enhancing ones reputation for being real, authentic, in touch etc etc; all those things that are supposed to engender trust. Will it have the desired effect one wonders or will it become another tool that effectively cancels itself out but will be seen as necessary as to not have one would be too great a risk?

Ending the relationship

It saves £3 million a year, and that money will go into planting 10,000 trees in residential areas by 2012 (fitting nicely with the Conservative's new green ethos), but will the axing of the Mayor's personal Newspaper 'The Londoner' have a negative impact? Direct mail and direct communication is argued to be able to build a relationship of trust between sender and receiver. Receivers feel informed, and that someone cares about informing them, and also get a sense of transparency in what is happening. Livingstone's version of The Londoner was often criticised as being is propaganda tool (Pravda), but if this was true it did not have to have that function. While Boris Johnson's team pursue cost cutting, could the death of The Londoner be a saving he regrets later when the Evening Standard begins to criticise him and he is unable to directly communicate to the majority of Londoners? It is a question, and it is being debated on an Urban75 forum; interesting comments on both sides, and interesting example of the online public sphere in action.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The wisdom of Vidal

Gore Vidal, veteran author of political fiction with a solid heart of fact, has been popping up on various political programmes over the last few days in the run up to his appearance at the Hay Literary Festival. Openly a supporter of Obama he is clearly biased, however his comments on Obama's rival are real gems. He described the Bush Republican dynasty and their circle as "a nest of ninnies" in conversation with Andrew Marr, while when answering the question of Sky political editor Adam Boulton, who asked if John McCain as a man in his 70s might bring maturity to the White House, Vidal responded: "No, senility." He also remarked that Hillary Clinton would be better suited to "a job in a law firm" than being President. While you can never be sure whether Vidal has influence, or if he gets wide coverage on US television, his comments are real gems and his reputation could gain him and his comments a lot of credibility. Certainly he seems to be keen, should Obama win the nomination, to fight his corner and undermine the McCain challenge.

Value for Money or Pigs in Muck?: what should be the future of MP's expenses?

It is frequently claimed, but more often debated, that Britain's MPs are good value for money, however the revelations of expenses, from the employing of family for doing nothing to exorbitant amounts for window cleaning and mock Tudor gables offers a different picture. As the Speaker Michael Martin considers a yearly allowance, the real consideration is public perceptions of its representatives. If the low trust in politicians in general is fueled by a perception that they are doing the job for the perks, honours and ex gratia payments that are part of the job (in other words in it for what they get out) then any lack of transparency does not help. The key question here is would a company director be able to spend the company profits on having a flat near the office while having a second home elsewhere; the answer is no. So either MPs are paid to allow them to afford two houses, or an alternative is found. One that was mooted was the idea of having a hotel or hostel type building with permanent rooms for MPs that they could turn into a home but then give up once and if they lost their seat. This would allow politicians from outside of London to have a base close to Westminster but would not require a lot of nontransparent expenses. And it is the lack of transparency that is the problem. While the claims are not excessive by the rules, the headlines extracted from the published expense claims give an impression of widespread excess. This compounds the perception of MPs as having their "snouts in the troughs", one which is largely unfair but could be widely held as more is revealed that suggests nest-feathering and corruption. This needs to stop, but a system be put in place that is open and transparent, seen as value for money and not allowing MPs to do as they wish with the public purse. Parliament was created to curb the excesses of a monarch, it should not then appear to create its own excessive spending; the appearance here is the key and needs to be tackled seriously and with the public in mind.

Monday, May 26, 2008


The Eurovision Song Contest was set up in 1956 as a kind of experiment in live television by the Switzerland based European Broadcasting Union but also had an ethos of bring together the nations of Europe, for the first contest just seven, and for much of its history just the Western, non-communist countries, but peace was a theme. It is now somethign of a monster production, with 43 countries vying to make the grand final, but arguably also somethign of a travesty with the key accusation beign that "voting system is a fix with judges from different countries forming political alliances that overlook any possible musical merit" [The Times]. The Baltic and Balkan nations are now favoured and Russia's win which Terry Wogan highlights as evidence of the strategic alliances that underpin voting.

Eurovision has become a huge PR event, Serbia clearly used it to reposition the nation away from any negative associations from its histroy. It can present the nation's culture, history, trade and tourism to an international audience, one which includes China, India and Korea. Therefore winning is a serious prize despite the contest's association with the camp and kitch. The new democracies of the Balkans, and indeed Russia itself, wants every opportunity to sell itself and so may be motivated to encourage tactical voting in some way, but is this possible?

According to the EBU, Eurovision homepage, all voting is by telephone. However we have no idea of how many people actually vote in any of the countries. This lack of transparency dogs the UK broadcasters as they seek to raise as much revenue as possible from phone voting and some have cut corners to ensure revenue is raised independent of the result. Also any single number can vote as many times as the owner likes, I know for a fact that one agent had five phone constantly voting for his client to win one of the Celeb dancing shows (I say no more). So if Russia did want to influence the vote perhaps an entire embassy staff in each country could be voting - maybe!

But if it is the people that are voting for their neighbours, is this just normal and should we criticise it? We may think something is rubbish, or at least Sir Terry might, but it could be that Spain got more votes because they judged the audience better than UK voters. But, to quash these accusations, and the obvious benefactor of the 12 points (Norway to Denmark or Sweden; Finland usually to Russia), perhaps what is required is an overhaul of the voting to ensure some sort of transparency at the very least. But when so much PR is at stake, is it any wonder, if it is true, that any nation may use the event to gain publicity and market itself; maybe the problem is that British public sense of fair play means they are missing a trick.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Tarnishing the brand

Labour's campaign in Crewe and Nantwich has been widely criticised, not just for labelling the Conservative candidate, now MP, a Toff; but also for blowing the dog whistle and raising immigration issues. Cameron's response, emailed out on the Conservative's e-newsletter condemns the tactics and makes the following comment "Their campaign didn’t tell us much about the Conservative Party – but it told us a lot about the Labour Party. It was backward-looking, divisive and xenophobic. In many ways, it was the end of New Labour." What he suggests, and perhaps something he will return to and promote as a theme of his attacks will be the collapse of the New Labour project, one that is perceived to have lost its way under Brown. If the idea has not already gained currency it could be a potent message in the run up to the next General Election. It could be a powerful dog-whistle for the Conservatives that has a significant effect on Middle England voters who seek vision as well as managerialism.

Brown's Eastbourne?

While voting is often unpredictable, it seemed the result of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election was a fairly safe bet. But the scale of the result is incredible. Most incredible is not the swing, but the swing in relation to the turnout. With 57.6% voting, and with votes being similarly apportioned as in 2005, just with the top two reversed, this is not a mid-term aberration. Usually we find low turnout, the incumbent's supporters demobilised, and so a candidate can sneak in through the backdoor only to lose it at the next election. This is not a case of being elected due to your opponent not getting their voters out. Unless the other 42.4% of the constituency are all loyal Labourites who previously voted, and a large proportion of the Conservative voters did not vote previously, then a lot of allegiances have switched. Probably for the first time since 1983, or maybe even before, Conservatives are winning voters from Labour.

The combination of factors caused this landslide, and one that perhaps depressed the Labour vote as well as perhaps providing the final push to potential switchers was the style of the campaign. Despite the Brown 'bribe' as it seems to have been perceived, voters had little reason to vote Labour and every reason to give the Conservatives a chance. Tamsin Dunwoody's campaign did nothing to make the case for Labour instead it was full of eye-catching, negative gimmicks that offered the perception of a desperate, personal-attack, based strategy. Of course this result means that the media will increasingly play up the fact that Labour will lose and Brown should go, perhaps creating at least one self-fulfilling prophecy.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dirty, Dirty Tricks

Many, many years ago I remember one party on election day got all of its elderly voters to ring the main opponent and ask for transport; the result being that Labour activists actually drove a large amount of staunch Conservatives to the polling station. Kind of funny, devious but seen at the time as acceptable. Things have moved on and the dirty tricks in Crewe and Nantwich have taken a slightly more disturbing turn.

This needs some context. The Conservative party have already made the mistake of emailing their voter records to a radio station, how that happened we can only guess but there is a data protection issue already. This was capitalised on not to question the Conservative candidate's competence, they threw other insults at him but to try to jam the Conservative's transport line.

Sam Coates reports the stunt on Times Online thus:

"Shortly after 8am voters in Crewe received a phone call, according to Tory sources. An automated voice told them that the Tories had lost their name and addresses, and urged them to ring a phone number to find out more. That number was the Conservative's campaign office in Nantwich, used for people wanting lifts to the polling booths. The voice signed off 'Labour'. So they rang. But - Tories insist- they were mostly calling Tory HQ not to complain but to inform them of a Labour dirty tricks operation was underway"

The problem with this is it is so ham-fisted. In a campaign that has been dirty and personal, especially by the Labour candidate and her team, it is probably having the reverse of the intended effect. While the majority of Dunwoody Jr's website is about her being a strong advocate for the area, she is perhaps more likely to be perceived as willing to do anything and say anything to win. While we know national issues are the key driver, this may be a factor that contributes to her defeat. So if Gordon's unpopularity is worth a 2,000 majority for Edward Timpson, will the extra be due to the negativity such as the pic from Dunwoody's front page?

It's all about the media

Reflecting on Guto Harri's appointment as Communication Advisor to new Mayor of London Boris Johnson, a former BBC journalist and PR policy advisor; It is interesting that many of the top communication advisors in politics have a background in the media. It seems the skills of the journalist the receiver are most sought, rather than in public relations, advertising, marketing or the more outward facing corporate communication. While there is a lot of cross-over between the journalism and PR particularly, it would seem that the journalist (Alastair Campbell, Bernard Ingham etc, etc) and the knowledge of how the media operates as well as the contacts, is what politicians think they need most. While Harri is an exception perhaps, I wonder if journalists are the right advisors. Journalism has a whole set of norms that politicians must work with and adapt to, but other profession's skills may be more able to advise on how to communicate to and interact with the public effectively - just a thought!


Steve Schifferes writes on the BBC News website that the Internet has been pivotal for the Obama campaign. His case is that Obama capitalised on the fact that "The internet favours the outsider", his early use at the outset of his campaign allowed him to exploit the potential of "ability to quickly mobilise supporters and money online". Obama basically hit the ground running, Clinton was far slower in developing an effective Internet campaign. But it is not just about awareness and donations: "His use of social networking sites has helped Mr Obama to mobilise young people, a group which has traditionally been uninterested in politics". But a key point that Schifferes identifies is not about Obama's strategy. He claims that "Mr Obama's decision to run was influenced by the fact that a page created on MySpace by supporters not connected to any official campaign quickly signed up 160,000 supporters". In other words Obama became the figurehead of a campaign to change the traditional politics before he officially threw his hat into the ring and, following that, the independently developed Youtube videos such as 'Obama Girl' and 'Yes we can' by Will-I-am, were key to demonstrating the level of support he enjoyed beyond the usual candidate produced endorsements.

The point here is, whether anyone thinks Obama would make a good President or not, that he not only developed a grassroots campaign online but joined and existing campaign. So it is not just a case of strategy, there is a degree of synergy between his style of campaign and the communication and media tool use of those who support him. Perhaps this is the e-democracy some have spoken of for years, political choices being expressed online and building a momentum that could have a direct effect on the governing of a nation.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A bit of blackmail?

The US media and Obama's team are playing up his victory, however Hillary Clinton is avowed to fight on and has warned Obama against declaring premature victory. She claims that any claim of victory would be a "slap in the face" to her millions of supporters so far as well as those in states who have yet to vote. Is this a gambit to undercut Edwards' as potential running mate should the rest of the superdelegates declare, or is it designed to mobilise her supporters to reduce Obama's slim lead and get some superdelegates to rethink their support? Obama is going to find it a difficult race to the White House, so the choice is controversial and superdelegates will probably be considering how his colour and name will play out in a dirty contest against McCain, Clinton probably know that if there is no clear leader then she is still in with a chance.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Taking the biscuit

Reading Hillary Clinton's twitter feed this morning I thought it was her birthday, and that she was asking voters to help her celebrate by winning for her in Oregon. Instead it was a rather crassly delivered emotional appeal and endorsement that reads as follows:
Hillary Clinton’s Springfield office had a very special Get Out the Vote celebration yesterday. Eugene native Shana Stull was the first Oregon Field Organizer hired by the Oregon for Hillary campaign. Shana is the proud mom of two daughters, Amelie and Doreen, ages three and one. In honor of Amelie’s third birthday yesterday, twenty Eugene volunteers made 518 phone calls in one hour to help Get Out the Vote for Hillary. Shana couldn’t think of a better birthday present for her daughter than to help elect Hillary as our next President. “For my daughters, I’m doing everything I can to elect Hillary. I know that she will create a brighter future for our children,”
Shana said... see full post
and on the endorsement goes. I just cannot for the life of me seeing why this will sway the floating voter. Maybe it is not necessary to make a case to vote for Clinton anymore given how long the campaign has been running but does the unqualified endorsement of a campaign activist carry any weight?

Monday, May 19, 2008

And the serious political news is...

The British Tabloids are clearly taking the Crewe & Nantwich by-election seriously, The Daily Star is backing Gemma Garrett, their write up talks about the issues, well sort of: "“I’m campaigning on lots of different issues but the main one is about pay for British troops,” says Miss Great Britain, dressed in stockings, suspenders... Gemma represents, and is representative of, the Beauties for Britain party, which aims to “wipe out politics’ sleazy image” by replacing it with good old fashioned soft porn". Though the Sun reports she has come under attack from Labour activists "an elderly woman shouted at me: ‘Do you even know how to spell Britain?’ I couldn’t believe it" says 'Gem'. Clearly that was one voter not sold on Garrett's mantra: "British politics it's all change at Crewe and I am really looking forward to meeting all the voters there and to showing them the power of beauty"

The polls say...

ComRes have published results of a poll of the Crewe & Nantwich electorate, it shows Conservatives on 48%, Labour on 35% with the Liberal Democrats on 12%. There is only one slight problem, of those polled only 13% are certain not to vote while 73% are 8/10 or more likely to vote. Now the question here is if this is a poll predominantly of those most likely to vote then the results could be fairly safe, but history indicates that turnout in by-elections is usually closer to 30% than 70%; Leicester South saw 41%, Brent East 36%. So should we trust this poll? If of the general electorate, as is claimed, it seems there is some reporting error so how many respondents will not vote and will they be equally spread across the parties or are one party's suppoters less likely to vote? Interesting huh?

The Crewe TV blog's poll, just as an aside, seems to have had a sharp injection of Labour voters; suddenly Dunwoody has shot up to 26%, second place is UKIP on 25% with the Conservatives and LibDems tied on third; but of course the beauty of this polls is that getting 40 people to sign up, or one person to vote 40 times and you can see a visible shift. Gordon Brown is perhaps wishing he could make Labour support shift as easily!

Clever or Desperate?

Tamsin Dunwoody, Labour candidate for Crew & Nantwich in Thursday's by-election, has quite a good website. Her slogan 'One of Us' is reinforced by a range of pictures of her meeting the constituents and being active around the constituency. There is, however, a side that is not so good, the front page splash screen (pictured left). The argument, within a different page of the website is that: "Timpson’s Tories are conning local people. When asked if they would reverse the 10 pence decision, last week Cameron told a dismayed Crewe voter: “I can’t promise that.”" This is juxtaposed with Dunwoody's claim that "You told Tamsin your concerns. She put them directly to the Chancellor. She stood up for you. This week the government took action and increased personal tax allowances for basic rate tax payers". However, while she positions herself as fighting for the constituents, is the right message to lead on a negative one of this nature which seems to be calling Timpson a con man on the basis of his 'toffishness'; perhaps this is the intention, if not it does not make a strong argument on which to base support for a Dunwoody.

The digital politician?

Gordon Brown, in launching an online 'Question Time' via Youtube, argues it is time the public had a chance to ask him questions. He invites anyone to submit videos and promises to respond.

While a little bit like a video answer-machine message, he looks a lot more open in his manner than his usual appearances, talking to the camera in a very sincere way. The rules of engagement are interesting, firstly it is clear what he does not want "Videos should not contain any references to political parties or commercial endorsement, be aggressive or offensive" and one imagines any that do not conform here will not see the light of day. However, there is a further inference of wanting a different type on engagement: "Be original, use your creativity and your imagination. Make your video a success. Think outside the box!" This perhaps hints he wants to follow a different agenda to that of the media, and in his video this may well mean those big issues he talks of: "globalisation, climate change, housing, jobs and public services", issues which are of concern to the predominantly young Youtube user but that national politicians are often accused of ignoring. Will he get interesting and creative questions? Will he in turn provide interesting and creative answers? Or is this purely an exercise to prove he is not an "analogue politician in a digital age"? Clearly he recognises that the Internet is a key political battleground and one which Cameron has had to himself for a long time; can he make an impact here?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The public speaks

It seems that it does not matter the truth of the timing of the 2.7 billion investment compensating those who lose out as the 10p tax rate is abolished. Despite the reversal it seems to have had a massive, negative impact on Brown's standing and could be decisive in Thursday's by-election. The ICM poll for News of the World says it all.
And Brown should go, they say:

Friday, May 16, 2008

Emotional Appeals

Obama Girl, (aka Amber Lee Ettinger) the one with a crush, has a new video out on Youtube; this one is a message for Hillary Clinton to give up basically - who is sponsoring Obama girl? While now a minor celebrity for being the hottest presidential candidate's groupie, she also seems to have a lot of backing - a flashy website, high production videos - it is one of those questions that seems unasked.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Youtube War

The Political Betting blog reported the Youtube war 4 days ago, where the candidates from Crewe & Nantwich had all posted their campaign videos and were awaiting an audience. On Sunday the scores were Cons 796; LibDem 469 and Labour on a derisory 181. I wondered if this had changed, had this gained extra hits for any of the candidates. It seems there has been a change but it is a Conservative landslide. Timpson's video has now has 2,996 views, LibDem is 976, Labour now have 811. Does this tell us anything - not long to wait to find out.
click through to political betting for the videos

Dirty Tricks?

Not sure of the veracity of the story but it is alleged that a Labour source had a accused a rival candidate in Crewe & Nantwich of being unable to spell Britain correctly when signing Gwyneth Dunwoody's book of condolences. The victim of the attack is neither of those currently threatening to consign Labour to third place (depending on the source of data), but Gemma Garrett (left), Miss Great Britain, standing on a platform of bringing beauty into politics, as well as the more serious policies of increasing wages for armed services personnel and cutting tax on all childcare benefits. Miss Garrett hit back, winning support from one reader on the website of the Crewe and Nantwich Guardian. Defying any dumb blonde stereotypes, she is quoted as responding with:

"This is precisely the low, petty and underhanded sort of action which contributes to the overall impression that politics is a sleazy and grubby business. It is ironic that Labour, which is supposed to cherish the rights of women, created this cheap, wrong and stereotypical image of me intended to suggest that any girl who happened to be blonde and to look good cannot spell. It is risible and sad that they have stooped to this level of personal abuse..."

Strong words, the big question is why would Labour attack a candidate that is not a threat, even if she did make a spelling error, if it was not Labour was it someone else with the intention of slurring Labour and Tamsin Dunwoody their candidate, whose dirty trick and why?

The professional campaign

Iain Dale is currently reporting from Crewe as he helps with the Conservative campaign, he notes the lack of poster-boards all over, things that used to be a staple element of a campaign (for those who have never seen them there is a picture, the only one I could find online in fact). They were once everywhere across constituencies, now they tend to be on high volume roads, but all the same it was a symbol that there was an election taking place that reminded everyone the contest was on. Now it seems it is more about media coverage, and this could be why the Conservatives are winning. David Cameron has been there three times, countless members of the Shadow Cabinet have been there, and these high profile visits lead to media coverage. Party leaders make news purposely to gain coverage, Cameron today joined forces with his candidate Edward Timpson to invite Gordon Brown to visit the constituency to discuss the concerns of the real people. This is perhaps the modern, professional campaign, getting to the greatest number of people using the best means: the local newspaper.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Perils of Facebook

Tamsin Dunwoody, not to be outdone, has a supporters group on Facebook that has 309 members; well why not. The only problem is that the wall posts are censored, well I can understand that given the context, but it creates orphan responses to insults if they too are not removed. Hence one supporter posts "Its right sad that Joel took time out of his day and joined a group just to sit and slag people off .. Sort it out you tool!" while the post from Joel 'said tool' is missing. This, perhaps, sends out the wrong image; someone was slagging you off but you removed it. Does this offer a worse perception that leaving the original 'slag off' message or not: it's a question.

A blog worth following

Crewe TV, a lively "photo diary of life in Crewe, the people, places and its politics, including the railway, town centre redevelopment, Crewe Alexandra Football Club, local events and more" is the place for the insider perception of the by-election and particularly what the candidates are up to. One often asked question by commenters is "Where's Gordon", with a lot of negative comments about him having 'given up' knowing 'the clock is ticking'. Not sure who visits the site but there is a poll there, and currently Labour are in third place, the 703 contributors see Timpson ahead for the Conservatives with Liberal Democrat Liz Shenton a very close second (full poll scores are to the right); with reference to the last post, is this an indication of a climate change in British politics? I suspect that it may not be that representative (looking at the percentage voting for Monster Raving Loony candidate: Flying Brick) but it enforces the idea of a close race with Labour doing badly which may not be too far away from the final truth.

The cost of credibility

Is about 10pence it seems. This whole sorry saga is quite shocking for a man that may not have been renowned for a great deal across his career except for his competent management of the economy. How this went so wrong we may never discover until memoirs appear, if it was a mistake in the first instance then no-one seemed to notice until too late; whatever the political and financial ramifications seem to have been completely ignored. Is this the final straw, the low point from Labour cannot return. The Conservatives seemed doomed to lose from the first poll taken after Black Wednesday, while Brown's standing has never been high is this the event that means that the next election is the Conservatives to lose? It is whether there is a symbolic significance attached to the recent economic events.

If economic management is all Brown stands for within the public consciousness then that is now shattered as it seems that the decline in support is linked to accusations of dithering over the future of Northern Rock, is inability to explain how economic stability will be maintained or how much it will cost the nation, and this long drawn out series of discussions over the 10p rate where Brown simply got it wrong. What could brown do to reverse his standing, how much will the heartlands abandon Labour for alternative leftist parties or the Liberal Democrats, or perhaps more importantly what would David Cameron have to do to lose the election. What will be interesting in Crewe & Nantwich is not who wins or not but the extent of the swings in votes. If these indicate vote switching away from Labour it could say a great deal about the general tide as there is no incumbency or personal vote. So it could be, in microcosm, despite the lower turnout, the general feeling of the nation if May 20th was a General Election and not just a by-election.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Bad Satire or Shaming the Opposition

The campaign for an English Parliament, equivalent to those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is worthwhile and perhaps there are elements of the video that could be perceived as fair comment, but are the cheap shots necessary or effective. While calling John Prescott a 'Vast Waist Of Space' may work for Private Eye is it right for a political campaign video? Or does it make it engaging? The curious bit for me is the choice of music 'Cap in Hand' by The Proclaimers; while the sentiment "But I can’t understand why we let someone else rule our landWe’re cap in hand" may be felt by English Democrat supporters it could be perceived as essentially anti-Westminster if not anti British/English. But the main feature is the slideshow presentation of current politicians attacking them, does this work and why.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Engaging, evidence of Dumbing Down or just Dumb

I only just found this wonderful trailer to advertise Super Tuesday's television coverage. This is the way to advertise an election contest, forget swing-o-meters, gimmicky sets, on the spot interviews, lets superimpose the candidate's heads on wrestlers and pretend its WWF. The soundtrack is Down with the Sickness by Disturbed, why does that seem just so appropriate. But then is this actually the way to capture a television audience, get them excited in the contest? Alternatively does it encourage a non-participatory audience, similar to WWF enjoying the game of candidates biting chunks out of each other and pretending to be wounded?

Experts get it wrong

Yes I would have probably agreed, and also been wrong, but it is good when you have company. The PRCA Leader's Panel declared Boris Johnson won the campaign but "more than 50 per cent" believed he would lose the election. It seems they felt that nothing could carry Boris over the finishing line due to his credibility gap and Ken's rebranding of himself as "cuddly".

Perhaps we all missed a very important point. Ken Livingstone could not rebrand himself, the London electorate had a set of attitudes towards him and his administration based on eight years of experience. Johnson had one advantage, he was not Ken and could offer something different. All he had to do was overcome the clown image, appear as the 'new' managerial, business-like Boris and sell that perception to the voters. Clearly he did that! Boris also was able to set the agenda with the support of the Evening Standard, had to be a bonus for him.

Monday, May 05, 2008

A test of personality or governance

Due to the sad death of Gwyneth Dunwoody, 22nd May will see a by-election in the Crewe and Nantwich constituency. It seems fairly safe, Dunwoody enjoyed a 7,078 majority; but support for Labour has been in steep decline since 1997 (majority was 16,000 in 1997, down to 10,000 in 2001). The Conservatives have not to date made great in-roads in terms of vote increase, the decline is more due to reduced turnout than anything else, but this by-election will take place with a very different backdrop to the last two general elections.

The results make it difficult to say if Dunwoody enjoyed a personal vote, support for her as MP as opposed to a loyal Labour support; however Labour seem to be playing on support for her and sympathy in allowing her daughter Tamsin to be candidate. Her Conservative opponent Edward Timpson is stressing his local credentials and in responding to her selection Timpson questioned her understanding of the local area and suggested she would be too loyal to Brown to be a representative. Interesting that one cannot do both, but this relates to an attack on Brown and his tax reforms presenting him as out of touch.

Of the top three Liberal Democrat Elizabeth Shenton is still the only candidate on Facebook, and now has a wall with two supportive comments and imports news items on her and the party and is up to 147 friends. She is also the only one advertising a personal website devoted to her cats. The Liberal Democrats have been gaining support in the last three election contests, but can she make an impact or even win.

(l-r, Dunwoody, Timpson, Shenton)
The contest will be about gaining support, so persuasion to vote for the individual and party, and mobilisation, persuading people to physically go out and vote. Will this be another referendum on an unpopular government, if so it should be Timpson that wins; or will it be a test of personality? In which case will it be the personal and pavement politics approach that the Liberal Democrats employ that is victorious or will a latent support and sympathy for the late Gwyneth secure the seat for her daughter. Politics is never easy is it?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Boring and predictable scuffles

The war goes on between our journalists and our party leaders, they hunt in packs and their target at the moment is Gordon Brown. So every journalist, Boulton, Marr et al, all want Brown to admit it is a disaster and he is failing, he knows that is true but plays up the positives and talks about communicating better. I just wish that these journalists would watch each other's programmes and not just replicate the same worn script. Yes it is a disaster for Labour, Brown will never admit it, live with it, move on and if that is all you want to say just don't bother. Is it any wonder that television audiences are less interested in political magazine programmes when they do not add anything to what most viewers already know. I am sure opponents do enjoy watching the leader they dislike squirm but there are limits surely.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Boris Is Mayor - it seems!

If its in the Evening Standard it must be true (or if not the editor will look daft in the morning)and I have to say I am genuinely shocked. I did not believe Boris Johnson could convince London's electorate that he was a viable potential mayor. It seems he has done that, perhaps partly a result of the unpopularity of both Brown and Livingstone, but even so it is one hell of an achievement to transcend the image of the bumbling eccentric to even come close never mind win - as it seems that he has. I'm speechless, the question is not if he is intellectually capable but if he has all the other skills required for the job.

Is there going to be a revolution?

ITV news did an interesting translation of the local results into a national election, and half the cabinet lost their seats in the biggest landslide of all time. Of course this is rubbish but there is a serious point, if Labour's popularity continues to decline, or even if it flatlines, a lot of MPs are due to lose their seats. LabourHome is currently pretty quiet apart from one comment by Tony Hannon who says: "Thanks largely to national politicians, local councillors have been kicked out or shovelled in irrespective of the jobs they’ve been doing or are likely to do"; while he puts this in the context of the failure of local democracy, it is also could be a sign of things to come. Will there be a challenge to Brown?

A new way of covering elections?

I was privately quite excited by the notion of letting bloggers lose on election coverage, sadly though, despite Luke Akehurst promising: "I'll colour your bland bits, alright" he didn't really seem to be given the chance. And they didn't break any stories and the BBCs 'Emily's Election' blog is more like a report from a celebrity shindig than an innovative way to talk about an election, and it is dashed hard to find.

Most interesting for me is what Iain Dale is up to, I loved the twitters last night; where else could you find the comments "Emily Maitlis is a very funny (and rather beautiful) lady. I am very lucky to be spending the night with her" and "Michael Portillo is sitting on a sofa reading a book, not deigning to talk to anyone". Perhaps that was the real value of it all, the perspective from behind the scenes.

More seriously is Iain's updates all day from the Mayoral count: unsurprisingly he tips Boris to win, but evidence suggests he may be right (if so how is that for a turn around in image and he failure of negativity). His updates are on his blog here. It should get more interesting as the day goes on.

The serious point, the updates are perhaps the best thing. While election coverage is very formulaic and attempts to be entertaining and dramatic (though Jeremy Vine's antics last night were cringeworthy only); those who do watch til the last result crawls in really want results as they happen. Perhaps the twittering of elections is the future and we can all get the results on our laptops, palmtops and PDAs and make our own assessments. Perhaps also it gives more chance for those who want to, to comment themselves via their own blogs, other's blogs or news pages: could it just get a few more people watching elections.

Gordon Brown and his percieved credibility gap

There is a killer phrase on one page of the BBC's various bits of election analysis, David Cowling comments that "It doesn't seem to be difficult to persuade people that your political opponents aren't up to the job. But it seems much harder these days to persuade them that you are". To an extent I agree but, when considering Brown's standing in the polls that have led to his party's spectacularly bad performance in the local election last night, perhaps also there is a little more to it. Yes it is very easy to kick and incumbent government when there is an economic crisis, and anyone can do so in the safe knowledge that they do not have to propose an alternative strategy and even if they do they will never have to. metaphorically, 'put their money where their mouth is".

But attacks only work when the public are ready to accept them (Social Judgement theory suggests our psychology is built around accepting or rejecting arguments based on established perceptions). Brown's problem is one of image. He does not appear competent or in control, nor does he appear approachable, in-touch or caring; this leads the public to perceive him as up to the job. Being a prime minister, president or any other sort of leader involves appearing to have the qualities of a leader; arguably Brown fails to project those. Hence he seems to be in a positin where opponents are offered an open goal, while his failure to keep answer critics (defend the goal) reinforces his lack of credibility and ehances that of his opponents. Can it be turned aroudn is a very big question, is the next general election there for the Conservatives to lose or can Brown establish himself as a prime minister in more than just name?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Politics 1.0 masquerading as Politics 2.0

I am currently doing some research assessing how interactive MPs are using Web 2.0 platforms such as Facebook etc. While it may be assumed that having a 'Facebook' is interacting it is not, and hence we return to that Web 1.5 idea I blogged a couple of weeks ago. I was informed that the Elizabeth Shenton, Liberal Democrat candidate for the forthcoming Nantwich & Crewe by-election, had announced her candidature first on Facebook - a first. Visiting her site I expected requests for help, attempts at interaction, perhaps joining groups relevant to the area. I was disappointed!

She lists her favourite music, TV shows, Movies and Books, her interests position her to some extent "Making hand-made greetings cards, setting puzzles for magazines, cats, visiting farmers markets, baking, country walks and of course my family!". the 'About Me' section reads bizarrely "The legal print for the by-election: published and promoted by Neil Trafford on behalf of myself, both at Capital House, Fourth Avenue, Crewe, CW1 6XL". Did a copy and paste go wrong? There are no wall posts, in fact the wall seems to be disabled.

Now it is early days and it is easy to criticise when you are not mobilising voters for today's local elections etc. So this is advise for the future. Find out what the Facebookers of the constituency are involved in and join in, support causes and campaigns they care about, perhaps offer to give them voice during the campaign; interact, messages of support give indication of having support. Facebook is about friends communicating, it can be used as a tool for becoming part of a community, it should not be used to advertise or to generate publicity; this is Web 1.0 not Web 2.0. I want to see Web 2.0 used, and see if it can have an impact, but to find this out it has to be used appropriately- there's a challenge set!

The Assembly by Saturday! Maybe?

Tony Travers' report Predicting Londons Elections is a great read, if he is right, and of course this data is extrapolated, the above will be the shape of the newly elected Assembly with one seat for the BNP. While the whole thing may be sound, its publication on the 6th April, and the resulting press coverage, could have numerous effects on actual voting behaviour. The prediction of a Labour win across the council elections could mobilise Conservatives or lead to vote switching, as could predictions of a win for the BNP, so while interesting I will re-read this and compare it with the results while also looking at the press coverage, particularly the articles in the Standard, if there are differences between predictions and the outcome, and if we take the predictions to be safe as of April 6th, then we may see a poll effect has taken place.

BBC to employ 'online opinion formers' to tell all

The BBC's election coverage is to harness the blogosphere: "An elaborate network of opinion formers, activists and analysts collide online producing fact, rumour, and mood not found anywhere else". The web, they claim: "provides the unvarnished truth about what the parties are really thinking". Hence Iain Dale, Luke Akehurst and Alix Mortimer, bloggers representing respectively Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat, will be imparting snippets of information that provide colour to the often bland statements made by leaders playing up or down the results.

Of course there could be a downside and false rumours are offered up that manage to seize media and public attention, but it is interesting that the BBC feel bloggers are opinion formers both within the party, perhaps, or among their readers and the blogosphere more generally. To harness the collective intelligence, as Luke writes, they all want:
  • results as soon as they seem clear, predictions perhaps
  • information on what's going on a round the country- atmosphere at counts, rumours, gossip, colour
  • reaction to blog posts
  • information about other eye catching posts on political blogs
They will be creating a four-way blog with the BBC's Emily Maitlis (link here), all of which makes for an interesting development. My question for this, is this the rise of the citizen journalist to true credibility; or a reinforcement of the traditional political who may appear free from the party line constraints but also with clear bias to one side?

All politics is (not) local

Apart, perhaps, for the London Mayoral Election contest, most of the other 150+ council elections seem to be driven by the popularity of the national parties and their leaders than the desire for a assemblies or councils to be run by specific individuals or parties. The media are focusing on the 'kicking' Gordon Brown will receive with the Express reporting that "Labour insiders expect the party could lose more than 200 councillors in a punishing response from voters to Mr Brown’s blunder-hit first 10 months in his job". The Conservatives are also promoting the notion of sending Brown a message, in a campaigning email and video 'David Cameron' tells subscribers that "Every Conservative vote today will help send Gordon Brown a message".

It strikes me as a bit of a shame for the many Councillors and AMs who have done an excellent job but whose careers hang in the balance due to the performance of a party leader whom they have little influence over. But is it their fault, should the campaign be more intense and personalised, or is there nothing that can be done to ensure Council elections are about election a strong local team not sending messages to the top. Perhaps not. Perhaps it is the problem with representative democracy that we have so few ways to participate, or give voice to our feelings, outside of an election, that most people take the only chance they have to message the prime minister.

But it could also be due to the demise of ideology. As the parties increasingly bunch around the centre, offering almost identical solutions, the only differentiating factor is trust in the competence of that party to deliver. If there are no local personalities, with a recognised track record, or who promise something different, then many who wish to vote may only be able to judge the party as an entity and use the leader as a reference point to assess competence.