Friday, December 19, 2008

Are we missing something?

There is a debate, possibly dead for a while, but due to re-emerge if the Conservatives hold firm to the policy, of whether police chiefs should be directly elected by the public. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has canned the idea as it may politicise the police force, the Conservatives claim this is due to the Labour government's reluctance to give up control; but I wondered why should an election politicise the police. Keith Vaz suggests it may give control of the police over to far right groups; but why? Here is my reason for wondering. While we may associate elections with parties and their leaders, that is only political elections. There are a range of elections, student union, trade unions etc, where there may be ideological differences between candidates but these are not shaped on party lines. If an election is run that excludes parties and is outside of party politics would this mean politicisation? Surely many elections are decided simply on who is the best person for the job, one wonders if ideology or personality is key in contests such as that for US President. At a more minor level, student union elections are based on popularity to some extent but also on key qualities for a post; at Bournemouth the communications officer is nearly always from a communication or public relations degree suggesting qualifications are important. So why should anyone question the platforms on which candidates for police chief would stand, would they not promote their record, their vision for a community, offer to redress imbalances, reinforce their role as caring for the community and how they will be accountable? Perhaps if party was less of a factor, and voters were encouraged to think more about who would be a good representative as opposed to how to use a vote tactically to ensure X does not get in (the popular tactic in marginal constituencies) then more people would actually engage in voting. And here is the key thing. Of course no-one would want a police chief to be elected by 20-30% of those they are accountable to; though we seem to accept it as a fait accompli for government. But if people feel their vote counts, that they are motivated to engage in the contest and become attached to candidates then they are far more likely to vote. So there could well result in a non-political, highly engaging contest taking place and voters participating on the basis of trying to get the best person for the job installed. Would that not be the ideal of democracy? If it is, what is the problem?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A bit strong, or striking the right chord?

Politicians are often quite measured in their language, particularly criticisms of opponents. However, the battle between Cameron and Brown is one that seems to be not simply political but also personal; or at least that seems to be the perception both leaders (Cameron in particular) want to offer. While it would appear that getting everyone, including single parents, back to work would work well with Conservative voters, it is Cameron that has emerged as the chief opponent to the plan. And interestingly he is defending the family in his attack on the 'macho... sick' Brown. Well that is the way much of the media report his quote, but in saying that "I think this is all some kind of macho positioning exercise, in which case I think it is pretty sick", in further questioning the thinking by saying "``I don't know whether James Purnell is just trying to be tough or if he genuinely thinks it is OK to force mothers of young children to go to work. Either way, I think this is a shameful proposal." and concluding his comments on the subject with a overall criticism that "These, I believe, are all signs of a Government that has been in power for too long", he is setting out his stall as against anything the government has to offer. This could be dangerous if they have to adopt government policy if they do win the next election, equally it could strike the wrong note among party loyalists; however the strategy is to be anything but Labour and make criticisms link with observations about being out of touch and 'in government for too long'. The time for a change (for the better) may well be the key message for the next election campaign, and Cameron is positioning himself as diametrically opposed to anything Brown's team can offer.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Foil or Fool

When mixing with celebrities, and especially comedians, politicians tend to come off quite badly. They look foolish for trying to be cool and funny as well, or just become the foil for a joke they do not always look like they understand. Not sure which is the case here, aside from whether Walliams should have turned up and confused the children who attended the Treasury's charity party as his 'ladyee'. Darling had the guts to play along with the engagement and laugh it all off, which does take nerve when the cameras are on you and there are a bunch of kids demanding to know if they are married and why the ladyee has a beard.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The simple message didn't win the day

There has been a lot of campaigning around the Manchester Congestion Charge which was decided by referendum today. The result was a no, turnout was fairly high for such a vote (53% with just over a million participating), but it is argued that it was the cost implications that swayed the vote. The Yes campaign run by Labour supplemented the usual techniques with a very flashy and professional online film "produced this to replace the traditional campaign leaflet... aimed at the student/young professional audience and is hopefully engaging/sharable whilst not being too party political".

The film gained 184,806 views by the time of the announcement as well as a lot of, predominantly hostile it has to be said, commentary from Youtube users. The No campaign also used Youtube, though gets a paltry amount of hits. In contrast to the Yes campaign it has little of a positive message but preys on fears of being 'ripped off' by 'sharks' (or worse with on example) but often uses a little humour as well (see below)

Perhaps the No campaign used more traditional means to target its core audience to win, perhaps the young professional did vote yes in line with the video aimed at them. Perhaps also the Yes campaign was hindered after their £230,000 television advertisement was deemed by Ofcom as being biased. However it seems the simplest message, about the effect on the pockets of those who work in the centre of Manchester, linked in to fears of unemployment and the economic downturn (both of which the No campaign claimed would be exacerbated by the Congestion charge) seemed to have the most effect. Where there was a positive message calling for support the No campaigners waded in with a very hostile message; there was no similar response to their ads; hence it seems No won the day.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Is John Lewis' the best Xmas ad

Probably, but only because you can do so much with it. I quite like the Shockwaves for Boris, but I'm sure what Cameron really wants for Xmas is an election, Darling needs a visit from three wise men and Brown a miracle, well you can make your own up. This was made by some of our final years who are investigating the power of the viral as part of their Interactive Media Strategy unit.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Future of Politics - the report is out

The report is an interesting read, I have posted a longer comment about this to the Total Politics blog but the main thrust is that all layers of politics (local and national) need to harness new technologies to engage the voters. My issue with the report is that the suggestion that there be a new electronically facilitated direct form of democracy suggests a complete overhaul of the system. It will not save parties but make them obsolete, while this is considered by the authors and sidestepped the fact that government and the role of the opposition would equally have questionable usefulness is not considered. Thus the bold claims may give ideas to MPs on why they should be more of a maverick to get a personal vote, but the conclusions that result from open participation may make many within politics recoil in horror. Hence, in my opinion, the report appears to move towards a conclusion that is rather pie in the sky; if it is intended to start a conversation about new technology that is a worthy ideal but the implications may scare the politicians more than inspire them.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Future of Politics

While not a child of Obama's campaign, it is timely that Orange is tomorrow releasing a report on how technology can facilitate a greater link between politicians and the public. The Future of Politics argues that technology "allow(s) the public to have their say about new legislation, and the concept of MPs interacting with voters through real time online discussion. The use of holographic projection (see picture)... means there would be nothing to stop one of us beaming in to take part in Prime Minister's Questions". This report has been constructed by MPs in conjunction with Orange technologists and appears something of a pipe dream in terms of what could be achieved using the technology if the will is strong in politics.
However, the ideas are worth some thought. Would the caution inherent among politicians prevent such moves in losing control of the message? Would the public wish to get involved? Or rather would a majority wish to get involved and would the limit on numbers that can dissuade many? On the other hand could technology provide a level of engagement previously unthinkable. A key point is that participation has already been facilitated by the web and so has increased. Far more people contribute to political forums and comment on news sites that ever wrote letters to papers. The explosion of political blogs demonstrates a willingness to use technology. What if more people could have instant contact and interaction live? Could that draw in a wider range of participants? Worth a thought and look out for the report.

Should MPs be above the law?

It is not clear what the public will recall of the Damian Green affair. Will it be that the government tried to silence an opposition MP from giving sensitive but information in the public interest to the public? Or will it be that an Opposition MP had 'groomed' a civil servant to obtain information of a sensitive nature? Those are the two positions and the outcome will be based on trust. Does the public trust the government or the Opposition the most? Perhaps the answer to that is obvious, though of course trust in all politicians is low, but if trust can be linked to popularity then the government may well come off worse; especially as the media seem to be following the opposition line.

However there is a broader question. Should an MP be above the law? One key aspect of an Opposition MP's role is to scrutinise the work of government, this may include leaking embarrassing information to the media that is in the public interest, however it is unclear whether theft is condoned. Equally, it is unclear whether an Opposition MP should not be ensuring that the public should be informed of secrets governments may wish to conceal if they are in the public interest, and obtain them at any cost. Civil Servants have a duty to be impartial, therefore that aspect of the case is clear, but if the passing of information to an MP by a Civil Servant is illegal, is encouraging a Civil Servant to break the law also illegal? MPs live with a variety of privileges which do not apply to the rest of us, but should they? Could one aspect of this case that the stays in the public consciousness be that MPs think they are above the law and that they should not be?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Better than Football

There seems to be a whole cottage industry developing that is trying to engage us with politics. The latest link to be sent my way is to create a Fantasy Parliament, basically you choose who is PM, Chancellor etc and the cabinet members get points for speaking in the House, being promoted etc. The aim, the creators state is: "Fantasy Parliament is designed to help to further re-engage people with the politicians that represent them and the work of the UK Parliament, through a fun game that is free to all. You don’t have to be a professional political commentator to take part – the game has been made for everyone, from parliamentary researchers, to activists, to students, to young people and members of the public". Unfortunately these aims, and wide audience, may be aspirational only. The site is a bit clunky but there is about 100 cabinets in existence on the site so far. The negatives, well you have to search by surname for MPs, you cannot find them by constituency or current job and then when you look at other cabinets and wave the cursor over the 'seat' (pictured is the screenshot of the cabinet table and seats) only their picture comes up: fine if they are all front benchers but if unknown they can be hard to recognise. But if you fancy creating a GOAT (government of all talents), would like to have Jeremy Corbyn in the Foreign office and Vince cable in the Treasury you now have the chance. Incidentally, the top three cabinets (not sure on what basis as every score is zero so far) are very similar to those of either Cameron or Clegg but it is hard to find a Labour supporter. Perhaps this is symptomatic of the government's failure to attract support online, or perhaps no-one actually would want Brown as PM or Darling as Chancellor; or at least not yet. The top 5 MPs are also an interesting list all unknown with the list topped by Hywel Francis - if you are wondering who he is then Google his name and prove the site is workign by making you find information about an MP who you previously was unaware existed :-)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Boris the Petrolhead - or not!

The last time Boris Johnson appeared on Top Gear he proved himself marginally better than the late Richard Whiteley - see video.

He has had another go and his performance will go out on Sunday, though he avoids being criticised in an article in today's Telegraph (which I can't find online) by stating in advance that rather than being won over by the petrolheads it is an electric car that caught Boris' imagination. On performance, cost etc he promotes them as the future, thus he can continue his celebrity role but sidestep the criticism and also keep the environmentalist credentials that are now essential in his role as Mayor of London.

Should we question the ethics?

In a piece for The Sun newspaper, Conservative leader David Cameron writes on the repercussions from the Independent enquiry into the tragic death of Baby P (or should we now call him by his name: Peter?). Firstly Cameron salutes those who supported his call for the enquiry "More than 1.3million signed The Sun Baby P petition, each name a cry for justice. Yesterday, those cries were answered. The sackings, suspensions, resignations were long overdue..." he also asks a range of questions concluding these with "The army of Sun readers who signed their names to that petition want answers to these questions, and so do I. It’s thanks to pressure from this paper that we’ve got this far, but we’ve got to keep pushing for the truth... And we’ve got to keep fighting to make the safety net stronger for other vulnerable children". Here he positions himself alongside the Sun's editors and the readers who have signed the petition.

The problem is that, apart from demanding an enquiry that is Independent from Haringey council, there is no indication of how David Cameron would prevent further deaths apart from ensuring there is punishment not just for the perpetrators but also "those who allow children to come to harm", the social workers etc. But here is the question. Is this ethical. The Sun will call for punitive punishment in its role as populist newspaper appealing to the 'man in the street'; it is no different from also calling for the death penalty for certain crimes or the News of the World fear camapign about paedophiles living among us on licence - one which led to the house of a paediatrician being attacked. The media can get away with this, however it is equally easy for an opposition politician to attack a system in the full knowledge that they may not be able to do any better if they were in power. This is a highly emotive and tragic case that has already been described as a political football, and it seems Cameron has scored most of the goals. However, it is easy to oppose unconstructively and tarnish an already struggling government's reputation further while eliding yourself with mass public opinion. However democracy and the running of the state should work on reasoned and rational debate, is it ethical to join an emotionally charged debate, is this simply about chasing polls, and if so does this raise serious ethical questions.

There is nothing to suggest that any other party would not act in a similar way, by the way, it is a mainstay of permanent political campaigning; the question is should this be a norm of modern politics or should they the politicians ensure there is a more considered level of debate than one that is unable to think beyond 'hanging the bastards'?