Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Is this a young David Cameron? Should we care?

The Conservative Party have denied it officially (though that used to be a clear sign it was true) but the web is buzzing with the question whether this is the first film appearance of the Conservative leader and possibly the next prime minister 'performing' in public.

The question is really does it matter? Twenty years ago Cameron was not asking for the public vote, he was a very different, probably fairly immature, young man. Why should we expect him to have never enjoyed himself and done all the things that a young person does? A bigger question! Given that now there are pictures of so many of us, and in particular young people, on Facebook, in various states if my students are anything to go by, will this be a big problem in 20 years time? Will be expect our prime ministers and ministers to be found in a ton of pictures drunk etc, in fairly revealing clothing, with probably what may be seen as dodgy fashions in the future, but it will be normal. Perhaps also more politicians will say yes to questions about whether they have drunk, smoked dope etc and it will not be used as a way of undermining them. Who knows what the future will hold.

Planning - what planning

Louis Caldera is not exactly a household name, he is Director of the White House Military Office and the man responsible for organising a photo-opportunity for Air Force One, or at least a replica. The result became headline news as it all went wrong and half of the residents who witnessed the low flyover thought it was a repeat of 9/11.

Now, how could this debacle have been avoided? Well first you inform the Mayor of New York perhaps? Perhaps you inform the people via the press a day or two earlier? Perhaps you have an advance team deployed to let people know what is happening? After all if all you need is a shot of the plane airborne, it doesn't really matter what is happening on the ground and so you turn it into an event in which people can get involved rather than scaring people. Or perhaps you save the several hundred dollars and just photoshop it next to the Statue of Liberty or any other building you wish to for free, after all who would complain. Or you could do what Mr Caldera did and not think it through.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


With Tweetminster and the general explosion in the use of Twitter it is perhaps not much of a surprise to find that the European Parliament on Twitter. Europatweets offers a news feed and links to a significant number of MEP twittering in order, as the site states, to make "Members of the European Parliament closer to their citizens". Visitors to the site are asked to "Follow what they say, react and retweet interesting thoughts". No great surprises so far, however what is interesting is the level of usage compared to the UK parliament, parties and elected members. There are only 42 tweeting MEPs, but between them they have produced 2,365 individual tweets. The UK has four tweeting MEPs with more than 100 followers, Lib Dem Graham Watson, Northern Ireland's Jim Nicholson and Labour MEPs Arlene McCarthy and Mary Honeyball; showing she is keen Labour candidate Anne Fairweather is also a member already and has 207 followers. Only Graham Watson, with 677 followers, looks to be making an impact though; the other 11 have 95 or less. Compare this to Portuguese MEP Rui Tavares, not only does he appear to tweet every couple of minutes at some points, he has 1,233 followers as well as a well read blog; the Socialist PES tweet most closely followed by the Greens. So What?

Well clearly someone is interested in what MEPs get up to, they are creating their own buzz and the citizens of the nations they represent are interested in them. Watson is perhaps a pioneer here, consistent with the Liberal Democrats' approach to new media, but the interest of UK MEPs perhaps reflects the lack of interest in the European Parliament generally. But perhaps it is an indication that such a tool can increase engagement and actually can, in Tavares case, put an MEP in touch with a fair proportion of people and if Word of Mouth is powerful perhaps if all of these tell another nine he may find it pays dividends for him. Will this be the tool for the near future (until the next gimmick comes along) and what role will it and can it play for MEPs and MPs?

Why Labour will lose!

I am guessing it is a combination of three factors: the media's general hostility to Brown and Labour since the 'aborted' general election of last autumn; the disaster that is Brown's communication strategy and team; and the effectiveness of the communication team within both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats. But is is these factors, interacting with a backdrop of economic recession, that has led to the government having absolutely no credibility whatsoever. This is written large in a poll by which, although there is no detail of how this was conducted or if it was scientific, if true is highly damning indeed. The poll says that 92% do not believe the economic forecasts made by Chancellor Alastair Darling - so in effect only 8% have any faith in him at all. This is reinforced by answers to who has performed best on the economy with Darling in third with 9% (Osborne won a clear first with Vince Cable a very respectable second place). OK, the poll may have been voluntary and loaded up by anti-Labour supporters, and if they do not publish the source or if their own the sampling details we have the right to question that, but it is a powerful and compelling indictment of Labour's performance and that of Gordon Brown as prime minister. If he hangs on as leader and PM there will not be an election until May 5th 2010 at the latest (which is likely as lame ducks tend to hang on) and unless something truly remarkable happens to either boost Brown's standing or destroy the Conservatives' image there surely can be no way back from here?

Monday, April 27, 2009

The last speck of credibility

Did Gordon Brown have any credibility? It is a huge question, but it seems everything he does puts another dent in his credibility. The latest disaster is his video talking directly to voters telling them he was about to reform MP's expenses. But evidence is he just had not thought it through. The day rate was criticised as being similar to the European Parliament 'clock in and bugger off' payment system. There would still be a lack of transparency, there may still be systemic problems and the public would still be subject to a range of sleaze allegations. But more embarrassing directly for the prime minister is that he has been forced to retract a promise made directly to voters and broadcast online and across every news organisation. Is this his last grain of credibility that he threw away, or did he lose that months ago?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Will the masses speak?

There is a new addition to the petitions on Downing Street, one calling for Gordon Brown to resign. The deadline for signing up is not until October so plenty of time, Number 10 must respond to all those that are 'serious' receive 200 signatories, well it already has over 8,000. So I wonder what the response will be? An argument for why he is doing a good job (perhaps in similar tone to the response to the Clarkson for PM petition). Or will the party see, if support for this really spirals, this as a call to action. It will be interesting if the media pick this up!

Friday, April 24, 2009

MPs and communication - the problem!

A fascinating article by Aeron Davis in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations highlights an important issue at the heart of the British democratic system. His research shows, using the Habermas' latter (1996) conception of the public sphere as a conceptual framework, that "the UK parliament is very much oriented around public sphere ideals in both its institutional formation and the cultural norms and values adopted by politicians" (p. 289). This may seem to be an odd assertion, but this is based on a study of the way the committee system works in terms of deliberation and the inclusion of public and expert opinion as well as the fact that MPs will not only be led by their constituency when seeking issues to focus on but also use the constituency as a bellwether for public opinion. So the question thus is why do the public have such a negative perception of parliamentarians?

The answer is simple, this activity is conducted below the radar of the media and the link between an MPs work, individually or collectively, and that of the executive is at best opaque. So the executive lose these links and instead rely on the bureaucracy and not constituents, while the media focus on the actions of the top players. it reminds me of a comment made to me by an MP I interviewed about his communication strategy "the only way I would get into the papers is if I drop my trousers". Davis thus calls for less power to the executive and a broader focus to discussion of politics by the media; I think many MPs (beyond those he interviewed) would agree wholeheartedly. His discussion links to ongoing critiques of government in the UK as becoming too presidential and personality drive and of the media both feeding that while also focusing on politics as a game played out between the party leaders. A fascinating contribution to debates and one that should perhaps be read by those at the heart of government and who make editorial decisions in the main media organisations.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bizarre Logic

The British National Party Chair Nick Griffin is not someone I take too seriously too often, though there is a real danger that the party will make gains from Labour, particularly in the poorer, heartland areas, where they can sell themselves as, well, a sort of nationalist socialist party - ring any bells? The party is distancing itself from being racist, and so is tying itself up in knots trying to be non-racist but be nationalist in a racial supremacist manner. The BNP's "Language and Concepts Discipline Manual" for the simple reason that such persons do not exist". Instead the party argues that the term used should be "racial foreigners". In a BBC interview, Griffin argues to call such people British was a sort of "bloodless genocide" because it denied indigenous people their own identity. So the argument is that describing someone as British denies them their own identity: "These people are 'black residents' of the UK etc, and are no more British than an Englishman living in Hong Kong is Chinese." The aim remains to repatriate these 'racial foreigners'.

But this logic is so bizarre to me and simply twists words. Firstly it ignores any notion of birth, if you are non-white (who seem to be the targets of the term racial foreigner) but born in Britain does that still make you a foreigner and where exactly would someone be repatriated to. What if you are mixed race etc etc. Then there is that more profound question, if we really decided that everyone who was not indigenous to these islands should be classified a racial foreigner and singled out for repatriation who would actually remain. What about those of Roman, Norman, Angevin, Viking descent, or if that is too far back what about the Dutch immigrants of the eighteenth century. What the position tries to cover up is that the targets appear not to be immigrants generally, as lets face it most of us can trace our roots back to some form of immigrant, but those of a different race as opposed to nationality.

In some ways it is good the BBC give an airing to Griffin and his arguments, personally I would like to see the party given greater air time. Why, because the problem with the BNP is that they are able to take the high ground and say they are branded as racist and neo-fascist and so are unable to give their side of the story. But if they are given air time more people may be able to see through this thin veil of rhetoric and see that by classifying people born in Britain as racial foreigners you are creating apartheid, segregation by colour, and not making any move toward preventing a 'bloodless genocide'. Griffin could be an MEP in the matter of a month, sitting on the same group in the European Parliament as the Conservative Party (a bad decision by Cameron), only 3% more votes are required - there's a thought

#budget: the twitter-tariat

While the budget itself was pretty much leaked and spun to death for the week prior to it being delivered to the house and so most of the supposition aired, what I thought would be interesting is to see how new media facilitated greater input. The current fad (or revolution) depending on your take is Twitter. The use of the hashtag allows for anyone to join a debate and express their views in 140 characters. You can argue that allows for little that is profound, quite true, but it does allow short statements and the sharing of links so not entirely a waste of time and something unable to facilitate expression.
So what did the contributors to #budget contribute. Firstly, much are links to media or party comments, and this is not surprising given the paucity of space, or the amount of comment appearing on the day. Many are asking questions, so linking into and starting person-to-person conversations - 'anyone gain' was a favourite. In terms of tone, while there seems no party political bias from the majority of users, most who comment on specifics comment on the negative parts - either it does not help the poor enough, or that a tax on 'fun' has been introduced etc. This suggests that few are willing to explicitly make positive comments, or perhaps see positives in the government's handling of the economy - in other words it may reflect a human condition of the glass being half full or a global negative attitude towards Labour. The final point is those that use Twitter for party political purposes act, expectedly, as cheerleaders for their parties and leaders. So attacks on Clegg and Cameron particularly as being ineffectual or lacking substance (the two major remarks) were often rebutted.

So what does all of this suggest? Well there is an independent voice emerging on Twitter, however much is lead by mainstream media and the party line; so there is a lot of publicising other's arguments (usually established commentators) or defending or promoting your own party. Some within that are linking to their own blogs but these are in a minority outside of the main media commentators. For a range of unknown reasons, the temperature of the debate was anti-Labour in terms of presenting a predominantly negative take. However a small minority did ask questions and sought engagement with others via Twitter.

There was also a sense of ennui and not expecting anything good to come of it in both the comments prior to and reflecting on the budget. There was a lot of powerlessness in the tone suggesting, as one Twitterer put it, "I've been shat on, I knew it was coming but couldn't dodge it". My favourite by the way: "digitaltoast: Spoilt for choice if I want to watch pompous twats failing at playing with money tonight: #Apprentice or #budget news?" Perhaps this summed up a general mood of anti-politicians as some did comment that they all said little of substance to the wider audience but were instead locked into point scoring.

An interesting insight into the politically engaged online 'activist', active in terms of sharing comments and giving voice to a range of social groups. One wonders how important such tools will become as a barometer of opinion in the future, sidelining the media as a reflection of public opinion.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Seeking Trust

Finally there is to be an overhaul of MP's funding, perhaps the move is too late, and some may say too little (either in stringency or generosity) but the allowances are going to be converted into a flat rate. The announcement was not to the press gallery, and was not leaked prior to announcement, but was released in video format to be embedded on news sites etc (it is below), so why this new way of releasing an announcement?

Well here is my take. The video can be embedded, as said, it is short and easy to watch or listen to (1.28 minutes) and so the message can be delivered directly to the news audience by Brown without commentary. Also the whole thing could be shown on news bulletins, though this is unlikely after the first release which was broadcast on BBC24 etc. But also it is about trust. In theory, and perhaps the credibility Brown has is the question that may mediate this, a direct announcement is trusted. A politician looking sincerely into the camera, saying the things that many wanted to hear after the succession of near-scandals, places the speaker as someone in touch and to be trusted. Perhaps it is also timely given Brown's slump in the polls and his loss of credibility in running the economy; though this perhaps assumes too much strategy and quick thinking. It could be the start of a series of broadcasts, from any or all parties, first released to the media and then posted to YouTube maybe. Basically it is the ongoing party political broadcast, though without the introduction suggesting it is time to put the kettle on. Will it work is the big question?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Strategy and social media - tricky stuff!

As with much social media, if politicians are to use them as tools for engaging with voters they must be used by the right people. This is not some normative sense of 'right' but the voters that are the key target of persuasive communication to encourage positive attitudes, support and eventually voting behaviour to flow to the party or individual. I admit that using social media may not solely be driven by vote winning, but there is often a strong correlation between being very active both off and online with being in a marginal constituency when looking at MPs' communication.

So can we tell if the users we are reaching are the ones we want to reach? It is very difficult, Obama had Facebook fans from across the globe, indicated by the network they have joined, but the location of those on other sites is hard to tell. Tweetminster has conducted research using Twitter, they find Labour would win an election by 37% to 27% for LibDems and 20% to Conservatives. Party is the main vote influencer (78%), out of the current options Brown is the top choice for prime minister (35%) and use of social networking by MPs influences 43%. What does this tell us?

Well clearly the respondents are not that representative, unless the major pollsters have got it seriously wrong. But Labour and the Liberal Democrats may either have a fairly committed audience on Twitter or have gained one (I suspect the former) Conservatives may not have as large an audience so it may have limited potential for them. These are also people who enjoy social networking (a bit of a no-brainer), probably use it a lot (as they responded to the survey) but also are influenced by party to follow MPs rather than the reverse. This means every MP should be promoting the party (if their strategy is to win votes) and not just themselves as the audience they are talking to are looking at the whole as a composite of the sum of the parts and not seeking personal relationships. Finally, and perhaps crucially, these users are influenced by use of social media, so the fact that parties and MPs are using the same tool as them (or at least just under half of them) is important to them.

So the tool may have an impact, but only in some ways. If the research is useful (and it is easy to criticise it) then it offers a few hints about how to use Twitter strategically. There is though a broader point, the strategic use of social media needs to take into account who the current users are, what drives usage and in particular what drives the proportion of users who do to use political or politicians profiles etc, and then what the party or MP wants from those people. A tricky ask but one that perhaps needs investigating if significant resources are to be channelled into any tools when both individual time and effort are at a premium and money to pay full-time employees is in short supply!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Smeargate - the last word on it from me!

The consensus on the ongoing Smeargate debacle is that politics has lost out, its reputation further tarnished by this fresh evidence that politics is a dirty game. One voice that stands against this is Conservative MP Douglas Carswell who writes on his blog quite rightly that "Politics in Britain is fundamentally broken. The Internet is merely helping to expose the bogusness of what we currently have to put up with" - in other words this is really little that is new. However he makes the further assertion that: "The web will break the predominance of corporate party machines, the corporate media and corporatism - each of which helps currently sustain the SW1 class. Politics will have to become "open source" and more democratic"

I found this a really interesting argument, and one that would be a very positive development, but I worry if this really will be the case. My problem is that I doubt that currently the right people are influential in the blogosphere to hold SW1 to account. My take, disagree if you like and I am sure some will, is that Smeargate is a symptom of something that is endemic in modern politics, that campaigns are as likely to be fought on negative grounds and what often predominates is the personal attack. And perhaps Smeargate provides evidence that rather than being a feature of party machines it is actually spilling over into the blogosphere. Smeargate is the latest instalment of a battle between two egos. This was not a revelation exposed by a blogger wishing to scrutinise the actions of those in politics. It appears to be more the case that the underlying desire was that of Paul Staines to did dirt about Derek Draper, to undermine Labour's rather brash and artificial attempt to have a grassroots online presence and to score party political points.

The blogosphere seems to currently reflect the pattern of the mainstream media. What predominates is bias, with even the BBC being accused of favouring parties and ideologies (usually those in government). Bloggers have no regulation and so, rightly, we can say what we like, that is the idea after all. But if it is biased opinion following party political lines, whether this can encourage democracy in anyway is a very big question. What seems very rare is good, objective political blogging that is not out to score points or cheerlead for one party or another (not a call to read my blog by the way but an observation of what is available). The problem is that much also purports to be independent, both from parties and politically. Thus I share the despondency and am much more pessimistic than Douglas Carswell I'm afraid. Evidence suggests that petty squabbling and point scoring does not encourage engagement in politics, if this is to spill over into the blogosphere then it will keep it as a forum for the few and not the many. Just my humble opinion!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

If Mr McBride had been a better adviser...

One of the most prescient comments, one that all political campaigners should read, was made with reference to what is now known as #smeargate, in an Observer editorial: "The command-and-control approach to information, mastered by New Labour, looks outdated in the digital age. If Mr McBride had been a better adviser, he would have told Mr Brown that long ago". It has become increasingly impossible to subdue any information and emails are far too easy to leak - often by accident by the originator. Government needs to be open, not just in releasing information on cumbersome websites, but accessible to the citizens. Some are hailing what Obama is doing as a move in the right direction, maybe that is something our governments can learn from but, independent of the current scandal, governments current and future need to respond to the way society is communicating and leave behind the notion of central control of information that only works in societies that have a similar system of control in all walks of life.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

No Surprises there then

It seems that the latest bout in the fight between Derek Draper and Paul Staines is not just a spat about whether sites were or were not offline but is a little deeper. Surprise, surprise Labour are doing badly in the polls so their tactic is to smear the opposition. This is always done, The Conservative Demon Eyes Poster, Michael Howard as Fagin, the Obama bin Laden stuff. But it has been turned into a big story on the BBC, today's Telegraph, various blogs with various comments about desperation, being appalled, it being ludicrous the shock and amazement goes on. The problem is though there is no surprises here. It would be obvious it was happening, it is a pretty obvious tactic and consistent with the tone of Labour's campaigns recently. It is also consistent with a rather ham-fisted attempt to create a Labour supporting journalistic blog in the same vein as Iain Dale's Diary and Order Order, mistakenly they think that they can use this not just to spread the Labour message but also scurrilous gossip about opponents. The bit that is surprising is that once again Labour got caught in this way and made to appear so underhand and devious to the man in the street, and this can only be due to the lack of an effective or stable communications team. Brown hailed himself as the non-spun PM after Blair stepped down, this is of course rubbish but, as this great piece by Fraser Nelson suggests, what he has is a largely reactive communications operation which has little long term strategy and (it seems) little job satisfaction or loyalty. While the next election will not be won by communication strategy alone, as the polls wax and wane you can't help wondering if Brown had a more efficient team and strategy would he be losing out as badly in the court of public opinion?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Free political advertising

It seems that the key use of the Internet is for free advertising. Basically parties develop a simple widget that can be embedded into other websites and blogs and so the party is promoted. This is the current attack on Labour, suggesting the government are not taking action on home repossession.
The problem is that the majority of these free advertisements are negative, so appeal most to existing party sympathisers; also negative messages need to have resonance and be believed. The challenge is to get the message out. While the loyal party bloggers will promote it and host the widget will it reach beyond the already engaged? These tools may be useful on Facebook or MySpace for one hit, however who looks at even their best friend's profile page? So, chances are these are actually preaching to the converted only and may just (only just) increase turnout by mobilising one or two voters at the next elections.

Friday, April 03, 2009

My jury still out on Jury Team

Since my first comment on the Jury Team I have wavered in my thinking. Am I in favour, am I not. I am in favour of the idea of widening participation in politics. While parties are perhaps necessary in terms of having a strong unified government (the fragility of coalitions highlights this point), they are also closer to cartels than they should be despite years of reform. I also think that independent MPs, either party members of true independents, are a great asset to politics. Love or hate George Galloway and what he stands for he is a positive force within democracy and pluralism. But I also have reservations.

Although I think it is unlikely, what if they were elected? Would there suddenly be new cartels, what would make them better than those we have. While parties may not vet candidates always in the way we would like, who is vetting the Jury Team? If anyone can stand then is that more dangerous? (I do think some are standing just to get publicity - one leading candidate in the South West region Miranda Banks has all of 37 votes but promotes her professional website which offers 'mind coaching')

Then there is the X Factor text voting. Anyone can only vote once from any one phone, but it would not take much for someone to stack the deck in their favour by getting a lot of mates to send texts. Finally there is the issue of the number it takes to select them. An interchange via Twitter highlights this: Jury Team argue "if we involve more people in choosing our candidates than the Parties do, our candidates'll have greater legitimacy"; but as their questioner Fabienne notes "Just seems 2 undermine the venture somewhat where interest is so visibly seen to be lacking... a winner w/ 20 primary votes = embarrassment, no?" Yes it does, that is the problem.

So I am still undecided whether the Jury Team will have the intended, positive effect. If they can start a debate, and there is indications that the media are interested also, then perhaps they can; but fundamentally I think it is the parties that need to respond to this debate. They need to take on board the argument the Jury Team are making and put that at the heart of reforms of the system - not just that of expenses - that gives people a sense of ownership and power within politics. The Hansard Society have released the latest Audit of Engagement, the story is the same, interest is strong, participation is weak, efficacy is low; my problem is I am not convinced that Jury Team offer a viable solution.

The news thats fit to put on the wire

The Obamas visits Strasbourg, the Telegraph talks of Barack tackling rush hour traffic in London in his armoured car after being grounded by fog. Compared with the normal persons experiences of traffic chaos I am sure he is quite comfortable and don't feel too sympathetic. However, the Guardian is more forward looking. It is all about the grand face-off - Michelle Obama versus Carla Bruni and who is going to be the most chic first lady. I suppose it beats playing down success and focusing on division! Hopefully, though, the narrative is not going to be on which of the ladies looks best; but I wouldn't bet on it not descending to that level.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

When party divisions go too far

How much inter-party hatred must there exist for this to happen. Alex Salmond, the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament, asked that the Assembly express condolences and then suspend the days business as a mark of respect for the deaths of the 16 workers and crew of the helicopter which crashed into the North Sea yesterday. Lord George Foulkes, Labour peer and backbench MSP for the Lothians responded accusing Salmond of acting like a “quasi-head of State” hinting it was an attempt at suppressing the work of an Assembly whose role is to "hold the government to account" as today should have been First Minister's Questions (their PMQs). Foulkes argues Salmond is "trying to use this for political purposes".

So clearly there is little trust between the parties, particularly among Labour MSPs for Salmond it would appear. However, it all seems rather bizarre, something of an indictment of the Assembly and its members, and rather devalues the work of the Assembly. I am unsure exactly what is behind all of this, do share the details if you know, but is this really the right issue to use as a party political point by either side?

Is the facade crumbling?

While no single event or mistake heralds a shift in emphasis or indicates decline but something is astray with Obama's communication after taking office. He makes gaffes, jokes about special Olympics, seems at times at sea during press conferences (see his response to the BBC's Nick Robinson yesterday) - it was not what he said it was the way he looked and spoke, maybe it was jetlag or maybe he is better at the scripted event. And then there is the presidential twitter feed, what do these mean. Are there links that are supposed to be there but have been forgotten? 'The Cost of Inaction' well we can guess but not too sure, 'Another Leg in the Stool', I think the only response to that is WTF unless i missed something. Now either it has been hacked into, and if so why has no-one noticed? Or someone is operating it that has no idea what they are doing. What ever the case it strikes me, as an objective observer, that Obama is not quite as good as a President as he was as a candidate and perhaps it is the fact that he doesn't have the same quality communication advisors and strategists around him. It was one thing to propel a candidate to the White House but, it seems, it is different to adapt that style to one of a president.