Saturday, May 30, 2009

Why perception matters

Unsurprisingly polls indicate an landslide away from Labour next Thursday, they now lag behind even UKIP. More interesting is, according to the Times' analysis of the Populous poll is that, on the expenses scandal "Asked which of the leaders had been most damaged, 62 per cent said Mr Brown, 5 per cent Mr Cameron, 1 per cent Nick Clegg, and 25 per cent said they had been equally damaged". This does seem surprising given the fact that the worst excesses seem to have been perpetrated by the so-called Tory grandees with their servants quarters, duck islands and moats; but perhaps it isn't! David Cameron saw an opportunity here and grasped it. Not only can he complete the modernisation of the Conservatives but he also was quick to condemn and investigate those worst implicated while calling for reform. He has also openly called for new candidates to stand to clean up politics in a move more in line with the Jury Team's call than what would be expected of a mainstream party. Gordon Brown seems to have been reluctant to sack anyone of note and also to condemn anyone. Maybe he knows it would be hypocrisy, maybe he cannot afford to lose anyone or maybe he just doesn't know what to do. Given he was already unpopular and seen as indecisive and out of touch this could have been his moment to seize the initiative; he failed again. Thus, when looking at who is most tarnished, the guy doing and saying nothing and seeming to hope it goes away, who already has a bad reputation, is going to be in the worst position. The public are probably ready to believe anything negative about Gordon Brown's leadership style; and he seems to be playing to the stereotype some sections of the media and his political opponents have built around him.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The power of prayer - and a good website

On one page of the Christian party's campaign site for the European Parliamentary Election was the message 'pray for a good result'; while my colleague was going through all the party sites he passed it on. However, it seems the power of prayer is not working as since this afternoon their site as exceeded its bandwidth and is now offline. Clearly they now need either a lot of prayer or, more likely, cold hard cash! A shame as it was actually quite a well put together site. Unlike that of WAID 'Your Decision', (a shot of which is right) it is cheap and functional, but anything but aesthetically pleasing. Does it matter, if we do live in a visual world where image is more important than function then it possibly does. True, they do not have a great chance of making any impact; but it may prevent them getting their message out to anyone who stumbles across the site or visits out of vague interest just because their home page looks too amateurish. Well that is my view anyway!

Our Divided Politics

It is common for many to argue that there is little between our parties, they are too similar and promote managerialism above ideology. However it seems there are significant differences between the parties and something interesting seems to be happening to our parties. All this is of course predicated on whether we should trust the calculations of the EUprofiler website which asks your position across a range of hot issues. It can be used from any EU member nation and is designed, I guess, to provide advice on how to vote. For me, however, if the positioning can be trusted, what is interesting is where the parties sit on the two axes (pro/anti-EU and socioeconomics). Unsurprisingly the EU divides the parties with only the Liberal Democrats and Labour being in the pro-EU quadrants and the others they mention (Conservatives, Green, UKIP and BNP) being anti-EU to varying extremes. It is interesting that the Conservatives are the least anti given they wish to join the extreme right anti-integrationist grouping in the European parliament, but not hugely surprising perhaps. But when looking at the left/right socioeconomic axis, the Greens are most leftist followed by the Liberal Democrats; the Conservatives and British National Party occupy the centre ground but Labour are now placed to the right of these parties. The difference is not huge however perhaps is recognition of a perception many may have that the parties are not far apart but Labour have shifted to the right due to their position on civil liberties and ID cards if not on economics. Obviously the position is the result of being gauged across a range of policies but it is an interesting insight into our parties which says quite a bit about where our parties actually sit in relation to one another and what it is that actually divides them. Happy with my outcome by the way

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Foot in Mouth Disease

While busy slaving over marking exam papers, often containing rather strange arguments and phrasing, but it seems the strained logic students display (in the context of time constraints and minds going blank under pressure) is nothing compared to the words of the professional communicators we supposedly have in parliament. Exiting Conservative MP Anthony Steen displayed a bizarre arrogance beign interviewed on World at One, causing Tory bloggers tripping over themselves to distance themselves and William Hague to look deeply embarrased on tonight's Question Time. Gordon Brown declared that he would lose the next election in what he probably thought was a witty retort at yesterday's Question Time; that is the tip of the iceberg of his strange endorsements and condemnations of Hazel Blears. The prefessionalism of politics, the spin and media management has completely unravelled, the parties are focused on trying to rescue their reputations and win points from their opponents and keep the fringe parties at bay. One wonders who is running the country right now, and if they (as a government or parliament) cannot regulate themselves and get their communication right can they really manage the nation. As I type Ben Bradshaw has been stunned by a lady in the audience at Question Time, he cannot answer the claim that Brown should go or why there is a mess; I will be surprised if anyone votes on June 4th, or if anyone votes for any of the major parties, it is the outcome though that we should worry about!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Right, then left, then right again

Celebrity endorsement is nothing new in politics; Gerry Halliwell was one of many of the 'cool Britannia' set to back Blair's Labour and half of America's glitterati fell over themselves to jump onto the Obama bandwagon. In the UK in 2009 things are a little different. The party that the celebrities seem to be flocking to is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Perhaps it is with the expenses furore and fiasco as a backdrop they are emerging as the party with the most realistic chance of seeing off the far right while also registering a protest against the parties in Westminster. Not sure if Nigel Farage would, if he had the choice of celebrities, would choose these. The BBC News shows Frank Carson arguing "I'm disgusted with the way politics has gone in this country and I'm urging people to vote UKIP", though he also talks of ditching human rights legislation which may be unwise. But full marks to former Green Cross Code man Dave Prowse for the soundbite ""I've looked right and left and right again and the only party I can safely vote for is UKIP." Of course UKIP are not alone. The Scottish Greens state the party has the support of "Joanna Lumley, Anita Roddick, Mark Thomas, Terry Jones and Jeremy Irons" though perhaps this is a little dated as sadly Anita Roddick passed away in September 2007.

Does it matter, well perhaps and perhaps not. Celebrities can be looked to as gauges of who to trust; but only if they have the trust and respect of broader society. Joanna Lumley could have an impact currently if she campaigned actively for the Greens on the back of her Gurkha campaign; Prowse, well those of a certain age may remember him (as pictured) or as the body but not the voice of Darth Vader but like Carson he is not exactly a household name. But support is support and it gets the party in the news at a time when the election is suppressed by and framed within the expenses row discourse. Thus nothing positive hurts!

You couldn't make it up

It has been quite nice to be away for the best part of a week, and so not receiving the daily diet of MP's excess porn on every available news channel. Far better the debate on the merit of the Belgian Eurovision entry. So returning you find the MPs turning on the Speaker for not taking the expenses matter seriously enough; does no-one else see this as a somewhat invidious position given they (on the whole) were taking full advantage of the system they now criticise. The public, rightly, are using every avenue to demand heads roll; parliament meanwhile carries on regardless: bickering amongst themselves and demanding the head of the man who implements (badly or not) but does not make the law. Meanwhile it is the likes of Esther Rantzen and Martin Bell who capture the public mood and hint they may stand against the worst offenders. All this seems to forget that in a matter of three weeks the public can, if they wish, go out and vote. Is anyone really worth voting for may well be in the minds of many. It would perhaps be a result if no-one voted but there is a danger that minority parties will mobilise supporters and so we end up with some very curious results. Now it may not matter if the British contingent of MEPs represent minority parties; however does this effect negatively the extent to which British interests are represented. Will the British National Party be interested in debates on agricultural policy; so will Britain lose its voice totally in the European Parliament? Does anyone else care?

Monday, May 11, 2009

It's easy when you have nothing to hide

Full marks to my former MP Annette Brooke, she has published her expenses on her website for all to see: a total of £1765.85, interesting that so few are able to do the same and justify their expenditure. This seems utterly reasonable and consistent with my opinion of Annette as a very honest and ethical lady; it is a shame that her and those with a similar attitude to what is justifiable will receive little media attention and instead it is those who are playing the system for every penny that will tarnish the image of all elected politicians. I assume that focus will turn to the Liberal Democrats at some point this week, then perhaps to minor parties who are also getting as much as they can from Brussels, the London Assembly etc etc. One wonders who will benefit out of this and what impact it will have on democracy and the MEPs and councillors that are elected in less than a month. Will the minor parties benefit and how much will those parties use this as a weapon against the 'establishment'. The Jury Team hint it will part of their contribution on Sky tonight, the British National Party have launched an attack on Labour and the Conservatives already; but can either make an electoral breakthrough at a time when turnout is more than likely to be severely depressed and when the parties are going to have to expend energy digging themselves out of the whole some of their elected members have put them in rather than making a case for people to vote for them. Brings to mind that ancient Chinese curse 'may you live in interesting times'; clearly we need more MPs like Annette Brooke to make their defensible and low-level expenses public to try to bring some balance to this highly damaging fiasco that could well undermine British democracy.

By the way: revelations show Sinn Fein claiming £500,000 but never attending parliament; so where exactly were the scrutineers here? Did no-one at any time think about any of these expenses or are the laws that lax? Guess I do not really need to ask that question, the answer is all too obvious.

Explain or Resign!

The revelations of MP's expenses is perhaps the final nail in the coffin of public confidence in Westminster; all reference to it should now be buried and it needs a proper wake. It also needs to be replaced and that means MPs need to do something. it is something of a travesty that parties and MPs have been saying that the publishing of expenses is going to be 'embarrassing'; the easy comment to make is if it could be embarrassing then why claim for 'a bath plug' etc. Then there is the grotesque sight of MPs squirming on camera saying it was within the letter of the law; suggesting perhaps a 26p wooden spoon is essential for one MP to carry out their work - are they HoC cook perhaps? The rules are of course wrong. Half the country commutes some distance and cannot claim expenses for doing so, they hope their wage will cover that along with all the other bills. Most of us pay for our own home improvements, not it seems MPs, hence these inequities further demonstrate the disconnect between our houses and the Houses of Parliament. This will not be forgotten and it needs action, reform certainly and a reform that puts MPs in the same bracket as the man in the street, but also this needs resolving. If those MPs who have acted within the letter, but not the spirit of the law, cannot appear on camera (or YouTube, or in public letter) and explain their claims to the penny as part of the job as an MP they should resign. I am sure there are many who would like to become MPs, but perhaps a few less than previously if the gravy train is to run out, lets have by-elections or a general election if there are too many and have a new set of representatives with a new set of rules. Of course the problem is that only MPs can decide if this will happen and turkeys are unlikely to vote for Christmas, but if they want to create a new confidence in politics it needs doing and all those with guilty secrets that are difficult to justify should go now!
Cartoon is by Matt of the Telegraph

Thursday, May 07, 2009

White House 2.0

In an era when politician's promises tend to be rhetorical and empty with little sign of being actioned, it is good to see immediate action. President Obama stated in his recent Weekly Address, that government must "recognize that we cannot meet the challenges of today with old habits and stale thinking... we need to reform our government so that it is more efficient, more transparent, and more creative." His pledge was to "reach beyond the halls of government" and engage the public. The result has been to 'be where the people are'; Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Vimeo, Twitter, YouTube and iTunes. The White House blog post "Technology has profoundly impacted how – and where – we all consume information and communicate with one another. is an important part of the Administration’s effort to use the Internet to reach the public quickly and effectively". But it is not simply a strategy of reaching out and getting the public to engage with information, as a Politico's review suggests questions posed via social networks are also answered via the White House blog so putting people directly in touch with their government. Is this the future of government? Could any other politician either institute such a strategy, or perhaps gain the level of engagement Obama enjoys; that is the big question? Also, whether it will last is a question though that depends on Obama and the way he encourages the use of these tools and the extent to which there remains an audience.

Attack ads - German style

It looks quite cool and engaging but basically it is just a negative advert produced by the German SPD (Social Democrats). Rough translation is, The Shark represents the Free Democratic Party who are labelled as financial sharks (unscrupulous free marketeers basically). The 'Coin-head' represents the Christian Democrats who are labelled as self-interested and money-minded. The hair dryer is the left who are, well you may guess this - all hot air. It ends on the slogan "Regulation of Markets, Fairness for People, Responsibility for Europe".

It is entertaining, fairly blunt and to the point, nothing that special but has been circulated around Twitter and Facebook as a 'cool ad'.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Making David Cameron

The Conservatives are quick out of the blocks in producing an election video and they have, largely, taken a positive tone presenting David Cameron as in-touch with the people, an honest, straight-talker who engages an audience. Using clips of him on trains travelling the country and from the Cameron Direct events answering questions from ordinary people, it presents an image of him and also tells a story. The ordinary people arrive as floating voters and leave pro-Conservative.
Not sure if all the comments, and there are only eight so far, are from real people or party activists (and it is a fair point to ask if there is a difference) but if this is a typical response of an ordinary voter it presses the right buttons. MultipleTom writes "I like the authenticity of this election broadcast, particularly the real people talking about their real views with no regard to party line. it contrasts well against Brown's broadcast which is just him talking into a camera about how wonderful he is". Of course it is construction of reality that fits the narrative desired by the producers of the video, each person is carefully selected, so is each question and answer session to fit the overall narrative - it is well crafted authenticity. To me it is well done, very much borrowing from Obama in offering a the personal (or is that interpersonal) touch rather than the party based, top-down attack.

Will Brown go?

After an interesting weekend with cabinet ministers firstly backing 'that article' by Hazel Blears then falling over themselves to endorse Brown as leader it seems we are set for a summer of speculation. Every criticism of Brown by a Labour loyalist will be read as evidence that there is a leadership challenge imminent, so it may be a fair question to ask on this basis alone if Brown's position will remain tenable for another year?

Even more problematic, given the number of potential revolts and banana skins that lay before the government, will be the local and European parliamentary elections. Analysis out today indicates that Labour could lose all their councils - even heartlands like Derby - due to a combination of apathy among Labour voters and the Conservatives mobilising their support. An article in the Times suggests that if the projected swing of 12% materialises, which would be required for Labour to lose Derby, then cabinet ministers could lose their seats if there was a similar result at the general election. Clearly those who like a flutter think there is going to be a landslide.

This makes Labour MPs nervous, few can look at their seat and think it is safe, hence they will be staring unemployment in the face in the same way many others are during this recession. While putting them firmly in touch with voters, this is perhaps not quite the connection they wanted. Hence they will look to the reason for their predicament and for potential solutions.

Labour have a problem. There is no immediate successor and it is questionable whether the public would want a third leader within the space of five years any more than they do not want Brown to continue (as public opinion seems to suggest). The other problem is when is a good time to change leader. Major managed to replace Thatcher and get a honeymoon vote to win in 1992, though not without help from a triumphalist Labour party who celebrated a week prior to voting commencing. So could the conference be the best time for a quick coronation?

There clearly cannot be a leadership campaign or election of any great length, though it might generate interest from the public in the party. There does not want to be the emergence of factions around leaders, this would offer a perspective of a divided and weak party trying to cling to victory. But also it seems unavoidable that Labour will lose in June this year and in May of next with Brown as leader. The bigger question is whether an alternative would do better?

Brown's inefficiency seems to be related to his lack of a full time, or in any way decent, team of communication advisers. It is incredible just how often they get it wrong and it can only be compared to the communication disaster that was Michael Foot, but that was 1983 and despite taking over an efficient operation Brown seems to have abandoned all notions of public relations. What the above picture shows is that neither he, not his team, are thinking about image. It does not say he is a bad leader, but it does suggest he lacks full competence. Thus a new leader needs firstly to win over the party, get elected as leader, but then would need to overhaul this team in order to start to build bridges with the voters that would vote Labour but have been won over by Cameron's Conservatives. Simultaneously there is still a country to run and an election to prepare for; and all this in a year. So perhaps the biggest question of all is whether anyone in their right mind would take this on at this point but instead hope for survival at the general election and position to be leader as soon as the dust settles.

So perhaps it is unlikely Brown will go, probably because it is too late and a good successor will not want to be seen as carrying on with the disaster but starting afresh with a post-election blank canvas. Also, it is perhaps not in Brown's psychology to give up. He perhaps sees the problem as his own, but one he can fix, so will not simply shrug and retire. So to avoid a battle with Brown, dividing the already fractured party, and breaking your own career, it seems it is unlikely there will be a serious challenge to Brown this side of 5/5/10.

Friday, May 01, 2009

What ever you do don't panic

When there are any public crises the public look to their leaders for advice and to have their fears allayed. Hence the PR team backing Joe Biden, US Vice President, who have their work cut out at the best of times, have been trying to back track from a comment that basically says he would recommend people go no where near enclosed spaces. After a television appearance yesterday his spokesperson, Elizabeth Alexander, sent an e-mail to journalists trying to clarify the vice president’s remarks. According to USA Today, Alexander suggested that the specific question dealt with what Biden would tell a family member making an air trip to Mexico: “The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the administration is giving to all Americans: that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico,” she said. “If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways.” But this is not actually the way the conversation went.

Biden was indeed asked: "if a member of your family came to you and said, ‘Look, I want to go on a commercial airliner to Mexico and back within the next week,’ would you think it’s a good idea?" But he went a little beyond his brief when answering "I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now. It’s not that it’s going to Mexico; it’s that you’re in a confined aircraft. When one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft. That’s me. I would not be at this point—if they had another way of transportation—suggesting they ride the subway. So, from my perspective, what it relates to is mitigation. If you’re out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes that’s one thing; if you’re in a closed aircraft, a closed container, a closed car, a closed classroom, it’s a different thing" So basically he is saying don't leave your home unless to spend your time in open spaces, fields whatever but no closed, err, containers! Now to be honest it probably is the sort of advice any man or woman would like to give to their family and for them to be able to take; but the economic and social implications of doing so are huge. Basically if those who can afford to avoid human contact do so, little is bought and sold, more bankruptcies and so on. Hence the backtracking by Ms Alexander. But here is another problem, backtracking suggests deception and reinforces the notion that he made a mistake and so dents Biden's credibility. Whoops!

Are bloggers hindering democracy?

It would be a hard argument to justify, but that is the argument made within the bi-monthly meeting of the New Castle County Council in Delaware, US. It is reported that Democrat member David Tackett proposed to make audio recordings of all council meetings available on the council's Web page in the spirit of being "open, accessible and accountable" to constituents. But this was voted down on the basis that, as fellow Democrat George Smiley argued "bloggers and other observers who don't routinely attend meetings would anonymously use the audio clips to criticize council members". He continued to say "The Internet is the greatest thing in the world to find information, but every day someone's reputation is destroyed using it." So it is an interesting question isn't it. Are those who claim to be exercising their democratic right to express their opinions actually hindering information being made public because they might use it to attack council members? Given the activities of Derek Draper and Guido Fawkes perhaps an argument can be made either way on how pernicious the effects are and to what extent the material used is always in context and used to reinforce a point it actually offers evidence of. It is an interesting question though!

Keep Smiling

You know how the media were saying Brown looked too dour, serious, out-of-touch, one of his media advisers must have told him to smile more. I have seen facial analysis done, and often the person being analysed can be very surprised to find how they look and what perceptions an audience may have based on their facial and body movement - I always dread a student telling me what they think of my 'performance' during lectures. Brown, I think, must have been told to move his face and body more and to smile. So here he is smiling.

Now, does he look authentic? Err No! Is he smiling at the right times, well he is smiling when he makes positive statements such as "screening those in contact with those diagnosed as having swine flu"; but is this really something to smile about? Err No! The major point is also this is not Brown's key problem. It is the range of problems that have beset him and his government starting with the election that never was, his backtracking, his tendency to procrastinate and talk about logic rather than emotion, it is basically his personality that is the issue. These things may actually make him a good leader, he weighs things up, he does not work with gut reactions but it can also be painted as him being uncertain and inconsistent. So message to the advisor - tell Gordon to STOP SMILING unless he actually feels he has something to smile about and it is a natural smile. Fake smiles are just too obvious and look just plain wrong - or is it just me?