Sunday, June 28, 2009

Packaging Cuts?

No I'm not talking about the stuff that our beg comes in, but how politicians talk of a cut in spending when they are unable to say they are cutting spending. Labour have put themselves into a rather difficult position it seems: they have to reduce the amount the government spends but cannot announce public spending reductions. So there is a lot of talk about 'cuts' from the Conservatives and various journalists, while Labour politicians talk of maximising finite resources. I actually thought Ed Balls did rather well, though Andrew Marr did not exactly savage him, but he used language very carefully. He talked of demanding savings and 'smarter' and 'defter' spending, so targeted where need is most, though of course if previously spending has not been smart and targeted it does beg a few questions. This of course will be the key wedge issue between the parties, Conservatives accusing Labour of over-spending and reckless economics, while also obfuscating and concealing the true extent of the problems and their cuts. Meanwhile, as Balls frequently stated, Labour's position is the Conservatives will reduce public spending in favour of 'the rich' so appealing to those reliant on public services and fearing a heavy tax burden. If this remains the key issue through to May next year who the public trust most could determine the outcome of the election and there may be many hovering pencils when voters try to work out who is the most believable or least untrustworthy.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why should we believe either side?

I have a real problem with negative political campaigning. Evidence suggests that it does work, but only among those who are already supportive of the message and, usually, the sender. They tend to polarise their audience, they are either for or against based on their existing predispositions. They do not convince people however, in fact they have a wholly negative impact on undecided voters and turn them away from the system generally as opposed to simply the person under attack. In order to explain why I use a video circulated by the Conservatives which is a good example of the effects of negativity.

This video asks the viewer to believe Gordon Brown is a liar and is misleading the public over his and the Conservative Party's spending plans and who will make cuts to public service spending. Those who distrust Brown and like Cameron and the Conservatives will believe it and, perhaps, their pro-Conservative voting intentions will be increased. The reverse will be the case for pro-Brown and pro-Labour supporters. That is all fine. But the problem is for the rest of the audience. The Conservatives may be pushing against an open door in terms of public opinion, around 40% indicate they would vote for them if there was an election tomorrow, the question is whether all of these people are likely to change their minds. But even if we assume 40%, it leaves some that may well be undecided or still not totally convinced. The message in the video asks them to trust the Conservatives and not trust Labour, but this can also lead to confusion. There is a further question asked: 'Who should I believe', this leads to 'Who can I trust' and importantly 'What are the motives behind this message'. If the message is deemed to be chasing votes then trust in the sender will be reduced, if also the motives of Brown are questioned then this reduces trust in him also; hence the system suffers as the audience then is seeking an alternative to both or considering abstaining as the choice becomes too difficult. Hence this strategy may actually have a negative impact beyond that which is intended!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Parmjit's Plan

An election is taking place today, it is purported to be for the most important role in British politics, yet the public has no say and the role may seem to be arcane as it is steeped in tradition. The Speaker of the House of Commons is the person who decides who is, and perhaps importantly who is not, allowed to intervene in debates; they oversee the rules of conduct and behaviour both in the public eye and, at least previously, behind closed doors. Effectively they are an MP who controls the behaviour of other MPs, they are from one of the parties but the role is independent and above party politics, but there seem to be party political advantages to the job as it seems the party with the biggest majority is always keen to shoe in one of their own into the job.

The task of the Speaker elected today will be perhaps a little more complex than has previously been the case, they will be charged with cleaning up British politics and ushering in a new era of transparency. In their speeches many have offered just that, particularly front runners Margaret Beckett and John Bercow. An interesting pitch has been made by outsider Parmjit Dhanda. He stands as something of a revolutionary alongside the other reformers. He has called for a more accessible parliament that does something close to debate roadshows and where the public are able to log on to a website to choose debate subjects. On his blog Parmjit argues: "We need to give ownership of Parliament to the people. Hence Ministers, Shadow Ministers and whips will need to relinquish their control of the Parliamentary Agenda. Through new technology like Internet polling the public should choose the issues for ‘topical debate’. And instead of poorly attended debates lacking atmosphere in Westminster Hall, Parliament should relocate Ministers and the entire apparatus for these debates to Town Halls around the country".

He picks up a very important point here, that there is a huge disconnection between the pomp and tradition of parliament, the way that MPs work and operate and the way that they are governed and the rest of society. Few understand the working life of an MP, few engage with what goes on in parliament, and so while the majority still vote and feel it is a duty it is likely few really understand what it is they are voting for. People need to be brought back into the process. Parmjit Dhanda argues that people are engaged in politics, but on Facebook and social networking sites while parliament chugs along. The big question is whether people would engage or whether there would be the same level of nuisance engagement as the Downing Street polls or would people really get behind such an initiative? While Parmjit is an outsider and unlikely to be in a position to enact his ideas, perhaps these ideas are ones that need to be discussed further as parliament looks to the future and reforms not just the way MPs are paid but also the way they do their business.

Friday, June 19, 2009


It is suggested that after word of mouth, the dramatic and entertaining narrative can be a one of the most powerful persuasive tools. The reason why soaps such as Eastenders and Hollyoaks are often used for social marketing and awareness campaigns (safe sex, HIV, child abuse) is that while audiences are caught up in the personal narrative of the character's lives they are also receiving a range of messages about the things happening to that character. The Mark Fowler narrative in Eastenders provided the audience with an insight into what it was like to be HIV positive and how fear-based discrimination impacted on the person and their family. It cultivated new ideas and promoted understanding. Mostly such things are fairly worthy but there is a lot of propaganda and branding as well, US films promote images of the nation and its history as well as ideological perspectives of events; perhaps not so worthy.
It struck me while suffering the second part of May Contain Nuts last night that I was watching another example of this. It was a left wing perspective of society that pitted the underprivileged against the elite with a well meaning, aspirational but in many ways hapless couple caught in the middle with their principles being questioned continually and often failing right up until the end. The Yuppie or Sloane Ranger, epitomised in the character of Ffion (with two F's) exhibited a narrow-minded, self-centred individualistic character that is the product of Thatcher's Britain. But few positives were attached to the character, she expected the mother of the mathematically gifted black girl from the local council estate, refused a scholarship at the Chelsea School for Girls, to be a prostitute and drug addict. While the simplistic plot of mother trying to get her daughter into the school, taking her daughter's exam for her, being helped out by the gifted black girl, and then finally admitting that she had cheated was the central narrative there was far more to it. There was a highly negative portrayal of the values of the private school and its attitude to underprivileged families. There was a damning of the aspirant middle class that are removed from and look down on council estates, secondary schools and the state sector generally.
Little surprise it was written by John O'Farrell, as a left winger this is clearly an ideological perspective of the world that contains a certain degree of truth but builds up characters as rather one sided stereotypes constructed to build a narrative. But its pro-secondary school narrative also has a sense of the personal and political about it. He is a staunch Labour supporter and activist, and his vision of society is consistent with the party ethos whether we recognise that to be the case or not based on the behaviour of the government or its members. Equally he is a governor of Lambeth Academy, so has a vested interest in promoting a rosy view of the state school. None of that suggests anything sinister or serious, and there are plenty of political narratives out there that present perspectives of society from ideological perspectives. The general question is whether these things should be presented as entertaining dramatic and fictional perspectives, or whether there should be a caveat on many of these to say written from a, in this case, pro-Labour, socialist perspective? Just a question!!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Labour, if albeit quietly apart from when Derek Draper was learning to tell the difference between his RSS and his elbow and getting it wrong, seemed to have really stepped up their online strategy. There is now a 'Believe in Labour' Facebook group but also something that has the appearance of a party wiki. Labourspace seems to post policy ideas and for others to comment on them. Included on the site are videos, rather more professionally made than the average citizen is capable of, but appearing to show people making suggestions. Visitors can also sign up and create their own profile page which shows their posts, what campaigns their support and oppose etc. It also offers a range of ways for visitors and site members to share information and recruit others, so very Web 2.0. The conversation on England (below) shows a core argument, a range of contributions and contributors recruiting others.
Interestingly it appears to have been around for a while, posts go back to the beginning of this year, little could be found that is negative based on a scan of issues, it is very much about the big issues and not the nitty-gritty of policy or party politics but there are a range of small social issues discussed. It seems to be designed for members but is now being made more public via Facebook, surprising really that it was not made more of but perhaps that is the strategy. Have been reading a PhD recently, for the purposes of examination, that talks about relationship marketing and the internal market. What this site's function seems to be is a tool for bringing existing supporters closer to the party and government and perhaps then mobilise them as advocates and activists. The process could be that having signed up and contributed, if some effect is seen based on a contribution then this empowers the individual, gives them a feeling of efficacy, but also recognises who provides them this opportunity; they can tell others etc. Without signing up it is impossible to tell how many are signed up, how active the site is in reality or whether there is any links between activity and political action at the highest level (if anyone wants to share info that would be great) but it is an interesting tool that could be powerful if it has direct initial reach and can be disseminated to a critical mass through word of mouth.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Must Labour lose... in 2010

A Yougov poll conducted 29/05-04/06 has been used failry bluntly to explain voting for the BNP, but actually it reveals a great deal more about the state of engagement in British politics. In terms of the election itself it is questionable whether it matters, or whether the results can be translated into a national trend; the majority are expressing their views on Britain's relations with Europe or on the British 'political scene'; the problem is that both are transient and as Europe is unlikely to be a General Election issue, and the scene could well change following Brown's reforms, the next election will be framed by a very different context. Perhaps then the other revelations offered by the poll are more interesting.

Firstly, something which we were probably aware of, has been the break in generational loyalty but what is surprising is that this is least pronounced for Labour where 66% of current Labour voters are copying their familial predecessors. Currently Labour has lost the faith of those who are most loyal, but their allegiances are now spread across competitors; hence they may be able rescue their position electorally if they are able to recapture their heartland voters. Of course the erosion of loyalty from Labour is not new, I identified this in research in Barnsley back in 2002 after the famous low-turnout election of 2001, but is is perhaps becoming more pronounced and so leading to more protest voting. However, given that Labour is still perceived on the left and, perhaps more importantly, the Conservatives on the right and for the rich; an image that remains hard to shift particularly perhaps in the wake of those moat cleaners and duck houses. That said it seems that there is little real difference between the perceptions of parties in relation to issues or voter satisfaction. In fact the only slight difference, which one could note and say here is where the voters for any particular party can be identified from others is confidence of prosperity in years ahead. Supporters of the Conservatives and UKIP seem to have more fears than do voters for the more left parties; is this an opportunity for the right? Certainly the figures offer some insights into potential strategies; however the data needs more sophisticated analysis of the raw numbers to really glean powerful insights.

A final point, however, while many talk of media usage and the power of online across all the parties the traditional mass news media predominates; well almost. The BNP website is in many ways the most interactive; interestingly, and despite the media coverage, their supporters are more likely to use party websites (12% over 3/4% the next highest and joint median average). Are the BNP capitalising on the negativity of the mainstream media coverage and gaining direct communication with current and potential supporters, if so this is worrying as not only does this allow for purer persuasion (indoctrination perhaps) but also influence via the two-way communication facilitated on their forum. Something else to throw into the strategy pot.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Animals go to vote

I quite like this, it is funny in a way, with the animals stirring to the call to vote (reminiscent of Orwell's Animal Farm in a way), it is quite cheaply made (no pun intended) but its simplicity it also its appeal. For those who believe animals should have a political voice it is quite evocative and gets its message over without any negativity.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Reasons to Vote - by the parties

The recent election broadcasts give an interesting insight into the party campaign strategies. Aside from its rather stark, arty style in places, Labour's is strictly comparative and trying to encourage fears that the Conservatives would cut funding to areas that most benefit the least privileged. Interestingly it focuses on real people or actors and not the leader, perhaps reflecting a recognition that he is not attractive to voters. But the killer sales tool is celebrity endorsement, it is Eddie Izzard that stands at the end to ask for a vote for Labour as opposed to the leader as is traditional.

The Conservatives focus on the leader and repeat the shots from Cameron Direct, so showing him touring the country engaging with voters. Clearly the strategy is to highlight David Cameron as in touch, willing to engage as well as emphasising his good performance skills while also having a dig at Brown's unelected status.

Interesting Liberal Democrat leader leads on the one issue the others ignore, the expenses fiasco. Positioning the party as willing to revolutionise the system Nick Clegg talks directly to voters, on the level so encouraging the perception of him as honest and open. There is no other content; clearly the strategy is to appear the most honest and also talk directly on the issues people 'on the street' and the media are also giving greatest priority.

While the smaller parties focus mainly on the core issues it is interesting to take snapshots of the election broadcasts to gain an insight into the party's thinking. Of course all of these may be of academic interest only as they may have little impact given the negative image elected politicians have earned but interesting all the same.

Caption Competition

Sorry if you were expecting a picture to add comments to (well you can if you like!) or a prize (which you wont get) but looking at Boris Johnson's Twitter feed and amid his comments on where he is going or what he is doing (there is also public information in his own inimical style: i.e. "World Hepatitis Day today. 1 in 12 people are infected with Hep B or C. Shocking stuff. Get tested chums) but also he forwards links to Twitpics (you can make your own jokes about that) such as the one left. Looking at it I wondered exactly why he was sharing this. OK, there is is at the Tower of London with two beefeaters; but surely this is more like a holiday snap than a picture that indicates a hard working Mayor. On the whole the pictures feature Boris with the great and the good; but it is not just about image and presentation. Boris's pseudo celebrity status means he has quite a following and so gets a lot of comments; few are negative and most are in a very informal style as if one friend is talking to another. The above elicited the below comments.

Several tell him to get his hands out of his pockets, Rosina Carley calls him a 'scran bag' (whatever that is), 'empatt' a gorgeous scamp; it is very jokey and showing affection rather than opprobrium. And my point? Well the informality of him and his followers gives an impression of accessibility and openness. His very deliberate style of informality allows him to get away with a lot and this may be a good model to adopt for political leaders. Rather than the overtly third party approach of No. 10 Downing Street which has now morphed into the USEGOV newsfeed, this seems to be Boris. So could this be a good way of managing your public image?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Aww Cute

As part of a research project I have the (perhaps) uneviable task of coding a sample of party and candidate websites. A little mind-numbing at times but illuminating also. It is the fun things that stand out, so there may be a lot of observations popping up here over the rest of the week. One thing that surprises me is how dull most websites are, they have the air or something that is a secondary communication tool, something many parties and candidates (especially candidates) feel they need but are not sure what to do with. The most interesting are those that offer a little of a personal touch. On which note full marks to Rupert Matthews, one of the five Conservative candidates for the EP in East Midlands. Part of his site shows the Blue Bear on tour, as below Blue Bear visits Ashbourne and, perhaps less wisely, looks like it has been nailed to a chalet door on the Isle of Wight - made me chuckle! Probably sad but hey, its getting late in the day and i've been at this since 8am.