Monday, March 29, 2010

And so it starts

There was even discussion in the Belgian version of Metro newspaper last week regarding how negative the UK General Election campaign would get. This was a reaction to the rehiring of M & S Saatchi and speculating how they would use attack advertisements; there was also talk of Lynton Crosby returning: the man who thought it a good idea to call Blair a Liar during the 2005 campaign.

For this to work the receiver must accept and recognise the criticism, if they do then the Conservatives may have an impact with this; if the receiver does not see it as justified then it will be rejected and the Conservatives will be seen more negatively. I note the media picked up on these so they now have received wide coverage and cannot simply be used to shore up support among devout Conservatives - those most likely to support any attack on Gordon Brown. It is a risky strategy and one that could put off many of those unsure how to vote. The reason is that this gives no positive reason to vote Conservative, only a reason not to vote Labour. If they are not avid consumers of political information they may only be exposed to a series of negative messages from each side - result being abstention. The problem often seems to be the case that strategists focus on a game between the key players within a bubble of their own construction; the effects more widely are not always considered and the result is that the voter is not placed at the heart of the campaign. The big question is whether the hard sell approach works in politics - I see little evidence of this!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Perceptions of leadership

An interesting report from the Institute of Leadership and Management on perceptions of the major political leaders in the UK, business leaders (Richard Branson, Karren Brady and Rupert Murdoch) as well as three other major national leaders (Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy). The report highlights the problems all parties face in winning over public opinion during the forthcoming General Election.
The main finding relates to their Leadership Quotient (shown above), on which Gordon Brown is bottom (Branson top) but none of his two rivals come out of this well it has to be said. Cameron is highest on 5.66 (out of 10); in a context of Branson scoring over 8/10. Clegg is in a close second with Brown lagging behind. But when looking at the qualities behind these, Cameron scores badly for integrity; Clegg for leadership abilities; Cameron does very well for communication and engagement and, while Brown scores worst for having vision, no party leader is perceived to be clearly possessing vision.

The representativeness of the sample is dubious, or at least in terms of representing the UK electorate, as 21.1% would vote for other parties which suggests they are unusual compared to the mass electorate or are not UK voters. When looking at voting behaviour however, Cameron is not winning over all the disaffected Labour voters, the split is even between him and Clegg. The overall reports concludes that Brown should work on communication and engagement; Cameron on demonstrating ability and integrity; Clegg meanwhile needs to also demonstrate ability to lead. "Gordon Brown in particular has a real challenge. While he has a core of strong supporters who rate him highly, the problem is the low opinion of the majority. Many of these people have moved away from Labour and have deep reservations about his vision, his communication skills and his ability to engage them, and build commitment."

While none of this is in any way earth shattering, it is interesting that these judgements match much media commentary regarding the leaders and generally reflect doubts already voiced widely. What it really seems to show is how close the contest is and perhaps what little overall differences there are between the leaders as overall packages. None has the support awarded to Branson, or indeed Barack Obama who has second place but is deemed as being better at communication and having the highest integrity. Perhaps the challenge for both leaders is to erase those last minute doubts that many voters may experience - do they trust either Brown or Cameron fully, and who do they trust most?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The WOM election?

Missed the original article by Douglas Alexander in the Guardian, but he argues that 2010 will be the word of mouth election, all about people talking politics to one another and convincing friends etc to vote, perhaps, and further vote for a particualr party. it is a theory, though his claim that "elections have always been won by getting out there and talking to people" may actually be less and less accurate over recent years. True it may be that doorstep campaigning wins over far more voters than a television advertisement (party/political election broadcasts are nothing more than this), as may long term communication within constituencies from their MPs, but whether people talk politics unprompted is questionable.
But actually Douglas Alexander is talking about 'word of mouse' in 2010 or he seems to be veering that way in the video, he wants people to contact friends and tell why they should vote Labour - extended the change we see message via the keyboard and mouse. Oddly though, the email going out to Labour list members does not reinforce the message of contributing to the campaign but receiving. The invites are then about signing up to the party Twitter feed, becoming a fan on Facebook or getting the iPhone app - this enables the party to communicate to you and does not automatically mean involvement. The idea of word of mouth online is a good one, while donating your Facebook status to a party (as was allowed during the 2008 US presidential campaign) may not win votes, an endorsement from a friend just might. But will they actually encourage public endorsements, from members or supporters, by word of mouse? Politics is still something that some are very reluctant to talk about, especially party politics. Also it may not be cool to be into politics, let alone to support a party, and can support for any of the current parties in any way be spun as cool? It is an idea though and as a mobilisation tool a good one, provided there are more like those who currently cheerlead for Labour on Twitter (see @bevaniteellie as one very vocal example).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Is electoral politics in terminal decline?

Two bits of data suggest this is the case. A sharp decline in turnout which never dropped below 72% 1945-1997 (with a peak of 82/83% 1950/51) but in 2001 fell to 59% and only rose 2% in 2005 despite some arguing the contest would be closer. There are a number of factors that drive turnout, one being the extent to which votes matter. While many voted in 1992 to try to ensure victory of Labour or Conservatives, and again in 1997 to kick out the Conservatives it seems, the foregone conclusions of 2001 and 2005 would clear depress turnout.

One reason for that is engagement in party politics itself. Tribal politics, which pitted capital against labour, is a feature of history and what has resulted is a lack of ideas in politics and a convergence around the centre ground. In order to differentiate themselves, parties enter into empty oppositionalism and attack politics. There is a lack of a narrative underpinning party manifestoes and so it is more about selling a party as 'least likely to cut core public serices' than competing approaches to governance. Research suggests that this process of marketisation of political policy making and campaigning has a sclerotic effect on voter engagement. It simply promotes a ‘hard sell at any cost’ approach using bold statements that focus on image not substance. While it is argued this is a response to lowering engagement and involvement, so political messages must require only peripheral processing and not deep cognitive engagement, this lack of interest may actually be exacerbated by the style of communication.

Turnout figures also however mask a stark political reality; that not only is there a lack of choice but that there is also a representational divide in Britian. In 2005 the highest turnout was 77%, the lowest 34%; some voters were engaged! There is a big disparity between Marginal and Safe seats! The former see a keen contest fighting for every vote; the latter see little contest and are likely to have a lower level of representation from their MP. This may seem a contentious point, but having moved between constituencies in recent years I note receiving newspapers, flyers and a significant amount of literature from both the MP Annette Brook across a four year period, as well as her opponent in the 2005 election. In four years within the Poole constituency I have not heard anything from MP Robert Syms, nor even seen him in the media: it would appear he makes no effort to publicise his work for the constituency at the very least.

The separation between an air war (via the mass media) and the ground war (on the streets and doorsteps) can be highly important in terms of maintaining a representational connection as well as achieving electoral victory, and could be crucial in 2010. The Air war is likely to be highly negative aimed at getting committed voters out and convincing those who already lean towards one party or another. The negativity will appeal only if the receiver agrees with the foundation of the attack; if they feel it to be inaccurate or too personal the sender will suffer. The Ground war, in contrast, will be about persuading by personal contact and making policy relevant to lives and localities. But only the key voters in the marginal and target seats will see a ground war; this two tier system will remain as long as the UK uses the first past the post voting system. Voters need to be asked and convinced, most are not!

A further set of indicators relates to trust in politics (standing at 24% currently) and general interest in participation. 80% are interested in politics (though this drops to 35% in the most deprived areas which are also likely to be safe Labour seats) yet only 15% are interested in an active role and only 27% feel they have any say in how the country is run. Self-efficacy in the UK is very low and, following the expenses scandal, can only be lower.

Leader debates may be the one positive element in the air war. Controls demanded by the parties will reduce audience spontaneity though. On the other hand, they may also be more like PMQs and full of rhetoric and attack and not setting out clear reasons for electing any of the participants. So the debates may only be peripherally processed and not play a role in providing informed choices. The media will also have a key role to play. The danger here is that focus will be on minute performance issues and political substance will be ignored or forgotten. This may be the case with much media coverage of the contest, their perspective being of a horse race with a focus on strategy as opposed to political choice, and highlighting personal failings and gaffes; does this encourage particapation?

Much has been said about the effect of the Internet, that it will come of age in 2010 and that there may be an Obama-isation of political campaigning. Parties will try to use the Internet to increase awareness but UK politics lacks an Obama, and the parties find it hard to develop participatory campaigns. centres around local candidates in marginals but struggle to gain supporters. In the marginal seat of Mid Dorset and North Poole, candidate Nick King has four supporters and has raised £150; not exactly demonstrating high engagement – perhaps the product (politics firstly, perceptions of elected representatives, and the party, not Mr King) is the problem! Activists will be trying to innovate and mobilise but can they touch the hearts and minds of the masses?

Due to the Internet, more voices will be heard, and some will be new ones, but largely they are megaphones for the parties. Greater co-production of the campaign will occur but outside party sites, and a lot will be satirical. Labour’s change we see site, I am told, gets more negative ‘Changes’ than positive and there are a few ‘negative’ changes shown on the related Facebook site; debate online regarding the site then centres on censorship rather than the aim of the site which should provide citizen endorsements of Labour’s tenure. The fact that the majority of pictures are uploaded by Labour candidates and activists tells us that either ordinary citizens do not see positive changes or they cannot see the point in engaging.

Because of all this, turnout is likely to show the same mixed pattern as in the last two contests with engagement being higher in the marginals. There may well be a slight average increase if the contest stays close however. It is highly likely that voters will select the best MP, locally, or the least worst leader and some may remain unsure till very late in the campaign. But will anywhere near a majority engage and become involved in electoral politics generally, let alone in the campaign of one of the parties. Based on current indicators related to the voting system, the level of negativity already circulating, and the nature of engagement online via party sites and across Twitter, it seems not. It will be a dirty fight and for many engaging in that fight will be anathema despite the powerful arguments for making an informed choice.

But does this suggest electoral politics in in terminal decline? Probably. Politics needs to be made relevant beyond key voters in marginal constituencies, perhaps this suggests revising the voting systems; it also needs to be part of everyday lives, suggesting better communication. Policy making should be closer to the people, either via effect representation or forms of direct democracy. Ideological space needs to be reconfigured to match modern society and the emotional and personal aspects of the leaders need to be discussed intellignetly to enable both personal and political involvement. News values need to be changed, as does the spin culture within politics; which we accept feed one another. Political communication needs to think not about victory but reception; victory at any cost may be pyrrhic and empty in terms of perceived trust and legitimacy when all that has been achieved is a depressed electorate bored with negative attacks. These were just some of the suggestions, perhaps a combination of all would reverse the negative social trend towards politics?

This is an overview of a debate held on March 14th at Bournemouth University featuring the author, Prof. Barry Richards, Dr Dan Jackson, and Roman Gerodimos.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Is Twitter really fundamental to democracy?

Twitter is probably the most over-hyped tool on the Internet, possibly due to the vast array of celebrities that share their interesting, and often not so interesting, thoughts (and promote themselves) with a rather large audience. It is certainly the fastest growing Web 2.0 tool, in terms of uptake at least, and a great source of information. From F1, to cricket, to who is visiting Downing Street, to what offers are on in your local branch of Top Shop, its there and perhaps easier to access than the range of different pages you would need to access from your PC or mobile phone to get the same level of up to date information. There is also the commentary provided by some on their daily diet (for breakfast on March 17th 2009, Stephen Fry had a bowl of fruit) and the one sided @'whoever' conversations that are like listening to someone on the phone and trying to guess the topic. But it is both growing and has uses, but is it really enhancing democracy?

Talking to the BBC, Evan Williams says that it is. The key example of this, or least the one highlighted in the piece written for BBC Online, is that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has signed up. Williams says "[He's] using it to give these sort of inside peeks from the White House and behind the scenes. He's definitely using it as part of their strategy and supporting Obama. So that seems important because it's really changing the game there." Oddly the tweets from @presssec are not exactly profound (see left) and very similar to the daily information feed that Downing Street offer that are about official visits and suggest little more than demonstrating the President is busy. Its all about image management basically and is both informational as well as political in reality.

So this is not really about democracy. It may demonstrate some air of transparency but this information could be found easily if wanted. What it does achieve is making it more accessible to a wider audience as you can choose to receive it directly rather than having to search the White House website. Interestingly those who are commenting on conditions in Iran or China are perhaps playing a greater role in true democracy but Williams, or the article's author, seem to overlook these.

Will Twitter aid democracy during the UK General Election, indications are not hugely positive. The majority of activity seems to be to make sustained attacks, or rebut enemies attacks, using a public feed to do so. Some may only receive one side of the argument of course, as they group around their own party's cheerleaders, however if you wished to gain a general overview of politics there seems little that is designed to enhance participation. Labour's #mob monday is designed to mobilise activists and there have been a few 'doorstep' references that are parties trying to get momentum behind local campaigning. But really this is about self promotion in the lead up to an important electoral contest, not about the promotion of voting. Parties may say there is a link between the two, others might not; I can see some of this being engaging but at other times being hugely off-putting - like with everything on Twitter, it depends who you follow! Thus such claims are rather bold, and suggest believing your own hype. Sure, if it can be used to make political decision making more transparent or allow suppressed voices within authoritarian regimes to be heard internationally it is a great tool. But largely that represents a small percentage of content and there is no aggregator that separates serious campaigning political communication from election communication designed to persuade an audience. Some sections of the Twitter audience will switch on to global politics, some to party politics, some to celebrities, sports and their friends; they will choose how Twitter is to be used for them and the majority usage in terms of content and follows may determine how the tool is perceived as a way of communicating messages, to whom and what content is appropriate given the audience. As with every new online tool it has potential, but that potential is both positive and negative and there are multiple uses; what is heard will determine how the tool is perceived and what sort of individuals choose to use it.