Friday, December 06, 2013

The passing of a political giant: reflections on Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, a man whose life’s journey took him from activist to prisoner to President to global icon, has passed away. While it has been expected perhaps for some time, it does not make it any less sad. His passing led me to reflect on the impact of the man, not just in terms of politics but on global society and opinions.
I was sixteen, with the usual cares of a sixteen-year old boy, with some interest in history and politics but limited. Apartheid was a word that was known and I remember happily signing petitions against it, I also remember Barclays being known as the fascist bank due to investments in South Africa. There was also a campaign of pressure upon British PM Margaret Thatcher to push for a global campaign against the white supremacist regime. But these mostly failed to have impact, not just on the regime but also cognitively on many people.
It struck me how the name of Mandela probably entered the wider consciousness in Britain due to Jerry Dammers and his band The Specials AKA. The Two Tone scene had long shown that cultural fusion worked, and it had always had a political edge. Looking back I wonder how many children of largely conservative families, often those who would enjoy the racist jokes prevailing in the working men’s clubs, variety shows and on television of the time, who wouldn’t want their daughter to ‘marry one’, suddenly found themselves singing this catchy little song about a man with an exotic name. I do remember reading the story of Nelson Mandela in a piece that explained the song to the masses in a popular music magazine. Suddenly apartheid had a human face, one deserving of interest, of support, and the campaign had a cracking theme tune.
His release six years later was part of the new dawning of democracy, of freedom. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Eastern European dictatorships that ruled in the name of communism had collapsed, and Nelson Mandela walked free from 27 years of imprisonment. That could have been the end of a story but it wasn’t. He might also, perhaps justifiably, have left prison intent on revenge. But he showed the world a very important lesson. It is not revenge but reconciliation that rebuilds a society; his path to power was not on the back of civil war but a desire for civil society.
The long road to freedom was indeed long but the journey he embarked upon is not over. South Africa has come a long way from the days of Apartheid but there are still deep social and economic divisions. Equally, while a man of colour might reside in the White House, there remains currents of racism across the globe. Nelson Mandela’s rightful legacy should be the eradication of inequalities based on colour, race or any other irrational and illogical mechanism that allows one group to be superior over another. While he has the absolute right to rest in peace those that follow the wisdom of his words and deeds need to continue his journey, he drew the map let us all follow.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

What matters: the means or the end?

By coincidence, in a discussion with my Politics & Media students and reading Shopping for Votes the idea of what matters in politics came up. Susan Delacourt argues that people shop and vote for ideas citing an advertising executive who argued no-one goes out to by a half-inch drill bit they want a half-inch hole. Perhaps more accurately they want is what the half-inch hole provides, a bracket for a shelf on which to put family pictures, trophies, books etc. What this suggests is that parties and candidates offer, and voters select, an outcome but care little about the means. 

But is that really true? People may want crime reduced but would they support capital measures like, for example, chopping off the hand of a thief? Sure the ultimate capital punishment may be supported for certain crimes but most people would stop short in other cases. What about in other cases?

Most people want a strong economy, with stable economic growth and all that brings. But what about the means? Who wins and who loses within the restructured economy may not be to everyone's liking, not even the majority's liking. Not everyone may support the myriad enterprises that will be running public services at a profit. Political outcomes are often presented as a product but the means to that end are often played down. Yet the real choice in politics is more likely to be around means rather than ends. It is hard to imagine any party serious about government not offering economic restructuring, it is how that separates them. Does this also separate voters? Does the end always justify the means, more importantly is the means supported to achieve the end, or are voters just happy that they do not have to make the decision themselves? 

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The UK 2015 General Election campaign started today

The speech of a Prime Minister to their party conference is little more than a media event in the modern age. The purpose is about the image, the impression and the brand. David Cameron's speech fitted that mold perfectly and demonstrated exactly where he is focusing energy: 2015. As with much of the conference the focus appears to be on the next election, fighting off the threat from Ed Miliband's Labour and gaining sufficient seats to govern alone. Certainly there was a mixture of pleas, as the BBC's Nick Robinson points out, Cameron asked to be allowed to finish the job fifteen times. Robinson also notes how Ed Miliband or Labour were awarded twenty-five references.

But this detracts from the core message, Cameron invokes a wide range of heuristic devices when talking of the land of opportunity for all. Possibly an early launch of a campaign slogan, but not without substance. A land that is debt free, where business flourishes, and where citizens are enabled to flourish also. Or at least that was the grand statement. 

But how is the land of hope that is Tory to be delivered. Detail was slender, talking of investment and training, or rewarding hard working people is fine; they are good priorities. But for a government there should be detail, what is the seven year plan to achieve this land of opportunity? It was thus an odd speech. Great for a opposition leader who wishes to re-organize priorities once elected. But for a prime minister there was perhaps too much vision, too many expectations, but insufficient amounts of detail. Where is the Policy + Outcome = Prosperity equation in it all? 

Which all makes one wonder what to expect for the next two years (give or take a few months), or if the Conservatives win in 2015 the next seven. The vision is one no sensible person could disagree with largely. So the real question after all is said and done is whether Cameron is the man to lead his team to deliver on that vision. In essence maybe that was the real purpose of the speech, the lay out a vision, to appear to possess the qualities to deliver on the vision, and the attack the opposition after every opportunity to ensure not too many waver. 

Monday, February 04, 2013

Will the next Democrat hopefuls do an Obama?

Having completed analysis of the use of the Internet by Obama in 2008 and 2012, and compared his community building and interactivity to his rivals, in a chapter that will be published in the Sage Handbook of US Political Marketing we speculated whether this was an Obama model of campaigning, a Democrat candidate model, or a new model for campaigning that everyone would eventually lock on to.  The launch of the Hillary Clinton campaign, by the Ready for Hillary Political Action Committee suggests the answer is that it was an Obama thing. 
Drawing on a number of theories for Internet use and campaigning we proposed four functions for websites, social media platforms and the various tools and spaces that a campaign might utilize. They are informing, mobilizing  harvesting data and interacting. 

Of course it is early days for team Hillary, but as the screenshot shows it seems priority number one is harvesting email addresses, through a sign-up mechanism that is the totality of the Ready for Hillary website, and data from the Facebook group which already has over 32,000 members - that is a lot of data already about the lives of those who do (and so also data on those who might be convinced to) support the Hillary campaign. However, the imagery is Hillary beckoning the visitor in. Is it a sign that this will become a community? Will Hillary develop an interactive campaign? Research suggests that female representatives are far more likely to be conversationalists and interactive than their male counterparts. Or will this indicate that the next contest will be back to a more Web 1.5 approach (between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0), looking interactive but really all about persuading?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Cameron’s European gamble: a brilliant move?

David Cameron’s long awaited and long delayed speech on Europe finally arrived and many have described it as a ‘pivotal’, ‘epoch-defining’ speech. It may or may not be that – we will have to wait a few years to know for sure. But I sense it will be. It appears to have achieved two things immediately. The text of the speech seems to appeal to both the pro-European and anti-European factions within his party by calling for an in-out referendum whilst signalling a strong desire to stay within a ‘reformed European Union’. In fact the message will make the pro-European conservatives very nervous about a ‘gamble’ that the electorate will want to stay in under any circumstances when opinion polls suggest a majority want out. But they are likely to be a lot quieter than the rowdy Euro-sceptics have been in recent months. The Lib Dems are clearly unhappy about Cameron’s speech and you only have to watch Nick Clegg’s face in the House of Commons today to see that.

The wild cheering by the bank-bench Tories in Prime Minister’s Questions shows that you underestimate Cameron at your cost. He has, in a matter of hours, re-energised his party, put off the many thorny issues of Europe to a date after the next election, shown Labour and the Lib Dems to be out of touch with the UK voting public and made UKIP look faintly irrelevant. It’s an astonishing move – a high wire balancing act that may come unstuck, but after yesterday's PMQs – it looks as if he has pulled it off.

Ed Miliband put on a brave face and landed a few well aimed digs: ‘He’s been driven to it not by the national interest, but been dragged to it by his party’. However, you sense Cameron’s confidence rising as fires back: ‘We want to reset that relationship. He hasn’t got a clue what he’d do.’ Worst of all, Milband seemed skewered by the simple choice Cameron gave him: ‘The most basic question of all is do you want a referendum? Yes or no? I do, does he?’ To which Miliband replied: ‘My position is no, we don’t want a referendum’.

If George Osborne is competent enough to put a little life (and investment) back in the economy before 2015 the Tories could be riding high on Cameron’s promise of ‘a renegotiation and then a referendum’. While the exact details of that renegotiation are only hinted at it’s clear that Cameron favours a more ‘market-friendly’ Europe. In PMQs he shouted above the yells of approval from his party: ‘We’ve been very clear about what we want to see - change. In a whole series of areas social legislation, employment legislation, environmental legislation where Europe has gone far too far.’ So the negotiation would seek an end to 48 hour maximum working week, an end to talk of a Financial Transaction Tax (something that could reduce speculation and raise much needed revenues), an end to some of the basic environmental protections that have been passed in Brussels. He is also holding out the promise of an end to ‘meddling’ by the European Court of Human Rights. All red meat to conservative Daily Mail reading voters. Not so great for those looking for a more progressive European Union.

There’s a long way to go yet – the German-French axis may upset Cameron’s plans where Labour and the LibDems cannot. Voters may decide that Europe is a distraction from the real issues.There are many ifs and buts and winning the 2015 election (the condition for any changes to existing European treaties) is the biggest ‘if’ of all. But I suspect Clegg knows that the Lib Dem’s are a busted flush now. Cameron has used them to prop up an unpopular round of savage austerity cuts and to triple the cost of university fees (against Clegg’s signed pledge not to increase them). This may seem like yesterday’s news now but wait for the election when voters are reminded constantly of it. The I’m sorry spoof video viewed by over 2 million people will almost certainly be playing on Nick Clegg’s political gravestone in 2015. But it may just be that in an adjoining plot Cameron’s speech on Europe will be playing on another headstone – that of Ed Miliband.

Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg – your move.

David McQueen

Programme Leader: BA Politics and Media

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Cameron's speech: a message to his critics or British or EU leaders?

The long awaited and long-trailed speech by David Cameron to map out Britain's future relationship with the European Union has taken place. It can be interpreted in two ways. Firstly as a call for reform of the political settlement that binds EU member states. Secondly as a mechanism for silencing opponents of Britain's membership in his own party and the UK Independence Party who threaten to take votes from the Conservatives at next year's European Parliamentary Election. So what was this all about fundamentally?

Cameron started on the attack but finished defending the European Union, but it is the role of the EU in maintaining our, and its other member's, prosperity that he focused on defending. He argued that EU membership is a means to an end: prosperity. The EU is not a means in itself. He argued that the EU is facing three crises:
  1. a Eurozone crisis which needs governance 
  2. low competitiveness due to failing to allow full access to a single market and while it produces 25% of global GDP, it also is responsible for 50% of social spending
  3. democratic accountability and the gap between citizens and EU institutions
But, he argued the greatest danger facing the EU is the rejection of new thinking. More of the same is not tenable. This was not purely about highlighting the deficit in governance, economic competitiveness and accountability. Cameron also presented a vision around five principles:
  1. Competitiveness
  2. Flexibility - celebrating diversity as a single market not a single currency and polity
  3. Power flowing to member states not away - repatriation of power
  4. Democratic accountability and a stronger role for national parliaments
  5. Fairness for all nations in and out of the Eurozone
He made sweeping claims about British people being disillusioned with the EU, wanting a common market not a political union, over which they have had no say; this a direct attack on predecessors who shrank away from a referendum. Cameron wants to confront the issue, but not now.

Cameron argued that what is needed is a new settlement for the EU, and that this may be inevitable when the EU emerges from the Eurozone crisis. He wants to negotiate for a new settlement based on his principles, and in that he is not alone as an EU leader. Following those negotiations and redrafting an image of the future of the Union will be presented to the British people at which point an simple in or out choice will be given in a referendum.

So does it matter. Some European leaders will agree and may well work with Cameron to support his five principles. There is much truth in his critique of the workings of the EU, and many agree that reform may be needed and may now be inevitable. But these are only principles, broad brush statements about the future, there is no detail on how these would be instituted. So could this shape the EU, probably not, it will be down to future negotiations among all the leaders of the EU member states. But, Conservative MPs seem favourable and that maybe the more important aspect of the speech. He promised a referendum, delivered a very conservative and neo-liberal critique of the EU, he called for a return to economic not political union: he wore the clothes of the Eurosceptic throughout. But he seems also to have assuaged calls for a referendum now. His defence of the union, and plausible case for why not now may have won the day. So perhaps the internal and domestic political ramifications are more important than the more global impact.

But there is now uncertainty. Sometime, possibly in the next five years there could be a referendum. Possibly Cameron will push for a yes to staying a member but, if the negotiations fail, he may push for a no. How will that uncertainty impact upon our relations within the EU, the relations for pan-European business partnerships? The wider implications are as uncertain as Cameron's proposals and the future relationship between Britain and the European Union

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Can Cameron's speech pull the Tories from the Euro swamp?

As David Cameron prepares to make what may be the most important speech of his political career it looks like the Conservative Party are marching back into the fetid political swamp that is Europe all over again. Margaret Thatcher, the Tories greatest twentieth century star (after Winston Churchill) was swallowed by this swamp as was her unlucky successor John Major. 

Now it seems David Cameron is being dragged under as Europhiles and Europhobes within his party have allowed their self-destructive impulses to resurface. This is hardly surprising given the dreadful state of the Euro and the European project generally in the post-2007 financial crisis era. Voters are increasingly wary of further involvement in a European Union that is prepared to beggar the people of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland to save the ill-conceived vanity project that is the Euro. The rise and rise of UKIP in recent years  is a clear sign that a large section of the public want as little as possible to do with the continent, its open borders, austerity plans and loss of sovereignty. With UKIP actually ahead of the Tories in one recent ComRes poll for European elections old divisions within the Conservative Party have widened dramatically as members worry that UKIP will do to the party what the SDP did to Labour in the 1980s. 
Nigel Farage toasts the Euro quagmire

The prospect of splitting the Tory vote has actually increased splits within the party as those for and against Europe begin a fight to the death. In the meantime Labour and UKIP are quietly chuckling on the sidelines as Cameron tries to navigate a middle way between the warring factions in his party that will keep both sides happy. Whatever the speech contains it is most likely to spell the beginning of the end for the increasingly fragile ConDem alliance.

David McQueen
Programme Leader: Politics and Media

Post-Leveson Conference 8th February, Bournemouth University: