Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The baby boomers move on. Now what?

One untold big story of 2008 was a political power shift, from the baby boomers to generation X.

The baby boomers are, broadly speaking, the cohort born between 1946 and 1961. Having ruled much of the world, they are now on their way out. The boomers are being replaced by “generation X”, the 28 to 45 year olds; though some would say that there’s also a transitional generation, currently in their late 40s.

Look at what’s happened in 2008.

In the United States presidential election, Barack Obama (born 1961) trounced John McCain. McCain was born in 1936 and is not a baby boomer. Earlier in the year, however, Obama saw off Hilary Clinton, born in 1947 and the queen of the boomers, to become the Democratic party’s standard-bearer. Obama’s two immediate predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, were both born in 1946.

In the race for London mayor, Conservative Boris Johnson (born 1964) ousted Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone (born 1945 and a baby boomer, if only just).

In my home country, New Zealand, National’s John Key (born 1961) defeated Labour prime minister Helen Clark (born 1950).

There could be more change to come. In the next UK general election, due in 2010, if not sooner, prime minister Gordon Brown (born 1951) will face Conservative leader David Cameron (born 1966). The Liberal Democrats are also led by a generation X-er, Nick Clegg (born 1967).

Many of the key members of Brown’s cabinet – Ed Balls, James Purnell, David Miliband and Ed Miliband -- were born in the late 1960s, though Purnell was born in 1970.

Other examples of post baby boomers in power or on the way up before 2008 are Sweden's prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, France's justice minister Rachida Dati and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of Denmark’s Social Democrats.

There is a cruel irony in this generational shift. The baby boomers were the mainstay of the “sixties generation”; the self-styled driving force of a revolution that questioned established authority and the existing order, in foreign policy (most notably over Vietnam), education, gender and race. They took on many core values of the World War II generation and its predecessors.

Now these old “change agents” are the old guard and younger voters are moving them on. Barack Obama defeated Hilary Clinton by providing a more convincing narrative of “change” and “hope” and winning more support from under 35 year olds. He offered a liberation from America’s bitter political divisions of the last four decades and the Clintons are a potent symbol of one side of America’s culture wars. Boris Johnson’s core message was that, after eight years of Ken, it was time for a change in London. John Key campaigned as a “fresh” alternative to three term prime minister Helen Clark.

The boomers’ time at the top has been very brief. In the different forms of Clinton and Bush II, they have occupied the White House for just 16 years. The representatives of the GI generation were there for twice as long (1961-1993). The UK boomers’ dominance dates from Tony Blair’s 1997 victory, giving them even less time at the top than their American counterparts have enjoyed. Only in New Zealand, where they first came to power in 1984, have the boomer politicians arguably had a long tenure.

Looking at what the boomers leave behind, and what might be about to change, there’s another rich set of ironies. Baby boomer politics started out as being about war, peace, love, feminism, creativity, human relations and happiness. The driving force is self-fulfilment, self-expression and self-actualisation. At their most annoying and tiresome, the baby boomers have practised the politics of self-indulgence. They grew up in more benign economic times and didn’t have to worry too much about money. The post-war prosperity and then the revolt against the Keynesian economic settlement, happened all around them.

In terms of hard policy, however, the most significant legacies of Bill Clinton, Blair and Brown are in the area of political economy. They reconciled their parties with, adapted and then embraced, the market economics of Reagan and Thatcher (even if those were not exactly the same in the US and Britain). They, and, George W. Bush, have presided over the rise and rise, and now, the collapse, of turbo-capitalism. Brown, its erstwhile champion, now has to lead Britain through the consequences. Bush II and Blair also fought the Iraq war, with all its disastrous consequences for American and British prestige.

So with a new generation taking over, there is the prospect of new ideas and fresh approaches. These are surely needed now. As for what the new way may look like, Newsweek’s Jeremy Kahn offered a few opinions at the beginning of 2008.

"Compared with the baby boomers, they are more technocratic, more global in outlook, more comfortable with technology, more idealistic and yet less ideological and less invested in old debates . . . Instead, the new generation has been influenced by the end of the cold war, September 11 and the Iraq War."

He suggested they could take a distinctive direction of policy travel: support for "the continued spread of democracy and liberalism, particularly to Muslim nations," optimism "about the long-term prospects of reining in Islamic terrorism" and general support for "globalization." Kahn saw the new generation as being much more focused than its predecessors in climate change as well as immigration and its challenges to cultural identity.

Nearly a year on, much of that description of the post boomers still seems plausible. For instance, Barack Obama has promised Americans a transformation, through rejecting the "old" politics in favour of a “new”, post-ideological version. (“There’s not a black America and a white America . . . a liberal America and a conservative America . . . there’s a United States of America”).

But Kahn’s observations now seem incomplete. Some generation X politicians look a little more grounded in conventional ideologies than they seemed this time last year. Step forward, David Cameron.

Kahn was writing months before the world recession and the threat of deflation really hit. The full nature of Obama’s solutions won’t be known until months after he takes office. There will have to be a lot of improvisation, and the details may look rather different to his campaign promises, some of which included protectionist rhetoric (not quite what Kahn suggests). But improvisation was also the rule with previous presidents, such as FDR and Bill Clinton.

As they innovate and improvise, the post baby boomers will need help. For instance, Obama’s incoming treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, born in 1961, is a post-boomer but other key cabinet appointments are experienced, familiar faces: Robert Gates (defence), Lawrence Summers (head of the National Economic Council) and Hilary Clinton (State). The last two of these are baby boomers. So are many key world leaders, such as Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy. And the politics of the emerging powers, such as China and India, follow very different rhythms.

The post baby boomers are taking over, but they won’t be able to run the world on their own.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Political storyteller of the year 2008

This is the time of year when people look back at the year, compile lists and make awards. So I’ve got an award of my own: which politician from any party, political persuasion or country, was the best story-teller of 2008?

It’s lean pickings from the Liberal Democrats, I’m afraid.

New leader Nick Clegg worked all year to tell a story: that Labour have had their day and can’t create a fairer Britain; the Conservatives won’t but the Liberal Democrats will make it happen. It was old third party wine in twenty first century bottles, but showed promise all the same. After the banks went bang, the media meta-narrative took a new turn: the government’s response to the recession and the “Brown bounce”. Nick's story was squashed flat. Ever since, the party has struggled to tell a story about the economy, as distinct from Vince Cable’s razor-sharp commentaries.

Ros Scott told a good story and thrashed MP Lembit Opik in the contest for party president. But it was an internal election, for an ill-defined job. Most of the previous incumbents have checked into the obscurity hotel.

And let’s not even talk about the Lib Dems’ campaign for the London mayor and assembly.

The Conservatives should have had an easier time of it. Telling their story – “it’s time for a change; Labour must go” – looks straightforward enough. But David Cameron has also been overwhelmed by the economic crisis. He has not told a convincing story about the crisis and, as the year closed, Cameron was losing the economic argument to Gordon Brown.

The Conservative politician who did the best job of telling a “time for a change” story was London’s new mayor, Boris Johnson. He doesn’t get first prize because, after six months, Johnson still hasn’t fashioned a “governing narrative” that helps Londoners to understand what he is trying to do. So far, in his honeymoon phase, that hasn’t mattered too much. It will in 2009, as a deep recession really hits a city that is well used to good times. If the mayor can tell a story and leads Londoners through the crisis, he will well on the way towards re-election.

Labour at last found someone who can tell a story: Gordon Brown! This must be one of the most ironic plot twists that British politics has seen in a long time. That’s partly because Brown’s failure to provide his government with a narrative has deeply frustrated Labour supporters.

There’s an even bigger irony: Brown had a narrative, that from his decade as chancellor: thanks to him, Britain’s economy was strong and stable and the years of “boom and bust” were over. The onset of recession and the reversals of financial economic policy should have finished him, for Brown no longer embodied his narrative. Yet telling stories has saved him, so far.

The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley said it very well on Sunday:

As the banks crashed, Brown bounced. This is partly because he has been brilliant at spinning the blame for the crisis away from himself. The international institutions failed. So said the man who had chaired the reform committee of the IMF for many years. The bubble economy in America was the culprit. So said the man who recommended an honorary knighthood for Alan Greenspan, the father of that bubble. It was down to the reckless gambling of the bankers. So said the man who indulged a lightly regulated City for a decade. The Tories howled, but largely to no avail. Polling suggests that most voters were, and still are, broadly prepared to buy the prime minister's account of the origins of the recession.

So far, the public also seems ready to buy his “active government, for the people” versus the “do-nothing Tories, for the bankers” story lines that have appeared over the last few weeks. Yes, you’ve got it: ‘the enemy over the water’, ‘the rot within’, even the strong community; the old ones are always the best ones.

Brown’s achievement is weird for another reason. As he saved the world the banks and showed other countries how to stave off disaster, he seemed authoritative, confident and in command. Above all, he looked more experienced than the “novice” Cameron. The PM embodied the rest his story: “I can fix what they have done; the other guy can’t”.

But he hasn’t brought it all together. In another inversion of the usual rules of politics, Brown embodies a narrative he hasn’t quite told. He is more actions than words.

The narrative can’t be judged a total success, because Brown hasn’t won an election, or even overtaken the Conservatives in the polls. The job losses expected in early 2009 may well blow the story away. So Gordon Brown is not the story-teller of the year either.

To find the best story-teller of 2008, we have to go over the ocean.

In the United States presidential election, a first term African-American senator with a lean CV and a liberal voting record defeated his own party’s “front runner” and then saw off the formidable Republican machine. The key to understanding those victories must be the story that Barack Obama told and the way he told it.

First, Barack Obama caught the attention of the Democratic Party, and then the nation (and not the world), with his personal charisma and his compelling life-story.

Second, Obama made the case for change, in a way that connected with peoples’ emotions. His campaign slogan, “change we can believe in” and the way he kept using words like “chance,” “hope,” and “dream” built up trust in a cynical electorate and stressed the potential for progress. [For the linguistics expert Noah Bubenhofer’s new study of Obama’s rhetoric, click here]. He struck powerful chords with the party’s desire for “liberation” from past disappointments and the public’s desire for a break from the past eight years of Republican rule (“McCain – Bush”) rule in the White House. The use of inclusive rhetoric - we,” “you” (plural) and “us” - created what Bubenhofer calls “a strong feeling of community and identification between [Obama] and his audience”.

Third, Obama backed up the case for change with emotional and rational arguments. The way he discussed, in specific ways, the daily challenges facing average Americans, such as rising energy costs, mortgage worries and healthcare premiums, enabled him to connect and empathise with voters.

The emotional appeals were fortified by solid policy details (stories): promoting innovation and upward social mobility; ensuring that more people can have access to healthcare; building a better “safety net” for poorer people; cutting taxes for low income senior citizens and repeal tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans; widening access to education and launching an Apollo project for clean energy and energy independence.

Obama embodied his narrative. We have learned how a black man born in Hawaii to an immigrant father – who himself was born and raised in a small village in Kenya and “went to school in a tin- roof shack” - and a white, single mother struggled with a multiracial background and a broken home gained a world-class education and went on to become the first black man to edit the Harvard Law Review. This is a uniquely American story of identity and hope: Obama embodied the notion that exciting new things - change – can happen in America.

The newcomer represented a generational shift, away from the baby boomers, the neo-cons and culture war politics and towards a new sense of optimism about America’s future.

And whatever was thrown at him, Obama held his nerve. In the general election campaign, his level headedness and sense of composure did a great deal to reassure floating voters that Obama could lead.

In all of these ways, Obama told brilliantly a story about how America could leave behind the divisions of the past and find a new direction as one nation, united behind a common purpose. An optimistic story, about the future. “Yes, we can” and yes, he did.

That’s why Barack Obama, who will soon become the 44th president of the United States, is my political storyteller of the year.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Chris Fox's real job for the Liberal Democrats

For years, Chris Fox* has been the big kahuna of Liberal Democrat PR practitioners. In an impressive career, he’s had some big corporate comms jobs. Now Chris has gone and got himself a real one, as communications supremo for the party. And here’s his number one challenge: to get the Lib Dem narrative, the party's brand stories, back on track.

Let’s face it, 2008 has not exactly been a bumper year for the Liberal Democrats. Some of the counter-stories against the party have been self-inflicted. The worst was, surely, Nick Clegg’s gaffe in an interview with Piers Morgan about how many women he slept with before getting married. The car crash over the Lisbon Treaty is up there too – though I still think that, in all the circumstances, Nick salvaged the best outcome that anyone could have. The reported plane conversation about senior colleagues was mainly heard in the Westminster village, but didn’t help. The toughest counter-story of all has been that the Lib Dems don’t matter; invisibility, obscurity, anonymity. Nick and the party don’t have much control over that.

You’ll notice I didn’t suggest that Chris Fox should turn up at Cowley Street with a narrative for the Liberal Democrats, gift-wrapped and with a nice card. The reality is that only a party’s leader can provide its story. Just like Barack Obama, Nick has to own the story in order to tell it and be credible to voters. He has to be the story as well; unless the leader embodies the narrative, it won’t seem real to people.

A few times this year, Nick has started to use the sort of narrative that the Lib Dems need. At spring conference, for instance, he spoke of the two “establishment” parties’ failures to meet peoples’ needs. He promised to work for “a new political system, that empowers people not parties”; and argued that would be more likely to provide decentralised public services and give people opportunities to improve their lives. Vince Cable added in a call for fairer taxes.

By party conference in September, the party’s poll ratings were little better (but not far down) than they were at the time of spring conference. Nick Clegg’s conference speech and media appearances, and the Make It Happen “themes” paper, featured a new, sharper twist on the spring narrative. He promised a fairer Britain and said “the Liberal Democrats will make it happen . . . Labour can’t. The Conservatives won’t”. Unlike the establishment parties, the Liberal Democrats had real plans for a “a fairer Britain,” “a greener Britain” and to “make politicians listen to people”. OK, there was a row about tax and some us find the stuff about “fair” and “green” a bit vague and clich├ęd, but Nick had a political narrative.

More important was the story that voters were hearing (after all, that’s what the narrative really is). The Times-Populus conference poll suggested that the Lib Dems’ brand image had recovered from the doldrums of 2006-07. For instance, 63 per cent said the Lib Dems are “for ordinary people, not just the best off”. Three voters in five said the Lib Dems care about the problems faced by ordinary people; a similar number see us as honest and principled. A majority said the party understands the way people live their lives.

As for whether Nick Clegg could embody the narrative, things seemed to be looking up there too. Straight after conference, a Newsnight focus group of floating voters used words like “indecisive” and “confused” to describe Gordon Brown and “Blair Mark II” for David Cameron. When those attending the group were showed clips of Nick speaking at conference about the “messed up” tax system and Gordon Brown’s lack of vision, the scores on the people meters shot up. The voters in the group listened to Nick and believed him -- once they found out who he was. Many said they would consider voting Liberal Democrat. All very promising.

Then came the global financial turmoil, the banking drama and big bail outs, and the UK's steep slide into recession. If the media didn’t exactly make Gordon Brown their darling, they worked up a new meta-narrative: Gordon tells the Americans, the continentals and the rest how to save their economies; Gordon the economic wizard, champion of the new “Keynesianism”, Brown lauded by the Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman; David Cameron is a lightweight; the opinion poll chasm between Labour and the Tories closes; the race is on; and, now, talk of a general election in 2009.

It may have been bad news for the Conservatives, but the Liberal Democrats have also been overwhelmed. In October and November, Nick seemed to disappear from the media, who quickly decided he didn’t fit into their meta-narrative. The party has been squeezed in most of the opinion polls. The UK Polling Report Polling Average now shows the Lib Dems on 15 per cent. According to Populus, Nick’s personal ratings have fallen in recent months.

“But what about Vince Cable?”, I hear you ask. I have long been one of Vince’s biggest fans. But his accurate predictions and informed commentaries have not translated into more credibility for the Liberal Democrats. However wise Vince’s words, people have not been hearing an economic story from the party itself. He is a brand in his own right and maybe the public wants to receive big messages on big issues from the party leader.

For some of the elements of what we need, look at Drew Westen’s description of a major speech by Barack Obama, in September, about the financial crisis:

“The speech is effective in both its narrative coherence--it tells the story of how we got to this point, who was responsible, and why McCain could not possibly be the one to lead us out of it--and in its emotional resonance. It begins with magnanimity and a sense of fairness, not attempting to blame the entire crisis on McCain but making clear his complicity in it and his ideological commitment to the causes of it. . . . It took the abstractions of a Wall Street meltdown and a credit crisis and turned them into the experience of everyday people: "You feel it in your own lives," he told his listeners . . .. You can picture the people he is describing, and they could
picture themselves, their parents, and their grandparents.”

This is where Chris Fox can assist – by helping the party to get its policies and analysis into a simple story, that will engage with voters’ feelings.

Over the last few weeks, things have got a bit better. Nick Clegg has started to tell a story about who is responsible for the crisis, blaming the government and the bankers. (See, for example, Nick’s tv reply to the Queen’s Speech) His contributions at prime minister’s questions are focussed and framed on what government has (or hasn’t) done are being framed more in terms of the impact on people and families.

Nick has started to develop another, parallel story – the need to secure the economic future, starting by investing in green infrastructure. That could become a distinctive message and it plays to the party’s strengths as the “greenest” party.

There are still some big challenges for next year, starting with the coherence, credibility and consistency of the Lib Dems’ stories. Chris Fox can’t make an anxious and weary electorate buy the stories. But he can make sure -- probably through “smoke and mirrors” -- that Nick and the rest of party’s communicators and top campaigners stick to them. The party also needs to take them to the logical conclusion in terms of policy development -- always a tough one for Lib Dems.

And our success in pushing up our poll ratings and morale is tied up with how (much) voters see Nick Clegg, and whether they perceive him as being the Lib Dems’ story. That’s where Chris Fox really comes in.

His real task is to be the strategist, not the story writer, the impresario, not the magician, who makes sure that voters hear the right story from Nick and the party.

Oh, congratulations and happy new year, Chris!

* I have known and been friendly with Chris for many years.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Oh Canada! Lessons for democrats

If you think that Westminster-style democracy basically works, or that it just needs a few good changes, like proportional voting for MPs, then maybe you should have a look at what’s happening in Canada.

Here’s a very quick recap. The conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, was recently returned to office, but as the leader of a minority government. At the end of last month, his team brought in an “economic fiscal update”. This package tried to nobble Harper’s political foes by cutting public election funding for political parties. There were also some hard line measures, such as temporarily suspending the rights of public servants to strike and making it harder to women civil servants to take legal action if they are not paid the same as their male colleagues. But the fiscal update contained no stimulus measures for Canada’s economy.

The outraged opposition parties, the Liberals (the main opposition), the (leftish) NDP and the separatist Bloc Quebecois, wrote to the governor-general, Michaelle Jean, offering to form a Liberal-NDP coalition government. Between them, they have 163 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.

The rules of the Westminster game are well-documented. The prime minister has to enjoy the confidence of the representative house of parliament in order to remain in power. If the prime minister loses that confidence, s/he is obliged to either resign, or advise the Queen (or her representative) to dissolve parliament and call a general election. 

The Queen (or her representative) essentially has two options: dissolving Parliament and sending the people to the polls, or finding a new government that does have the confidence of the house. The last time a UK prime minister lost a vote of confidence in the Commons was in 1979, when James Callaghan’s Labour government finally hit the wall. It was clear that no alternative government was available and so a general election followed. 

Under Canada’s constitution, it is the governor-general’s prerogative to invite a party leader to form a government, with or without a general election. And given that the country has recently had an election, finding an alternative  government, even an unlikely coalition, would seem preferable.

Still, Harper did not have to resign because he had not been defeated in the Commons on a vote of confidence. A vote on the fiscal update (i.e., a vote of confidence) was due to be held on Monday, 8 December. So Harper asked the governor general, to prorogue parliament until late January, in order to stave off the vote and buy himself some time – perhaps in the hope that the putative coalition partners will fall out, or that the Liberals’ leadership problems will get out of hand.

That’s right: Harper asked the referee to stop play because the other side looked certain of winning. 

That’s not all. The Conservatives launched radio attack ads against their opponents and called upon supporters to flood Ms Jean’s office with letters and e-mails. There was even talk of a mass pro-government rally outside her official residence. Harper asked for some breathing space and time for tempers to cool. But the PM did more than anyone to make sure that things turned ugly, most notably with the way he manipulated arguments about Quebec separatism.

On Friday, the governor-general granted Harper’s request, after a meeting that lasted more than two hours. 

Let’s be clear about what this means. A precedent has been set. Any prime minister faced with a confidence vote can defy the will of parliament, at least for a while, by running off to the governor general (or the Queen). And a PM can have parliament prorogued just weeks into a new session, rather than at the end.

It looks as if the only safeguard is the character, experience and qualifications of the Queen / governor-general. According to the Globe and Mail, Ms Jean made Harper work for the prorogue when they met. 

"Ms. Jean made clear to the Prime Minister that she was not a rubber stamp for his request to shut down Parliament until late January; that it was within her constitutional discretionary power to turn him down."

What has happened in Canada shows, once again, a tough reality of politics. We saw it in Australia in 1975, when the conservative parties used their majority in the upper house, the Senate, to block the Whitlam Labor government’s budget. The governor-general took it upon himself to resolve the crisis by dismissing the prime minister. 

We saw it again in the US in 2000, when the Republican-dominated supreme court halted efforts to learn who won the presidential election. OK, maybe they were one moral step above the Republican goons who stormed a schoolhouse in Florida and physically stopped one recount. 

When the brown stuff hits the fan, conservatives make up their own rules.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

The other side of summer

Nearly thirty years ago, I watched a tv interview with Horst Mahler, a former member of West Germany’s infamous Red Army Faction (RAF), originally known as the Baader-Meinhof group. As I recall, he was still serving a prison sentence for robbery and aiding a prison escape. Mahler explained how he had rejected his life as a “bourgeois lawyer” and become an urban revolutionary and, eventually, a would-be political theoretician for the group.

Ever since, I’ve been intrigued and fascinated, albeit in a highly critical way, with the Baader Meinhof group. Most likely, it is all due to their brutal affronts to my liberal outlook. 1967 is widely remembered for the “summer of love” in the “western” democracies. The demonstrations, upheavals and protests of 1968 have made that year one of the most over-chronicled, over-analysed and over-hyped years in history. Still, the baby boomers were unleashed as a potent political force and more importantly, the ‘68ers’ general questioning of authoritarianism gradually became ingrained into many countries’ politics.  [Click here]

Yet the RAF / Baader-Meinhof group, a band of middle class, far-left radicals, living in what looked like a model liberal democracy, turned to murder, robbery, bombing and kidnapping as a way of furthering their goals. Instead of the “summer of love”, the RAF gave their country “the German autumn” and fostered the very type of authoritarian state they claimed to oppose. 

This month has seen the general release of the film The Baader Meinhof Complex, a well-produced docudrama based on the latest book by Stefan Aust. He is one of the leading authorities on the group and knew some of its leading members. I saw the film the other night and found it totally riveting.

The motives of the group’s leading lights are laid out from the beginning. Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedick) is shown as a radical journalist who is appalled by police brutality against demonstrators and disillusioned with her marriage and comfortable life. She walks out on her unfaithful husband, taking their two children and goes on to write many of the RAF’s political tracts. 

Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) despises the Vietnam War and leaves home after an argument with her father, a liberal Lutheran minister, and starts using arson as a means of protest. Andreas Baader (Mortitz Bleibtreu), her lover, is disgusted at the existence of western consumerism alongside poverty in the third world. So he starts bombing department stores. 

These three team up with like-minded radicals and their rage soon finds its outlet in acts of violence against all kinds of targets. Banks get robbed, US military bases, shops and newspaper offices bombed. People are shot, maimed and killed. The RAF see themselves as utopians even who want to change the world and end the exploitation and suffering of poor and oppressed people everywhere. But they are too impatient and too angry to trouble themselves with the complex choices, compromises and frustrations required when ideals are pursued through democratic methods. 

The film builds up some kind of understanding (but not a sympathy) of why the group went down the path of violence. And it’s not incidental that all this happened in West Germany. Many of that country’s baby boomers felt a deep burden of guilt for what their parents’ generation had unleashed on the world. One of the first studies of the Baader Meinhof group / RAF was called Hitler’s Children.

Whilst the film does not make the point as clearly as it might, the RAF and their sympathisers believed that Nazism was not really defeated in 1945 and that it still lurked not far below the surface of West Germany’s political culture. In their eyes, this accounted for the brutality of the police – the “police state” - and other authorities as well as well as the country’s apparent support for American “imperialism”. The RAF also linked what they saw as a latent form of Nazism to the suppression of Palestinians and the exploitation of poor people, both in the west and the developing world. At one stage, opinion polls showed that 25 per cent of the West German population supported them.

The film shows us the group close up, and in so doing, makes the political judgements much less straightforward. Andreas Baader is depicted as charismatic and determined - and a spoilt brat; a narcissitic, self-centred bully. Hot-tempered, arrogant and intolerant, he is incapable of engaging in the most basic political debate, let alone formulating a coherent revolutionary strategy and sticking to it. 

Andreas Baader: We are forming a group. We will change political affairs.

Ulrike Meinhof: How is that supposed to work out.

Andreas Baader: What kind of f**king bourgeois question is that? We will do that if it kills us.

Baader’s hates the “fascist pigs” and “liberal jerk-offs”. He is also misogynistic (repeatedly calling his female comrades “c**ts”) and refers to his Arab host at a Jordanian training camp as “Ali Baba”. What Baader really seeks is his own personal liberation from sexual and social mores. He thrives on the excitement and freedom of life as an urban guerrilla. In one scene, he drives along an autobahn at night in a stolen car, firing guns at road signs as The Who’s “My Generation” plays on the car radio. There is little sign of a utopian political ideology at work. Personality and psychological disorders seem more likely explanations for Baader’s destructive behaviour.

Meinhof and Ennslin are scarcely more sympathetic characters. As portrayed in this film, the former seems to have more than her share of emotional problems and her political writing seems neither profound nor illuminating. She is not the co-leader of the group - Ennslin is but, like Baader, she is more concerned with self-fulfilment and has little sense of revolutionary discipline. The group never really addresses basic questions; for instance, whether they should kill “workers”, including even those employed by conservative newspapers. During their trial, Meinhof and Ennslin are shown arguing bitterly about this and other matters. Their relationship, never exactly easy, breaks down completely.

Still, the film sometimes portrays the group as victims rather than villains. The trial, at Stammheim prison, of Baader, Ennslin, Meinhoff and Jan-Carl Raspe (Niels-Bruno Schmidt), is a farce, if not a travesty of justice. To take the film’s sense of moral ambiguity further, Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), the chief of the Federal German police, latches on to a key insight: this kind of urban terrorism can be neutralised only by getting into the heads of the terrorists and their sympathisers, appreciating the nature of their grievances and working out how to defuse their emotions. According to the film, his gambit worked.

None of this can erase, however, what the group becomes – the murderers, the authoritarians, the fascists of the New Left. 

As Stefan Aust said in a recent interview:

“[The Baader Meinhof group] mainly lost their realistic view of reality. Suddenly, when they went underground, they thought and felt that they lived in a police state, a fascist police state. And when you are living in a fascist police state you are allowed to do anything. They had to change reality and their view on reality first in order to be able to do all these terrible things . . . 

“They forgot that they weren't putting bombs in "dead places" ... but on living human beings [and] became very cruel in their attempt to fight the cruelty of the world”.

“. . . Terrorism is terror, and people sometimes forget that.”

Footnote: Horst Mahler, whom I watched on TV all those years ago, is portrayed in the film as a radical chic (radical geek?) lawyer, and an object of ridicule for the sneering Andreas Baader. In real life, he was released from prison in 1980, having served ten years of his fourteen year sentence. Mahler’s attempt at a group manifesto was disowned by the rest of the RAF. In the 1990s, he began to align himself with Germany’s nationalist far right and eventually joined the neo-Nazi NPD. He has also been closely involved with a holocaust denial group. Last year, Mahler was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment without parole for having performed the Hitler salute when reporting to prison for a nine-month term in 2006.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Narrativewatch: Lembit Opik's karma ran over his dogma

The County Times a few days ago quoted Lembit Opik MP as saying that his public profile may have contributed to his defeat for the Liberal Democrat presidency.

"I am dead serious about my politics but I do it with a smile. Sadly some people have mixed up my political narrative with my high national profile."

But here’s the stark reality: Lembit Opik’s “high national profile”, with all its highs and lows, is his narrative. They have become one and the same thing.

Lembit Opik is another example of how you can have a political narrative, but you can’t own or control it.

It works like this. A politician wants to tell a story about his / her beliefs or policies and why we should vote for him / her. But the story can be drowned out by counter-stories, especially if the latter are simpler and more deeply rooted in the audience’s values or prejudices. That’s what happened to Lembit Opik [click here].

Most importantly, it is the political audiences (in this case, members of the Liberal Democrats) who decide their brand perception, their narrative, about any politician. The perception is set when they think a politician has(n’t) satisfied their wishes or needs. 

Voters’ perceptions are influenced by a number of factors. One of those can be media coverage. In this case, Lembit Opik’s coverage – and not just what’s been in the broadsheets, the tabloids and the glossy magazines – simply overwhelmed whatever he was trying to say.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Where is the Liberal Democrat economic narrative?

Tonight’s Evening Standard carries a report that Gordon Brown may go the country on June 4, 2009.

The issue would be, of course, which party is best placed to see the economy through troubled times. Brown has developed something close to a narrative: that he is the steady, experienced, internationally economic manager and this is no time to take a risk.

David Cameron and the Conservatives are nowhere close to having an economic narrative – even though they remain in front.

But the UK Polling Report polling average puts the Liberal Democrats on between 12 and 14 per cent. Electoral Calculus says that (assuming uniform national swings), the UKPR current polling average would leave the Conservatives with a small working majority – and the Lib Dems with just 19 seats.

So here’s the question of the day: where is the Liberal Democrat economic narrative?

[For a description of what an economic narrative should contain, and a few more details about my earlier challenge, please see here.]

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Big lesson from Obama that no one seems to heed

There’s no shortage of “what we can learn from Obama” lessons at the moment. It won’t be long till all the “the making of the president” type books come out, full of interviews with insiders and profound polls and focus group findings.

For now, if you only read one article, make it this one from Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain.

Drew Westen reminds us that Obama didn’t win by peppering voters with facts, figures, and policy positions and assuming voters would make a rational choice between bundles of plans.

He defeated Hilary Clinton and then John McCain by using his astonishing capacity to inspire people.

Westen shows how understanding Obama’s victories requires an understanding of what ultimately moves voters: the emotions that motivate virtually all human behavior.

He reminds us that voters are neither rational nor irrational (although at times they can be both). They vote with their values as well as their interests, and a good candidate and a good message appeals to both.

“Candidates and campaigns needn't choose between reason and emotion. A good message is one that draws people's attention, gives them pause to reflect on what has happened and what we need to do, and moves them to act.”

Westen gets really interesting when he shows how in the closing eight weeks of the campaign, Obama controlled the four stories that matter most in an election: the story you tell about your yourself; the story you tell about your opponent the story the other candidate is telling about himself; and the stories McCain was telling about Obama.

Now for the “lesson from Obama” that no one seems to want to take.

Obama built up a lead over solid McCain in September, after the financial crisis really blew up. His personal discipline and his steady clam played a huge part. But so did his story. Westen recalls how, in a speech in Colorado on September 16, Obama began to tell a story about the financial crisis and John McCain's place in it.

After presenting an excerpt from the speech, Westen explains:

“The speech is effective in both its narrative coherence--it tells the story of how we got to this point, who was responsible, and why McCain could not possibly be the one to lead us out of it--and in its emotional resonance. It begins with magnanimity and a sense of fairness, not attempting to blame the entire crisis on McCain but making clear his complicity in it and his ideological commitment to the causes of it. It uses language like "common-sense regulation" that appealed to a populist public that knew it had been swindled and was no longer buying Republican lines about government as the problem. It took the abstractions of a Wall Street meltdown and a credit crisis and turned them into the experience of everyday people: "You feel it in your own lives," he told his listeners, and described how the hope of a "dignified retirement for our seniors" was slipping away. You can picture the people he is describing, and they could picture themselves, their parents, and their grandparents.”

David Cameron and the Conservatives have failed to produce a similar story, UK-style. They are suffering in the media and the polls as a result.

But I am not sure the Liberal Democrats are telling such a story either. And we are the ones languishing in the low teens in the latest public opinion polls

So, can anyone tell me, where is the Liberal Democrat equivalent of Obama’s Colorado speech?

By that I mean the speeches, the articles, the video clips, containing the explanation of what has gone with the economy; the “villain” and the moral lesson; the emotional frames that everyone can access; the empathy with the people who are losing out; the telling of their stories; also, the suggestion of a way forward.

Please help me out by posting the URL link(s) under “comments” below.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

London Liberal Democrats need a story

London Liberal Democrats hold their conference today. People have been sending me the agenda and various promotional materials. (Whatever it says, I am not a speaker, by the way).

The e-mails say that one of the conference themes is our preparations for the European elections. Another theme should be the London Liberal Democrat story and how the party plans to do better in elections for the London Assembly. This is especially relevant given that it is elected using AMS, a proportional voting system. People can use their party list vote to elect more Lib Dems to the London Assembly. That applies regardless of whom they want to be London mayor.

But our campaign in May didn’t tell our supporters – or other sympathetic voters – how they could elect more Lib Dems. Nor was there a clear Lib Dem “narrative”. In marketing terms, the party’s simply didn’t tell voters what they could “receive”, in terms of policies started or stopped, in return for “buying” our “product”.

Sure enough, voters didn’t buy. Our total share of the vote dropped by nearly seven points, to 11 per cent. As a result, the Lib Dems went from five assembly members down to three. And yet constituency candidates achieved an average of 14 per cent, with none being elected.

Looking forward, I think it all boils down to a simple question: what would the party prefer people to believe they are “buying” when they vote Liberal Democrat for the London Assembly. More precisely, as I have argued many times, does the party know what people expect to receive in return for voting Lib Dem?

As I have also argued many times, the answer is highly unlikely to be a long list of policies. The “brand” may amount to a promise of greater accountability or probity. More likely, it will be associated with delivering more action – making it happen - in one or two particular areas, such as the environment (water quality) or, perhaps, a more coherent approach to transport policy. Caroline Pidgeon AM started to hint at this sort of approach in her recent Liberal Democrat News article. But the story needs to be developed and followed through, in our London policy, marketing and campaigning. I understand that some new policy work is underway, which is welcome. But let’s be clear: building a Lib Dem brand in London – and not trying to promote a candidate for mayor by running an essentially negative campaign – should be the party’s priority next time round.

That doesn’t mean neglecting the 2012 mayoral election. Far from it. The Lib Dems need someone to embody the story, to make it “real” for voters. The obvious person is the party’s candidate for mayor. S/he may not expect to be elected but I have always thought that the candidate for mayor should head up the party’s list of assembly candidates. 

Other parties can make it happen. The London Greens at least held their own in May, in a difficult political climate. And look at how New Zealand’s minor parties invite voters to use their party vote to give them, and not others, greater influence. ACT and the Greens made a form of AMS work for them, at last weekend’s general election.

So why can’t Liberal Democrats in London make it work for us?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Good luck to Labour's new leader

Congratulations to my old friend and one-time boss, Phil Goff, on becoming the new leader of the NZ Labour Party. He takes over from the outgoing prime minister, Helen Clark, who stood down as leader after Labour’s general election defeat on Saturday.

Phil Goff (pictured here with his deputy, Annette King) is widely acknowledged as one of New Zealand’s most competent and hard working politicians. He has been the heir apparent for some years now.

But perhaps commiserations are more in order. The eminent New Zealand historian, Sir Keith Sinclair, once wrote that:

“It is difficult in New Zealand to make much of an impression on the public as Leader of the Opposition. The Prime Minister inevitably inspires a certain awe. But there is no comparable feeling about his chief opponent. Indeed, the Opposition, in general often seems to be carping; opposing for the sake of opposing; sometimes almost unpatriotic.

Helen Clark eventually overturned a government and stayed in office for nine years. But in her early years as opposition leader, Helen Clark had huge difficulties in establishing herself with the public and the media. National’s Robert Muldoon was a highly effective opposition leader who, in 1975, defeated a government that had held a huge parliamentary majority. But Muldoon later wrote of how hard it was to be taken seriously in his early months as leader. Muldoon was himself ousted in 1984 by David Lange. But Lange initially faced similar problems to Muldoon and Clark, as well as a fractious party organisation that was deeply divided over policy.

Phil Goff has other challenges. He will take on a new government at the start of its honeymoon period. That’s never easy. Some sections of the NZ media are already kicking off a narrative that, as a former minister in two previous Labour administrations, he represents “the past” and is really a transitional leader. Labour, they say, will soon be looking past him, trying to find a “fresh face”.

There are good reasons to expect Phil Goff to succeed as leader. First, he has a sound grasp of policy issues and broad ministerial experience, having held, at various times since 1999, the portfolios of foreign affairs, justice and, most recently, trade, defence and corrections.

Many years ago, I witnessed (and learned a great deal from) Goff’s ability to very quickly get on top of policy issues, without sacrificing accuracy or a command of detail. He has a first rate mind.

Second, as well as being a high effective media performer, Goff is a strong public speaker and parliamentary debater. He is well-versed in the arts of opposition. Labour’s parliamentary team is large enough to provide a springboard for the next election and includes some interesting new MPs. He and they will take the fight to the Key government.

Third, Goff has loads of political savvy. In my experience, either you have it or you don’t: Goff has and it’s been honed by years of living the highs and lows of politics. The party will not abandon the broad middle ground, where NZ elections are won and lost.

Fourth, his South Auckland upbringing and background -- along with years of representing a conservative, “middle New Zealand” constituency -- should enable Goff to connect with the sorts of voters who seem to have deserted the NZ Labour Party. I have seen this at first hand too. It will be hard for others to paint him as some kind of out-of-touch elitist.

I don’t buy the “new generation” argument. Is 55 really that old? And if Labour had gone for someone a lot younger, their opponents would say that he or she lacked experience and gravitas.

Goff will know very well the next steps: to build a strong and united team; establish a personal profile; score some early hits against the government; gather some political momentum; meet thousands of voters in the suburban and provincial centres; make contact with key interest groups and develop some interesting new policies and themes, avoiding going retro.

The real question is whether Phil Goff can light up the sky with a popular, progressive agenda and – you guessed it – tell Kiwi voters a compelling new story.

This is all very easy to write about (especially from my study in London!) and so much harder to do.

But I think that the NZ Labour Party has the right person in charge.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

On the New Zealand general election result

Polina Andrejevna: Our time is passing.

Arkadina: What can we do?


After nine years in office, Helen Clark’s Labour government has been defeated. The centre-right bloc, led by John Key of the National Party, won 65 seats in the 122 – member parliament.

I have been feeling a bit sad about the result. That is more than a little surprising, given that I have not been involved with the NZ Labour Party for many, many years now and am seldom sentimental about it. Perhaps it’s the old ties that bind. I went to my first party meeting in 1977, when still at school, and remained involved for some sixteen years. This included some time working at the NZ Parliament as a ministerial aide and head of research. My mother was a long-time activist, as were her mother and grandmother before her.

Perhaps it’s because the Clark government did a lot that liberals of my ilk can support. New Zealand had its longest run of continuous economic growth in sixty years. Those in the middle of the pile saw bigger growth in their incomes than those at the top, reversing the trends of a decade or more. People in the lower income groups were also better off and specific government policies (for instance, on health care) were designed to help them. Even her opponents acknowledge that Helen Clark is highly respected on the international stage, where she may have been New Zealand’s most capable leader ever. Helen Clark kept New Zealand out of the Iraq war. Earlier this year, her government signed a free trade agreement with China. Helen Clark made New Zealand one of the first countries committed to a carbon neutral future. This was backed up – after some delays – by some important policies, such as the emissions trading scheme.

The Clark Government succumbed to electoral wear-out on Saturday. After three terms, most people wanted a change. History was against her: only once since the Second World War have the New Zealand public granted any prime minister a fourth mandate. But some of Labour’s problems were self-inflicted, or were delivered by their allies in government. [See my earlier post, this eve-of-poll article by the respected NZ political pundit Colin James and Jafapete’s post-election comment]

There is, as yet, no evidence that Kiwis’ basic political attitudes have moved to the right. And Key and co did not win a major debate over the country’s direction. As Jafapete says:

"[John Key] sleepwalked his way to power, winning an election notable for the lack of excitement and charisma on display. The small parties provided the interest. Otherwise, it was a tawdry, uninspiring affair.

"His party’s win was not a triumph of policy. National has spent the last couple of years frantically trying to convince people it would not undo much of what has been achieved over the past nine years. The party won, but its ideology lost. (Although not completely. Labour’s third-way social democracy has been a corporatist compromise with neo-liberalism rather than a repudiation of it.)"

Still, many New Zealanders may want a break from certain types of policies, such as the anti-smacking legislation that was passed in the last parliament.

The results also provide food for thought about what proportional voting systems mean for third and minor parties. We often hear that PR lets the “ tail wag the dog” and gives minor parties too much power. But voters will punish minor parties if they misuse their power. Look at New Zealand First, a populist, personality-based party that has drawn much of its support from older voters. NZ First has played king or queen maker a few times. Before the 2005 election, their leader, Winston Peters, one of the more colourful characters in New Zealand’s political history, did not indicate a preference for coalition with either of the major parties. Peters declared that he would not seek the "baubles of office". But after the votes were counted, he helped to sustain Labour in office – and then became foreign minister. Earlier this year, Peters became mired in a series of controversies over party funding. NZ First disappeared from parliament on Saturday, after the party failed to clear the 5 per cent hurdle and Peters did not win back his old constituency.

The challenge for minor parties is about branding as much as conduct. United Future, a micro party, also backed Labour from 2005 to 2008 but promised to support National in office this time, acting as a “centrist, moderating influence” [click here]. They got away with the change, as the swing to National gathered pace. But only one United Future MP was returned, compared to two in 2005. This may have been because National was already perceived as a middle-of-the-road party.

By contrast, ACT, a market liberal party, offered supporters the chance to push the National-led government to the right. In return for voting ACT, supporters were offered a "three strikes" sentencing policy, cuts to government spending and an end to the emissions trading scheme. These will be ACT’s main demands as it sets down terms for supporting the new government. The narrative worked well enough. ACT won five seats, an increase of two.

The Greens can also claim a victory in the battle of the narratives. They went from six to eight seats (it may yet be nine). They offered supporters a chance to “save the planet”. In contrast to the red meat that ACT held out to its voters, the Greens had a vegetarian quiche, based more on emotive appeals, symbols and images than a list of policies. But the Greens already had a strong brand. It’s in their name.

Friday, 7 November 2008

This week's other big election

There’s another general election going on this week. My home country, New Zealand, goes to the polls tomorrow, Saturday, November 8.

There could well be a change of government. Labour’s Helen Clark has been prime minister for a full nine years. That’s three parliamentary terms, a very long time in Kiwi politics. On only one occasion since World War II has the New Zealand public given any government a fourth chance. The last three years have been tough, as economic confidence has waned and the public mood has soured. [see here, and here] The opposition National Party has worked at seeming more centre than right and got themselves an attractive, moderate new leader, John Key. [For more details, see here] The Nats have been streets ahead in the public opinion polls for more than two years.

Yet Helen Clark and Labour could still, just, hang on. New Zealand uses the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system to choose its 121-member parliament. This is similar to the voting system used for the Scottish Parliament. All parties can win a number of seats in proportion to their share of the total (party) vote, so long as they win one or more constituency seats and/or more than five per cent of the total (party) vote. Current polls show that neither Labour nor National can win an outright majority, on their own. Both will need the support of minor and micro parties.

If they do well enough on Saturday, Labour could combine with the Progressives (current coalition partners), the Greens (who support the government on confidence issues) and, possibly, the Maori Party, and have enough seats to form a government. Since 2005, Labour has partly relied on NZ First, a populist, poujadist party whose support based is skewed towards older voters, but they seem unlikely to clear the 5 per cent hurdle this time. (For a more detailed guide to the system and this year’s arithmetic, click here.)

But the latest poll (and this one, just in) suggests that National and its allies ACT, a boutique party for market liberals, and the centrist United Future, should win a small but workable majority. Key may not need to deal with the Maori Party, but it will be tight. For more analysis of the polls, see here. For Jafapete’s prediction, see here.

A few thoughts from afar on how the parties have marketed themselves. Labour’s election policies (no, they are not a “manifesto”) are true to that party’s dominant social liberal philosophy. Helen Clark has described her personal political outlook, for a fairer New Zealand that leads the world on climate change (click here) . All of that would appeal to most UK Liberal Democrats.

Her campaign narrative is something different again. Labour has tried to make the election a question of “trust”. That’s partly about whose “values” line up with most New Zealanders’ and their claims that National has a secret, extremist agenda. [Click here for Labour’s “trust” tv spot] Put it’s mostly about Helen Clark’s leadership. Even after all these years, her strength and her competence are not in doubt and she is more popular than the party. Hence Labour’s campaign slogan, “strong, proven leadership”. Hence their efforts to stress her experience and consistency, and to slam John Key as a shallow flip flopper. [Here are Labour’s anti-Key spots on Iraq and climate change]. Hence their efforts to show that, with hardtimes looming, Helen Clark and not John Key the former international forex dealer, relates better to ordinary women and families. [see “Mary”, here.] These are all heuristics – mental shortcuts to help voters frame the issues. And it has partly worked – “trust” is an election issue. She has been out in front again as preferred PM.

National’s campaign narrative is easy to predict – that it’s time for a change. So they slam Labour’s record on law and order, education and health. Untainted by the last National government, coming from the post- baby boom generation, Key promises a “fresh” approach and tries to embody his narrative by running an energetic campaign. National’s slogan is “choose a brighter future”. This reflects the brand that the Nats are trying to build for themselves. Using Stephen Denning’s framework, they have tried to reinforce the case for change with promises to secure the future, for example in infrastructure, telecommunications, science and education. But they would not overturn much that Labour has put in place. The middle of the road Key embodies safety and reassurance.

“Securing the future” hasn’t worked all that well, as this article by the respected pundit Colin James says.

[Otago University’s] Phil Harris contrasts Labour's consistency in attacking Key as a new boy, not yet qualified to govern and vacillating on policy, with National's lack of consistency and purpose. "I have been surprised, given the resources National has, how amateurish it has been. There is not enough consistency and clarity of message." So, he says, the building-for-the-future line is not getting through.

Yet it seems that National’s basic “change the government” message has got through. Maybe the campaign made no real difference; with the public wanting something new, all National had to do was look safe. And Key has at least held his own against Helen Clark. Click here for the latest preferred prime minister poll.

A few words on the minor parties’ campaign narratives. During the campaign, the Greens have reached as high as 11 per cent in some polls. The latest polls suggest that they could win anything between 6 and 10 per cent, or between 8 and 12 seats. They had 6 in the last parliament and have gained support mostly at Labour’s expense. They have had the best campaign. The Greens have plenty of policies, on energy efficiency, waste control, “cleaning up politics” and more. Their campaign narrative is straightforward – elect more Green MPs and, as part of a Labur-led government, we can save the planet. This time, the Greens have concentrated on projecting the emotive dimension of their issues and values, to help broaden the brand. Check out this ad in particular for an astute of heuristics and symbols – imagining the future, making the party’s policies and narrative very personal.

Some Liberal Democrats may recognise ACT’s campaign narrative, if not their policies. With a change of government in the offing, they offer voters the chance to “be the difference”. The message is, use your party vote to elect more ACT MPs and they will be able to “ensure that the next National Government makes a difference”, as opposed to simply having new faces around the cabinet table. ACT promise to deliver very specific policy outcomes to their supporters. The red meat includes “zero tolerance for crime”, “three strikes and you’re out” “sensible sentencing” and “the emissions trading scheme will be dog tucker”. Assuming their leader holds his blue-ribbon constituency seat, they could have between 4 and 6 seats, on current polling. They had 2 before the election.

Other Liberal Democrats or, more likely, those involved in the Liberal Party during David Steel’s time, will be more familiar with United Future’s narrative. Click here to see their leader, Peter Dunne, explain “why you can trust us to keep the next government honest”. He pledges to work “in the interests of society as a whole” and to reject “ideological solutions”; to stand up for the “silent majority” of New Zealand families so that the “the loudest voices” from the ideological extremes do not dominate.

But United Future, on course to win 2 seats (the same as last time), is now committed to supporting a National-led government, having helped sustain Helen Clark for the last two terms. And National is more centrist than it has been for years. How can you make a moderate party more moderate? That’s where Dunne’s narrative really kicks in. He reminds voters that they can “decide what shape and form the new National-led government will take”, by giving one or other of National’s allies more sway. Dunne frames the choice as beween “a centre-right, rather than an extreme right, government”, saying that voters can have his party’s “brains” or ACT’s “jackboot” as the fulcrum of politics.

"A strong UnitedFuture presence . . . will provide a centrist moderating influence and draw National to a more compassionate middle course that will represent all New Zealanders.”

Oh, the joys of proportional voting systems.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Yes, he can -- if he wants to. The Obama opportunity

Like many people, I was a little bit emotional in the early hours of this morning. It wasn’t just that Barack Obama had made history, and proved what can be done in American politics. Or the sight of scores of African Americans, thrilled and excited at their new sense of opportunity. Or that the world’s eight-year long nightmare, the presidency of George W. Bush, is about to end.

There are two reasons I am especially pleased.

First, we may now see American leadership – and the promise of real progress - on addressing the climate crisis.

President-elect Obama is committed to bringing America – the single biggest source of carbon emissions – back into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This follows years of denial and intransigence from the Bush Administration. A post-2012 global agreement is now a possibility, at least.

Obama has also said that launching an “Apollo project”, to invest £150 billion over 10 years, to build a new alternative-energy economy, will be his “Number 1 priority” in office. His main priorities will be accelerating the commercialisation of plug-in hybrids, promoting renewable energy, encourage energy efficiency and investing in low emissions coal plants. He would “invest in America’s highly skilled manufacturing workforce and manufacturing centres”, so that they can pioneer green technologies. [For further details click here.] Obama wants this “new energy” to replace cheap credit as the turbocharger of the economy. (He opposes building more nuclear power stations and, while Obama did not oppose oil drilling, he talked about its drawbacks.) If these changes come off, they will bring massive changes to energy markets and the politics of energy.

Obama proposes climate-change legislation centred on a “cap and trade” mechanism that sets a ceiling on emissions that declines over time. Businesses and institutions that cannot hit the targets must buy permits from those that achieve bigger cuts than required. Obama’s proposals are tougher than McCain’s would have been: he proposes to cut emissions by 80 per cent of their 1990 levels by 2050, (McCain said 60 per cent) and to auction off all pollution permits from the start, forcing polluters to pay for the damage they cause. This will help to facilitate a reliable carbon price – the cornerstone of any policy framework on climate change.

Of course, there’s a big difference between a promise and action, especially when he the Senate must agree to a new climate change treaty, by a two-thirds majority, as well as approving cap and trade any scheme. Obama’s proposals have their flaws. But this is the impressive energy programme ever produced by a leading US politician.

Second, we may see a new kind of politics.

What Rick Perlstein calls Nixonland, the ruthless use of culturally-based wedge politics, has been vanquished. The Republicans tried that toxic brand of campaigning against Barack Obama and they failed, miserably. After the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the economic turmoil of 2008, Republican tactics were no longer credible. American voters have been more focussed on their wallets, their fuel prices, their jobs, their mortgages - and embraced a political message based on “hope” and “change”.

Barack Obama can truly claim to embody and represent real political change. This is partly about his race, his inclusive rhetoric and his personal narrative. All have been well covered on this blog. It’s about his age too. Obama represents a new generation of leadership – the late baby boomers -- "Generation Jones" – who, as Jonathan Alter says combine residual '60s idealism mixed and the pragmatism and materialism of the '80s. (I am biased here, having been born in 1962) So Obama can credibly promise to “turn the page” from BushClintonBush and from the culture wars of those years.

But there’s more to it than that. Late in the campaign, Michael Gershon, a former speechwriter to George W. Bush, rejected suggestions that Obama is either a closet radical or a born-again moderate. He sees the new president as something else altogether.

"From his days at Harvard Law School, Obama has combined progressive political views with instincts of reconciliation. . . Obama does not appear to view himself as a lapsed radical. He sees himself as the reconciler of opposites, the seer of merit on both sides, the transcender of stale debates. He is the racial healer who understands racial anger. The peace candidate who prefers a more aggressive war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The outsider who surrounds himself with reassuring establishment figures.

“During the presidential debates, Obama reinforced this image as an analyst, not an ideologue -- the University of Chicago professor, not the leftist community organizer. His entire manner douses inflammatory charges of extremism.”

Gerson notes that one of Obama's favorite philosophers is Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian of conflicted humility. He believes that this might translate into an administration focused on achievable goals, run by seasoned, reasonable professionals reaching out to Republicans in the new Cabinet and avoiding culture war battles when possible.

But it’s here that my two main hopes for Obama may crash into each other. Gerson questions whether avoiding culture wars and a sense of conflicted humility will be enough to make a strong, decisive president, who can stand up to his own party. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, on the other side of politics, has made a similar observation. He asks whether Obama will deploy the skills that have got him into the White House for an even bigger, more demanding purpose: persuading people to support his energy and climate plans.

It’s a good point. There’s a big difference between uniting people and building voter coalitions in support of far-reaching and diffficult changes. “Selling” big changes to people, than mean they must change themselves, is always hard. And appealing to a party’s sense of values is different from leading it into a new brave new world, especially when money is involved. Former advisers to Bill Clinton have spoken of the dominance of real-time distractions, the inability of Congress to deal with more than one big issue at a time, and the basic limits of influence even from the White House.

The public may be ready for “change” and “green jobs” is a great slogan. But Obama’s energy plan isn’t just about green jobs. His cap and trade legislation would push up fuel prices. Who wants to cope with that, in these tough times?

Some of Obama’s energy and climate change measures are technical and detailed. The medium- and long-term benefits will be hard for anyone to explain to people. A host of surveys show that most Americans remain doubtful, disengaged, or confused about the basic science pointing to human-made climate change. They do not get that stabilising concentrations of emissions mean that emissions have be reduced [see here].

That all sounds like a tough sell to US senators and representatives. Bill Clinton has stressed that moving forward on climate policy involves overcoming obstacles in both parties. He sees it as not a Democrat / Republican issue, but a coal-state issue.

Obama is going to need a new narrative, aimed at persuading American voters to support the Apollo project for new energy and “send a message” to Washington.

It may come down to what the new president really wants to do and the extent to which he is willing to move beyond public opinion, and take the public with him. In short, will he take the risk?

But right now, there’s no-one who can tell the new energy story than Barack Obama – if he really wants to, that is.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Narrativewatch: Ros Scott, candidate for president of the Liberal Democrats

Baroness Ros Scott: reassurance vs. risk

[For more info on what this series of posts is about, please click here.]

In contrast to her two opponents, Ros Scott seems to have no big mission for the presidency of the Liberal Democrats. In her election address, she promises simply to be “high profile and bring a professional approach to party management”, “supportive [of the leader] in public, candid in private” and to not serve on the Lords team’s front bench if elected.

Ros Scott’s manifesto contains almost no big, new ideas. Where plans are presented, they are almost all unexceptional. “Commit time each month to work with local parties on recruitment” . . . “attend one conference each year in every English region as well Scotland and Wales” . . . “ensure that my strong links with local government are maintained.” Who is against any of that?

Many stances on current organisational and structural issues are written with a caution and vagueness that some of us have spent years trying to stamp out of Lib Dem policy papers. Try this, on candidates’ diversity: “consider a hypothecated allocation of the membership fee for this work”. Or this: “Breaking the circle and changing the stereotype [MP] should be a key strategic priority for all the Party's decision-making bodies." On structures: “explore ways in which regional parties can be strengthened”. Or this: “improved central co-ordination of best practice . . . which is communicated back to regional and local parties, should be given increased priority.”

So, can we say that Ros Scott’s campaign has no narrative?

Au contraire, she has the cleverest narrative of the three candidates. We are constantly reminded that, as president, Ros Scott would be a safe choice, who would be do the right thing by party members – or, more particularly, activists.

At the start of her election address, she promises to “stay true to my roots, remember the activist in the bigger picture”. She also promises to “keep in touch” with candidates and members and “represent [the membership’s] views to the leader”. The worthiness and blandness of much of her platform serve a purpose. For instance, in her manifesto, Ros Scott promises to “ensure that the new decision making structures speed up decision making and are more efficient but without losing accountability to members for the decisions they make.” Those are activist buzzwords – hey, I should know.

Ros Scott embodies her narrative. She reminds us that she has almost two decades of experience as an activist, including as a councillor, council group leader and peer. And, lest we forget, hers is a grassroots campaign that was built up from nothing.

And Ros Scott’s campaign makes the most effective use of what the academics call “heuristics” -- mental short cuts that enable people, especially low awareness voters (“armchair members”?), to use their gut feelings to decipher issues and make choices. The campaign website features an impressive list of MPs, Lords, MEPs, parliamentary candidates, councillors and others who back her candidacy. As a former New Zealand prime minister, David Lange, might have said, they come from the ranks of the left, the right and the totally bewildered.

Ross Scott’s election address carries endorsements (with photos) from Paddy Ashdown, Vince Cable and Shirley Williams. On the website, there are supporting videos from Vince Cable, Chris Huhne and others. Yes, Baroness Scott of Needham Market is everyone’s insurance policy.

The story doesn’t end there. Lord Ashdown frames the choice in this way.

“Above all, a President has to be a person of judgement, somebody who understands the party and who can fearlessly represent the needs of the party and the ordinary workers . . . to the leadership. So, ability to make good judgements . . . to have roots back to the party . . . some experience in handling power . . .." [emphasis added].

Writing in a campaign e-mail, Vince Cable says:

Whoever [the president is] will have an absolutely key role in the election campaign as a spokesman [sic] for the party - and it’s absolutely vital that we have somebody in that role who has judgement and has experience.” [emphasis added].

Just in case you haven’t worked it out, we are invited to contrast Ros’s judgement with Lembit’s; her experience with his . Dr Cable and the Scott campaign remind us that she has run a council with a budget of £650 million, has been on the Audit Commission and has board level experience in the private sector. Opik can claim none of this.

There are important ways her narrative could be improved. I still don’t really know how the story ends (i.e., what she try hardest to achieve as president), even if I can be fairly confident that she’d do nothing wild, mad or embarrassing . And it would be good to hear some “who I am” stories from all this local government, public and private sector experience. They could tell us how she approaches the use of power in organisations; what she has learned and achieved.

Still, Ros Scott and her campaign team have done the best job of recognising that a campaign narrative must enable the target audience – in this case, Lib Dem parliamentarians, members and activists – make a connection with a candidate and to see how s/he will meet their needs and expectations.

Now, I have just a few days to decide who to vote for!