"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."
Wednesday, 31 December 2008
Tuesday, 23 December 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
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 clichéd, 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
"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."
Sunday, 30 November 2008
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.
“[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.”
Sunday, 23 November 2008
"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."
Friday, 21 November 2008
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
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
Tuesday, 11 November 2008
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
"[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.)"
Friday, 7 November 2008
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
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
[For more info on what this series of posts is about, please click here.]
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].
“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!